Photo: Michael Muller

Through her debut solo album called River, Rain Phoenix shares her deeply personal journey to mourn, memorialize, and ultimately celebrate the life of her brother, actor River Phoenix, 26 years after his death.

The acclaimed actor rose to stardom in films like Stand By Me (1986) and Running on Empty (1988), which earned him an Oscar nomination. He was 23 in 1993 when he collapsed outside the Viper Room in West Hollywood.

For decades, his singer-songwriter sister rarely, if ever, spoke publicly of her brother’s passing. But recently, Rain Phoenix opened up through song when her past met her present and unlocked an unstoppable artistic flow.

Phoenix, 47, wanted to pair her current first single as a solo artist with songs from her first band, Aleka’s Attic, that she joined at age 16. Formed in 1987, the alternative rock band was fronted by River who was lead singer and guitarist.

The result was a three-song package called Time Gone, released in February 2019. It included two previously unreleased tracks by Aleka’s Attic (“Where I’d Gone” and “Scales & Fishnails”) along with that first solo composition called “Time is the Killer,” featuring Michael Stipe of R.E.M.

From there she just kept writing. Her solo material “grew organically” from single to EP to the eight-track album she titled River, released on October 31, 2019, the 26th anniversary of his death.

“There was a flood of creativity and memories of my brother and his energy,” Phoenix said in a statement. “Enough time passed for me to enjoy it, instead of being upset by it. Through the process of making my solo record, I realized that instead of trying to understand music without him, I needed to include him because he never really left…It wasn’t in the head, it was in the heart. So I let the creative portal stay open.”

The album, co-written and produced by Kirk Hellie, was released via LaunchLeft, a platform created by Phoenix to help emerging artists. She is taking River on tour this month and will open for Pete Yorn at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on December 16.

With soulful vocals and heartfelt lyrics, Phoenix honors her brother’s legacy throughout the album. “Lost In Motion” is a posthumous collaboration between the siblings. Phoenix uses River’s original title and most of his lyrics. She then casts a new melody into the piece while adding some lyrics of her own.

Phoenix wanted to include River’s friends — actors, musicians, movie makers — in the project, whether that meant directing or performing, like Stipe. Actress Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) and her son Clyde Keener Mulroney directed the video for “Lost In Motion.”

On “Immolate,” with its prominent piano and light yet lush strings, Phoenix bares her feelings kept from the spotlight for so long. “I’ll never be the same. I’ll love you always,” she sings with an emotional delicacy. The “Immolate” video was directed by Gus Van Sant (Psycho), who worked with River on My Own Private Idaho (1991).

“I meant for the song to be about the universality of loss and how we all feel pain when it comes to not hearing someone’s voice again,” Phoenix said. “It’s meant to evoke a heartfelt remembrance of those we love and celebrate them, imagining their light blazing even though they’re not here in physical form.”

While the album commemorates River, Phoenix hopes her music will also serve as a source of solace for listeners.

“Making this record has had a profound and transformative effect on me and illuminated even more our shared humanity in regard to loss and grief,” Phoenix said. “I hope River can serve as a totem of solidarity and healing for all of us who experience distress at the loss of a loved one, a marriage, a friendship, or wherever sorrow grips us.”

Pete Yorn, Rain Phoenix
Great American Music Hall
December 16, 2019
8p, $35