New York songwriter embraces her mortality and humor to bust out of the Americana box
When Caroline Rose wrote most of her previous album, she was working in an apple orchard and listening to roots music. The resulting record, 2014's I Will Not Be Afraid, reflects those Americana influences, with acoustic and pedal-steel guitars providing the bedrock for serious ruminations.
But soon after the album came out, Rose began to feel restricted. “I was like, ‘This isn't all I can do. I don't wanna be trapped in this,'” she said recently by phone from the childhood bedroom of her parents' home on Long Island.
At the same time, Rose also began to fundamentally change as a person. “I hit a point where I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Nothing matters all that much, so I can probably say whatever I want,'” she said. “I think I just realized I'm gonna die, and I don't have anything to lose. When you have nothing to lose, you say what's really on your mind.”
While coming to grips with her mortality led to a creative period that culminated in one of the best albums to come out so far this year — LONER (New West), released in February — the epiphany is a double-edged sword. Depending on the day, it can feel truly liberating or crushingly depressing. A few days before our phone call, in fact, Rose had gone through one of the worst bouts of depression in her 28 years.
“My whole life I've had this anxiety about time running out and how I want to spend my time, because you can't get it back,” she said. “When I was 5 years old, my house burned down. We all could have died. Years after that incident, I developed all these crazy anxiety issues, and I still have them today. It's something that's been beneficial and also a miserable curse, because I am constantly thinking about my own mortality every time this anxiety recurs.”
Rose has always seized the opportunity to make music, but after I Will Not Be Afraid, she decided it was time for her songs to reflect her full personality, which meant incorporating more than just her serious side. “There are so many things that make up who a person is, and some days you feel serious, some days you feel funny, some days you feel really sad,” she said. “I had elements of humor in my music sometimes, but for the most part I don't think I knew how to do it.”
While “Red Bikini Waltz,” from I Will Not Be Afraid, was troubadour folk in the style of early Bob Dylan, LONER track “Bikini” is a synth-driven, satirical take on the objectification of women (“We're going to put you in the movies and on TV/All you've got to do is put on this little bikini and dance!”). It's also a lot of fun.
“Money” takes a similar approach, satirizing capitalism's absurdist tendencies in the form of a two-minute psychobilly pop song that could soundtrack a Tarantino bank robbery. “We did it for the money!” Rose gleefully sing-shouts.
“To be funny and serious in one song is difficult,” Rose said. “I don't know if I nailed it, but I tried.”
It didn't come easy. “Soul No. 5,” for instance, started out as “I Got Soul” and went through five distinct iterations. “When I had first written it, I wanted to write a feel-good song, but I wanted it to be sarcastic and kind of tongue-in-cheek. And I definitely missed the mark when I first wrote it. It sounded so earnest. I was like, ‘Ugh, this is cringe-worthy,'” said Rose, who enlisted the help of co-producer Paul Butler. “We were cutting vocals on it and he was like, ‘You should enjoy this song. ... How about you take the piss out of it?' That was good advice.”
Rose also made a point to avoid straightforward love songs. “Adele has put out three albums of love songs and breakup songs, and Sam Smith exists as well, so we've got that covered,” she said.
After taking initial tracks to Butler, the two experimented with drum machines and vintage synthesizers in sessions at Panoramic Studio in California. From there, Rose took over production. “I was borderline obsessed with making sure that the album was cohesive and sounded like all the songs showed up together to the same party,” she said. “I'm super-duper hands-on with everything. I'm kind of a psycho control freak.”
After all the work and experimentation and anxiety and newfound sense of freedom, Rose emerged with a confident, addictive pop record untethered from her past. “This feels like a debut,” she said. “It's the first album I'm putting out that really sounds like me.”