Stereogum Artist to Watch: Caroline Rose!
By Chris DeVille
It’s slightly ironic that Caroline Rose’s new album LONER begins with a song called “More Of The Same.” If you’re familiar with her last album, 2014’s I Will Not Be Afraid, what will instantly register is how much has changed. Back then New York-based Rose was a full-fledged roots-rocker whose music you might describe as “Americana” or “alt-country,” her distinct point of view communicated through incisive, thoughtful lyrics and some signature music videos. She was compelling and full of potential, but her old work can’t help but seem minor compared to the album she’s about to release.
On LONER, Rose’s sound has expanded in a zillion directions, each track bursting with ideas and personality. It’s like she’s become a different artist during the four-year interim between albums. Consider the rockabilly-infused anti-capitalist blitzkrieg “Money” or the album’s newly released second single “Soul No. 5,” a playful commentary on catcalling with a surging guitar-powered chorus buoyed by a rising tide of Farfisa organ. “I got soul!” she intones, and, well, yeah — that and then some.
To hear Rose tell it, her evolution has not been so radical, yet she concedes LONER is the first album to feel fully true to herself and the multitudes she contains. To wit, when we spoke about the album last week, our conversation touched upon “Billie Jean,” Black Mirror, and Big Thief among other pop-cultural landmarks. Rose is a fascinating person, and from DIY production trickery to her multi-role star turns in her videos, LONER represents her at her best. Check out the new “Soul No. 5″ video and read our interview below.
STEREOGUM: So I understand it’s absurdly and unusually cold in New Orleans today?
CAROLINE ROSE: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s like really brutal. I packed a swimsuit, sunscreen, aloe vera. I did not bring a winter coat. And the worst part is that no one really has heating systems in their houses. So there’s no place to escape. It’s so sad, I went to a movie yesterday so I could be in some sort of heat source. But other than that, I’m great.
STEREOGUM: What movie did you see?
ROSE: Well, I’ve seen basically every movie that’s out right now. But I went to see Coco. I love all the Pixar movies, but I figured that I should see something uplifting the day after some hard partying.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. Although my coworker said that that movie made him cry.
ROSE: Yeah, they all make me cry. It’s like adult movies for kids.
STEREOGUM: OK, one more question about this circumstance and then we’ll move on to your actual music. What are you doing in New Orleans?
ROSE: I came down here for fun, ’cause my record label, my music people take off for half of December and the first week of January, so I just thought I’d take a break too and just go on a little trip. One of my friends came with me and we both have a bunch of friends down in New Orleans. We came down here thinking we were gonna dodge winter — (laughs) not the case. But it’s been a really amazing trip. I make a road trip down South, not always to New Orleans, but I’ve gone to Texas the last four years on a road trip. I like to make one big road trip, which is hilarious ’cause I’m always on the road playing a gig. But I just like the freedom of seeing where you can randomly end up. Like last year I went on a road trip and the van broke down in the middle of Texas and we ended up staying in this really awesome town, and we kind of befriended a bunch of the locals. I never would have stopped there if the van hadn’t broken down, but it’s fun stuff like that that makes the trip interesting. We’re actually headed home in a few hours. We’re gonna start heading back up North, but we’re sort of moseying on up. If you have any recommendations in the panhandle of Florida or Georgia going up the coast, I’m all ears.
STEREOGUM: Where are you heading home to? Where’s home right now?
ROSE: In New York. I’m trying to move to Philly ‘cause you can get much bigger spaces for the same price as you can in New York. I’m probably gonna do that when we come back from spring tour, but for now I’m in New York.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about your new album. Up front, the thing you can’t really miss about LONER if you’re familiar with your previous music is that it fits a lot less snugly into any particular genre description. I’d seen your past work described as “rockabilly” or “Americana” or whatever rootsy tag people wanna use, but this one seems more like an omnivorous rock ‘n’ roll sound. Was that a conscious decision to branch out like that?
ROSE: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it probably would have made more sense if all the work that I had made leading up to this album had come out. But I consciously chose not to put everything out right away and kind of take some time to hone in exactly what I wanted to do and exactly how I wanted it to sound and [how to] brand it. My last record, I wrote that five years ago. It’s pretty old. I think it’s been a pretty natural transition, but a lot of time has passed.
STEREOGUM: The change may seem more extreme because it’s been happening off-camera, so to speak.
ROSE: I think it’s pretty normal for artists to change. I don’t know exactly the word that I’m trying to use here, but I don’t think it’s that over-the-top, having a different-sounding album. But I can say with certainty that this feels like the first body of work that I’ve put out that really sounds and feels like me and my personality.
STEREOGUM: How so?
ROSE: It’s difficult because there are elements of me — I think the things that come most naturally to me are kind of sad material. I love Angel Olsen and Big Thief, and I feel like I used to make music that was more in that vein of intimate, more personal songs. But there’s another part of my personality that’s a storyteller and I love being flamboyant and boisterous sometimes. So I wanted to take all the different facets of my personality, like the humor and sarcasm. The music is pretty much saturated with sarcasm, but there are also elements where I wanted to get more serious. I think I’m really happy with the balance of that ‘cause if you have too much material that’s goofy, then you kind of become a joke band. I definitely don’t wanna have to be funny all the time. I think something comics struggle with is that you can never be serious because your brand is always funny. I think the same goes for anything you’re making. You want it to be as broad as possible within your branding so that if you wanna branch out and do something that’s a little bit more experimental or diverse, then no one’s gonna be blindsided by that. I think that’s an issue I had when I first started my career when I was 21. I don’t think that I thought enough about the future and where I wanted to go with my music and how to build a platform for that. So it’s something I’m much more conscious of now.
STEREOGUM: Regarding your point about not getting stuck being the comedy artist, it seems like one way you’ve dealt with that is by addressing fairly serious topics in a playful or unconventional way. The last album you had a song about Trayvon Martin and you had “America Religious.” What are some of the topics that fueled the songwriting this time?
ROSE: It’s much more about me this time and my immediate circle of friends. So a lot of it is really autobiographical and I think that’s something I want to go more and more into, not being put off by talking about myself, maybe some secrets I have or things that I used to be embarrassed by. I definitely don’t mind talking about it now. I like talking about it. I like writing about things that interest me. And I think the things that interest me now, you know, I’m a young woman, I’m queer, my immediate circle of friends is feeling the millennial issues. A lot of the issues reflect the time that we’re in, like misogyny. A lot of my songs are feminist anthems.
STEREOGUM: “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” is an interesting one.
ROSE: One of my friends got pregnant in her early 20s and ended up having these kids, and I kind of took her story and blended it with another friend’s story and my own. I’ve never been pregnant, but I could definitely see aspects of her life in mine. I think the interesting thing about art is when you’re experiencing something or speaking to a close friend who’s going through something difficult, or even seeing a movie or reading a book, any sort of story where you can relate to the people in it, it kind of reflects on your own life and how you live and what you would do, some of your personal decision making and how you give them advice and see what happens. There are so many elements involved in people’s lives that I think all that’s intertwined. With that said, I get inspiration from many, many different things: misogyny; I have a song about capitalism (laughs).
STEREOGUM: Yeah, “Money,” that was the song that initially caught my attention.
ROSE: “Money” is straight-up about just the absurdity of how we literally cannot do anything without money and how it’s both a blessing and a curse and it changes our personalities. I like to take important subjects like that, things that are normally really heavy and take the form of extremely sad songs, and kind of poke fun at it because everything is so absurd, especially right now. We live in such a crazy time. Between every day feeling like an episode of Black Mirror and the news being completely — it’s absurdist. We are actually living in a reality TV show where you don’t know what’s a prop and what’s not. And I think there are two ways to look at a situation like that. You can either look at them with horror and disgust, which is what a lot of us have done, myself included, or you can take that horror and complete disillusionment with things that should be sad and you can kind of poke fun at them. I think that’s what really great comedians are so good at, bringing out the humor in really depressing situations and being able to cope with them, using humor as a device. It’s not just humor. I think my interest in pop music has become so much more developed because there are so many amazing pop songs that aren’t cookie cutter, they aren’t just fluff. There are heavy pop songs. “Billie Jean,” that is a serious pop song. It makes you dance, it makes you think. It makes you feel good, but there’s also depth to it and meaning to it. Those are the types of pop songs that really interest me ’cause not only are they so well crafted musically, but there are also devices in thinking. I think that’s cool. That’s a real challenge to make music like that.
STEREOGUM: I think that you have stepped up to the plate in that regard. There are the layers of depth to the new songs. On the level of pure sonic enjoyment, they get there, and obviously based on everything you’ve just been talking about, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. It sounds like the album is doing what you intended it to do.
ROSE: Well, that’s great. I’m really happy about that. The next record, I’ve already been thinking about it for months now. I wanna get better and better at just crafting really interesting songs and getting better at the production element as well.
STEREOGUM: Part of what you were getting at, too, with this idea of the deep pop song, so much of that can also be expressed through music videos. You were really hands-on with the “Money” video and your previous videos. You’re not working with the budget of Beyoncé’s Lemonade or something, but they seem like a real extension of your personality as much as the music is.
ROSE: Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad that people are recognizing that because I do think the visual element and the aesthetic have the potential to add so much to the music. I’m always a little surprised when bands choose not to be as involved in the visuals because it’s so tactile, seeing the imagery to the music. I always found that that added a completely different dimension. It’s like taking a song in 2D and making it completely 3D, adding a visual element to it. So it’s something that I’ve been borderline a control freak about. If anything goes out without my personal touch on it, I have a hard time with it. I’ve been really involved in the music videos. The first treatment for the “Money” video, I wrote and worked with a really good friend who ended up directing it. The next video, I directed myself, and he helped shoot it. I’ll probably do something similar for the next one. I’ll probably end up writing it. There are a couple people that I really would love to work with. Ashley Connor is brilliant. Zia Anger. They’re just the best. I’d love to work with more people in the video world. But yeah, I’m definitely gonna continue building that out. It’s exciting ’cause I feel like I’m right at the beginning of what’s gonna be my career. I can kinda build it in any way that I want and I have a platform where I can kind of go in multiple different directions. It’s really exciting when you work with a team that gives you complete creative control and yeah, you’re right, I don’t get the kind of budget that giant pop stars do. But both my parents are artists and I come from a family that instilled in me and my sister at a really early age that you can make amazing things from next to nothing. My dad would always tell us stuff like that. He used to teach an art class in college where he would give his students a handful of objects. It’d be like three toothpicks and some tape, yadda yadda, and they’d have to build something with it. I like to apply that mentality to anything I’m working on. You can make really great sounding recordings with really little. You don’t really need to be in this super high-end studio to make a compelling album that people will listen to and relate to and feel. And the same goes with visual elements. You can get a camcorder and make something really great with it. You could make a great music video with an iPhone, but you need a solid idea. I think that’s the most beautiful part of creating things — everything starts with one simple idea and you build off of it.
STEREOGUM: OK, so what’s the idea with this new “Soul No. 5″ video?
ROSE: The song was inspired by being catcalled on the street. I wrote the song a long time ago. The original version was actually a little bit different, but when we came to tracking it I wanted to make it more relatable to how I feel now, and I think that was just something that was on my mind, and I sort of started freestyling the lyrics. It ended up being a script about how absurd it is to both be catcalled and to catcall someone and how weird of a feeling it is like, “Oh, someone likes the way I look, but it’s also really degrading.” So it’s this paradox of wanting to feel nice and having someone admire you and the way that you look, but also wanting to be respected. I thought it would be a funny idea, just imagining me being a catcaller at women and catcalling other people. It’s kinda comical when you turn the tables like that, when you shift the power dynamics. That’s essentially what the video’s about. And the video is pretty goofy because I like playing a lot of the parts, I made it with my friends, my amazing musician friends are in it. It was really fun, it’s really silly.
STEREOGUM: Another element of the creative process: You sent the liner notes, and there’s a lot of credits for you for processing and sampling, which I’m told refers to audio you recorded and then manipulated. Is that a new creative element for you or is that something you’ve been incorporating into your work for a while?
ROSE: I’ve actually always been really interested in production, but I haven’t gotten into it seriously until I’d say the last two years. I’ve really, really gotten into it. It’s something I’m just highly interested in. I think once I discovered Ableton and how to manipulate sounds and create my own samples and instruments, I could use the field recordings that I’ve been making for years. I think I just used that as a jumping-off place and I’ve become more and more into it as time has gone by. Now I have my own little studio. My next step is to get a bigger space where I can start tracking other people. I’d love to track one of my records in my own studio and kinda just use it as a full-time working space. I’ve also gotten really into engineering. I was just reading about a rack I wanna build for our live stage so we can dial in all of our tones and have everything connect through MIDI and basically be creating our own preliminary mix to send out to front of house. These are all things I’m really excited about now. I have a whole giant list of what I wanna buy and what I wanna learn about and use. I’ve just become obsessed with gear and making weird sounds. I have a whole other project, it’s mostly electronic music, but I also incorporate folk instruments that I love playing. I like playing as many of the instruments as possible. I just love music, I love making things with different instruments. I think when you get a new instrument or a new piece of gear there’s always that first thrill, like when you first kiss someone, that it gives you these excited juices flowing. I think creativity works the same for me in that way. I like picking up different instruments and just seeing how they work and how they sound and writing something on them. And I’ll piece it all together in a song. Getting better at production allows me to create more depth and make more texture. But yeah, it all starts with the song, that hasn’t changed.
STEREOGUM: So this other mostly electronic project, is that something you’ve released any music from, or are you still keeping it to yourself?
ROSE: I’m mostly keeping it to myself. This is boring, but legally putting out music under it, it would not benefit me or my entire team of people, ’cause I’d actively be competing with my other music. So I’m holding it for now, but I will eventually release it under a moniker. I don’t really want to associate it with my solo stuff. But eventually, I will.
STEREOGUM: We’re eventually gonna get music from this “mysterious new producer” and it’s gonna secretly be Caroline Rose.
ROSE: Yeah, you better count on it.