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An Interview with Caroline Rose

[MUSICIAN]

“It’s a sacred thing to space out.”

Musical inspirations mentioned by Caroline Rose:
Erik Satie
Antonio Vivaldi
Kronos Quartet

header-image

An Interview with Caroline Rose

[MUSICIAN]

“It’s a sacred thing to space out.”

Musical inspirations mentioned by Caroline Rose:
Erik Satie
Antonio Vivaldi
Kronos Quartet

An Interview with Caroline Rose

Leopoldine Core
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I have watched countless videos of Caroline Rose singing live. She isn’t someone who mimics herself night after night. She has an almost intoxicating way of being present—an intuitive connection to the moment—and because of this, every performance is uniquely embodied. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she takes her clothes off, often she dances—and always she stares absorbedly into the beyond while singing, her gaze solidly present, grounded, and focused, yet somehow otherworldly. Some musicians I just listen to, but Rose is one to watch. She looks kind of possessed by the music, as if she were giving her whole self to it—or it to her. And her gift for reinventing herself and experimenting from album to album—moving between genres—underscores a pure love of singing, songwriting, and producing.

Reviewers tend to focus on how different Rose’s albums are, but I would say that what distinguishes her as an artist is her ability to straddle dualities, producing songs over the years that feel vast yet intimate, mournful yet danceable, fictional yet lived, naked yet dressed up, savage yet tender, silly yet serious, ironic yet disarmingly forthright—I could go on. And her songs are beautifully built, both formally and emotionally. In fact, this is her genius: how the sonic structures she creates mirror what they carry inside: living feelings. A certain generosity of spirit resonates throughout Caroline’s work. It is hard to explain what it means to perceive someone else’s spirit. But there is a feeling of recognition: a hello feeling; a yes feeling; a somehow ancient feeling; a moved, connected, and slightly bewitched feeling that is set in motion when I listen to her songs. And while it may be hard to articulate what exactly spirit is, it certainly stands out—easy to spot in these numb times. I spoke with Caroline twice by phone, for three hours total. We discussed God, self-love, nudity, grieving, heartbreak, invisible friends, and choosing art over business. 

—Leopoldine Core

I. GOOFY, FUN, AND THRASHY

THE BELIEVER: Can you talk about the process of producing and then touring I Will Not Be Afraid back in 2014—your first nationally distributed album? What inspired the record, and what was it like performing the material live for the first time?

CAROLINE ROSE: To be honest, I have regrets around that album. I had a vision and it just ended up being so different. I was really young and new at the time and I was talked out of making it more of a pop-style folk album. And what ended up kind of transpiring was—to me, it fell a little flat. I didn’t feel like I was fully formed and pretty much immediately after putting it out I was like, This isn’t right. [Laughs] But, yeah, I don’t think I toured very much around I Will Not Be Afraid. It was probably empty bars at that point.

BLVR: So what is that experience like, when you’re getting talked out of your vision? Was it just your age that made it hard to advocate for yourself, or were you being told you had to do certain things in order to put the record out?

CR: It was less about age and more about self… worth. [Laughs] When you’re green or when you’re feeling a moment of insecurity or something like that, it’s hard to have the wisdom to know what will benefit the project or not. 

BLVR: How did you evolve as an artist in the time after that album, during the shift to your next album, Loner, four years later, in 2018? 

CR: I grew up as a theater kid, so I had this whole side of myself that I wasn’t expressing. I wanted to figure out what type of artist I wanted to be onstage, and that took some time, to just grow the confidence to be more myself—like be more weird and goofy and fun and at the same time more thrashy onstage.

BLVR: I love that song “Cry!” on Loner. What were you feeling when you wrote that?

CR: Probably feeling like I wasn’t being taken seriously as a young woman in a pretty male-dominated industry. I was kind of beating my head against the wall at the time because I really believed in my work. The vision I had for it was becoming more and more fully formed, and the more I thought it was fully formed, the less the people I worked with understood what I was trying to do. It was really frustrating. I had this power inside me and this wisdom inside me that people didn’t see.

BLVR: There’s a live performance of that song online—I think you were in Germany—and at the end you hit this crazy note and sustained it for a very long time. I recorded it on my phone—just that part—because it moved me. It felt like it was coming from the deepest part of you.

CR: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. It’s God’s work. [Laughs]

BLVR: [Pause] Do you believe in God? How do you define God?

CR: I think the idea of God and patriarchy are so linked that you have to seriously separate the two—like there should be another word. I remember reading this book about the Lakota—they use the term the Great Spirit for God and I thought that made much more sense. It’s not a father—it’s not a father figure. Which, in Christianity, I always found so weird.

BLVR: You are often asked about your shifts in tone and style from album to album. Why do you think the ways you change are seen as strange?

CR: I truly don’t know. So many artists throughout history have dramatically changed. And no one batted an eye.

BLVR: It seems sort of objectifying. It’s like asking: Why are you alive?

CR: We should be living in a time where you never know what you’re gonna get—and I feel like in a way it’s sort of the opposite. I guess it’s easier to sell music by an artist when it sounds the same—more understandable. And that’s fine—I’m not upset by it—but it’s not me.

II. EVERYDAY COSTUMES

BLVR: I watched a show of yours online where you flashed the audience and then I saw a picture of you naked in your recording studio and I thought, They look happy. Then I was thinking that there’s an exposing of oneself that comes with being an artist but specifically a performer, because your body is there. So I’m curious about the relationship between the exposure of your ideas and the exposure of your body. Is it comforting to be naked?

CR: [Laughs] Maybe using my body is an act of rebellion against being uncomfortable with it. It gives me a power and makes some of the shame I have disappear. I am in control of how I use my body, how I move—and what I’m comfortable revealing has definitely expanded. I actually don’t feel sexualized at all. If anything, it feels more like performance art.

BLVR: You’ve had a lot of looks over the course of your career. Is wearing a costume or having a persona a form of nudity? A revealing of oneself?

CR: I have always tried on different costumes, versions of myself that highlight different aspects of my personality. And this is partly why it makes a lot of sense to me that more and more people are coming out as nonbinary. Because I’ve always had this feeling that I’m this personality with all these different sides that was just plunked into a body—like this is just the one I got. And I’ve never felt like, Oh, this body really represents me as a person. It’s just what I landed in. It’s the vessel that I have. And I can dress up my vessel however I’m feeling. Sometimes I’m feeling like I wanna be a shadow. And other times I feel like a flamboyant gay man, you know? And what I wear and how I act and how I present myself reflect that.

BLVR: Yeah, costumes are so personal. They’re part of the inside. I feel they’re misunderstood. [Pause] Maybe the anxiety around change we were talking about earlier is connected to anxiety around gender.

CR: Yeah, it’s easier to just be like: Man, woman—here are your parts. This is what you do in life. You fuckin’ make babies. It’s so much easier to rationalize that than to say that actually there’s a very complex spectrum, that we could be a host of different things at once.

BLVR: I feel like whatever you’re wearing… there’s something shining through the trees that’s kind of collaborating with the costume—it’s your gaze, it’s your aura—like whether you’re wearing lipstick or… There’s always a gender that’s your own, and I guess that’s true of everyone—but maybe with you more apparently so. It’s a compliment—

CR: No, no, I take it as one. I think that’s true. I feel that way. And I also think everyone every day is wearing a costume.

BLVR: Yes, yes.

CR: We’re presenting our personality to the world or to whoever’s gonna see us that day, and some costumes are just more detailed than others. But we’re always presenting something. 

III. “IT’S LIKE A PARTICLE ACCELERATOR”

BLVR: Your latest album, The Art of Forgetting, deals so frankly with heartbreak. Did you plan to tell this story, or did it wind up being a surprise to you?

CR: It was definitely a surprise, kind of a left turn. I had put out another album [Superstar] pretty much right as the pandemic started, and we got maybe four shows in before the entire tour was canceled. It definitely knocked me down a peg [laughs]—or twelve. A loss of self is the best way to describe what I felt—and that was coupled with a breakup. She and I weren’t speaking when I was working on The Art of Forgetting, and I really wanted to speak. The process of grieving isn’t linear. Somebody described it to me as climbing a mountain, where some moments you’ll be going up and then you go down and then you’ll go sideways and then you’ll go the other direction. But ultimately you will make it to the top. It’s a good description of grief—because sometimes you’ll be really angry and then sometimes you’ll be really soft and gentle and be like, No, I really fucked up. And other times you’re just gonna wanna go out and hook up with someone. You’re constantly going—it’s like a particle accelerator—you’re just bouncing off all these different feelings.

BLVR: Voicemail messages and conversations with your grandmother appear on the album. Why did you choose to include them?

CR: Because I was talking to her every day. She was losing her memory—she’s since passed away—so these are like little relics in time. She would leave me a message if I didn’t pick up, so I collected these voice memos from her. And over time, if you play them all in a row, you can really hear her aging and changing. My grandma was so obsessed with family and wanted nothing more than to be there for my sister and me—to be involved in everything that was going on. And meanwhile I was so depressed, I could barely get out of bed. You know, I was just really not doing well. [Laughs] She would call me and be so happy to hear me and I was just struggling to find any joy. And, you know, here I was trying to forget as much as possible—all this pain that I was feeling—and she’s losing her memory and all she wants to do is remember everything. And every time we would talk, it was this sort of slap from reality that was like: Wake up! Theres life to live! 

BLVR: Listening to the album reminded me of going to the opera. There are hooks but there’s also a weird breathability—time structures that are not predictable and that feel somehow living. Can you talk about how you constructed time within these songs?

CR: You’re definitely hitting the nail on the head. I wasn’t listening to opera but I was listening to a lot of classical music, and if you listen to Satie or even if you listen to The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, he was really—I mean, that’s pop music. 

BLVR: Totally!

CR: [Laughs] He was like a pop icon for God, you know, so I’m all about that music because the motif is really important—and the melody. I find when I put on an average album, I generally want more, and I keep that in mind for my own work constantly. Like, are my ears still intrigued after listening to this for an hour? We really only have so many tools to work with: we have tempo, time signature, and a handful of chords. And it always amazes me what people are able to come up with. Everyone’s always making something different, and that is a huge inspiration to me: that you can go from song to song and give it breathability and air just by changing the time signature, or just by taking out that chord that’s not really necessary.

BLVR: I read that you have a background in architecture, and that made sense to me. It seems like your songs have a spatial element. Like you somehow create rooms with sound—songs that surround the listener.

CR: Yeah! A lot of that is frequency space too. I am also a mix engineer so I’m constantly thinking about how much space things are gonna to be taking up in a mix—and the way recording is evolving is so cool because it’s getting more and more 3D.

BLVR: What effects, if any, were used on the album to create the sense of memories surfacing?

CR: The thing I used to create the feeling of memory glitching was this little modular rack that is mostly based on granular synthesis. It’s this one particular company called Mutable Instruments—they came out with a modular unit called Clouds. They’ve since updated it—it’s now called Beads—but the basic idea is that you can take what is called a grain of audio, just a little grain of sound, and you can chop it, smear it, bop it, twist it, pull it—do whatever you want with it. And it is a totally different type of synthesis. It’s a way of treating audio digitally rather than analog. But it sounds really organic to me. I also used a lot of tape loops—I became kind of obsessed with loops. I was trying to get this humanlike quality to everything that was on the album. And so even with all the granular synthesis stuff, I’m using audio from acoustic instrumentation to kind of give it more of a natural feel.

BLVR: Can you explain what exactly a tape loop is?

CR: It’s literally just splicing a loop of tape, so that if you put any sort of sound on it—it could be a voice or it could be an instrument, and I was doing tape loops with my voice a lot, where I would just sing a note and then I would make a loop of it—and if you put it into a cassette player or a tape machine or whatever, it’ll just play that same loop over and over and over again. But what’s cool is if you play it long enough, you’ll hear it start to decay. And I just thought that was the coolest way to use an effect to show memory failing. Or just this idea of time passing.

IV. “I’M NEVER GONNA BE A MCDONALD’S HAMBURGER”

BLVR: There’s a theme of self-love on the album—realizing it’s missing, wanting it, recognizing how essential it is—and that’s so relatable. Though I think the quest to love oneself is always unique, and so I wonder: What does it mean to you? How do you define self-love?

CR: The best way I can describe it—at least the thing I need the most—is just being gentle with myself. That’s the biggest difference when I’m talking to a friend rather than myself. I’m always really gentle and kind with other people—and understanding—and I don’t know why it’s so much harder to be that way for ourselves.

BLVR: Yeah, it’s so important to ask yourself, like, How would I treat my dog? How would I treat my sister? Because you probably wouldn’t yell at them or shame them or think of them as bad, you know.

CR: It really is that simple. But for some reason it’s just really hard sometimes. 

BLVR: How important is being alone to your ability to be creative?

CR: It’s extremely important because I tend to be way more open when I’m alone—and that could even just be if I’m writing in my journal or sitting in the park and thinking about things. That’s when I’m the most intimate. When I’m alone I’m always exploring. I’m always a little kid that’s sort of wandering into a new space. And I have yet to find that in a setting with people around. My initial ideas really always come from having this childlike sense of wonder at things that either pop into my head ’cause I’m daydreaming or because I’m out wandering.

BLVR: Spacing out is so creative. It’s such a creative state. 

CR: I think spacing out is a form of meditation. 

BLVR: Yeah, it’s spiritual!

CR: [Laughs] I think so too. It’s a sacred thing to space out. Because if you think about it, people don’t space out as much as they used to. Everyone’s looking at their phone all the time. As soon as we have a moment of boredom or, you know, free time, we’re pretty much always looking at a screen. And so to just sit and stare into space and think about stuff—to allow your brain to think about whatever it wants to think about—I think that’s really important. I’m all about spacing out. 

BLVR: I feel like the internet stole the medium of a dream, in a way, and it’s necessary for us to have our own dreams—our own consciousness inside—the psychic space that is animal. Which is not to say there’s nothing good about the internet. But, yeah, I hate everyone looking at their screens on the train—it makes me lonesome.

CR: This brings up a good point that ties back into why being alone is so important. I’m always trying to place why I feel that way, because ultimately I do want to collaborate with more people. But I’m constantly learning new things from the internet and books and movies—and at the end of the day we need time alone to process those things or else we’re just these… encyclopedias. I’m always gonna be the type of person that if I meet someone, I don’t really believe in small talk. I think it’s a waste of time. And if I were gonna get in the room with someone to make music together, it needs to be deep—it needs to go really deep, ’cause when I’m in the room alone, like, I’ll make myself cry. I’ll just sob making something, and I have to be comfortable enough with someone else in order for them to push me—to get to a new emotional level. 

BLVR: I wanna talk more about sobbing. At the live shows you often break into tears mid-song. How does it feel to cry in front of an audience?

CR: Well, at first it was kind of embarrassing. But then I was like, All right, I’ve gotta accept that this is happening pretty much every night. And it’s weird because I used to be not much of a crier but I guess I’ve changed. The material is also just—it still hits me. I mean, some of these songs I wrote in 2020, but they still bring me right back to when I was completely raw. I get so emo.

BLVR: Maybe that’s love for yourself—when you cry.

CR: Yeah, just letting it happen.

BLVR: Or feeling compassion for that person who felt those things: that’s you. In the videos of live shows I’ve seen, people cheer when you cry—they seem into it. 

CR: People are sweet. I think they like seeing a human being. I always make this joke that I’m never gonna be a McDonald’s hamburger—I’m never gonna be the same every time, at every show. As much as I try to maintain a level of professionalism by delivering a similar show each night, I personally am always gonna be different. My moods change. I’m not a robot. And maybe in the age of AI, I’m gonna find that’s actually a huge asset—that my albums sound different enough that AI cannot reproduce them fast enough. [Laughs]

BLVR: I haven’t been into any of the AI songs I’ve heard. I find they are entertaining but not exactly pleasure-causing… because consciousness is missing.

CR: Yeah, I kind of hope it’s just having a Bitcoin moment and then people will eventually be like: Actually, I do prefer humanity.

BLVR: Is there an artist whose work makes you cry?

CR: One that comes to mind—it’s one of my favorite pieces of music ever—is the Kronos Quartet playing this Philip Glass piece called String Quartet no. 5. There’s a moment in it when there’s this huge crescendo and then right when you think it’s gonna explode—it’s gonna be this climax of sound—it actually goes back down and you’re like, No! [Laughs] He kind of fucking makes you wait for it, and by the time this big sonic release happens, it’s such an overwhelm of emotions for me, I can’t help but cry. It’s that tension-and-release feeling—it feels like a warm bath or like a really amazing vista where you’re climbing and climbing and you finally see this beautiful expanse—and it makes you feel so alive and makes you feel so grateful for being alive and having vision and having ears to hear.

BLVR: Can you talk about the confluence of humor and sorrow in your work?

CR: I’m always injecting humor into stuff, but it doesn’t always translate. In music, especially, it’s really hard to translate humor unless you’re being really over-the-top with it. I think a lot of my fan base knows I’m funny—they can pick it out easier—but with this album, there were a lot of people that were like: It’s not as funny. But there are actually moments of humor peppered throughout the album. It’s just very dark.

BLVR: I think it’s so funny. I would say it’s one of your funniest. 

CR: Oh, I love that. I love that.

BLVR: What kinds of things make you laugh?

CR: I definitely have a pretty dark sense of humor. I’m not really a slapstick kind of person. I like dark, cerebral humor because it says something about humanity. When people go really deep and they’re being vulnerable with what they’re joking about, it almost acts as an antidote to the darker elements of life—it’s like an antidote to oppression. Or, you know, satire is an antidote to all sorts of isms, like racism and sexism—all the things that normally cause us a lot of pain. If you have the ability to turn those things into humor, then it’s really like a sword that you can wield and this incredible tool that makes you feel better about something that’s horrifying. It makes me feel powerful when I can find the humor in a dark situation. And this was a really dark situation for me. Every day I would have a moment where I was like: I know this is comically sad. Like, I know I’m very close to the bottom and I have this beautiful view of the sky! [Laughs] You know? ’Cause you’ve gotta find a way to laugh. It’s the only way to get through the hell that is life on Planet Earth.

V. “THE SUCCESS STORY”

BLVR: How has religion or spirituality influenced your work—or has it?

CR: Well, I think it’s important to differentiate between religion and spirituality. I’ve always found myself to be a pretty spiritual person. I think there’s something about songwriting that’s spiritual—it’s the antenna, you know—the antennae are out. You’re channeling something into music. You’re channeling emotions and feelings into something that’s tangible and listenable. There’s gotta be something spiritual about that, ’cause not everyone can do it.

BLVR: There is, there is.

CR: I’ll have these moments of inspiration and think, Whoa, where did that come from? It feels spiritual. Anything that is inexplicable has an element of some sort of spirit. I can’t comprehend it but I embrace it. I’m like: I don’t understand this but I’m just gonna accept it. 

BLVR: Believe in the unknown.

CR: Yeah, and believe in feelings—that they’re real or that something happens and then there’s a reaction in us that moves us. Like, what is that? I don’t know. I think it’s the same type of thing when you go to some sort of revival and everybody’s singing and shouting on their knees. There’s a spiritual element to that. There is an overlap with the arts and that

BLVR: Yes.

CR: And I think that’s why it’s so important to differentiate between spirituality and religion, because, like, they do not always go hand in hand. But there are oftentimes moments of spirituality in things like religion because it’s deep… And when you accept the unknown and open yourself up to it, something wild happens.

BLVR: I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience of being alone and creating something but feeling—feeling a sense of collaboration—feeling that you are collaborating even though you’re by yourself.

CR: Yeah, I’ve felt that for sure. It’s like when you say, OK, Im gonna write today and then you sit down and write and it’s completely mediocre. But then something happens: you’ll be driving down the highway or something and you’re struck with this feeling and you’re like, I gotta write this down. And then you write down all this stuff that’s been channeled into you and it’s so much better.

BLVR: Yeah, or even sometimes I’ll have words enter my mind when I’m writing and I’ll think: I don’t even totally know that word—but then it winds up being the right word. 

CR: [Laughs] I so understand that. I so feel that.

BLVR: It’s coming from elsewhere, and I like that—that doesn’t scare me, I’m like: Haunt me, please

CR: Yeah. [Laughs]

BLVR: You made a short film called The Art of Forgetting using three songs from the album. How did it feel to work with an actor who was playing your ex? And how did it feel to play yourself—or a version of yourself? Was it healing? Was it strange?

CR: Both, both. It was kind of bizarre because the album is obviously autobiographical and the film is too—but I think it’s also important to note that it is fiction. When the other actor and I were working out the characters, we had different names for them. I would talk about my character as someone else, not me or any particular person. That was important because it was already borderline creepy how close to home I was getting. The director, Sam Bennett, he’s one of my oldest friends, and we very much speak the same language artistically. We ran with this idea of using the past and the future to create a sense of anxiety. When you’re grieving, you oftentimes feel crazy. You’re constantly creating stories in your head, and we were trying to get that idea across of how, you know, when you start creating stories, it’s really hard to get in touch with what you are actually feeling and what you actually need, which is just to be still and let life go on. You can think about the other person as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you have to try to turn all that energy around and put it back into yourself. I was having such a hard time doing that. I’d have these moments of clarity where it felt like I was back in my body, but then anxiety would creep back in and I would start telling stories again. [Laughs]

BLVR: I really hear your singing voice in your laugh. I love that.

CR: [Laughs]

BLVR: When did you first know you could sing?

CR: Probably in school chorus. Everybody was kind of forced to be in the chorus, but I liked it. I was like, Oh, I can harmonize and make melodies. It became a fun thing for me to do.

BLVR: What were you like as a child?

CR: I was actually really quiet. I was a loner and loved playing by myself if there was no one around. I also liked other kids—I had my best friends, but I acted a lot like an only child, which I wasn’t. I’ve always been able to be alone and be content—just writing or drawing or zoning out, or, you know, I had imaginary friends and I’d build forts. I was kind of like a little dirt child, always outside, always running around with my shirt off.

BLVR: Tell me about one of your imaginary friends.

CR: I feel like his name was Bill. Yeah… Bill. And I remember pushing him around on the… There was a little swing, a rope swing that hung from a tree in my family’s backyard. I remember pushing him around on it. [Laughs]

BLVR: What was the first song you wrote and what was it about?

CR: It was about time. 

BLVR: Oh!

CR: It was called “Out of Time.” I remember thinking kind of existentially about these big subjects that baffled me, like the scope of the universe or how time works—how it’s stretchy—how it can move forward and backward. I found that so intriguing. I also had a lot of anxiety around time—I still do—just feeling like I have to make the most of it. So it was probably a mixture of both anxiety and wonder at, um, you know, moving through time.

BLVR: How old were you?

CR: I was fourteen or so. 

BLVR: I wanna hear it.

CR: I’m sure there’s a recording of it—it’s probably so cringe. 

BLVR: No, I bet it’s good. I bet you’d be surprised to find it’s really good. 

CR: [Laughs]

BLVR: How do you define success?

CR: I think it’s always changing. Success could feel very different from one album to the next. I made The Art of Forgetting knowing it wasn’t gonna be as received as the catchier, poppier, albums but it was important to me to make it—and make it be exactly what I wanted to hear. And to me that was a huge success. I really adhered to that constitution I had written for myself.

BLVR: What was the constitution?

CR: That I wasn’t gonna make any choices for business over art. I thought: I have to put my blinders on and just really tune in to how this album makes me feel, and I really adhered to that.

BLVR: What gives you hope?

CR: There’s so many things that give me hope. There’s also so many things that destroy my hope, but sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll see a honeybee and I’m like, Oh, that’s the whole purpose of life right there—there’s the success story. [Laughs] Just watching things—it’s our job to pay attention, and I think that’s why I’ve ended up gravitating toward… I call it taking my meds. Where I’ll sit and meditate or walk around and look at things: be an observer. So I don’t know. I actually think I’m more optimistic—well, maybe optimistic is not the right word. [Laughs] Let me make it clear: everything’s going to shit, but I think there will always be moments of beauty constantly, everywhere, and that brings me hope.

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