With her new album, Rain Phoenix celebrates her brother's spirit and legacy and hopes it will help those who have suffered loss as well

By Julie Jordan
October 31, 2019 09:00 AM

Rain Phoenix is celebrating her brother River‘s life through music.

Twenty-six years after the actor tragically died in 1993 at the age of 23, his sister has released her first solo album, River, on the anniversary of his death.

Rain, 46, who performed with River in their alternative rock band Aleka’s Attic, spoke with PEOPLE for this week’s issue to discuss the record as well as her brother’s spirit and legacy while friends including Keanu Reeves, musician Flea and singer Michael Stipe shared their memories of the beloved Stand By Me star.

How did this album come to be?

It first started October 2018. Although I wouldn’t at that time have known that I would be here and have a record called River. But I will say, for lack of a better way of saying it, it cracked opened. I started watching some Aleka’s Attic videos from tour diaries in the years 89, 90, 91 and cutting together a video for one of the first songs River wrote and the process of that was like memory lane.

Rain Phoenix
Michael Muller

And then I just couldn’t stop making music. My collaborator, Kirk Hellie, and I just kept writing. I feel like it’s all been River energy, this whole process. It became so important to me that I recognize and say his name. So I called it River and after that, it was even more easy.”

What made you ready to start looking at the videos?

There was a lot that I just stored away. I think, when we lose people, regardless of the way we lose people, it is traumatic to the human psyche in the sense that one day, this person that you love is there, and the next they’re not. I was also 20 [when River died] and my brain wasn’t fully formed and how I could process and move forward and continue to be okay, was to also stow that away. So I didn’t really look at much footage or watch his movies even. And then time just kept going on.

When I did have the feeling that it was time, it absolutely became a joyful experience. Then it was like the floodgates opened and I realized that sometimes when we push or lock away the things that are too much for a young mind to handle, there’s less discernment in regard to the positive parts too. They get stowed away, along with those things that are overwhelmingly sad. Now I realize looking back that makes sense.

River Phoenix
Nancy R. Schiff/Getty

So it was a really beautiful awakening moment for me with River’s energy to experience it again and the whole process of making this record and connecting to that greater understanding of the universality of loss. While this record is called River, my aspiration is to have it be something for all of us, for everyone who has lost loved ones.

When you think of River, what’s the first memory to pop into your mind?

Tabbouleh [laughs]. We are all huge fans of Tabbouleh salad and we would have Tabbouleh-offs. He was a master Tabbouleh maker. It was a very joyful part of our family dinner, lunch, breakfast. Joaquin is a master Tabbouleh maker as well. River was one of the most humorous people, so much laughter.

How would you describe him as a person?

He was probably the most generous person that I know and always very much concerned about the quiet person in the room or the person who was misunderstood and that extended to his art and his activism for the voiceless, the animals. He was somebody that was always concerned for those who couldn’t speak for themselves or were afraid to. That was definitely the kind of person he was, just incredibly compassionate and empathetic and generous.

And as a brother?

Very protective. And creative. I think he probably taught all of us a few chords on guitar and hoped that we would follow his lead and maybe be able to play lead, so he didn’t have to. He was such a great older brother.

River Phoenix in Sneakers
Universal Pictures/Getty

How have you found peace with his death?

I think peace is gradual. Finding peace with any major loss in my life has been a gradual experience and it takes time. Grief is a wild animal that has no concept of time. It might be 10 years, three years, one week that you think things are fine or different or you’ve made peace, and then they’re not. There’s no exact timeline. But I will say that, through the process of making this record, I have experienced some of the greatest peace.

What do you think the afterlife might be like?

Part of the mystery and beauty of the afterlife or, if you believe in reincarnation, is that we don’t really know… I believe the most important thing is to spend the precious human lives that we have and the consciousness that we have, living to our greatest potential, helping others and searching for the truth within our soul. So that when we die, we die in peace knowing that whatever comes next, we’ve done the best that we can in this lifetime.

Now there is the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. What do you hope his legacy will be?

I’m really moved by River’s fans who have been inspired by his beliefs and keep his legacy alive. They connect to all the things he cared about, like rain forest preservation, animal rights, human rights, and share often how he helped them to make changes in their lives.

Almost every show Aleka’s Attic played was a benefit concert. He felt so strongly about speaking up, using his voice to activate his activism and using his fame to share things. He was really disturbed by the environmental devastation of his time, clearcutting the rainforests for cattle and factory farming. He visited Brazil and met with tribes; he and a friend bought up land and created a rainforest preserve in Costa Rica.

I hope he’s remembered for championing the preservation of our life support system, which is inclusive of human rights, animal rights, women’s rights, racial justice, and environmentalism. I hope people continue to equate that with who he was as an artist. All those issues were really, really important to him because he believed they were all connected.

That holistic approach to the many challenges we face is at the core of the work River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding is doing. Connecting the dots through our shared humanity. River was not about telling people how to live their lives, he was about doing his part, and encouraging others through his example, through his art. It’s just who he was as a person, his generosity, his spirit, his compassion. I really want to thank the fans for keeping all those things very much illuminated as part of his legacy.

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho
Moviestore/Shutterstock

Actor Keanu Reeves:

Meeting River was a revelation. As a person and an artist. His generous heart and shining spirit along with an intelligence, curiosity, wit and humor inspired. He seemed to hold the sadness and what was wrong in a worldly or beyond worldly way and just wanted to make it better, actively make it better. Whether it was in a conversation, a song, the character’s he played, the stories he told, his friendship, his family, his activism, his love. He was there. He tried. He was trying. A beautiful exceptional soul. Light.

Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty; George Rose/Getty

Actor/brother Joaquin Phoenix:

When I think about it, River introduced me to every experience that helped to form the direction I took in my life. He was always encouraging me and sharing everything he had.

Musician Flea:

As well as being hilariously wild, sharp as the freshest razor, and the most eccentric and absurd dancer to ever shake his ass, River Phoenix was the kindest person I ever met. I didn’t know that sort of sensitivity, selflessness, thoughtfulness, compassion and understanding existed before I met him, and it changed my life forever. He raised the bar of humanity for me. He is a part of everything I do and every word I speak. Every atom still vibrates with his infinite presence and I sing his name out loud into the raw and open sky.

Singer Michael Stipe:

River loved music, art, creative people in general. The British band XTC hugely influenced his group Aleka’s Attic. His favorite singer of all time was the astonishing Freddie Mercury. He was obsessed with Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, and its star Jonathan Pryce — he was so excited to introduce me to Jonathan on the set of Dark Blood. River had a love/hate relationship with fame — if fame could push the greater good or a good idea, he was in 1000%. Otherwise he didn’t have much time for it. His immediate family group was huge, there was always a communal spirit — and a profound sense of fairness, of equality.

Director Gus Van Sant:

River liked to tell stories and liked to listen to stories, the longer the better. You could tell him a story that would last an hour and he would be right there with you excited about every turn in the story, because it allowed him to know you better, and he liked to get to know people very well and consider them his close friends.  He had a large number of very, very close friends.

Actress/former girlfriend Samantha Mathis:

I was instantly taken by River’s spirit — he was so deeply passionate and excited to collaborate in the forum of film making, always seeking truth — and he approached his artistry as a musician the same way, as well as his activism, with the same commitment and zeal. His engage was infectious. And he introduced me to olives. Man, he loved an olive.

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