by Rob van Alstyne
With modern pop music in both the independent and major label spheres increasingly focused on insouciant coolness, artists like Rosie Thomas, an emotionally naked and über-earnest folk singer, appear on the verge of extinction—which is a shame.
It's easy to understand why the confessional singer/songwriter
is going the way of the dinosaur when the only high profile examples are overbearing
crybabies like Dashboard Confessional. DC may have somehow managed to parlay
solipsistic middle school poems about unrequited boners into sold out arena
tours, but a discovery like Thomas, whose equally introspective but far more
articulate tunes are forced to settle for a critic centered cultic following,
serves notice that as long as people have rudimentary acoustic guitar skills
and a bit of insight into the human condition there's never going to be a shortage
of worthwhile singer/songwriters plying their trade.
so much going on in our lives I don't think we ever finish having things to
talk about or think about," claims the Seattle-based Thomas, 26, via telephone
while on tour, "I think that goes for all of us—not songwriters in
particular. My life is a constant learning process and I can't imagine I'll
run out of things to say. I may get bored sometimes though and think, 'Crap,
why am I always talking about the same things?' I sit around with my friends
and it's like, 'Shit we're talking about our fear of marriage again.' I look
forward to the day that everything's cool, but also realize it’s not ever
going to be and there's always that stuff to work through. I'm always coming
back to that creatively, it's always about love, it's always about figuring
yourself out, it's always about faith. I think it's a continual process, and
I hope as a writer it continues to pour out of me."
It's pouring in buckets throughout Thomas' sophomore effort,
2003's Only With Laughter Can You Win (Sub Pop) in which she artfully dodges
trite Lilith Fair treacle to produce a set of textured melancholic folk-rock
whose pensive emotional terrain manages to be both soothing and unsettling for
the listener. Crafted with the aid of longtime musical collaborator Eric Fisher
(guitarist for Damien Jurado's Gathered in Song), Thomas' sad songbird alto
and skeletal acoustic guitar sketches are augmented by lush vocal harmonies
and fleshed out with minor chord piano melodies, scattered bits of cello and
glockenspiel and the occasional indie-folk-star cameos (from the likes of Iron
& Wine's Sam Beam) to great effect throughout Only With …
The hymn-like a cappella opening of "Let Myself Fall"
provides a nice contrast to the gentle country-rock of "I Play Music"
which in turn offsets the experimental ambiance of closing tape collage/piano
ballad "Dialogue." The overall result is a broader reaching and richer
sounding album then Thomas' solid debut, 2001's more traditionally bent, When
We Were Small. Only With Laughter Can You Win asserts Thomas as her own woman,
far more than the Phoni Mitchell clone some were quick to write her off as on
The broader reach extends not only to the sounds contained
on album No. 2, Thomas' lyrical eye is similarly widened, moving beyond the
childhood ruminations that fueled much of When We Were Small and attempting
to grapple with issues ranging from staving off self-destructive impulses ("One
More Day") to self-help affirmations ("Gradually") and repeatedly
examining the newest relationship in her life—which happens to be with
God ("All My Life").
Admittedly, an album revolving around the quest for self-realization
and spiritual stability sounds completely overbearing (like most everyone else
I know, I have a hard time even saying the words "self-realization"
without smirking). Thankfully, Thomas approaches the touchy subject matter with
supreme tact. She's keenly aware that whenever artists attempt to tackle the
big issues of life in song (love, God, death) you had better raise more questions
than answers or risk appearing like a preachy blow-hard.
"There are definitely songs that I write and put God's
name in there and I'm like, 'yeah that's the thing I'm talking about—that's
the thing that gets me through,'" explains Thomas, regarding the more overtly
ethereal bent of her latest recording. "I tried to [write about my spirituality]
in a way that remained open for people though. So many people have a really
limited view of Christianity. As soon as they hear you sing about God all the
sudden they picture you in a polo shirt and holding a Bible and it's like, 'no
man not everybody is that way, and those people aren't always right either—those
people are screwed up too.' Someone wrote something where I was compared to
[conservative Christian pop star] Amy Grant and I was like, 'Oh my god, I think
I'm going to kill myself.' I get compared to Amy Grant just because I say the
word God and that's just absurd. That's part of making music, though, getting
used to being criticized and disliked and sometimes unfairly."
Strongly favoring the role of spiritual seeker over didactic
proselytizer, Thomas continues to seek connection (spiritual and corporeal)
through her craft. A bubbly flat-out hilarious personality (she was a regular
on the Seattle stand-up comedy circuit before pursuing music full-time), Thomas
saves her serious and strongest sentiments for her songs. "Music is a part
of me and it's a big part of me," admits Thomas, "but obviously I
do other things. Like with my stand-up comedy, I would stick to making people
laugh. My music just comes from a very serious place. I think people are dying
to go deeper. I think people are dying of loneliness. And so what do we do to
get through that? We go to the bar and we drink and laugh and talk about bullshit
and talk about nothing. So it's very important to me with my music that I actually
talk about things that matter. Because they are things I think about. Why is
it that I'm able to laugh at life? Why is it that I'm able to make it through
with my chin up? Because I was able to look at in a very serious way and go
like, 'wow I'm really freaked out about a lot of things in my life.' I try to
look at that stuff and really face it because I don't want to die feeling like
I never really fucking knew myself. And if you can be bold enough to bring that
stuff up then maybe other people will be like 'thank you, I've been freaking
out too' and you can affect someone else. I want to affect people on a very
real level and hopefully reach them at an emotional place."
Rosie Thomas plays on Wed., April 21, at the Turf Club.
With Denison Witmer and the Ashtray Hearts. 8 p.m. $6. 21+. The Corner of University
and Snelling Avenues, St. Paul. 651-647-0486.
Download an mp3 of
Rosie Thomas’ song I Play Music.
You can find out more about Rosie Thomas on her official website.