Caitlin Rose’s personal Spotify playlists inspire even the most seasoned music devotees to update their record store wish lists, but her knack for eclectic curation is anything but new. When during our phone call, I remark, “I bet you were a mean maker of mixtapes back in middle and high school,” I can hear the sly grin slip into her response.
“Boy, was I. That was my favorite thing. I found one the other day that I guess I never gave to the person. But I used to sneak in songs. If I wrote a song about someone, I would put it in the middle of the tape, so they’d be going through a song, like, ‘This is pretty cool. She’s got pretty good taste,’ and then it’d be like [audible air guitar windmill], “I’ve got a crush on you/and you’ve got a girlfriend/ I’m so sorry!” or something like that. That was maybe my first foray into sharing my music with people, being real creepy about it,” laughs Rose, “I was a weird sixteen-year-old.”
Rose’s genre agnosticism is no surprise to anyone who’s savored her music. Her records Own Side Now (2010) and The Stand-In (2013) are equal parts martinis, moonshine, and soda pop, landing somewhere between high-IQ confessionals and dancefloor abandon. Nearly a decade in the making, her latest effort, the long-anticipated CAZIMI, was derailed by the pandemic and other none-of-your-fucking-business circumstances, but the resulting music is more red carpet than rough road.
Despite the layoff, CAZIMI is hardly a comeback– that word implies a rebound, and CAZIMI’s predecessor The Stand-In remains a bewitching album. Instead, it’s a swooning ache of a record that reminds us that the best art is out of time. Here, the listener has happened upon a lost radio station– a station between the stations– that dismisses the notions of guilty pleasures, decades, and formats. Caitlin Rose is her own genre.
CF- It’s been a few years since The Stand-In. Are you a patient person when it comes to your art, or do you ever feel anxiety about a release date?
CR- At this point, I’ve waited so long that I don’t think I have any more anxiety about it. Most of the anxiety came from not being able to finish anything and accomplish anything. That part of it. I don’t really have anxiety. The only anxiety I really have is just making sure I don’t miss deadlines on certain things. Ever since it was done, I was like, “Cool, that part’s done. I’m not stressed about it anymore.”
Are you ever concerned with being more prolific?
I think it’s just such a different time too in the music industry. Anyone can put out several records a year. But for me, I had my own extenuating circumstances that made it difficult to get a record out. I’m sure that I had a few opportunities to maybe put out something that wasn’t as good. I was very determined after waiting so long to just get something that I really was proud of.
I think it’s different for everybody, but I write pretty slow anyways. I write in bursts– I’m not writing songs all the time because I don’t always have things to write songs about.
Are there artists that you admire who are able to release album after album?
Yeah, I mean, Daniel Romano puts out tons of records every year, and I love that because he’s constantly creating and constantly making things. In this year, I can’t really think of anybody else doing that. But I was always happy with the idea of one record every few years, but unfortunately, after The Stand-In, things just sort of took a turn.
I’m 44, and when I was a kid, I was lucky if a band I liked released a record every two or three years…
And that’s normal…
I know you’ve mentioned your love for The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle seems unstoppable.
John’s just a prolific writer in every sense of the word. Dude’s writing books (laughs)! He can write a concept album in a week, I’m sure.
What were some obstacles you faced as you were recording CAZIMI?
COVID definitely took a year. It added a year to this record, which in a lot of ways was actually really great because Jordan [Lehning] and I threw our hands up and said, “We’ll work on this when we can work on it.” We had ideas, and we had time to sort those out. That was really a lot of wonderful time. And obviously, the world was on fire, and [the album] was definitely something that kept me sane.
Was writer’s block ever an issue for you?
I think it’s hard for me to write anyways when I have an entire twenty to thirty songs, which I’ve had for a few years. I don’t consider it writer’s block because, as I said, if I don’t have anything to write about, I’m not writing. I did a lot of that when I was co-writing, and now I don’t do much of that. Writer’s block to me would mean that I was in this current moment when I’m trying to put out a record and make sure I don’t screw everything up, I wouldn’t be thinking about anything right now. Writer’s block has been a problem when I was supposed to be putting out an album, which is why I wrote most of The Stand-In with Jordan and Skylar [Wilson]. With this record, I wrote over the course of a few years. There are songs on this record from 2015, but they’re the ones that kind of hung around. If I write songs, I usually end up writing two or three in one go, and then I don’t write again for a few months.
Your debut Own Side Now was recently reissued. Did that give you a chance to reflect on your growth as a songwriter? Were you always a student of the song, taking them apart, analyzing them?
I think that’s something I’ve always done. If I’m listening to a song, and even if it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, if I hear something I think should have been different, my brain is definitely registering it. I think the cool thing about CAZIMI is that I pretty much co-wrote all of The Stand-In, but there are 5 or 6 songs on this record that I figured out how to write by myself again. I had time to do that again and explore that. And I think that’s the similarity that I saw in Own Side Now because that record was primarily just songs that I’d written over the course of a few years, so it really kind of did make them take form in a similar way.
What did you relearn by writing by yourself again?
I don’t think I had to relearn anything. I think it’s just that I was in a mental space again where I could confidently do that and move through an idea. Also, some of these songs were being demoed two or three times. It’s like I had a lot of training wheels for this. I would hope that when this is finally out and done, I can sit down and feel good about writing a whole ‘nother record and doing it again a little bit sooner.
There’s a science to all of it, you know? I’m not gonna sit here and say that all of my songs come from some personal deep place. A lot of it is just math to me– or the kind of math that I’m good at. But for me, if there is any kind of system, it’s usually following those shiny little gems in a song, like either it’s the title or just a word or something that just makes it worth finishing, just something that hits some little synapse in your brain in the perfect way, and it makes you keep going. Without that, I generally just let it go.
What are some examples of those rare jewels?
I feel like most of the titles on this record are that.
Do you start with the titles, or do they arrive after the fact?
Generally, I start with a rhyme, like a rhyme couplet. Those two lines somehow seem to be able to form an entire narrative, sometimes. I think I write like my grandma– she wrote poems, these little poems. I don’t believe in that whole “Music is just poetry set to songs.” I think that’s total bullshit. But as far as like sing-songy, small moments of inspiration, I think it’s really those clever little lines where it’s so nice. Like I said synapse, or whatever, just in a good way.
What was your editing process, considering you had close to 10 years’ worth of songs to pull from?
I cut a record in 2017 that ended up being a complete disaster. I’d cut some songs from that at the request of the person I was working with on that album, and I put those back on this record. And then I wrote four more. All the songs, generally, if I brought them in, they were done. This is actually a weird record because two or three of the songs, I had bridges written– musically– but I had no words. I kept going in the studio and I was like, “We’re gonna do vocals later.” I knew what the melodies were, but I couldn’t get the words in 2017.
And then when Jordan and I started talking about this record, all of a sudden I wrote these bridges in five minutes because it was the right time to do them. I feel like I know other artists who’ve had that happen, where they’ll go in with songs a little bit unfinished and really just scrap a project because it just didn’t come. And it came when I started working with Jordan on this, so I think that was a part of the editing process for me.
Is that a scary proposition or an enticing proposition, where you’re banking on in-the-moment inspiration?
I think it was scary when it wasn’t the right situation, but I knew it wasn’t right in the moment. That’s another four years of absence to explain. I think it just wasn’t a very happy time for me. I knew the pressure was on, but that’s all it was– pressure. The experience in itself really wasn’t doing anything good for me.
How do you know the song’s finished? I’m thinking about “Only Lies”, which took one form as a bonus cut on the Own Side Now reissue. On CAZIMI, it’s the last track and a much different version.
It’s interesting– any write that is Jordan, because “Only Lies” is Jordan; “Baby’s Got a Way” is Jordan; “Everywhere I Go” is Jordan; “Things Change” is Jordan– some of the songs took years because the idea would happen, but we didn’t want to force the idea, but we would always end up finishing it right before a record. I guess it just depends on what kind of song it is. For me, generally, I know with this, there are three or four demos of some of these songs. and it’s not so much that they weren’t done, it’s just that they weren’t done perfectly. I think it’s just a feeling– I think I just know when something’s right, generally. And then six months later, I’m like, “Oh, I really wish I could have done that different.” With writing, when the editing peanut gallery in my head just stops talking, that’s great; we did a good job. I’m an editor in real-time. That’s why I never write anything down; I always type because my brain can’t work that fast on pen and paper.
Do you think those demos will see the light of day at some point?
Oh God, yeah. Most of them are already all over my Patreon. I’m almost glad that I’ve wasted all that time. But honestly, it definitely wasn’t a waste of time because everyone I recorded something with brought something new to it. And they all got paid, so what’s up (laughs)? I think with Jordan, it was just about finding out that he was so insistent on finishing it to a point where I knew it was finished. I think sometimes with other people who don’t know me as well, there’s a patience that I wouldn’t even expect them to have. And also, more importantly, a belief in me and my opinion and my standard for what something should be. Jordan definitely has that.
Can you tell me about your philosophy concerning collaboration?
I think with collaboration, it’s something I grew up in a little bit, just with like high school. There’s only so many punk bands in high school, and there’s only so many folk-punk singer-songwriter girls in the grade. I started collaborating at sixteen, not knowing anything. We were making Cakewalk albums at midnight just for fun. Collaboration has always been something I’ve done, but it just depends. As far as doing co-writes, it’s a pretty wide-open range of different kinds of things. But for me, I think if I go in, and I don’t know someone at all, whether or not I think they’re good or not, I’m just gonna be like, “Let’s just find an idea, and if we don’t find an idea, we’re just gonna be sitting here sulking around for the next two hours.” So that’s usually my goal. There’s so many things you can argue about in a collaboration, but there’s always one thing you can agree on, and if everybody keeps that in their sights, I’m sure that’s kind of like making records too– but that’s just a lot more people.
And I’m also approaching collaboration a lot differently now just because I’ve found a new gold standard for it with everyone I worked with on this.
You co-wrote “Getting It Right” with Courtney Marie Andrews, who’s made some beautiful records and also wrote Old Monarch, one of my favorite poetry collections in recent memory. I love introducing my students to some of her work when I have the chance. But as you said earlier, poems aren’t the same as song lyrics…
It’s such bullshit. It’s just so precocious, and I hate precocious. It’s literally a line in that Nashville show where Scarlett says, “Oh, that’s so cute you write poems. We should put them to music. Oh, so they rhyme? Wow! That’s great!” (Laughs)
When I spoke with Courtney a few months ago, I had to ask her what she was reading these days. What about you?
Every time Ottessa Moshfegh puts out a book, I’m inhaling it. I just got the new one, Lapvona. I don’t know if you’ve read any of hers. She has a short story book called Homesick for Another World that I literally buy for anyone I know who likes reading for Christmas. It’s my favorite. She had a lot in the Paris Review for years and then started turning out these spooky, weird novels every few years.
Your one-sheet mentioned Silver Jews. You a fan of David Berman’s poetry?
I read his book [Actual Air]. I don’t know if it’s still up, but he actually had a Geocities blog. I don’t know if you looked at it…
There’s also running Google doc release stuff, and I wish I had the time and wherewithal to type it into a Word doc…
After he died, I dove into that site and had an interesting time. He was special.
Anything else inspiring you these days? Art? Film?
I’m currently on my yearly watching of The Stand , [assumes television announcer’s voice] the 1994 Stephen King miniseries starring Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald. Dude, it’s my favorite, I bought the DVD the first week of COVID because I hadn’t seen it in so long, and I was like, “Might as well make myself feel real bad this week.” But now I’m showing it to my boyfriend for the first time, and I can tell he’s really bored. But it’s in installments, so he’s gonna just have to be bored for like four days.
There’s Flagg– the devil– with his denim jacket, his mullet. And Matthew Frewer who played Max Headroom and Corin Nemic from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose…
You know what the funniest thing is? There’s all these moments where you realize like, “Oh yeah, this is actually a Stephen King book because someone will just say the most fucked up shit. It’s when Gary Sinise is getting out of the hospital. He gets grabbed by this guy whose eyes have popped out of his head in this stairwell because he’s so sick and he’s looking at him, he goes, “Come down and eat chicken with me beautiful. It’s so dark.” (Laughs) Oh my god! Anyways, that’s my tip for you– my inspiration of the week!
Do you listen to music when you’re in writing mode, or do you have to live in a vacuum for fear of falling under someone else’s spell?
I definitely can’t write anything while I’m listening to a song, but no, I think when I’m listening to more music, it makes me more musical, and it makes me more creative. I don’t do a vacuum kind of thing. I’ve never been in a musical vacuum. If I am, it’s because I do not fucking care about music right now. It’s a sad time
How often does that happen?
I don’t know. I really have to make an effort to put on records. I have to make an effort sometimes to listen. But WXNA is a great station here, and radio is a go-to. Sometimes I’ll rely on Spotify Weeklies to re-inspire. But sometimes it’s very hyper-fixed to literally just no patience for any of it.
Your music refuses classification, but early in your career, you were tagged as alt-country. How quickly did you outgrow that label? Were you scared of being pigeonholed?
Well, I grew up in Nashville, when you said alt-country in Nashville when I was growing up, I would have been like, “Ugh.” I didn’t want that, I just wanted people to call it country because I was like, “I’m making country music, and everybody else is full of shit.” I don’t know if I pigeonholed; I think I might have pigeonholed myself, and now I have to live with it for the rest of my life, but it also created a reason to not care. In England, they’re gonna call whatever I put out super-country, and it’s so weird that they can’t get over it. That’s totally fine, but I read a review of the new record, and it’s like, “Still walking that fine line of country,” and I’m just like… I don’t even know.
For me, I don’t care because I literally walked around saying “I’m country music” for so long just to not have to talk to anybody about it. But when someone asks you, “What kind of music do you make?” and you’re somewhere else, you can be like “country” and they’re like, “Oh, that’s cool” because they fucking don’t listen to it. But if you say “country music” here, they’re gonna be like, “Cool! What kind? Where are you from? Do you like Miranda Lambert?” It’s just different here. So as far as being pigeonholed as alt-country, I just don’t care. Americana, alt-country, these things mean nothing. So when I see people get called Americana, I’m like, “That’s Americana too? That’s cool. Awesome!” The word has no definition.
I read one the other day that said my lyrics are “wise beyond my years.” And I was like, “Oh no, they think I’m still 20!” I’m thirty-five years old. Like if I was wise beyond my years, I might know a lot more about menopause or something (laughs)! I don’t know what that means now.
It just cracked me up. It’s that twenty-five-year-old wunderkind country music, they just love it. They’re not letting it go, but I don’t care. If it makes them listen to the record, I don’t care.
Does genre-hopping work to your detriment, or is it a road to mass appeal?
I don’t think genre-hopping leads to mass appeal. I feel like it confuses people, and it makes it less of an easy thing to A– write, B– talk about, and C– understand. It confuses people, and that sucks. But it’s who I am as a listener and a creator. Everything I do is gonna go through the filter that is me and everything I’ve ever heard. So even when I say something like, “I make country music,” it’s going through my filter. It doesn’t come out as that. If I say, “I’m gonna make a kid’s song,” if it comes through my filter, it’s not that. My genre is probably just me, and that sounds super self-absorbed, but it might be the most accurate, so far.