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March 23, 2012

Rosie Thomas: From Brooklyn With Love

Back in the day when record stores were plentiful, there was a great store for mostly independent music on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica called Hear Music. The folks at Hear did a great job of introducing customers to lots of new, off the beaten path music and provided plenty of listening stations to sample the music. One artist who featured prominently on one of my last visits to Hear (before they went the way of almost all indie record stores) was Rosie Thomas. I listened and immediately responded to Rosie's voice and songs. I bought everything they carried and had her on non-stop for a few weeks. I got to know Rosie soon after, and was privileged to work with her at the 2007 ASCAP Sundance Music Café and see her perform live a number of times over the years.

All of Rosie's records are sublime little jewels of melody, lyrical depth and great singing. Her newest collection of songs is no exception. With Love was released in mid-February, and like every Rosie Thomas record before it, it's been on a constant loop from home to car to iPod in the office. ASCAP recently showcased Rosie where she played some of the new songs. Shortly thereafter I got to ask her about With Love.

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With Love is your second studio album in a row released in time for a specific holiday. Did you think of it as a Valentine's Day record when you were creating it? 

Nope. I don't really love Valentine's Day. I mean, I do like chocolate and I do like flowers, but I like chocolate and flowers all the time, you know? I came up with the title one afternoon during a stroll through Brooklyn. I thought long and hard about the love I had around me before and during the process of making this record. So much love from family and friends that brought about the songs and finally the recording of this album. Just so happened that Valentines Day fell on a Tuesday this year, and Tuesdays are record release days - so it seemed a bit divine. With Love's Valentine's release made perfect sense to me!

Why do you think love is such a perennial topic for songwriters?

It's the universal language, right?! (Or is that math?) I guess it says so much - it's the one subject that comes up again and again for everybody and never fails to be something we long for or run out of desire to talk about. Sometimes it's a false pursuit - we mistake love with wanting acceptance; sometimes it's the longing; we want love to replace the loneliness; sometimes it's the celebration - "I love someone and they love me too." It's a feeling we all can relate to, it's an emotion that is always there, it is something that we just can't live without and it is a timeless theme after all.

"Where Was I" is an interesting choice for a first track and first single, as it doesn't deal explicitly with romantic love like much of the rest of the album. What inspired you to make that choice?

Maybe I was trying to trick folks? Maybe I was trying to lure 'em in with something easy to listen to, or maybe I just really felt like this was the warm hug people would need at the beginning of this record and "Sometimes Love" would be the long embrace they would need at the end. The End.

Certain details and themes crop up multiple times on With Love, for example being 19 or almost there, travels to and from the Midwest, friendship leading to love and back again. Are these all themes that have meant a lot to you personally?

Absolutely. "2 Birds" was a song I wrote for my best friend. I've written so many songs for her over the years, and always wanted one to make it on a record, and I finally wrote one that was good enough and felt that others could relate to - leaving home for the first time, all the possibilities, the anticipation of what lies ahead and that first time we saw the world together. "A Really Long Year" I wrote mostly about my wedding day. Every story is true, and our wedding was so over-the-top that I had so much imagery to pull from - balloons, a parade (yes, a parade - marching band included, but of course). We got married on my Grandpa Maynard's farm. A few years prior to getting married, when I was broken-hearted, my grandfather said, "I'm gonna dance with you at your wedding day one day," and I loved that I found a way to end the song on that note - my way of thanking him for believing it.

Does a song have to tell a story to really resonate with you?

I would like for it to at least have some resolve - some kind of conclusion. Some songs tell stories, some songs are your thoughts for the day, some songs are about multiple stories that share the same conclusion, and most of the time I hope that shared conclusion is hope. I just said hope twice in one sentence - that's how hopeful I am.

To these ears, your vocal performance on With Love is bolder, more confident than on your past records. How do you feel like your singing has evolved since you began your career? And to what do you attribute that? 

I think I've become a better writer - you hope that's par for the course, that you evolve. If I didn't see that growth, I might attribute that to laziness on my part or a sign that it wasn't meant for the long haul - maybe just for a chapter or two in my life. Since i feel that being "Rosie the entertainer" ( I think i just nicknamed myself) is my true calling, it doesn't surprise me that I keep growing - and I trust that i will continue to. I am confident that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

My voice is getting bigger because my heart is getting bigger. I'm not only speaking up more, I'm singing out more, because my confidence is growing, too - I have more reassurance more than ever - that this is my purpose. And when you feel that way, you want to shout it out - "Hey world! I'm here to help! Listen up!" I feel rather strongly that I'm playing the best role of my life, because I'm playing me! You know, I studied theatre for a little while, until I realized "I" was a stronger character to play - so music seemed to be the best platform to really let me shine and therefore shed a little light on this world. I figured, if I have a stage, I might as well use it my very own way. If I have the personality, I might as well share a bit of that too. If I love comedy, well how 'bout a little of that as well? If I like to comfort, then how 'bout comforting too? The sky was the limit!

I feel that I have a message to share and that feeling has gotten bigger and bigger over the years, hence the responsibility and desire has only grown in me. Rosie doesn't just want to sing for folks, or make 'em laugh, she wants to help the broken-hearted and the lost feel less alone. That's what I've needed to stay afloat, so I had to believe that others needed it too! With a little more life experience under my belt, I feel that I have even more to offer and share than ever before and I'm pumped about that.

It's for others after all, not for me. I didn't know that in the beginning of my Rosie career. I thought it was for me to get my kicks, but it didn't take me very long to see the greater purpose. When I looked deeper and realized I had a chance to change peoples' perspective, give 'em an extra skip in their step and some hope to hold on to, well now we're talking! And that desire became my mission. Every part of me is given therefore, every part of my heart, my voice, my personality, my sense of humor. It's become my one-woman Rosie show, I tell ya, and the sacrifice of a normal life is worth it because I know that what I am doing is making a difference. Life with a purpose like that is a pretty great life, and I can sleep better at night knowing that Rosie is giving it all for the sake that others will feel better for it. Yes, i just talked about myself in the third person. Yes, that's weird. Yes, I'm stickin to it.

Iron & Wine's "Tree By the River," with Rosie on backup vocals

You toured as part of Iron & Wine before recording With Love. What kind of impact did Sam Beam have on the album? 

Sam was kind enough to do some pre-production with me before I recorded this album. His ideas helped shape the direction for most of the songs, in my opinion, because his musical input helped inspire me to think more about the endless possibilities for each and every song. Backing vocals became more of a theme, so did hand claps, and more playful rhythms you might not be able to dance to, but songs you could sway to at least - that's something! Sam encouraged me to share more of that bubbly personality of mine and said, "Make a record that makes you uncomfortable!" And I did. Singing out made me feel boring at first. I thought "This sounds just like anybody else's voice. What about those subtle head voice flips I'm so good at doing, those breathy parts?"

Yet the more I sang out, the more i enjoyed it. I had forgotten how loud I could get and truth is, I finally wrote songs where it worked! Dangit, I forgot how much I just love to sing. All those afternoons in my parents' garage - good acoustics and a place I could belt out tunes without my brothers ripping me to shreds - "Ben" by Mr. Michael Jackson was one of my favorites, or those Darlene Love numbers I loved so much, and that Bette Midler - how she belted out "Glory of Love" and I could do it too! Sam's impact was crucial. He helped push me to a place that I had forgotten I was capable of. He took me back to High School and reminded me how I brought the house down playing Miss Hannigan and singing "Little Girls" my way. It was cheesy, but it was good.

Is heartbreak more difficult to write about now that you're happily married?

That's a good question, and something I worried about to be honest. If my whole campaign is for the weary-hearted, the lost and lonely, what happens to the girl who found love? Good news, turns out being loved well only gives me more strength to continue pouring into people and relating. My heart is still my heart after all. It's definitely helped me write songs I never thought i could write - so it's given me a more versatile repertoire that every writer longs for. A boy came up to me after a show once and said "Rosie, now that you're getting married, does that mean your songs will change?" He looked bummed. My response: "Oh no, don't you worry, I'm still pretty depressed." "Oh good," he said. In summary, though I've got Mr. Shoop's unconditional love now, and boy oh boy does he love me well, I still have me. I am still the same person, just with more wind in my sails. It's like the perfect ingredients for chicken noodle soup and it's just made me more comfortable, and therefore comforting, and only given me even more love to spread around. Mr. Shoop's not only loving me, he's helping me love the world even better and even more. Works out good for everyone!

Rosie at the piano during the With Love recording sessions

What have you learned about love from your musical collaborators? And have you learned anything about making music from being in love? 

I have learned that no matter how good or bad we have it, love is what carries us, plain and simple. Any achievement will not last, awards just get dusty, press clippings go into a box somewhere, things are just things. I learned that any kind of success is just decoration. It is not the problem solver, the end all, be all or the true fixer-upper. I think of success like I do the "fix-a-flat" we get instead of getting the new tire. The fix-a-flat (success, attention, credibility) is just the band aid - bear with me on this one - but at some point the tire starts losing air and it flattens out after all. If we just got the new tire (love, faith, self worth) we could endure a lot longer.

In my opinion, getting to do what you love for a living, having a cute apartment, clean socks, good coffee, whatever floats your boat, it's all bonus - it aint no guarantee. If you make those things a guarantee you'll be miserable and you'll overlook where you are and all you have to be thankful for. I think our priorities are getting all fouled up. Fame is becoming the new fad and our pursuit of happiness is being steered in the wrong direction. This world has a way of cluttering our minds and helping us forget far too easily what we are all here for. I believe we are here to love one another. When our minds are off of ourselves, turns out we are happier. When's the last time you asked yourself if you have joy? When's the last time you helped a brother out? When's the last time you stopped and smelled the roses? If it's been awhile, then get to changin' that. This life is a vapor. If what we're doing isn't working, it's our responsibility to put on the brakes and turn it around. We all have great purpose, I've found mine and mine will be different than what someone else's is. Isn't that cool? We all are a vital piece of the puzzle, it's true! I promise!

I have a strong faith that tells me that's it's not all in my control, dang that's some sweet relief. I can only do so much, but I know there's someone higher up in charge and therefore it's not all in my hands. Therefore, I can take the time to kick my feet up and watch my neighbor water his flowers, watch the birds fly over head and really think, "If they're taken care of, then I trust that I will be too." Every day is a climb; sometimes we forget that, and we've only got our eyes set on the "arrival." I got bad news, there isn't any arrival. There is time to rest, there are holidays, there are moments of pause, but the climb is inevitable. Here's the cool news, it's the climb that refines us, gives us the ability to change, the hope for what's around the corner. And here's what is vital: friendship, community, love, that's my equivalent of a tire with good tread, and that's what helps us keep moving, keep discovering, and gives us the endurance we need to carry on. I've got good tread right now! I can't wait to share it. [With Love producer/collaborator] David Bazan told me the other day, "Don't hold back Rosie. If anything, push 'you' even further." That's some good advice for everybody.

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With Love is out now. Stream or download it at rosiethomas.bandcamp.com.

Find out more about Rosie at rosiethomas.com.

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