On Caitlin Rose's first album in 9 years, she's wistful, wiser and having fun again
A dozen or so years ago, the title track of Caitlin Rose's debut album Own Side Now found her torn between craving company and resolving to follow her own whims. "Who's gonna take me home?" she fretted with crystalline melancholy. " 'Cause I don't wanna go it alone." But solitude was exactly what her protagonist seemed to be steeling herself for by the song's end: "I'm on my own side now."
That's also a fairly accurate summation of Rose's standing as an artist back in those days. Though her father was an industry exec and her mother a notable Music Row songwriter, she kept her musical ventures to herself in her teens. Toward the end of the 2000s, she emerged from the close-knit informality of Nashville's DIY circles with a grasp of sturdy, classic country, pop and soft-rock song structures alongside an affinity for the casual irreverence and obliqueness of anti-folk and indie rock. To her, there was nothing at all contradictory about swirling those sensibilities together.
"I'm not a serious person," Rose says by way of explanation at a neighborhood pub that she frequents in Nashville, on a mild enough November afternoon that she's removed the medical boot from her still-healing broken foot, "but I do take the craft really seriously."
Her artistic approach garnered international buzz, but had few analogues at the time, which meant that she was perpetually asked to explain what she was up to and where it fit. "It's not 'ahead of my time,' " she muses, "but 'early to the party,' maybe." Indie troubadour Rayland Baxter and the guitar duo Steelism, composed of Spencer Cullum and Jeremy Fetzer, were among those who accompanied her on recordings before easing into the spotlight themselves. In Rose's wake, the acclaim of kindred singer-songwriters like Courtney Marie Andrews, Erin Rae and Margo Price registered with slightly more familiarity. Hell, Rose may have even helped prepare Nashville for the moment when Kacey Musgraves would introduce her own brand of cool skepticism to country.
The ways of the industry didn't come naturally to Rose, though. Case in point: the perverse playfulness with which she once blew off the networking overtures of Jordan Lehning, a well-regarded, fellow second-generation Nashville-music-maker who's become one of her closest collaborators. When he joins her at the table, he relishes telling the tale of how he approached her to share a song idea after a show. Instead of giving him her contact info, she scrawled the eBay URL on his arm. It's because Lehning got Rose's sense of humor that they forged a connection. They made her second album, 2013's The Stand-In, together and tinkered with demos in his home studio even as career pressures became so much for her that she went the rest of that decade without releasing a new album.
CAZIMI, which she and Lehning co-produced, is her long-awaited return. The record, released last week, is the product of convening for pre- and mid-pandemic sessions with musicians she already considered friends. "The studio, to me, is supposed to be fun," she insists, a sentiment that Lehning seconds. "I think some artists can really move through whatever situation they're in and create something. But for me, it's this super personal thing. I really do require a level of intimacy to enjoy it. And if I'm not enjoying it, I'm making garbage."
Instead of churning out junk, Rose has found new ways to add to her music's depth and dimension, writing of lessons and letdowns, of bracing for inevitable disappointment, of shedding naiveté from a slightly wiser, more wistful remove. More than ever, she's a low-key master of shaping bewitching pop melodies that curl into subtle uncertainty and delivering them with a knowing twinkle and nervy, nimble phrasing. During "Modern Dancing," a guitar-driven track punctuated by synthesizer supernovas, she cannily probes a new relationship for weakness on all sides. "I hope you know what you're doing," she warns crisply, letting the line hang in the air before upping the ante: "You don't know what you're asking." She lets the chorus's final two lines run together, deftly zeroing in on and minimizing what this pairing is up against all at once: "I've got a romance with ruin, and we're only... modern dancing." More than ever, Rose is taking it all in, and she's just released her new album into a radically altered landscape that ought to appreciate it more than ever.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewly Hight: When I revisit your old interviews, I'm struck by how much writers focused on pinning down the genre of your music. One reason for that fixation may have been that in the late 2000s and early 2010s, there wasn't yet a familiar template for a Nashville singer-songwriter serious about her craft but equally influenced by country, indie pop, indie rock and indie folk. How did you make sense of that, and how do you make sense of it now?
Caitlin Rose: Saying it was country music was the most natural thing for me to say for the first four years, because I could shut a conversation down that just seemed like tail-chasing. Having to overexplain myself always made me really uncomfortable. You couldn't really say, "I'm country music," because then somebody would say something like, "Oh, like Toby Keith." You'd just have to constantly change people's perceptions and at a certain point say, "Just listen to a record. I don't know what to tell you."
When did you begin to feel like you were part of a music scene, or scenes, in Nashville?
I think it built off the underage scene. All of my friends [and I] were going to local rock shows. There are a lot of bands here at the time that we loved, and at some point it was sort of like, "Well, I can probably do that, too. I think that would be fun." And I'd written and it wasn't something new to me, going to shows and just being in that environment. So I skipped the coffee shop, open mic night kind of vibe and it was straight to bars. That was my intro into what I think my genre is, which is Nashville Weirdo. And back in the day there were so many great weirdos here and some of them have really gone on to do great things and some of them have left.
When other "Nashville weirdos" began to emerge after your debut album, Own Side Now, had already placed you in the spotlight, was there any sense of kinship for you?
I mean, my trajectory is so specific to me. Nothing was strategy, so I can't relate to any kind of thing like that. It was all sort of, not accidental, but I was just following the lead of whatever silver thread was happening for me. It's hard to really pinpoint what that was other than a shift in appreciation for women's stories, and young women, especially, in their creative visions. It could have just been that musical shift of women coming a little further into the forefront.
It wasn't like you were thrust into global pop stardom, but there was considerable buzz and blog coverage, and a great deal of interest in your music in the U.K. How did you experience that?
I don't think I ever had a goal. It's not like I was sitting around being like, "I'm going to play Glastonbury," and I ended up playing Glastonbury. The only moments of panic were when I felt like I wasn't doing something right or when I wasn't moving forward in a way that was working.
I didn't know what I was doing. I was 21, and then I was 21 for basically five years and still being called "wise beyond my years," a "wunderkind" or whatever. There wasn't a lot of time to mature with myself. It was more just constantly playing catch up with this thing birthed out of whatever I was doing, and it wasn't something I could really keep up with.
I think the panic [had to do with] having to pick up this understanding of an entire industry. I grew up in the industry, but I didn't grow up in the Nashville industry. I came up in a local scene, in a local rock scene and a local folk scene. So there really weren't any clear guidelines for how to do that.
Did you originally think that you would be making another album soon after The Stand-In?
Of course. I can't think of any artists who would say, "Yeah, I put out a record. It did really good. I put out another record. It did OK. And then I just wanted to quit."
I would have loved to, and certain things hindered my entire creative process, my personal life, my career. I mean, it all kind of falls together.
It's like with my [broken] foot. The other day, I compared trauma to realizing that you've been rolling your foot or breaking your ankle or spraining something for five years because you had a torn ligament. Getting back to that source of what started this thing is really hard and it takes a long time if you didn't immediately come to terms with it. And when you're 21, 22, 23, if something goes wrong, you're not in a reflective age, you're not in a mature enough place to really figure out how to move past things, especially if you're on this career path. It's not something you have time to bring to a halt and figure this s*** out.
Was there ever a time when you weren't writing songs?
I didn't stop writing. I just stopped connecting to me as a writer. I started doing a lot of co-writing. In certain co-writes, I would basically just be sneaking in details of something I would have wanted to write about on my own. But I was having so much trouble doing that.
I was definitely writing with people for pitching and writing with people for personal projects. But for the most part, it was really just to keep going, and maybe even start trying to find another path in music, which could have been co-writing. But apparently I didn't really write much that could have hit the charts. Yeah, I have a cut on the Old 97's record. I wrote with Andrew Combs a lot, and he cut stuff. It was an insular crew.
I was also reaching out to other people in the Nashville industry. I had a lot of fun getting to know a lot of these bigger writers and learning their processes. Daniel Tashian and I wrote "Nobody's Sweetheart" probably a year before him and Kacey [Musgraves] started working [on Golden Hour] together, too. So it was a very long building process for me to get out of whatever stall was there.
"Nobody's Sweetheart" isn't just the title of one of your new songs — it's also a figure that appears alongside its foil, nobody's fool, throughout the album.
You know what it came from? On Instagram for a long time, I was just trying to express myself creatively in any way possible. I started making this series called "Fun with Sheet Music," where I was collecting old sheet music or researching old sheet music, and tagging them, captioning them with a really snarky response. And one of them was "Nobody's Sweetheart." And my caption was, "Nobody's Fool." And immediately after I posted it, I took it down, 'cause I was like, "Oh, I have to actually just write that song."
I hate when people are like, "Oh, every song's a character." But in some ways, it is. I mean, every song was sort of a way of creating a version of my own experiences that I could translate.
In so many of the songs on the album, you're bracing for things to disintegrate. There's this ruthless realism, like you're not going to fall for believing in a happy ending.
The only happy endings I saw growing up were Disney movies. It's not my M.O. to write something like that. I also think that I don't write from a perspective of present feelings. I have trouble being in the present. It's always sort of retrospective, and I think that's led to more of an analytical processing of emotions, which is maybe not so much like, "This is how I feel," but, "Why do I feel that way?" The process always comes from dissecting whatever situation I am directly referencing, to the point where I'm sometimes writing that song from the perspective of a different person who was also involved in this situation, which is kind of creepy. But it's all about understanding. It's not so much all the time about feeling for me.
Part of what gives these songs such magnetism is your enticing melodies and really shrewd vocal phrasing. You take that in so many different directions — power pop, New Wave, twang pop, indie pop, singer-songwriter pop — but your feel for pop is the through line.
I think with this record, I really went out of my way to make it a little free genre, because that is me. ... In a lot of ways, this record is kind of an homage to everything I've ever loved, and a very unashamed homage.
Did you catch any anime soundtrack [influences]? It's the anime soundtrack that really sneaks in.
After a long time, you start realizing those things that really inspired you for a long time are important and there's no reason to feel weird about it. Growing up with '90s country — I don't know if anyone hears that in this record, but it's in there. It's the filter. Every single line of mesh in front of a microphone is everything I've ever heard and loved. ... And this record really kind of went back to revisiting a version of myself that I hadn't in a long time.
How did you settle on the astrological concept of a cazimi as the title and central organizing principle?
I just kept shopping it with people I know and love, and everybody kept saying they didn't like it, and I still liked it at the end. So it's sort of a stubborn thing. "Cazimi" is definitely becoming a bit more of a buzzword, where people are using it more in pop astrology. It does represent this brief, shining moment in time where instead of being obliterated by the sun's power, a planet will be empowered by it. It started just to make a lot of sense. The ideal is to feel empowered in your own creative existence and to feel proud and to feel like it gives you power.
A lot of what I experienced early on, since I wasn't prepared, was very debilitating. I do love to talk, but as far as really communicating with people, when you don't feel like you can do that because you're in an industry that really doesn't necessarily always clamor for real communication or real intimacy, it just feels like being sunburned, being burned by this whole thing. We all learn in our 30s that phrase, "Give yourself limitless grace." And that's what I had to learn how to do.
After making your way through all of that, what was it like actually bringing CAZIMI to completion?
Just finishing the record is something I haven't topped yet. I don't know if there's anything that's going to top the feeling of finishing it.
It was not this big moment. It was a very small moment. There were a few moments where we did think it was done, but I remember the exact moment it was done, and it was really based on one harmony on "Lil' Vesta." It was something that I just kept freaking out about, and we both would be like, "That's wrong." Eventually there was a moment where I sang one more pass at it, and I was like, "That was it." And it was done. We took a shot of tequila and took some Polaroids and it was very uneventful. But inside, it was still the most important moment of this process. It was such a hard thing to do.
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