A ROSIER PERSPECTIVE Rosie Thomas

A new
album finds the songwriter renewing her faith in life, love and the
transformational power of music.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

After only three albums and a decade or so of plying her
craft, Rosie Thomas had every reason to believe that her career – not to
mention her life as she had known it – had come to a close. Diagnosed with a
thyroid condition and suffering from severe anxiety, she found herself
debilitated and unable to work, much less function as far as her day to day
activities were concerned. The struggle took a full two years to overcome, but
with a new husband, a change of locale and a focus on a new album to occupy
her, she eventually gained control and steered her life back to where it had
been before. Assisted by longtime compatriots David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Blake Wescott (The Posies, Damien Jurado), Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)
and Jen Wood (The Postal
Service), she gave the project a simple but inspired title, With Love, making it an homage not only
to her enduring influences, but also to the transformative powers of that
singular human connection. Producers Bazan and Wescott gave her her marching
orders; she was instructed to list every artist and performance that had been
her source of inspiration and then funnel those seminal sounds into the new
work. The list spanned a vast musical spectrum, from soul singers like Stevie
Wonder and the Jackson Five to those who had always somehow surfaced in her
sound — Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and her all-time idol Bette Midler.

 

The process aided in her recovery
and her recovery was nothing short of a revelation. “For the first time I just
lived,” she says. “For the first time I was able to stay in one place long
enough to pour into friendships. I learned that there was more than just
performing to life. I had lived my whole life with one pursuit in mind — being
brave and going after my dreams. What I missed out on were the normal things
that were even more vital — pouring into the lives around me, getting my mind
off of me and putting it more on others. I was joyful and the pressure was off
of me for the first time and I learned I had even more to offer than just
entertaining people. I guess I had forgotten, or I was just too self focused to
see what I was missing out on.” 

 

BLURT recently sat down with the singer and sometime
comedienne for a lengthy conversation, during which we asked her to describe
the process that led her to rediscover her muse and find her mantra as well.

 


Rosie Thomas – Back to Being Friends by boorin

 

BLURT: This album was sprung some unfortunate circumstances. Tell
us a little bit about the illness you suffered from and how it was reflected in
your songwriting? When were you diagnosed with this disease and what was your
immediate reaction? 

ROSIE THOMAS: When I was first diagnosed with
being hyperthyroid, I was both bummed and relieved. I was relieved because I
knew there was an answer to the way I was feeling — super duper anxious
— and it was a relief to know I wasn’t going mental. No one wants
something to go wrong with your body, and I was bummed that something in mine
broke I guess — mostly my pride. 
“I’m Rosie!,” I thought. “I’m invincible!” But alas,
I wasn’t. That whole experience changed me entirely. When you go from feeling
like wonder woman in your head to being bed- ridden, it’ll change your
perspective pretty quickly and really force you to pay attention to what really
matters. What really mattered during that time were the people in my life that
loved me when I felt that I had nothing worth loving at all. In some sense it
made me realize how spoiled I had been and self indulgent too.  I went into making this record with a lot
more heart and a lot more gratitude, no question. For the first time, I
appreciated the small things and the small things looked big, and I knew I was
onto something.

        I
began writing “2 Worlds Collide” about anxiety, for example, but
opened it up to a much broader theme when I felt that it was sounding a bit too
pitiful. “Now I can’t hear music, and I can’t take train rides, I can’t
remember the last time I felt right” was all about anxiety.  I just put the love twist on it and it became
a much stronger song. In some ways, singing about anxiety gave me anxiety, so
it was nice to steer off a bit from the subject. I definitely didn’t want to
obsess on it too much. Things happen and set you back, but it’s important to
pick yourself back up and keep moving.

 When I wrote “Like Wildflowers,”
it was my way of wondering if I would be okay again. I think I cried the first
time I sang it beginning to end. The lyrics — “Where will I go from
here?” — was an honest plea.  Is
this my new best I wondered?  Rosie in
her PJ’s watching life pass her by? I wanted to be like the flowers in the
field… able to sway along despite the circumstances. 

 

Was there ever a point where you felt overwhelmed by the challenge
of recording a new album in light of all the stress in your life? How did you
overcome the intimidation? 

There are three stages to this process —
writing it, recording it and sharing it. The biggest challenges are writing it
and then sharing it with the world. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into
this one, but I was ready to make this record… more than ready. It was
exhilarating, nothing but! I had done loads of pre-production, some with Sam,
some on my own, some with Dave… so by the time it came to the recording, it
already felt like we were crystal clear with the direction we were going in.
Plus, I really respected the friends I picked to make this record with; they
have so much class, and they know me, and I knew they had my best interest at
heart and I trusted every challenge they threw at me. It was so much fun and I
felt so cared for and so encouraged and so tended to.  I mean, when you’re in good company, and
around your peers, you feel kinda invincible you know?  I definitely
thrive when I’m around people that love me. I mean, don’t we all? It’s pretty
vital and it just makes me feel braver and more heroic. I get lost when I’m
alone. 

        Definitely
coming out of a pretty tough time made me appreciate it that much more, and
made me really sing my head off. One night when I was singing my head off,
Bazan came in the studio, and said “I believe you.” and it made me
cry. I knew I was singing from a different place this time. “How
cool,” I thought. Even more life experience for Rosie, and more places to
pull from. I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made… and that rules.  

 

How did you manage to juggle an illness, relocation and a new
marriage simultaneously – and then organize your thoughts to reflect it all in
the music? 

I think we are capable of more that we think.
You know those times in life when you think, “How did I do that?!” I
have had a lot of those. Having a loving community helps too, and now a loving
husband who adores me so.  I also think I am better when I’m busier and
there’s less time to contemplate, less time to think about myself or be self
focused. I knew it was my time to rise up.

 

When you thought about the idea of calling the album With
Love
, did you have a clear
idea of how you were going to stretch that concept
and make it more than just another collection of love songs? After all, it’s a
topic that’s used A LOT and the title itself doesn’t necessarily betray the
fact that there’s a different angle to it.

We definitely throw the word love around far too
casually, so unfortunately it can lose its meaning, but I knew the weight that
it carried. Honestly, I was just walking around by myself in Brooklyn
when the title came to me. I had just been thinking about that time, and what
we go through and endure as people. It was love that sincerely carried me
through, and it was that simple. I know I’m a complex enough individual that
calling it With Love wouldn’t
narrow the focus. Love obviously has so many angles to it and I felt that this
record covered it all — between friends, family, and of course the romantic
side both good and bad. The longing, the passing, the letting go and the way it
can lift us up too. That’s an important one, because that’s the part that keeps
us hopeful. 

 

There are a lot of classic influences on the new album. How did
you factor all that in while managing to retain your own distinctive style? 

Influence is inevitable and when you’re strong
enough in your own character it will stay in its place and do what it’s
supposed to do — add and not take away from you. I’m always pretty cautious
with that kinda thing however; you gotta be inspired right? You gotta be pushed
so you gotta pay close attention to what you like and then ask yourself if it
works for you. For instance, I like R&B, but I’m not an R&B singer, nor
do I write those kinda tunes. But there are elements about it that work for me,
and can inform aspects of what I do. 

 

What was it like when your producer told you to write down every
song and every artist that had a marked influence on you.? Was that an
arduous task?      

Surprisingly, no. I couldn’t write the songs and
artists down fast enough. Bette Midler was first on my list and I started
laughing, but I couldn’t deny how her songs and her personality had grabbed my
attention over the years, I mean I tried to write her a letter once! How could
I forget that?! What I always loved about her in particular was how she could
switch from silly to heartbreaking in a heartbeat and how much it worked. I
relate to that! I’ve got a lot of personality, and I absorb a lot, which means
I have a lot to share in a lot of different ways. In the beginning of my
career, music was the main focus, but as time has gone on, all of me has been
poured in — the jokes, the stories and the songs. I’m one heck of an
entertainer because I don’t hold back; you get all of me, and I sure have a lot
of love to give.

 

Are there any specific songs that you can cite as being especially
noteworthy in terms of the album as a whole?  

“Over The Moon” and “Sometimes
Love” are the first that come to mind. These tunes in particular seem to
represent two very different sides to anyone’s love story. “Over The
Moon” was exciting to write and when I finished it I exclaimed, “I
think I just wrote my first pop tune!” and it was all about love gained
and not love lost this time around an obvious nod to my husband. 

        “Sometimes
love” was written by my dear friend, and one of my favorite songwriters,
Tim Miser. I have always wanted to cover this song- and it really fit as a bit
of a summation of the various themes throughout the album. It covers it all in
my opinion — every aspect of love in a way you can swallow and accept. Love, just like life, is really out of our
hands.

 

How did you assemble the all star backing band that worked with
you on this record?   

I paid ‘em a lot of money! No, that’s not true.
I guess I was just lucky. That’s not totally true either. I was really blessed
to have friends that really cared about me making my best record, and that took
the time to be a part of it with me. Now, that’s true.

Is your new husband flattered that he
inspired the sweeter sentiments that echo throughout this album?
 

I don’t know, let me ask him. Hold on
please. [pause in conversation]

        I
guess it just occurred to him, because now he’s bawling his eyes out.  
   

      

When your career was just getting underway, at what point did you
know that making music would be a viable career option
for you and you wouldn’t have to think about a day job?   

To be honest, I never counted on that ever. I
hoped for it sure, but knew I couldn’t count on that.  Even when things
look they might be on the up and up, there’s still no guarantee they’ll stay
that way.  That’s important to know and no matter what happens, you gotta
cling to that truth and if you do you’ll stay afloat. For instance, in one year
I went from playing the Royal Albert Hall to someone’s wedding and back to
small clubs again. Anything goes! If it goes well, that’s all bonus in my
opinion. You can have the best intentions –you can even think, “No one
can do what I’m doing better than me!” and though that may be true, doing
what you love can be a risky business. I’ve been blessed that I haven’t had a
day job in years, but I practice on a cash register every now and again… just
in case my luck runs out. 

 

How do you see the trajectory of your career? Have there been
different elements and a different way of thinking that’s evolved with each new
album?  

Definitely…especially this time around. I
finally feel that I have found my stride. Sam encouraged me to make a record
that made me a bit uncomfortable; I had always said and did what made me
comfortable and I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin. However, that made me
coast a bit. It kept me shy and held
me back from being a little bit bolder. It held me back from finding out what I
was really capable of. I feel like this time around I pushed myself to places I
didn’t know I could reach. I sang out more, I stretched myself musically, I
switched up tempos and rhythms, and finally made a record that matched my
personality a lot, lot, more. I felt like I grew an inch, like I had another
growth spurt. Maybe I did. Hang on, I’ll measure… Nope, still 5’5.” It’s just
in my head.  

 

When it comes time to create a new album, do you have an overall
concept in mind, or do you have a
batch of songs that dictate the concept?
    
It’s the batch of songs that tell the story of the record and of
my life. 

 

Tell us a little bit about the documentary that was done on
you – All the Way from Michigan Not Mars. How did that come about?
    

What’s funny is that the documentary was
supposed to be a short about Suf, Denny and I making a record together until I
screwed that all up by saying, “Do you want to film me talking about
stuff?” and then we ended up with hours and hours of footage! I guess I
thought, if they were going to do this, I should say something that I think
matters, but I don’t think I knew how to stop talking once I got going. There
was just so much on my heart and so many stories I wanted to share. Good grief
Rosie!

 

How do you think you distinguish yourself from all the other
singer/songwriters out there right now? What special approach or insight helps
imbue you with a style or stance all your own?   

I guess the simplest way of answering this is
something that gets a lot of lip service, but not much follow-through, and that’s
being yourself.  The biggest
thing I have to offer is myself.  If I ever consider compromising that,
shame on me. It took me a couple of records to feel confident about that and
fully realize all that I had to offer. It became a bigger responsibility to me,
to engage with the audience, not just perform for them. I realized that if I
didn’t break that wall down, I might miss out on the opportunity of really
saying something they needed to hear, or relate to, and the truth is, I needed
it too.

        I
believe that this world is getting more and more self-focused and we are
forgetting to take care of one another, to relate to one another, and encourage
one another.  I have a lot of compassion, too much for my own good at
times, but I think I can use it to help people feel better, and that feels
awesome. So many folks these days are so concerned with keeping up appearances,
and presenting themselves as what others will think is cool. I find that if you
are willing to risk being vulnerable with people, and open up about our own
struggles, people will feel like it’s safe to reciprocate, and then you can
actually get somewhere meaningful, not just the shallow baloney that we’re
force-fed from most of pop culture. I take that pretty seriously and I am
willing to risk not being cool for being real.  

        Bazan
even said to me the other day, “Don’t hold back Rosie, if anything, push
further,” and here’s how I do that differently than anybody else. I wear
my heart on my sleeve. I am not interested in a self-indulgent career. I know
better; I know that only leads to letdowns, meltdowns and breakdowns. I’m
interested in using the platform I’ve been given to help people feel less
alone, and I feel honored to be that voice for people. I love making people
laugh, so I involve comedy in my shows. I like to share stories, so I tell
stories. I like to sing, so I sing my heart out. I like to write about what I
write about because it’s pure and real and honest and relatable. Someone’s got
to shout it out!

        Basically,
I draw on every strength I possess and share ‘em all. Why not? My beloved
friend Mary always says, “If you don’t do it Rosie, who will?!” So I
raised my hand and said, “I will! I will!”  And I do it with my whole heart, and I do it
for those that might be afraid to admit it themselves. I don’t mind; I have
always worn my heart on my sleeve remember? I couldn’t live my life any other
way. It’s a good life when you’re giving. It’s the key to real fulfillment, and
true happiness, so I don’t hold back because that would bore me. I give it all…
with love in my heart.

 

Anything else you’d like to add? 

No, thank you. Unless we want this to end up
like my documentary, and turn it into a self-help book, we should quit while
we’re ahead.  

 

Rosie Thomas begins an extensive North American tour March 15.
Tour dates at her website:
www.rosiethomas.com

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