Learnin' to Ride: An Interview with Caitlin Rose

Jeff Strowe
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

She's a young country hopeful with an incredible voice and even more incredible songs. Speaking with PopMatters, we discover how some of her new songs were originally written when she was 16, the "anti-folk" influence on her own work, and how she very well could've made it as a stand-up comedian ...

Caitlin Rose

Own Side Now

US Release: 2011-03-15
Label: Theory 8
UK Release: 2010-08-24
Artist Website
Label Website

Having gained momentum and increased notoriety over the past several years, 2011 has been the biggest year yet for Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose. Buoyed by the strength of her Dead Flowers EP, her Own Side Now full-length, and her charming live shows, Rose has signed to ATO Records, headlined tours in the UK, and earned a heaping portion of critical acclaim along the way. With an ardent ear for the most personal of human emotions, Rose earnestly writes with a focus on the details. Over the course of her catalog, one can hear intimate lover's laments, bar-room ruminations, and big-city adventures that fail to turn out the way one had hoped. Rose is adept at capturing the gamut of life's experiences, and tells of the ups, downs, and in-betweens with a mature sensitivity that belies her young age. When she sings, you believe what she says and want to follow along on her musical journey, which is surely headed up in a rapid direction.

PopMatters recently checked in with Caitlin from her home in Nashville as she was comfortably enjoying a little downtime before heading back out on the road for yet another round of touring, and discovered how some of her new songs were originally written when she was 16, the "anti-folk" influence on her own work, and how she very well could've made it as a stand-up comedian ...

* * *

So, my first question is actually related to touring. You've been on the road a bit lately and in addition to headlining gigs, you've toured with the likes of Justin Townes Earle, Jason Isbell, and now Hayes Carll. Do you have any personal say in these tour pairings or does management handle that side of things?

I think for the most part, booking agents are in charge because they know your schedule. But, I've done a couple of tours with Justin in the past, and I've always really enjoyed it which I guess he does too because he's asked us out again. And Hayes, I met recently in Austin. So, it's not really a random selection. I think we've been looking to get tours together with these people, and we definitely work on developing personal relationships with these people because we want to tour with people we enjoy watching play.

Have you worked up any plans with Hayes and his band for the tour? Maybe a duet or an encore collaboration?

No, not yet, but wow ... that would be so much fun.

You've been out on the road a lot since you started recording. For artists like yourself and some of your tourmates, touring is a big part of the job description in terms of earning a living. Do you still have an enthusiastic outlook on touring or do you find yourself sometimes dreading the travel?

You know, everybody gets tired, but the best part about it for me is that people want to come see us play and there's nothing to compare about there. Everybody bitches, but I try to keep my bitching to myself.

And I'm sure it's always a huge reward, even after an eight-hour van ride or dealing with the van breakdown, to get to the venue and see the crowd there.

Definitely. The show is always the best reward for any type of tour problem. A good show always makes things better.

So, tell me about the band you've been taking out on the road with you.

I've been touring with Jeremy [Fetzer] and Spencer [Cullum] for a long time, so they're gonna be there. And then we've got Jeff [Cullum] who is Spencer's brother from England who now lives in Nashville too, and then a guy named Dave [Vaughn] from Detroit who has played with the boys in the band before. It's a good crew and we've got it down and we all get along really well.

You seem to have attracted a mini star-studded lineup of musicians to play on your most recent album, Own Side Now with guys like Rayland Baxter and Chris Scruggs joining in. Are those people you know through the Nashville scene?

Yeah, I definitely know them through the scene. I tried really hard to get people on that record that weren't quite directly involved, but that I wanted to include. That's the best part about Nashville. You've got all these people that are so talented and everybody's kind of always working on their own thing, but I think it's kind of fun to bring everybody in and work on my thing, which is kind of selfish [laughs]. But I like living in Nashville just because there are so many people who you can call up and say 'Hey, do you wanna come put something on this record that we're making?' It can be really spontaneous.

I wanted to talk about your influences too. I know this is a question you probably get a lot, but it seems like a lot of writers compare your work to Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, etc. It's never a bad thing to be compared to talents like that, but does there come a point where you get a little bit burdened by those comparisons?

Well, I do think if I was listening to the critics all the time I would get burned out. I've said this before: comparisons are very useless for artists and I think that is sort of the problem with music these days. Everyone is trying to categorize things for the listener and music can lose some of its individuality. People want to know what they're going to be listening to before they hear it. And that's so funny because it's so easy to listen to music, and you'd think that people would just be more willing to listen to things without having to hear about it first. But, comparisons are funny, because like you said, all they really do is either burden you or make you feel like you have to work towards something that you never really thought you'd have to. You can't really progress towards that comparison. You have to progress as your own artist. If you start to feel pressure about becoming that artist, it starts to affect the original vision of what you set out to do.

Yeah, I think a lot of the digital music services add to the glutton of comparisons. They'll have a message that says something like, 'If you like Caitlin Rose, you'll love Linda Ronstadt.'

Well, that one makes me happy! I like that one!

Yeah that's true. Some comparisons are good. But, I think they often limit what people listen to and they stick to their comfort zones.

Yeah, I think the other thing is that when you do interviews, you hear the same questions and the same reference points. When I did my first run of tours, interviewers would say, 'Oh, so you're the new Patsy Cline of this generation?' And I'd be like, 'No, but I do cover a Patsy Cline song.' Or they'd say I was the new Loretta Lynn, and I would say I just heard that from the last three interviewers.

Were you always drawn to that sound though; the whole country-folk, singer-songwriter genre or did you have to play around with your sound and find what works best?

The singer-songwriters I listened to in high school were mostly of the "anti-folk" variety. There was a lot of Kimya Dawson and a lot of Mountain Goats and that kind of stuff. The country stuff kind of popped into my head when I was listening to the Mountain Goats cover a Merle Haggard song, and that's how I got back into country music. I grew up around country music, and I rejected it for a long time, but it's definitely part of me. You know, now, I listen to 650AM [legendary Nashville country/Americana station, WSM] more than anything. It's definitely become ingrained.

You've weaved the sound of your voice with your band together beautifully. It resonates well both live and on record.

I think the most refreshing part of the country music thing for me was that when I was listening to all the "anti-folk" is that the material is so detail-heavy and the songs are very personal. And a lot of people get down on country music because they think it's so simple. You know, I've heard it called children's music which I think is one of the rudest things I've ever heard. If millions of people can relate to your song and you're dogging it then I really don't know what that means. And I try not to confuse people with my songs, and that's what I like about country music; it just helps everyone relate. Even if you don't drink, or live a different kind of life, you can find something to relate to.

And that's a really good lead into a question I had about your writing. On Own Side Now, I kept coming back to two songs: "For the Rabbits" and "Things Change."

Ah, the two most maudlin songs!

Right, and that's what I was getting at. To me, I sensed a lyrical connection to the two where I could see the songs being about the same person or a shared similar experience. Did you write these songs together and is there a connection or am I way off base?

Unfortunately, those are actually two completely different things. "For the Rabbits" was written about some friends of mine when I was 16. It used to sound terrible. Honestly, it used to sound completely different, but Andy Willhite, who has the credit on the album for arranging, actually helped me to rearrange that song when I was about 19 in the studio. And then "Things Change" was actually written by an ex-boyfriend of mine who is a lot more compositionally minded than I am and then we went in the studio and re-wrote and worked on the arrangement. So, I think their similarities lie in the fact that I had a lot of help from outside sources. But that's funny you saw that, and like I said, they are the most maudlin songs on the album. The boys always wanted to hear me sing something dramatic.

You have a couple of co-writes on the album, but is most of your writing done on your own with an acoustic guitar before you bring the band in to flesh out the sound?

Well, I usually don't even write with a guitar. I just write and then come up with the music later. If I have a melody to go along with something then it certainly helps, but sometimes I just write and keep writing until I feel like I've written enough and then I try to make a song out of it.

That's an interesting process.

Yeah, most of the songs on the album [Own Side Now] are melody driven. I was going through kind of a weird period in my life where I wasn't really going anywhere or talking to anybody until after 9:00pm, so I kind of sat in my room all day and wrote that album. Everything was more tightly focused than usual.

In contrast to "For the Rabbits" and "Things Change", I noticed a lot of humor and wry observations scattered throughout your work. And in your live show, you throw out some jokes and have a particularly funny rapport with your bandmates and with the audience.

Yeah, that [humor] was always part of the stage show before anything else. Before I ever had any grasp on music, the performance was sort of more of a comedy hour. I was starting and stopping songs a lot and trying to pull it off so I had to rely on my humor a little more than my musical accomplishments, so as I got better that stayed a part of it. I really like to have fun, and I like joking. I should have been a stand-up comedian, but I think every musician says that. Or the comedian says he should have been the musician. I can't stand to be on a stage and not have a good time. And I also can't stand to watch somebody onstage not having a good time. I feel like if I got up onstage and said the same thing every night or tried to be as serious or as focused as I could then I wouldn't be having any fun at all and I couldn't be doing this.

Well, to sum it up, congratulations on signing with ATO Records. That is a great label, talent-wise.

Thank you so much. Yeah, I am really excited. And they're a label! It's funny because me and Aaron [Hartley, Caitlin's manager] have been doing everything on our own for so long, now we've got all these other people offering to take care of things. We're like, 'Really! You can do these things!' I think they are getting really getting a kick out of watching us scramble trying to finish the things that they completely have down. And I know people don't usually do this in interviews, but I definitely want to give a shout to my publicist, Ashley Ayers, who has just been amazing!

Is there a new record that you have started working on or is that still a little ways down the road?

Yeah, it's still down the road. Later this year, I'm going to be off tour for about four months, which is the longest period in a while. I'm going to use that time to start writing and hopefully get into a studio to get some things down. It's funny that I'm giving myself a couple of months to write a record, when the last one took three years [laughs].

Ha! Well, you know you're on a label now. Pressure ...

I know, I'm terrified [laughs]! I started bitching about being on the road for a long time, and when I'm back home, I'll be like 'Damn, now I have to do stuff!'

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