“Family is complicated” might be the simplest phrase to describe the Rough & Tumble’s latest LP, We’re Only Family If You Say So. Though, to stop with this description would be a disservice to the complex emotions that Mallory Graham and Scott Tyler so effortlessly weave into unsuspecting folk music. The duo have a knack for “thrift-store Americana”—the variety of instruments and sounds used to create their tunes is eclectic, to say the very least. However, they beget kitsch and emanate charm through both their masterful understanding of what makes their off-kilter rigs click and in the ruminative, oftentimes serious themes that dwell within an inviting soundscape.
“I Must Be the Sun” is the Rough & Tumble’s latest single. A mid-tempo jam featuring intimate fingerpicking, harmonica, and all manner of percussive wonder, it’s Graham’s warm, inviting vocals that imbue it with the heart at its center. For as inviting as it is sound-wise, it offers a look into the Rough & Tumble’s coming-up. It focuses on rough questions for Graham regarding parenthood and her rocky relationship with her own parents. Tying it all together is a gorgeous animated music video developed by London’s Flora Caulton, who hones in on the song’s more astronomical themes as its aesthetic basis.
In celebration of the PopMatters premiere of their music video, the Rough & Tumble answered a couple of questions regarding the background of “I Must Be the Sun” and their collaboration with Caulton.
“I Must Be the Sun” features on your new album. What makes it a standout track to you? How does it fit into the grand scheme of We’re Only Family if You Say So?
This song tells a lot of the story of the record. It’s sort of the most vulnerable point—stripped down and pointed. This song started up in Vermont at least a year before it was written. I (Mallory) had made a joke on stage—something about being the least favorite of all the kids in my family. It was off-handed, but also came from a place of questioning.
At that point, I had already started to see the major cracks in my relationship with my parents and was amid the third or fourth try in making the repairs myself. After the show, a woman came up to me and said, “I know you’re joking, but, really, parents can’t love their children more than another. It’s like they are the sun—all at once. You can’t divide your love, because how do you split the sun?”
I loved the sentiment, but it stuck in my craw, too. The interactions leading up to a very dramatic split had this woman’s voice in the back of my head. When we wrote this song, it was less than a week after the split and almost a year after the conversation with that woman. All the ways we had tiptoed around the idea of favoritism, of leaning on movie and storybook tropes about how parents are “supposed” to be with their kids, it became evident that they weren’t working anymore.
So, we wrote from some of the earlier stories that had been drilled into us both—like the Biblical story of Esau & Jacob. We used a story that was taught to us by our parents and realized we were on the wrong side of the inheritance. From there, the song unlocked the well of misgivings that we felt too much family loyalty to be able to let out—as if my feeling hurt was in some way shameful to the family. This song was both the moment of candid clarity, and the first step toward healing.
We were up in the UP at the time, trying to make sense of the situation, and I was literally stitching curtains for our camper, trying to keep my hands busy to keep from landing on the simple, uncomplicated truth—that they just don’t love me like I needed to be loved, and that they love me less than the siblings that chose to behave in a way they approve. I was inconvenient to love. And so were they. But, you’ll note, that weird shimmer of hope—maybe, maybe there’s a chance they’ll still look my way in the middle of the night. That is the real vulnerability—a kid just hoping to be in the running, again, to be loved.
What encouraged you to pursue animation for the first time with its music video? What was it like to work with Flora on this beautiful piece?
The pandemic got us thinking of other ways that we could create without having to put anyone in danger. We knew we still wanted to release the record in a timely manner and were in the mixing stages when the pandemic hit. We saw Flora’s work in a video by a group called the Whispering Tree and were completely smitten.
We reached out to them to connect to Flora, thinking it would be a long shot since she was so good—and had since moved to much larger projects. When we asked her, though, and sent the song, we were met with a warm, soulful human who not only can shred in animation, but also captured the entirety of the song.
Her simplicity is complimented with her deliberate nature, and working with her felt like creating something not outside of ourselves. And her animation brought us into the song again in a new way—a way that was distanced so that we could see it from the outside again, too—which was healing in its own way. We’re incredibly grateful to have had her as our first animator. We’ve been dreaming up ideas for years, and she met our expectations, plus roughly 1,000.