It’s a shade past one on a July afternoon when Maggie Rose calls from the green room of the Ram’s Head in Annapolis. She may have made Music City her home for over a decade, but Rose was raised a mere 45 miles away from the venue where that evening, she gratefully kicks off her first tour in well over a year. “I grew up in Potomac, Maryland, and now my dad has already talked to me about coming to meet me here and go to our usual haunts after soundcheck,” shares Rose. “And I have a whole busload of people coming from Bethesda, a literal busload– my sisters and their friends, and it feels like a big warm hug as we start off this tour after missing it so badly!” In addition to a return to the road, Maggie is also poised to introduce the captivating soul frenzy of her latest album, Have A Seat. Predominantly written and recorded before COVID-19 but nevertheless in the crucible of America’s streaming angst, Rose has been building up to the August 20th release with a series of stylized videos that express the album’s heart and sensuality in visceral color. Rose along with a wealth of friends and talent (including producer Ben Tanner and wunderkind Marcus King) immersed in the myth and mojo of the classic FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama to explore modern soul expressions that draw inspiration from the legendary voices that still echo within those sonic temple walls. That warmth sustained her throughout the pandemic, but patience has given way to anticipation as Maggie Rose sets the table and steadies herself for the next great course in her career.
AI- Your story has been one of searching. It’s been a journey that has spanned albums, a series of EPs, and you’ve gone from living under a country moniker defining that to right now with [Have A Seat]. It’s funky, it’s got a lot of soul! You got to go to a legendary room and do it. What have you found out about yourself making this album at this point in your career?
MR- So much! This is my third full-length album, and I’ve been in Nashville for 13 years pursuing this. Even though this is number three, it really feels like a beginning of sorts. Because I’m a fully independent artist, I got to pick who I wanted to make this record with, and the record before this, Change The Whole Thing, was very much a bridge to what I’m doing now. We did it live, no autotune, no isolation booths, just me and my friends making music together. And that taught me so much about my capabilities as a singer! It was timeless, beautiful soulful music that I made because I had nothing to lose– at that time, especially! With that album and me loving it as much as I did and realizing how much it connected with my audience, I wanted to lean into that soulful sensibility even more and the R&B sensibilities that I had been kinda neglecting early on in my career doing more of the Music Row thing.
I got connected with Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes through my publisher, Katie Fagan. [Ben] is someone who knows all the studios in Muscle Shoals really well, but FAME was a room that I wanted to make the record in just because of the standard that it sets when you go in there. You’re like, “Aretha’s has been in here! Wilson Pickett’s been in here! Otis, Rolling Stones, the Allman brothers, Bobbie Gentry!” I’m not gonna fuck this up (laughs)! I wanna meet that standard– but also make a contemporary record. I think you said it really well in the beginning, it’s been exploratory and I feel not that I’m a late bloomer, but that there’s so much more to be mined from my music [and] within myself. This record is showing me that there’s such a wide, open road ahead of me. If I dare to take it!
You talk about being at FAME. You’d been there before. Tell me just a little bit about that first experience down there in Muscle Shoals and how you got back there to make your own album.
Absolutely! A long time ago, I went down there to write a few songs and I think I was just so green that I didn’t understand the sanctity of that room. I went back in 2018 to do a program that Halley Phillips helped put together– Sam Phillips’ granddaughter– called Music Row to Muscle Shoals. I had my whole band there. It was around Christmas time and I saw how they lit up playing music in that room, and I was like, “I need to harness this energy for the next project.” So that planted the seed of just knowing that I was gonna make this music down at FAME. Everything that I wrote thereafter was colored by that anticipation of, “I’m gonna make a record in this room!” And then all the other pieces started to fall into place. The material was sounding like material that that room yielded that made me want to get into music in the first place!
And then Ben Tanner came into the picture and of course, he is Muscle Shoals royalty, and he helped me assemble this amazing band with members of Them Vibes, who travels with me and some of the Swampers and some of Brittany Howard’s players and Emily King’s players and Jenny Lewis, Will McFarlane, Zac Cockrell played bass on some of the tracks– he’s from Alabama Shakes– and David Hood, of course! So we have this incredibly diverse group of musicians in a legendary room and it just was so incredible! It really went with the themes of the songs, which is about inclusivity and collaboration and listening to one another and being an individual. Because I don’t really know what we call this music from a genre standpoint, but it’s mine and that’s where I belong. I think it all was really heavily assisted by the environment that FAME Studios lent to us.
Now, you talk about that inclusivity part of it. A couple of the songs I wanted to discuss since we’re on that part, “What Are We Fighting For” and “For Your Consideration”, that desire for dialogue, communication, or the lack thereof. The first approximation of the songs when you’re hearing ’em, it sounds very personal. But the more that I listened to those songs getting ready for this interview, the wider implications became so apparent, especially when you throw in the music videos that go along with it. The inner dialogue to match the outer dialogue really mirrors what we’re all going through politically and socially right now in the world.
Absolutely, Aaron, it was no mystery to any of us that it was a really contentious time even before the pandemic began. A lot of these songs were written and recorded before we were shut down– and then we were put in a pressure cooker! So all of those issues that we were having and not listening to each other and just being so polarized and tossing hateful rhetoric around was exacerbated by the ambiguity and fear that we were feeling from this pandemic and the suffering that was so apparent. I’m so happy we waited until now to put this music out because all the themes are more relevant to me. I think it is more of a macro view of how we all treat each other that is coming across now with these songs.
Songs have always evolved for me. I think the way that we write them that day is the seed, but then they start to just amass more meaning as they live their lives. With this whole album, that was certainly the case too. It feels great that it’s correlating with the opening up of the world and us getting to go out and tour because it’s about us gathering back together. In order to do that harmoniously, we have to be kind to one another and give each other the space to be ourselves and listen to one another– even if we don’t agree. So political contentions really colored how these songs were written. And then I think after that, they just kind of started to apply to all these different areas of my life personally and then societally.
Gettin’ back out there, goin’ into rooms… We’ve been home. We’ve been at the mercy of our devices, whatever streaming content was available. Many artists have had the opportunity to stream shows, to connect with fans that way, but going back out and actually having that intimate connection with fans… I’ve been to the Ram’s Head. I know the size of that room. You will literally be in somebody’s lap tonight! How do you mentally prepare yourself for going back into that? I know that you’ve been able to do some live performances more recently than just gettin’ back out on the road tonight– but staying in shape vocally, and then mentally preparing yourself to get back out and do this? I know you want to, but how are you feeling about the larger adventure?
I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t some serious anxiety, especially a few weeks ago, because you start to feel a little bit of an imposter syndrome thing kick in when all of a sudden, there’s this big amputation from your identity. If I’m not performing then who the hell am I? This is where all the energy of everything I’m doing goes, and then we don’t have a place to displace that! But you remember you just have to go out and do it, and then remind yourself. The muscle memory kicks in. And it’s so much bigger than me! If I screw up on stage, or if I’m not in tip-top shape, I think we have a more forgiving audience. People are clamoring for live music and that connection, and I’m not gonna deny them that because I feel like I’ve maybe gotten comfortable at home– which was never comfortable, to be honest! It was torture!
So just gratitude. Remembering that not everyone gets to do this. This is the dream. Everything is a rehearsal for the live show. That’s when you give the music away, and that’s when people really get to connect with it. I’ve always had my audience be the most critical tool when I’m A&R-ing a project, which means putting the list of songs together, the repertoire for the album. I didn’t have them as a resource this year, so it feels really exhilarating to be like, “Okay, this is what I put together on my own devices,” and see people still connecting with that and have this big reveal with this tour.
So that’s an opportunity for you to validate your own ideals when it comes to this music and how to present it. The confidence, which I know you have discussed before, that has been earned over your career, to get out there and show what it is you want people to see and hear.
Right. I think between myself individually and the audience, we’re calling all the shots. There’s not like a board room somewhere that’s determining what my album is going to consist of. It’s me and the people and my incredible band that’s my family on the road that brings it together. When you see it resonate with people, that’s an indication that you’re doing it the right way. So now I’m finally getting to have the opportunity to feel that love and connection on this music. And it’s a validation! “Okay, good! We did the right thing!”
You talk about being home and how it never was comfortable, but you became too comfortable with it. You did stay, I would say, remarkably active during that time period. You created the Salute The Songbird podcast, which I think is amazing! You don’t just talk to artists, you talk to other women within the music industry who contribute. Did that begin just as a way for you to channel your energies during the lockdown? And then the second part of that question, you’re in your second season now, what has it become for you?
It was something that I needed to do to fill the void that not touring created. I’m so lucky to live in a city like Nashville, where I’m rubbing elbows with people who I listen to on a daily basis, who inspire me, and not going on tour, I just wasn’t in close proximity to these people. I wanted to make sure that we were still celebrating one another. This was also such a year of listening and absorbing the art that was around me and the lessons that had to be learned by me in a really expedited way too because of 2020. [With the podcast,] I was able to connect with people I’ve never met before– and I’m kind of an expert being a woman in the industry! So it was just easy to conduct these conversations organically and not be the subject of the conversation but be a conduit for conversations with these women, where they got to tell their stories.
I learned so much that made me a better musician! I read amazing memoirs, listened to great records, and it was just incredible work that I’m so thankful for, especially during that time. I get to now continue it on the road, and it just feels like it was for the greater good, but it’s also benefited me tremendously. I just had Kelly McCartney that I interviewed. She’s with Apple Radio, and she’s someone who I think is a curator for a lot of great music. And Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s and Ann Wilson from Heart, who took me out on tour! But then also new artists, like Jillette Johnson, who I want everybody to know about! It’s been really great to feel connected with my peers in the industry, even with all the obstacles that we had that kept us physically apart.
There’s also the cautionary tale aspect of some of it as well. You bring up Jillette Johnson. I listened to some of that episode and her story of coming up the way she did in the music industry to get to the point that she is now. I think that is an important aspect of the podcast for aspiring artists, no matter where they are in the beginning of their career to see… I don’t want to say the ‘horror’ of it…
Oh, you can say it (laughs)! There’s some horrors of it!
But it’s really not all sweetness and light, clapping audiences, and people with your best interest at heart!
Right. And I think Gillette and I, what we have in common is that we both at a very young age had a lot of gas behind us in the industry that propelled us down a path that we had to untangle ourselves from and then find our voice on our own terms. When you have a lot of high powered people behind you at a young age telling you what to do, they’re not necessarily ill-intentioned, but you can kind of get yourself in a spot where you haven’t asked of yourself the questions that every good artist should before they start cranking out a bunch of music. I think that was the case for me, which is one of the other reasons my music has evolved so much. I was thrown into a system that had a template: This is how you did this thing. This is the producer you worked with and how you recorded it. I was like, “Whoa!” I got to a point where I had to figure out, “Did I intend to get here? Or have I just been catapulted here?” And I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but had to deprogram some things and follow the breadcrumbs back to a certain spot so I could really do it with intention my way. Jillette and I share that, especially in our early careers– not wanting to answer to certain things that we were involved in. So that’s the cautionary tale, I think. It sounds so simple, but [it’s] really knowing who you are and putting that out first.
Going back to the album, you said a lot of names earlier. I have notes on almost all of them! I open up the album cover and I go through so many great names, but one, in particular, jumped out– Marcus King. I don’t need to tell you anything about Marcus King, you already know it all!
The song [“What Makes You Tick”] on the album that you had an opportunity to record, one that you wrote together, tell me about writing it and tell me about having it in the studio. You guys did that in Nashville, didn’t you?
We did that in Nashville, yeah. I had tracked most of that track in FAME and then at Starstruck, he came in and put his guitar parts and vocals on that song and played on a little bit of “You Got Today” too. He and I have really gotten to know each other, especially over the pandemic. He invited me to be part of his Four of a Kind series and since then we have just been super tight! We have a lot in common. He’s someone that I know people want a lot from, so we have kind of like a big sister, little brother relationship too. But he’s also taught me so much! His soul is like 150 years old! We wrote that song pretty early on. That was a contender for this record when I probably only had a handful of songs I knew I wanted to cut.
It was a really easy writing experience, and I think that’s part of his skill and charm is it’s so seemingly effortless for him because he’s such a prodigy. But he works really hard! He exudes this ease that makes me and everyone on stage with him comfortable– but that boy busts his ass to work hard! He’s been so sweet. He came down to FAME when we recreated the album just a few weeks ago to just be on that one song and all these videos I’m putting together for a live iteration of the album. He took a lot of time to go do that. I don’t know how he had the time to do it all, but he’s involved in so many amazing projects too. He’s someone who I don’t think any of us can contain. I think with all the things he has coming up, what’s going to be really apparent to everybody is that he’s far from a one-trick pony. He’s a capable songwriter, a vocalist, obviously a great guitar player, and he knows who he is, which is really exciting! I’m happy to be here to watch!
You talked earlier about your capabilities as a singer. I have to wonder, being in FAME at the microphone with a band playing behind you, were you able to stretch out in a way or maybe challenge yourself vocally in a way that you hadn’t before because of your surroundings?
Emphatically, yes! Yes! And it was also a product of learning on Change The Whole Thing that I don’t need to comp my vocal performance to death! There’s something amazing about the urgency of a somewhat live take. Ben really helped me preserve that. The passion and the life, I’ll use the word urgency again, of a vocal that hasn’t been manicured to death is what I wanna listen to. I think that’s also what makes the connection between what the recorded music is and the live show so powerful when you feel like, “Okay, I can hear what happened in the studio when I watched this performance in front of me as it’s unfolding live.” And yeah, I realized like, “Okay, I’m a soul singer. This is what makes me feel good!” There’s something really unbridled about how we cut those vocals that I love when I listen back to it. Even the little imperfections that are there are sometimes my favorite parts of the performances.
You say that “I’m a soul singer.” I wanted to ask you specifically about the Quarantine 45, the duo of songs that you did during the quarantine, “20/20”, “Only Human”. You’re wearing your David Bowie t-shirt in the videos for those songs. Bowie himself, legendary for his powers of reinvention, was also a solo singer for a time and maybe could be considered a soul singer for all time. Is that what you wanna do goin’ forward? Do you want to continue to reinvent yourself as often and in as many colors as possible? Or do you feel yourself settling into being a soul singer?
I think that there will always be soulful tendencies that I’m going to lean into with my performances vocally. But if I’m being honest with myself, I inherently am someone who likes to shake things up. So my music will reflect that. If you want to be a sustainable artist, then you should be trying to evolve and change– and not for a gimmick and not to rebrand, but just because that’s what you do when you’re out there dealing with all walks of life. You’re gonna glean a lot from that and it’s gonna change your music a little bit. I’m just always pushing and extending because then I think I’m casting a wider net. I’m gonna gather more people into the fold. So that’s what I anticipate to happen. If I know anything about myself!