Interview: Rosie Thomas

Laura Leebove

By Laura Leebove

Managing Editor
on 02.10.12 in Interviews

“So much for love, I guess I’ve been wronged/ But it’s all right, ’cause I’m movin’ on,” begins “Wedding Day,” a song from Rosie Thomas’s 2001 debut When We Were Small. She sings about packing up her car with cassette tapes and taking an adventure on her own. Heartbreak was also the root of 2006′s These Friends of Mine, a collection of songs spontaneously recorded when Thomas escaped toNew York to spend time with her good friend Sufjan Stevens.

On her new album With Love, out on Valentine’s Day, there are more songs about love gained than love lost — though it wasn’t only a heart that needed fixing to dig them out. In 2007 Thomas’s thyroid broke, resulting in two years of intense ups and downs — but amid the anxiety and feeling like “a blob,” she fell in love, got married, acted in a movie (2009′s Calvin Marshall), and moved to Brooklyn from her longtime home base of Seattle. When her body was back to normal, what poured out of Thomas were the songs she felt like she’d always had in her: soulful songs with handclaps, organs and backup singers. In the past she’s countered the subtlety of her music with a bright personality and her comedic alter-ego Sheila Saputo. But these songs needed to be sung loudly, and it took encouragement from David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) and Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), both close friends who told her, “You sing so shy: Let it out this time.”

Laura Leebove spoke with Thomas about Bette Midler, the bipolar-ness of New York, and getting married on a farm in Kansas.

Is this the first time you’ve lived in New York?

It’s the first time I physically moved everything I own. Previously I’ve come for two months at a time and sublet or stayed with friends, but man, moving here, it’s whole different beast. I had no idea how overwhelming it would feel. It’s a bit bipolar. I’ve said of the city, a really good day is a really amazing day, and a really bad day is a really bad day. You always think on a good day, “Only this would happen in New York,” and on a bad day you go, “Only this would happen in New York.” It sucks you in.

Why did you move?

I changed. I thought it was time that I ruffled my feathers a bit, that someone clipped my wings a bit. [My husband and I] felt that why not? Let’s do something different, let’s build our romance, let’s have an adventure together. I wanted to also spend time with friends here, and I wanted to do that before people leave, because I feel like it’s such a transient place…I wanted the romance of knowing what it’s really like.

It’s surprising to hear this is the first time you’ve actually lived here because I think of These Friends of Mine as such a New York album.

I recorded it here, that’s why. I came for about a month or so. That recording experience was very interesting, because I wasn’t intending to make a record. I was really heartbroken at the time; I’d gone through my first really long relationship and really long heartache. And I called Suf and said, “I think I need to get away,” and he said, “Well, great, come here and we’ll hang out and we’ll do something creative.” We were both in different places: I was heartbroken and he was just on the verge of blowing up and he was dealing with that. He’s a very private person, so it was an interesting time to be together while he was sort of in this change in his life. He was having so much given and I felt that so much was taken.

These Friends of Mine was sort of an accident and you felt like so much was lost, but With Love is completely the opposite. What was it like going into it knowing that the end result was going to be an album?

This record was very purposeful and everything was thought out — the artwork, the photos, the songs…There was a few-year gap because of the thyroid thing that happened, and it set a lot of things back for me. I had time to really see the season I was in and live it. When I first wrote “Over the Moon,” I remember I was playing on my piano and I was in the window and I think I’d just listened to theJackson5 and I thought, “I wanna write a song like that.” I thought, “I think I can now!” I’ve met this wonderful man, he just adores me — coming home to that gave me a contentment I’d never had. This guy’s not going anywhere! That promise is really valuable and it really made me feel like a million bucks. There was a lot to celebrate and it was a really strange feeling for me because it was new.

Thankfully we’re complex people, and that’s not all that I have to write about — there was still brokenness, there was still struggle and searching, and I’ve pretty much come to terms that that’s a part of the rest of our lives. I didn’t know that 10 years ago. I thought I really would “arrive” and I realized: I don’t think we ever do. And that’s probably great. It keeps us humble and grounded. I’m not in this music business to be self-indulgent. When I go through something, I realize there’s probably a lot of other people going through the exact thing and I want them to know they’re not alone in it.

There are a couple people who pushed you when you were starting this record — David Bazan had you list records and artists you loved and were inspired by. Did his asking you to do that bring up anything that you had kinda forgotten about?

He said, “Don’t be cool about it, Rosie.” His big thing was “Don’t give me a list like Cat Power, cool girls, I wanna know what’s really goin’ on down there. When you’re walking around town, what are you really listening to?” And the first one that came to mind was Bette Midler, and when I was growing up, she was my hero. When she sang, it would break your heart because the songs she sang were so heavy, and I loved how unbalanced that was. It grabbed my heart because it would go from laughter to every emotion. I felt there was joy to that. So when I confessed that one he laughed really hard but he put this compilation together of the songs that I had chosen, and we drove around Seattle, listening to the tunes and him going, “Why do you like it?” We listened to these tunes and dissected them, and his real push for me was to show my personality this time.

How about with Sam Beam?

It’s interesting because he and Dave know each other via music, but they’re not friends per se, they’re more music friends. And both separately, when I did pre-production with Sam in Austin, he said, “You gotta make a record where your personality shines. You keep making these shy records; people don’t know what I know of you. There’s so much more. And you can sing bigger. You sing so shy: Let it out this time. You have so much soul in your voice.” And oddly enough, I went back to Seattle and maybe six months later did this with Dave and he said the same thing: “You gotta sing out, girl, you’ve got too much personality, let’s show it this time.”

What was most out of your comfort zone?

The singing. I thought if I sang out it would sound like anybody else, and when I’m quieter, the falsettos come and it felt a little more endearing or soft-spoken. Sometimes, when someone’s more soft-spoken, there’s a tenderness to that rather than the big person who comes in the room and makes a lot of noise, which I’m good at doing a bit of both. I’m definitely an introvert and an extrovert.

What did it take to make you sing louder?

Every night we would do vocal takes for three hours. There was a moment when Dave pushed the sound button and said his arm hairs were standing up. He said, “Look at that.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “I believe in you.” Because I think I’d just sang and it was big and it was bold and I sang with conviction, I sang with triumph and he came in the room and said, “Now I believe in you, that’s what I’m talking about. I want you to sing your heart out.” That was pulling me out of my comfort zone because I felt that I’m much more of a shyer singer, I’m shyer in front of people than people think. I don’t mind attention, I’m good at getting it, but I don’t always want it all the time. I don’t want people to put me on a pedestal; that makes me very uncomfortable. But if I feel like [I'm] the one that will be bold enough to speak my heart, then I feel comfortable. I had to reach that level of confidence in myself this time around. It was pretty exhilarating; I didn’t realize how much soul I had in there.

The whole album came about during so many different huge changes in your life — health issues, getting married, moving across the country — did some of it overlap?

The thyroid stuff overlapped pretty much all of it. When that happened, it was a humbling experience, but I just woke up with severe anxiety. I’ve had nerves and I get anxious before I play, but it was obvious that something was wrong. I thought, “Am I having a mental breakdown? Is this what it feels like?” Thankfully someone thought to check my thyroid or I would’ve just been like, “Do you have Xanax?” What do people do in this? I thought, “Maybe I’m not superwoman after all,” I thought, “Maybe I’ve just done too much.” I really hadn’t given myself a pause in a long. But thankfully my doctor [had my thyroid checked] and she called me the next day and said, “It’s totally broken. It’s not working.” And when it’s not working, your hormones go crazy. I was anxious, I couldn’t really quite simmer down — it’s like my hormones were throwing a party. So it took two years for that to really mend.

How did your relationship with your now-husband play into it?

[The thyroid problem happened in] summer or spring of ’07. I had to cancel shows for the first time and I did not want to do that. I was really embarrassed: I did not want to call my managers and tell them for the first time I couldn’t do what I was normally capable of. And thankfully Jeff, who I’m now married to, was in my life at the time. We were dating, and it was an interesting courtship, may I add, because we weren’t long into our dating process when it happened. We had maybe been together for less than a year at that time, and he just hung out. I felt like superwoman: “Give it to Rosie, Rosie will do it. Give it to Rosie, Rosie’s brave. Rosie will make people laugh, Rosie will tug at people’s heartstrings. Rosie is very inviting, she’ll bring people in.” When you lose all of that, when you feel like a blob and you’re not cute, you’re not funny, you’re not brave, you’re not much of anything. You can’t believe that you’re still lovable, and I think because for me so much of my life was about my work, and it really transformed me that season of my life because it really taught me that if this stuff was taken tomorrow, I have to still feel that I’m worth something. And it was really neat to be loved through a time that I felt I had nothing to offer. And so that happened and then he asked me to marry him during that season, which was just beautiful, because I thought, “If this fella can see me here, for two years, a blob, really, that’s somethin’.” And I thought that was a real testimony of what real love is. He wasn’t looking for what was easy, he took the harder route.

What was the wedding like?

We got married on my grandpa’s farm in Kansas. I didn’t expect that to be the location but when I was going through this hard time I thought I needed to be in a calmer environment. My mom lives there as well and said, “Why don’t you come out and spend time on the farm?” I thought, “Mom, that sounds wonderful.” Time with my grandfather, time to really just re-evaluate life and to also just hang out with animals and be in a very simple environment. I told my grandfather when I was little, “There should be a wedding on this farm one day” – and I didn’t know it’d be mine. [My grandpa] lit up. All these people came to that town and it felt like Hollywood came to town. Small-town people, 300 city folks at the wedding, it was hilarious. And it allowed me to spend this really quality time with my grandfather, by doing this wedding on the farm I got to know him. I hung out with him, my mom and I got all this special time together – we’re very, very close. It was just so adorable.

What was the most important thing you learned out of the whole experience?

I realized, “Man, if I had nothing to lend, I still would — because I’m still me.” The most crucial part of the piece is me. If it wasn’t music, I’d find another outlet. I hung out with old ladies in that town [in Kansas] and I grew from them. I realized a very valuable lesson: As long as we have purpose, whether how great or small, it’s all we need to get from one day to the next. Everything else is bonus. If I get attention for what I’m doing, that’s bonus, if people like what I’m doing, it’s bonus, and hopefully it’s more bonus for them because…if it were just for me, I’d be very miserable. To put all my stakes in self-indulgence would make me a pretty miserable person. Let’s not kid ourselves, there are things you and I both to do that are self-indulgent, but the purpose has got to be greater than that. I am better when I’m giving to others. I’m happier. It was very humbling. When you’re really around people that have your best interests at heart, it makes you a better person. And I know what that’s like to have friends like that now.