For the past eight years, Josh Rouse has lived in Spain, currently residing in Valencia, an area of 1.5 million people. Between there and Nashville, where his career is based, he has maintained an output of a record or a project every couple years consistently. Between projects with the Long Vacations, under the name She’s Spanish, I’m American, with his wife Suay, or his main gig as singer-songwriter records under his own name, Rouse has perfected a palatable acoustic folk-pop sound, incorporating beautiful varied instrumentation to make lovely lush compositions. Some may even call him prolific.
Before his most recent album, The Embers of Time, Rouse composed the score and original music for a Spanish film called La Gran Familia Espanola (the American title is Family United). The IMDB description of this film states: “Ephraim’s wedding coincides with Spain’s appearance in the 2010 World Cup,” and appears to be a kind of madcap family comedy intersecting weddings and the European obsession with World Cup. I was able to speak to Rouse about this project, as well as his new album, and, with frankness, his experience as an expat.
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How did you get involved in that project?
The director Danny Sanchez used a song of mine in one of his previous films and we met and became friends. [The song was “Quiet Town,” which was the opening track of his 2006 album Subtitulo.] When he suggested I do his next movie I was honored. It was a rewarding, painless task I must say.
What was that process like? Did you know the scenes in advance as you were composing the music?
I had to change a few things but he let me do what I felt was right for the scene (which he sent along during the filming). I learned quite a bit and would love to do another if the opportunity presents itself.
What about just contributing a single song to a soundtrack, like Vanilla Sky with your song “Directions“. Do you find that to be a good experience, or are there cases where you don’t have much say in what happens to the song after it’s out?
Well, the synch business for a songwriter is really important for many reasons, not only to make a living but also to reach a wider audience. I don’t think I’ve ever had to say no, however there were many occasions when I didn’t say yes and the song just appeared in a movie or commercial. Luckily I have control over all that now.
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Rouse has been quoted as saying that this record, The Embers of Time, is his “surreal expat therapy record” which makes sense once you start digging into the material. It starts with a sort of beautiful dreamlike clash of two different songs, some bells and a kind of Johnny Cash country guitar sound before going into the primary track for “Some Days I’m Golden All Night.” In it, he details walking the Valencia streets at night, when everything comes to life.
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What are the differences you find between Spain and the US?
The US is a much friendlier country in general, the Spanish keep to themselves. Service is poor here because most waiters aren’t tipped, it’s a salaried position. Creating new [enjoyable] jobs seems to be a weak spot in the Spanish system. Good music is really appreciated here, they’re not quite as spoiled as America. I will say this, people, no matter where they live, should be able to choose where their tax dollars go! Education is important.
Can I ask you about your decision to put that dreamlike bit in there at the front of the record?
I wanted the first song, and especially that one, to have a bit of surrealism to it. I slipped into a wormhole and 10 years later have two kids and am living in another country. Time messes with me.
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Nowhere is this more true than the song “Expat Blues,” where Rouse sings: “All day I spend too long here in this place, I gotta go, yes I’ll be on my way” and “Nothing changes and I’m still I’m stuck here”
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The things you say in it sound like something someone might say when they first move to a new country, but you’ve been there a while now; do you still feel that way? Like you’re stuck and nothing changes? Or is that thinking back to your frame of mind when you first moved?
It’s just a song about feeling isolated as I still do here in Spain. Not all the time, but definitely once a week I can’t stand it. The other days it’s either wonderful or just okay, just like anywhere really. I would like to move back to the US someday when I can find an affordable place with some culture.
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To get back to Nashville, Rouse must go to Paris, and from Paris he flies to New York, before making his way to Tennessee where he lived for ten years and still has friends to stay with, but no residence of his own, just a storage unit.
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For the first few years I lived in Spain no one ever questioned what I was coming into the country for except once, and when a customs agent asked what the purpose of the visit was I said “a girl” and he asked, “Is she pretty?” and stamped my passport. A US passport carries a lot of weight. It’s all been pretty smooth.
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Time continues to be a motif on the record, making a quick reference to visiting his stepfather’s grave in the song aptly titled “Time.” I ask Rouse to tell me the story there.
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Rouse: My stepfather was named Lester and he was a construction worker, golden gloves boxer, bareback rider, mountain climber, part time drug dealer, pool player. Something out of a movie, really, but quite charming in a white trash sort of way. His old pick up truck slid off the side of a mountain right outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He died when I was 14 and I just tucked it away really as I was living with my real father at that point. It was sad but we moved on.
When you turned 30 did you think about surpassing his age?
I think of him every now and then, I’m sure he’d be proud to see me playing music.
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Not to say that Rouse doesn’t value his life in Valencia, appreciating the sweeter things, his wife and two children, and not to say he isn’t writing about them. In “Worried Blues” we glimpse into his day-to-day, perhaps part of the therapy. “Gotta wake up early in the morning, Gotta get the kids to school by nine” and “I’m not gonna stop now, I’m not gonna stop now, I’m not gonna stop.” An exercise in listing his worries. This isn’t even the first example of this; on 2013’s The Happiness Waltz he paints these beautiful portraits of wooing a partner and starting a family.
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Finally, if you have a kind of life philosophy or parting words of hope for the world, what would they be?
Exercise, don’t drink too much, and call your parents. I don’t practice these as often as I should but they are good ideas!