Interview - Talking Atypical Romances, Portuguese Folk Music, and Taylor Swift with Caitlin Rose
While listening to Caitlin Rose’s new album, The Stand-In [March 5, ATO Records], on my headphones, there was a moment when the playlist shuffled to one of the slower songs off Taylor Swift’s last record and it took me a few seconds to tell the difference. It’s perhaps a bit too easy to draw comparisons between Rose and Swift: Apart from the fact that they’re both Nashville-trained female country singers in their 20s who sing about all kinds of feelings, Caitlin’s mother Liz is actually one of Swift’s longtime collaborators, having co-written songs like "You Belong With Me" and "White Horse," among others.
Those are just surface parallels, though. Rose’s strength lays in depicting a rich emotional interior that’s primarily influenced by country music but containing threads of numerous other genres, approaching romance in a distantly melancholic way. The weary, languid tone to songs like "No One to Call," "Golden Boy" and "Dallas" prepares me for the warm, ebullient character I ring up on the phone who’s quick to laugh and challenge her own recollection of things. It’s a classic country dichotomy—the singer who’s happy in real life, but sad on record—and one she wears well.
I’ve been playing the album a lot, both out of preparation and because I really like it a lot. One of the things I noticed is that it opens up with this angry strum in the first track. Was that sort of a mission statement, this being your second album?
Uh, maybe! We did about a week of rehearsals with the band and Jeremy Fetzer [guitar] is always in his rock mode, so I think he kicked things off with that and probably had that idea as soon as he heard the demo. I can’t take credit for that burst of masculine energy that comes out like that, but I certainly like it.
Throughout the whole album there’s this recurring sense of motion. You live in Nashville, yeah?
Mmmhmm. I’ve never lived anywhere else.
Have you ever considered moving anywhere else?
Well, the smaller this town gets... [laughs] I mean, it’s definitely it’s own little pool, but the only reason I’d ever want to leave is to try to find my place anywhere else. It’s just such a comfortable town.
The "garage rock" scene in Nashville—bands like JEFF the Brotherhood—do you hang out with them?
Yeah! I mean, there are people that I’ve known for seven, eight, ten years. Nashville’s scene isn’t so much split up—I used to play weird punk shows with Jeff the Brotherhood in old warehouses in the middle of nowhere downtown, so these are people I’ve known a really long time, and I think their scene is... When you "quoted unquoted" it, I didn’t know if you were making fun of it!
Well, I said that just because "garage rock" is such a generic catch-all for all these bands making rock music.
Yeah, but what other word is there for it? These are great people, and they’re all doing their own thing. It’s kind of hard not to meet new people in this city.
My impression of classic Nashville—at least from watching the movie—is that the country music scene has always been a very regimented industry. As a country singer who’s a little outside the mainstream, have you ever encountered any kind of resistance?
Resistance from me or from other people?
No... like I said, I was kind of playing the same kind of punk shows as everyone else growing into it. I’ve never—and I don’t even think of myself as a country artist, because when I think of country I think of mainstream country. No resistance, but I just don’t fit in there. It’s not really something I’ve ever thought about, I guess.
ATO Records, the label you’re on, has a handful of artists like My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes who are known for being country-influenced acts with crossover appeal. Do you see yourself fitting into that?
God, I hope so. I don’t know what the crossovers are anymore. I think everything’s in a weird standstill right now, where everybody knows everything’s changing—especially since the Shakes came in and, if you don’t mind my saying this, shook everything up. I think everything’s that happened has made people open their minds a little more and say, "Oh, we’re not stuck in the same, weird tier of music we’ve been in." I don’t know—a crossover sounds good, but I don’t know what that would be. I feel like I’ve always been straddling like eight lines, so.
The covers on the song—"I Was Cruel" by The Deep Vibration and "Dallas" by The Felice Brothers—How did you pick them?
I picked the songs as soon as I heard them. When I sang background on the Deep Vibration record, I decided I wanted to do that song. And then, when I went to Australia with the Felice Brothers, they opened one of the shows with "Dallas" acoustic and I just heard this whole country-rock madness in my head and had to do it. If I hear a song for the first time and think that I have to do it, it’s usually what happens.
How long ago was that?
The Australian tour was last... I literally cannot focus time, but I can look it up and tell you later. [laughs] The Deep Vibration record was probably two, two and a half years ago, maybe. I think? God, I don’t know. I’m embarrassed.
The process of having an idea and immediately chasing it—Is that how you approach your own songwriting?
It’s always been different. I wrote Own Side Now [her first record] basically in my bedroom, alone. This record I wrote mostly getting drunk with two of my best friends, Skylar [Wilson, piano] and Jordan [Lehning, guitar/piano], in my living room. [laughs] It’s just sort of where I’m at. I feel like this record was more a storywriting session, I kind of felt a little Three Stooges with them—it was goofy, we were all sitting around and sharing our ideas, and it’s not trying to write a hit but just trying to write songs that we liked. That sort of method.
The song "Old Numbers," I guess you might call it an ode, or a sad kind of ode, to drunk dialing. Has that factored strongly into your life?
Yeah, you know when you get weird phone calls from ex-boyfriends at 2 o’clock in the morning on a regular basis, or do the same thing. I mean, it’s just kind of natural. There are phone numbers you don’t forget, even in this cell phone day and age. I probably know quite a few phone numbers, but some people might know a few more. It’s just sort of always like a backup plan—God, I don’t know how to say it, it sounds so tacky... That was Skylar’s idea, not mine! [laughs]
Between that and the guitar strum, I’ll make sure to note that all my misinterpretations are other people’s ideas.
Oh, no no no! I’ll take full responsibility for any of these ideas. He had the more romantic ideas. I’m not much of a romantic, so I took it in a different direction. He hammered on that idea for four months and then finally, it ended up being on the album.
It’s funny you say you’re not a romantic, because I sense kind of a romantic vibe throughout the album.
Is it? Isn’t it kind of anti-romantic?
Maybe not in the traditional, fawning, courtship way, but there’s of a melancholy romantic expression all throughout.
It’s like—Have you ever heard of Fado music? Portuguese folk music?
No, I haven’t.
I think that sort of—there’s a word called "Saudade," I think, which means longing but sort of hateful longing. It’s sort of an alternate, "This is longing and this is what I carry," if you wanted a word for it. It’s kind of romantic.
I suppose a lyric about watching a bar burn down ("Golden Boy") isn’t a typical kind of romance.
Well, "Golden Boy" is a little different.
Was that written about anyone in particular?
Yeeeeaah. It’s sad! It’s really one of the few songs I wrote by myself, and I think it’s a little more heartfelt than the rest of them because the rest of them we were writing for characters and projecting our feelings onto it, but "Golden Boy" is pretty straightforward. It’s a nice little romantic song, I don’t know.
I know your mother writes with Taylor Swift, so I have to ask—have you ever hung out with her?
I met Taylor one time. My mother had a party and no one if Taylor was going to come, but apparently everyone figured out Taylor was going to come and so all these little girls, everywhere, were running around and I’m like, "Mom, I would like to meet Taylor, I’ve never met her and you’ve been working together for a really long time so I think it would be fun, and this is funny, all these little girls trying to get her autograph." So my mom brings her over and is like, "Taylor, this is Caitlin," and I’m talking to her and she says, "Oh, we’ve met before!" I say, "No we haven’t! I think you’re talking about my sister." "No, we’ve met." And I said, "No, we haven’t." [laughs]
So it was just this weird moment, but she’s really sweet and then all of a sudden she got hammered on by a million eight year old girls and I tried to make my exit, but she’s very nice. My mom has known her since she was about 13.
I’ve read she is extremely tall.
She is incredibly tall and incredibly beautiful. [laughs] I don’t know, it’s like meeting a movie star. And she’s beginning to do that, so...
I’ve also read you’re a Mountain Goats fan.
Huge Mountain Goats fan.
Do you have a favorite song by them?
One of my favorite songs has always been one called "Alpha Incipiens," though I can’t remember what album it’s off. You know what one? [begins singing] "Morning comes to a stuttering halt..." You’re a fan, aren’t you! That’s always been my favorite one. Speaking of those Nashville bands, I was always playing shows with this band called Cowboy Dynamite who is now one-third of Natural Child. We used to always play "Going to Georgia" at these shitty little punk venues in Nashville. [laughs] It was so ugly.
It’s funny, because I read a thorough explanation from him a little while ago about why he doesn’t play that song anymore.
I know! I’m so embarrassed because I’d literally asked him two months before. He was like, "Hey will you get up with me and do this fun cover?" and I said, "If you do "Going to Georgia" and let me sing it with you!" and he said "Yeah, I’ll think about it." And then afterwards he’s like, "If I hear that fucking song one more time!" I know how it is. I hate a lot of my songs.
It was especially serious because he didn’t just dismiss it—he gave a really nuanced, thoughtful reason why he doesn’t like it.
You have to remember that the nostalgia you have for a song, the artist doesn’t quite care. That’s the worst thing about wanting to please people as a songwriter and wanting to please people as a performer, because they want all these things that feel like the past. I’ve always been on the both ends of it where I can’t decide whether I’m there to entertain or whether I’m there to—I don’t know, it’s just a weird feeling, you want to please people, but... I don’t know, I’m not the brooding artist who’s like, "Let me do my thing!" But there’s just certain things you just don’t feel anymore, and it’s harder to perform them well.
Last question: Which do you prefer, Dallas the city or Dallas the TV show?
I’ve never watched Dallas the TV show! I’m too busy watching Nashville every week. So definitely Dallas the city, but I was born there. I have to be loyal.
Jeremy Gordon has seen every Die Hard movie and has strong opinions on all of them. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon