The Songs Fall Out of the Air: An Interview with Josh Rouse
Josh Rouse discusses his latest album, The Happiness Waltz, and the elusive magical moments in music: the balance between family and career, his long-time partnership with producer Brad Jones and what really makes a good song tick.
“Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’“ says Josh Rouse, when asked to name a great song. “There are hardly any words in that song and it only lasts two minutes. But it balances space and timing and it all works together somehow. I’m sure [Drake] sat down and worked on it somewhat, but it was probably also just kind of a thing that came out,” he adds. “The best songs fall out of the air, and you have to see if you can grab a couple of them.”
Rouse has been crafting his own catchy, melodic songs since the 1990s, mining a soft country rock vein which he first heard on AM radio while growing up in the Midwest. His first full length, 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska celebrated the stark landscapes of the Great Plains. AllMusic Guide called it a classic. He moved to Nashville in the early aughts and recorded Home there, kicking off a string of highly-regarded, urbane pop records: Under Cold Blue Stars in 2002, 1972 in 2003, his tribute to radio-friendly California rock.
Rouse moved to Spain in the mid-00s, met his current wife and recorded three more albums -- Subtitulo in 2006, El Turisto in 2010 and this year’s Happiness Waltz, his tenth full-length to date. Along the way, he and his wife moved to NYC then back to Spain and had two children, now aged one-and-a-half and four. When I catch him by phone between SXSW gigs and ask the former Army brat about his newly settled, domesticated situation, he laughs and proposes yet another move.
“Part of me likes being settled down,” he admits, “but then I get bored and want some change. I haven’t figured it out. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet. Maybe I should be in Los Angeles.”
The Happiness Waltz celebrates the ordinary pleasures of marriage and fatherhood, harkening back to Rouse’s most pop-fueled, accessible material from the middle of the last decade. Rouse says his children have become obsessed with the song “This Movie’s Way Too Long” from the new album. “They have to hear it whenever we get in the car. We’ve listened to it maybe 100 times. I’m sick of the song,” he muses.
Rouse admits that his two sons have mixed feelings about their dad’s business. “My oldest son, whenever I would pick up the guitar, he will throw a fit: ‘No! no! no! no! no!'” he explains. “The younger one, he’ll come over and want to play the guitar a lot, but then if he’s not playing it he’ll be 'okay, let’s put it down and get to something else.'”
Yet despite the difficulties of making music while taking care of preschool-aged children, fatherhood seems to place Rouse within a warmer, more relaxed space. “It’s really great, and they won’t be little very long,” he says.
When asked what sets this new record apart from his previous material. Rouse calls The Happiness Waltz a "new chapter" in his book. “It’s part of my life’s work making records," he explains. "After you make them for a while, fans come and go and you get good reviews and bad reviews, and you just have to do it for yourself. That’s kind of where I’m at right now.”
Critical reaction to the Spanish-themed albums Subtitulo and Turisto was more negative than for past albums, so Rouse found himself trying to get back to the easy, catchy accessible pop that characterized his best known work. “There was a conscious effort to get back to the sound of some of my more popular records, a little bit of that blue-eyed soul, country soul sound,” he elaborates. “I’d been doing more jazzy stuff, stuff that’s maybe not as straight ahead as records like 1972 or Nashville. The songs on The Happiness Waltz are just kind of catchy, real straight ahead songs. They’ve got some pedal steel flourishes. People seem to like that.”
Rouse worked again with producer Brad Jones, the pair having been consistent collaborators for more than a decade. Rouse first met Jones when label executives asked them to work together on the single “Directions” from Home. The relationship worked well enough for Rouse to ask Jones to produce 1972 and all of his subsequent albums. Rouse says that Jones is particularly good at finding the pop side of his songs. “Brad just likes my songwriting and he understands it,” he says. “He does records for a lot of different people and I feel like what we do together is the best. It’s just a good fit. He’s my George Martin.”
Jones helped Rouse arrange the songs on The Happiness Waltz for a four-piece band, the line-up that Rouse intended to take on tour to promote the album. “It’s the classic rock band set-up. I wanted to make arrangements that would work really well like that,” says Rouse. “There are some other things on there like horns, but it still sounds really good live. That was the idea. Today it’s almost all about playing live. If you’re putting out a record, it’s almost an excuse to go do some concerts.”
Rouse also worked with his main Spanish band, the Long Vacations, on his latest album. Xema Fuertes and Cayo Bellveser grew up together around Valencia and supported Rouse on his 2007 recording Josh Rouse and the Long Vacations. Rouse also hooked up with some old friends stateside. Daniel Cashin, his one-time guitar player and co-author of classics like “Quiet Town” and “Winter in the Hamptons”, co-wrote the first song “Julie Come Out of the Rain” during a brief stop in Nashville.
“That was kind of an 11th hour song,” Rouse recalls. “We’d been working on some other stuff. I was in Nashville for a couple of days, and Daniel and I always try to get together and work on stuff. We had dinner, and then we went into his studio, and he started making that song up, and right away, I knew it was great. The chords were coming, and he’d play something, then I’d play something, and I’d be like ‘Are you recording this? Are you recording this?’” Rouse remembers. “Now when I play that song, it almost feels like someone else’s classic pop song. It almost feels like I’m playing a cover song.”
Rouse doesn’t know anyone named Julie, but the remainder of the album is quite personal and specific, detailing the day-to-day existence of a musician, husband and dad. Asked if he ever worries about getting too specific, Rouse points to one of his favorite records, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. “John was always really direct, especially in his solo records. He wrote about what was going on and just put it out there. And I’m kind of at that place in my life,” he says. “I also think that sometimes the songs that make people uncomfortable, the songs that people aren’t sure how they feel about, sometimes those end up being the songs that people like the most.”
Of course, you can’t just splice your daily to-do list to a few chords and expect to end up with workable songs. Rouse also spends a fair amount of time on the craft of songwriting, of framing his experiences in the right words, melodies and arrangements. “Even if I start from a situation I’ve been in, I’ll change names and settings to make the song more colorful,” he says. “It’s always a mix of fact and fiction.”
Yet, finally, the work of songwriting, the balance of craft and inspiration, remains as much a mystery to Rouse as to anyone else. When things are working well, you "just know." For instance, Rouse explains, there is the last half minute of “Our Love,” a coda where the words and the music and the instruments all meld together in what he deems a nearly ideal way. “It just feels really right," he says. "I’m really proud of that moment. The last 30 seconds of that song is special."