On How Many Times, Esther Rose captures the hours and miles of her pre-COVID life with style and a dash of twang to create heartache you can dance to. Recorded at the eclectic Tigermen Den in her adopted home of New Orleans, Rose’s country-folk inclinations find a welcome pop compliment in co-producer Ross Farbe (Video Age) that makes each single-take direct-to-tape track feel warm and bright. Rose enlists regular collaborators Dan Cutler, Cameron Snyder, and Matt Bell of The Deslondes, fiddler Lyle Werner, and Max Bien-Kahn (Max and the Martians) alongside Crescent City pals Ric Robertson, Howe Pearson, and Gina Leslie to get the formula just right, relying on personal chemistry to drive the album’s after-hours feel. How Many Times mixes easily with morning sunshine, evening cocktails, or late-night philosophy and is as sweet a salve for broken hearts as it is pandemic exhaustion.
AI- I love the video for “How Many Times”. It looks so quiet there, that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were on a backlot French Quarter soundstage instead of doin’ the real thing.
ER- Right, I know it’s crazy, huh? There really was not a lot happening. That was actually election weekend when we filmed too. So it was very, very eerie!
Election weekend? I did not realize that’s when that had taken place. So it almost felt like a horror movie in a way!
It really did! I think that everyone on the team was really glad to have something else to think about and work on. It was that mentality.
I’ve talked to people in Nashville, talked to people in Los Angeles, Austin, New York. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to in the area of New Orleans [since the pandemic.] What’s it been like there? That’s a city that loves a good time, but it’s also a city that, I would say, also is aware of and knows how to deal with emergencies.
I wish I could speak for the city, but my own experience in dealing with emergencies is honestly to run! To leave! Which is just like a fight or flight instinct. Either you want to sit and stand still or you want to get moving. So I’ve been working on not so much running every time something terrible happens or is happening (laughs)! I’ve been working on staying put, which is hard for me, but I think it’s a useful skill.
I want to take that back to the video. At the very beginning of the “How Many Times” video, you’ve got the back and forth from the fridge to the phone to the fridge. I don’t know if it was your intention, but that’s really been life for a lot of folks this past year!
Yeah! That was part of the moment! I wanted to show the moment of writing “How Many Times” when I was just bouncing around my house in a super negative thought loop with a broken heart. This was pre-COVID when I wrote this. Just that moment when you were like in the loop, being distracted by everything, unaware of facing what was actually happening– and that’s the moment when I try and write. That’s the moment when I wrote “How Many Times”. It was just being aware of the loop and sitting down instead and writing about it and it breaks the cycle. It really does!
You mentioned writing before the pandemic. When did you guys actually go into the studio to record this album?
We recorded in two sessions. We started in 2019, we ended in 2020 in January.
Tell me a little bit about the process. At the helm with you in the production role was Ross Farbe. What put that collaboration together? Was that just a genuine New Orleans connection or had you worked with him before? Or did you just wanna try somethin’ different?
Ross is very well known and a beloved engineer in New Orleans. He’s done so many great records! He’s such a great person to have in the room, super mellow, super in the music. The usual studio that I had been working with, Mashed Potato, was on hiatus. They were kind of restructuring their studio. So I just reached out to the only person that I really knew of and it was Ross! And it sounds like, I think, people are enjoying the fact that Ross is in a synth-pop band and they see that as kind of far outside of the wheelhouse of my genre! But it really isn’t! We all play in each other’s bands. I was in a rock n’ roll band with Ross called Max and the Martians where he’d play bass and I was doing rhythm guitar, so it just seemed like a fun, natural collaboration. I think it did change the songs a little bit and helped make them a little more pop, which was fun. I like where we took it!
There are some additions to the personnel, but overall, you’ve got the same crew that you’ve been recording and workin’ with for your last few projects. Did I understand that you guys tried to do these or did do all these songs in one take? Is that generally how you’ve recorded in the past?
Yeah, it is. There’s a lot of different ways to answer this question. It is the same band and a lot of bands record live to tape in New Orleans because it saves money. If you can play the song in one take, you spend less time in the studio, right? So it’s economical. The other thing that it is is really fun and really interesting because it pushes the musicians to be hyper-focused and listen to each other. No one wants to mess up the take and be the goof in the room that makes the engineer rewind. When you work with a tape machine, he’s got to rewind the tape. We’re tryin’ to save as much tape as possible! So it’s a budget thing, it’s a vibe thing, but I play with a lot of different musicians all around the world. My band in New Orleans, we just have this amazing chemistry and it was so amazing to get together for this project knowing how difficult it is to record now!
It’s also a commitment thing, I would guess. That when you’re doing that and you are committed to getting that one take. Does it ever happen, you get done with it and you’re like, “Oh no, I didn’t like that at all!”
Oh yeah! Well, usually somebody messes up halfway through and you start over, right? And so sometimes by the time you finish the take, you know it’s the one because you finally got through it without any errors from anyone, right? Or sometimes you get through and I sing my guts out and I’m like, “That’s the take I want!” And there’s like the sound of a bus breaking on the street! Some strange sound will come in or there’s the sound of Dan’s [Cutler] keys jingling on his belt loop in one song. But like, “Well, I guess it’s part of the song now! Because this was the take I want!” That stuff is fun to me! I like it!
I like that too! That’s very Sam Phillips– capturing the reality of the music in the moment. I think that’s something that a lot of times pop music is missing because it’s too polished. I think there’s a happy medium in finding the actuality of the real room of musicians playing that makes it extremely compelling.
One of my favorite artists that I always turn to when I’m looking at who has had a beautiful career, I look to Bonnie Raitt. I read that she records the same way. She’ll take five days with a band and make a record live. And I’m like, “Well, damn! Bonnie’s still doin’ it even with all the technology that we have available! There’s something in it!”
I love this quote. You said How Many More Times is a country album because, “It’s not really just about feeling better. It’s about feeling it, whatever it is.” What is the country music that makes you feel it?
It’s so funny. All these little off-the-cuff things you say… Music that makes me feel it… I had listed a few of my favorite records from this past year in the bio so that people could kind of get a sense of who I was listening to that really inspired me and that’s Dean Johnson, Faustina Masigat, and Kiki Cavazos. Just three songwriters, they’ve all passed through New Orleans, and I’ve gotten to share songs with them and hear their music directly.
As this is the first time that you and I have spoken, I also wanted to dive back a little bit to the My Favorite Mistakes EP. I love every song that you covered on that EP, and my four year old daughter is also a huge fan of Nick Lowe at this point in her life. The song “Blue On Blue” is one of her particular favorites. Now, as I understand it, you got to go out with Nick and play– and you weren’t real familiar with his catalog– but then you absolutely fell in love! And with that song.
Yeah! What is about that song? I want to interview your daughter!
I don’t know! She’s obsessed with emotion. She always wants to know whether that song is happy or sad. And I don’t really know how to answer it ’cause it’s kinda both and it’s kinda neither… But that’s her bent, man. That’s what she’s after.
It’s kinda tortured. I asked Nick Lowe after one show, just ask him how he wrote it because I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I was learning it. He said, “Oh, I was just in a mood.” And that was so relatable to me in so many ways, because it’s so simple and really just encapsulates songwriting in this really simple way. But yeah, I don’t know. It’s just a great song, isn’t it?
It is! And as I said, my daughter, she’s obsessed with that emotion of songs, and I think she would be entirely confused with nearly every track on How Many Times. You’ve written these songs and I know the backstory and the breakup and the heartache– but I also know that you want people to dance to these songs.
I wanna dance to them! I love that your daughter is going to be confused by my record! Our emotions are just so complex. They’re so interesting. I feel like if I hadn’t provided a backstory, I wonder what people would have grasped from a listen? We all listen to music so differently too. A lot of people don’t really listen to lyrics as much. I gotta say that I mostly do. So I guess I sit with the song that I’m working on, which is usually turning over something in my life that isn’t really comin’ together the way I like it, or I’m picking apart something that’s interesting to me or difficult to me. And then the melody that I ascribe to it is kinda upbeat. That’s just the way in which I want to carry the emotional weight. Like, listen to Bruce Springsteen, right? He’s singing about some pretty weighty stuff with the most catchy beats. Music is so interesting, isn’t it?
I always get a kick out of the way people interpret certain songs. Like I will hear something and I’ve got a completely different take on it than what my wife gets or that my best friend hears or that my boss at the station hears. And I don’t think that all has to be reconciled either. I think that’s okay. I think that everybody can hear those different things more or less.
Well, then what makes something universal? How does that happen?
I think it’s that emotion that confuses my daughter. It makes you feel a certain way. If I hear Link Wray, I hear “Rumble”, I immediately have that same feeling I felt when I first heard it. You bring up Bruce Springsteen, and I can hear the first harmonica of “Thunder Road” start up and that hits me with this really melancholy teen angst thing. And I have it every time! It doesn’t change. I think that’s where I file my emotions is in those songs.
And you said that you don’t want to make a record like this again, which I’m assuming is because of that very thing, of filing your emotions within those songs.
(Laughs) I did say that! Well, it’s filing emotions, sure. But it’s also like when I write the song, I’m figuring something out for myself, so hopefully, I don’t have to do that twice. Right? Hopefully I learn what I needed to learn from that song and that experience. And then I can move on to something different.
And moving on to something different. I’ve been asking folks this since we got back to work. One of the biggest topics of conversations has been, “Are you writing about the things that are happening now? The pandemic politics, the hate, everything? I realized that for a lot of writers, that’s not really how they operate. It’s not really what they do, but at some point it has to leak into your own personal narrative. What about you? Did I read that you are actually focusing on that kind of songwriting right now?
You know, being a person in the world means if you are aware of what’s happening, there’s always war, tragedy. This year has been especially brutal in the weirdest way we could have possibly imagined. My way of being with that is like, yeah, what is my experience presently? So I try to stick to my own perspective when I write. Can I just take on the entire global crisis? Sorta kinda! But from my own little tiny view! It’s like one little pinprick into a starry night. It’s small, but it encapsulates my moment that I’m having. I’m definitely writing about what it’s been like for me. And this past year I have not been very consumed with matters of the heart. I have been pretty content– not content, but I’m glad to not be in heartbreak anymore.
Tell me what the plans are for the album release. Are you gonna try to do some sort of streaming celebration? What have you got planned?
Hmm, well, that’s a great idea. I should probably get something like that together.
You know what’s hilarious is that despite everything that’s happened with tours and live shows being shut down, people are putting out absolutely fantastic music. They’re continuing to release albums and I ask everybody, “Well, what’s the plan? What are you going to do?” And I swear to you, Esther, 9 times out of 10, they say, “Oh, you know what? I oughtta think about doin’ somethin’. Yeah!”
Well, I feel like right now we’re really asking our musicians to be like television studios and crank out these fantastic videos with great lighting. And that’s not my reality. I live in a house, I have a guitar. I don’t have a budget to just sink into beauty lights. That’s not where I prioritize my time. I know you gotta shift to keep up and whatever, but that is also not how I prioritize my life (laughs)!
Some people are doin’ that higher-end production, but I think that, still, just the lone individual with the acoustic guitar is how people are celebrating as well. I’ve said this before, and it’s got a ring of truth around it, but that’s also leveled the playing field in so many ways for performers at every level. Without the ability to mount tours and experience festivals, being relegated to what you can do from your own home on social media, which people are doing and sharing their new music as well as favorites, everybody at every level is doing it.
But I’m not sitting around watching musicians in their living rooms play guitar. I’m listening to their records. And so are you! You have a show, you play the music. Remember the music and how we all spend years making these records? I feel like at this moment, it’s actually about the music that you recorded more than ever. And isn’t that amazing? Like, wow!
I think that’s the most amazing thing I’ve heard in a week– or two! That’s an amazing point! And it’s also something that’s pulled us all together and at my house. We do, we have family record time. We sit down and listen to records together.
I know everybody wants this little view into our favorite artists’ lives– and it can be nice. Can be not nice. I’m a private person. I am, I like that. I think it’s fine to be that way in the world. I look forward to touring and showing up and meeting people after the show and hangin’ out. But do I want to sit around and record myself constantly with my cell phone? I don’t really want to do that. But I will do a little bit just to make do and hang out. I’m gonna do it!