In addition to discussing her surprising positivity and current playlists, Caroline Rose took Atwood Magazine through the emotions and walk-ability of her fourth album, ‘Superstar’.
Stream: ‘Superstar’ – Caroline Rose
That’s the magic combination – stuff that makes you feel good, and sad bastard songs!
Though much has happened since, Caroline Rose’s brilliant Superstar was only released at the beginning of this March. It is a compelling album, rich with escapism. It nods to the grandiose and ambitious, but also pertains to very human fallibility. Rose’s sold-out tour has since been unavoidably scrapped, and she, like millions, is sheltered in her home with her dogs. However, despite the toll being taken on her and many artists alike, she is refreshingly optimistic in her outlook to the global pandemic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an artist who said she wanted the album in question to exhibit her more “undesirable” traits and “inject them with steroids”, Caroline Rose is fantastically forthcoming. She spoke to Atwood Magazine from her front porch in Austin, Texas, with one dog, Justine, next to her, and the other, Lucy – “the bad one” – barking indoors. The story of Superstar’s creation is one of clearance sale synthesizers and a fantasy collaboration between Lady Gaga and Fleetwood Mac. It is a story which Caroline Rose told with candour, after we addressed the infectious elephant in the room.
A CONVERSATION WITH CAROLINE ROSE
Atwood Magazine: Do you think we might increasingly see a bit of a ‘moment’ for musicians and other performers, due to the need for virtual connection and new communities, in a new form?
Caroline Rose: Honestly, I don’t think so. Maybe if it lasts a really long time it’ll give everyone some time to develop some interesting ways of listening, ‘cause I’ve seen a bunch of people do live streams – and I’m doing a live stream thing tomorrow – but, I feel like it’s out of necessity and maybe some sympathy for artists who have lost their livelihoods at the moment and it’s a way of showing your support. And I do think a lot of fans are genuinely interested in just hearing us perform, so yeah I think it’s a bit of necessity, and also there is demand for fans wanting to hear what we have to say, or hear us perform, but nothing really comes close to the feeling of being in a space with other people and having the community of experiencing a show in a physical space. Unless we develop some really cool VR technology that people can use in their homes.
Like Tupac holograms and stuff?
Rose: If there was some sort of VR way of experiencing a performance, that would be really cool, but obviously that would be really expensive, and it would take a long time to develop, so I don’t think anything is going to take the place of seeing a physical performance anytime soon. But you know we’re all trapped in our houses so we have to find a way to entertain ourselves somehow, and I think it’s actually pretty cool that the music community has really stepped up. Every day is different, every day we’re finding out new information, every day people are finding clever ways to kind of use this time wisely.
Nothing really comes close to the feeling of being in a space with other people and having the community of experiencing a show in a physical space.
I hope it’s not insensitive to ask such a thing; asking you to already try and map out the positives from what is obviously a crippling scenario…
Rose: Well, you know, it’s kind of surprising to me – I have been really positive about it. It’s such an interesting feeling, because I feel like this is the first time, maybe ever in the history of the world, that everyone on the planet has this common goal of trying to end this, get this virus under control. Everyone around the world is experiencing the ripple effects of the economy and everyone feels the anxiety and the pressure and having to figure out how we’re all going to make ends meet, all the people who have lost their jobs, so I feel this strange camaraderie that I’ve never had to feel before. It’s that and also, when something this big and drastic forces you to stop, it’s not like any of us have any control over this happening, so it’s kind of like this worldwide reset button where everyone is forced to stop, and not just stop, but reflect on our own lives. We’re all stuck in our houses, with a lot of time, at least the people who are stuck in our houses, we have a lot of time to think about stuff, and that means, you know, our own personal happiness. These are things I have been thinking about, I had been thinking about for months anyway, because I’ve been trying to figure out ways to cope with a lot of pressure, with my career stuff, so dealing with that, along with personal issues. Sometimes it’s just overwhelming and it takes things like this, times like this, to stop and be like, “OK”.
Do you think you realize what you miss more, maybe?
Rose: Yeah. I maybe have to readjust my priorities – something’s not working if I’m just really unhappy and stressed. It’s such a first world problem, you know, being stressed because you have too much to do. Or maybe it’s a Western culture thing, not necessarily a first world thing, or at least it’s definitely an American thing, that is for sure. Americans don’t know how to stop and take a break, because it’s ingrained in our society, that our value is intrinsically tied to how much work we do and how much money we make, mostly how much money we make. Americans are born being taught to be obsessed with money.
Now it’s how much toilet roll you own – it’s changing!
Rose: Exactly – it’s crazy – we are being forced to think about serious issues, healthcare systems, political issues… I don’t know how this is all going to turn out, but I do think that there are a lot of positives.
That’s really interesting! I’m really glad you’ve said that, it’s good to hear that.
Rose: Well I also don’t have any family members who have died from this virus, or even been cripplingly ill, so maybe I would change my tune – maybe I would say all hope is lost if my whole family had the virus, but I’m really trying to remain positive about it, ‘cause I feel like I’ve been kind of, I don’t know, given a little gift by having this positivity about it, so I’m trying to be vocal about it so maybe people don’t feel quite so helpless.
It feels like a while ago that you released Superstar because so much has happened since. I was just wondering, did you start with the explicit goal, many, many moons ago, of the over-arching concept, the big narrative, or did it come together from a couple of songs and you realized, ''Hold on, I’ve got a story here''?
Rose: I guess I might’ve shot myself in the foot a bit by letting people call it a concept album, because really what I wanted to do was to have a narrative thread throughout the whole thing, and I feel like that’s a pretty common thing on a lot of albums which are thought through, an underlying theme, so I wanted to make it more like a movie with a storyline that you could follow. I sort of piggybacked off of the idea for my last album, which was I wanted to create these miniature films, each song was its own little story and each song was its own little film, and this time I was like I love making music that, to me, is the soundtrack to this visual in my head, so I thought why don’t I just make a story which ties all these songs together? But, you know, I did think through the narrative. I gave it a lot of thought – I had a whiteboard with all the songs laid out. I was like “This is what I need to feel, this is how it needs to feel on this track, during this track…”
I might’ve shot myself in the foot a bit by letting people call it a concept album…
Were you tying strings between polaroids on some big board, like a detective?
Rose: Exactly, yeah! And it was all based on the emotion of the song, what it needed to feel like, ‘cause some of the songs I’ve been sitting on for years, and some of them are brand new, and some of them I wrote specifically for the album. Once I had the idea for the narrative for the album I basically separated it into 4 sections: the beginning is when this person realizes their dream, the second is moving to the new city and becoming a new person, the third section is maybe starting to feel some self-doubt, and then the last one is like a feeling of regret and kind of questioning their motives. So I had these four different feelings that I wanted it to feel like, this person aimed really high and was then falling back down to some human emotions and vulnerability, so once I had that and I had all these different song ideas, I either reworked them song by song in order of how I wanted the narrative to play out, or I just scrapped them and wrote something new in its place – I just worked on it until I was really happy with how it was flowing. Usually what I’ll do is I’ll work on all of them in one fell swoop, and then I’ll put them all on my phone and I’ll just walk around and feel how it’s flowing. My biggest pet peeve is listening to an album where all the songs sound the same and you end up skipping over tracks, so my biggest goal was probably one, it all tied together and it all made sense without being pedantic, and then the second thing was, is it interesting enough and diverse enough so that people won’t want to skip over any tracks?
That aspect of it is undoubtedly successful!
Rose: Oh good!
I struggled wording this question, the only word I could think of is ‘classic’, Superstar feels like it’s got a really classic sound. I guess when I think of that I think of the synthesizers particularly on certain tracks – it’s got quite a retro feel. Do you think this was intentional, or did it come about naturally due to the inspirations and the content, for example various films, manifesting themselves in your mind?
Rose: I think maybe it’s a combination of a few different things. One thing that I definitely like about older albums is there tends to be a lot of space in them, and less reliance on fancy production tricks and more on just solid writing. So I was really influenced by stuff that’s just really good writing, like I was listening to ‘Stayin Alive’ by The Bee Gees, and that was probably the biggest inspiration behind the track ‘Feel The Way I Want’, cause I was listening to ‘Stayin Alive’ and I was like “You can walk perfectly in time!”
I was just about to say that there’s no better song to walk to is there?
Rose: Yeah you can walk perfectly in time to it and it’s got this cool swagger, and I love writing bass lines so I tend to really gravitate towards songs with infectious, rhythmic bass lines. But the other thing which I think makes it have such a classic sound is a very particular synth that I used. There’s this really great synth shop where I live in Austin and I went in to get one of my instruments fixed, and when I was in there I was just kind of messing around with all these keyboards and I was like “Do you have anything that is really cheap, that you love and need to get rid of?” and he was like “Oh I’ve got the perfect thing for you!” and he showed me this synth. It’s called the Ensoniq SD-1 and it’s a synth from the ‘80s. It’s actually the second version of a synth called the ESQ-1 – I think that’s from the ‘80s, and I think my version might be from the early ‘90s – but definitely like a cheesy synth sound that I absolutely love – I love it so much – I love it so much, and I really do think that that instrument really dictated the way a lot of the album ended up sounding. I really think that’s where a lot of the Prince sound comes from, cause people have mentioned Prince over and over again; he wasn’t even on my list of inspiration, I wouldn’t have even listed him as an inspiration if people hadn’t mentioned it, and then I heard it. As soon as people mentioned it, I was like “Oh yeah you’re right, I can definitely hear that!”
Like you mentioned a second ago about not wanting to rely on fancy production tricks and shortcuts, and just making the songs, songs, was that one of the benefits of you producing the whole of Superstar yourself?
Rose: Yeah it’s funny though ‘cause someone had mentioned that I used some fancy production techniques, like some fancy panning and reverb or something, and I don’t really consider that fancy [haha!] I guess I think of fancy production as relying on production more when the song isn’t quite as good as it could be, you know? That is definitely something I care about: can you play it on its own and it sounds like a full song? So that was definitely something I worked really hard on, and I guess the better the song is, for me, the less production fanciness it really needs. At least, I don’t think that you need to reinvent the wheel if you have a great song and a great performance of it. But I was going for cheesy pop on this album so I did it on purpose, like the first half of the album I would consider pretty fun-sounding. I definitely cited lady gaga on the song ‘Someone New’ – I was actively trying to make a song that sounded like Lady Gaga meets Fleetwood Mac!
I was actively trying to make a song that sounded like Lady Gaga meets Fleetwood Mac!
That is fantastic! It stands out, it’s one of my favorites on the album, ‘Someone New’, and it sounds, to me, that as well as Superstar it has another story to it. It sounds like it could even be from a separate album if it wanted to be, it sounds more oppressive maybe?
Rose: Yeah! I went through probably four different versions of that song and that’s the version I actually liked the best because it was different. I wanted people to flip over the record and it kind of feel like a different side … like the act two, where you flip it over and you start to see a darker side and… it works for me, I don’t know if it works for everyone, but that was the original intention, so I just followed through with the original intention.
I really like that. It sounds so, I don’t know… moody? It stands out for me in terms of its sound. I want to ask as well about one of the other highlights for me personally - I’m being really self-indulgent, I’m just asking about all my favorite stuff! One of my favorite moments on the entire album actually is that change in tone about three quarters of the way through ‘Do You Think We’ll Last Forever?’ I just wondered, what was the meaning and motivation behind that section, that change in the song?
Rose: So that song is about tryna’ keep it together when you’re really excited about this new person that you’re with, but you’re feeling really anxious about how you feel. You’re desperately trying to stay cool and not freak out in front of them, but at a certain point it just bottles up and then you just explode. To me that’s like the panic attack of the song, where you just cannot keep your feelings controlled anymore and it all just bursts out, and you’re just like, “Tell me you love me, tell me how you feel, I need to know! I’m gonna’ go crazy if you don’t tell me!” That was the purpose behind that. I might make a radio edit without it, I really personally like it –
- please don’t do that, just for me, please don’t!
Rose: Oh good, good! Everyone has said the same thing, they really like that part.
I can’t help it, it’s that section on the album where I can’t not sing along. Even if I’m doing something else at the time, I go “Wow!”
Rose: Oh thanks!
Slightly different question: One of the things, that in my eyes at least, sets you apart from so many other artists is the humor in your lyrics. It’s one of the reasons I come back to your songs again and again and again. You make it sound really easy, but how straightforward is it really to make good songs that are funny as well?
Rose: Well that’s a good question because I don’t think it’s that easy, but I guess I just don’t hear it that much! There are definitely artists that are very good at being humorous in their material – I think Mitski’s really good at it. I think the visuals help a lot, like people know I’m funny so they’re listening for it, they’re expecting something in the lyrics maybe that people wouldn’t know if they didn’t know I’m goofy and weird, maybe it’s that! But I also really rely on music reviewers and journalists to find it, and people have really just… gotten it, which is a huge relief to me, as there is nothing sadder than when you tell a joke and no one gets it and you have to explain your joke to people! I always have this fear, and this is something I’m probably not going to do again, is explain too much. I think I have a tendency to explain too much because I’m so afraid that people won’t get it. I think that dumbs down the audience; I don’t wanna do that anymore cause I don’t like that when anyone does that to me. It’s like when you go see a film and it’s like the director and the writers didn’t leave you enough to think about after it’s over.
Too much exposition, almost?
Rose: Yeah! It’s too pedantic, it’s too teach-y, and it’s kinda’ disappointing. My favorite films and stories are the ones that leave something open-ended so you have to kind of interpret them. You have to be a bit challenged, you know?
I’m going to temporarily disrespect your answer on the last question because I’m really curious about one really small detail on the album, completely against the spirit of not giving too much away! I mean this whole-heartedly: if you don’t want to answer then please don’t, but I’m super curious!
At the beginning of ‘I Took a Ride’, there’s a crunching noise and it sounds like someone eating an insect – what’s with that?
Rose: It’s actually… I was trying to find like a crumple sound, something that made it sound like something dissonant, so I tried a bunch of different materials, and then I wanted it to sound like a rubber band snapping… I think it’s like crumpling cellophane, like plastic wrap.
It was close to annoying me trying to work out what it was – I had to ask, I couldn’t not ask!
Rose: Yeah I think that was it, but I might’ve had something else layered in there too. I just wanted to create like a static sound without literally just using static!
None of those fancy producer shortcuts here!
Rose: Yeah, I can guarantee you it was just stuff that was on my desk that I was just messing around with!
Sort of my final question if that’s ok, hopefully looping this fantastic half hour back into a neat bow:I was just wondering, in light of what you were listening to before, during, and since you made the album, what are you listening to at the moment to help you get through the next couple of months in a positive way, or in a new way?
Rose: It’s funny that you say that because I just made two new playlists. I’ve been listening to a lot of music in the last few weeks ‘cause I’ve really needed that – I need music just like everybody else does – but I’ve been listening to a lot of just like plain old-fashioned songs. I’ve been listening to a lot of Karen Dalton and Dolly Parton, just classic songwriters, Marianne Faithfull. But then I’ve also been listening to some really tasty groovy stuff. I think I’m always trying to discover new music and trying to listen to vinyl from like the dollar bin and there’s some cool stuff that I’ve found. There’s this Puerto Rican guy called Ramito. And I’ve been listening to some Brazilian music, Jorge Ben Jor I think his name is, which you would definitely recognise, he’s a pretty famous Brazilian artist, and I’ve been listening to a lot of Chaka Khan – her latest album is monstrously good, it’s so good, it’s awesome. And then there’s this album… Gil Scott-Heron, have you heard the latest re-imagining of his work? It just came out.
I haven’t, no!
Rose: It’s very good, so I’ve been listening to that, and just a lot of groovy kind of beat-based stuff that just makes you move your body and feel good. That, in combination with some really sad-sack, some sad bastard songs!
Rose: That’s the magic combination – stuff that makes you feel good, and sad bastard songs!
I agree! That is a great medicine, a great cure!
Rose: Hahaha! Yeah!
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📸 © 2020
an album by Caroline Rose