Music

“It Hadn’t Been Fun in a Really Long Time”

Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose on Joan Didion, David Berman, and her first album in nine years.

A woman with short brown hair stands against a white wall, wearing a Bob Fosse T-shirt.
Caitlin Rose. Laura E. Partain

It’s been nine years since Caitlin Rose released The Stand-In, a sweet and sad throwback to classic country that was one of the best records of 2013. Rose has toured and tweeted, but she’s released very little new music since then. But Cazimi, her new album, both confirms that she’s one of the strongest songwriters in Nashville and suggests she’s eager to explore a new set of sounds. Recorded with members of the touring band of the late David Berman, like William Tyler and Brian Kotzur—after Rose joined them onstage during a Berman tribute show in 2019—Cazimi sounds both fuzzy and fizzy. On songs like “Getting it Right,” written and sung with Courtney Marie Andrews, Rose layers thoughtful, introspective lyrics over ringing guitars.

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In several songs on Cazimi, which comes out Friday, Rose proclaims herself “nobody’s sweetheart—and nobody’s fool.” This certainly came through in our conversation, in which Rose demurred when I asked about her long absence but spoke with enthusiasm about her love of Joan Didion, her appreciation of comfort zones, and what she’s learned from her mom—a songwriter who’s co-written some of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Dan Kois: You tweeted the other day about Joan Didion. What’s your favorite Didion?

Caitlin Rose: Oh, it’s “Marrying Absurd.”

[Feigning familiarity] Go on.

It’s the essay about the Vegas wedding chapels in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

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Oh, got it. What did you learn from reading her?

We wrote “Pink Champagne,” a song on The Stand-In, kind of pulling it straight from that piece. I mean, that essay is not so much an essay as it is a really painful narrative journey.

So how does a painful narrative journey manifest in what you do?

It’s not just painful, it’s painful and sweet because it’s the total innocence of this person being thrown into a situation that, clearly, from the essay, you kind of feel is not quite ready for that yet. “Pink Champagne” was just written from the perspective of the young girl getting married at the chapel. It feels more heartbreaking than fulfilling to me. People would send me emails or whatever saying they used it as their wedding song. I was like, Oh god, that’s an interesting call.

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It has been a really long time between albums for you.

Oh yeah.

And from afar it seems like you’ve gone through a cavalcade of industry shit, even before COVID happened. And in the album notes you talked about “a 10-year streak of doom and disappointment.” I know the real answer to this is longer than we could ever print, but what happened?

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I’ve been having a bit of a come-to-Jesus with this kind of question. I knew it was going to be very prominent in most of the conversations I had. Ten years of life can carry a lot of trauma, but that’s not something you have to share with people. I think at this point I’m trying to focus more on the present and the future, which is something I’ve never really been very good at anyways. I’m sure it’s a very unsatisfactory answer for people.

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It’s a totally fair answer, and I think it makes it more difficult for you that a long delay between albums is an obvious hook that a marketing department wants to use. It’s an easy story to try to tell and to try and get people to talk about.

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I think any artist who chooses to divulge whatever thing has been their fucking hang-up, it’s their decision. But I feel really happy that I’m working with people who have not pressured me to share a narrative that I don’t feel comfortable sharing.

Your song with Courtney Marie Andrews, “Getting It Right,” seems like it’s specifically about the desire to look forward and move forward and at least hinting at better days ahead. In an album that can get pretty dark, it stands out, I think, even more brightly than it would on a different album.

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I wrote that song with Courtney probably in 2014. There were a few other iterations of this record that did not go so well. And with this song, a few people I worked with never really were fans of it. So it kind of kept getting put off by the wayside. I always just really loved it. And then finally I was feeling more motivated to try and work towards my own record. I’ve been doing a lot of co-writing and kind of sneaking my narratives into songs for the fuck of it, just to kind of exorcise some feelings.

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Forgive me for not knowing this: Do you live in Nashville?

I do.

I’m extremely outside of that world and only vaguely understand it.

Honestly, same here, man.

Right. From my perspective, you seem sort of connected to that industry in certain ways but also very outside that universe. Why do you live in Nashville? What does the city give to you?

I think No. 1 is my family. Luckily they’ve all kind of stayed here too. When I was 21, I kind of got shipped off on tour and didn’t stop for a few years, and I didn’t see my family very often. I ended up making a record somewhere that was very foreign to me, and I didn’t have any kind of contacts there and it was a really difficult time, and it came out of someone believing I needed to be out of my comfort zone. And it took me a long time to realize that despite what anybody thinks is best for me, my comfort zone is actually pretty sick.

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People really give comfort zones a bad rap, but actually they’re quite useful.

They usually give women a bad rap about comfort zones. “Let’s get you out somewhere where you can really figure something out, where you’re super stressed out, and alone.”

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Where you have absolutely no support system whatsoever.

Oh yeah, it’s very chill. Making this record here was great. Unfortunately, I also think a big part of making records for me is about the hang. And if the hang’s not good, the record’s not either.

Your mom is a country songwriter, who came to it a little bit later in life, but has co-written with Taylor Swift and Lori McKenna. Is there anything that you have learned from the way that her career developed that has been useful to you?

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I grew up in a house that was generally full of people who just loved music and who weren’t ashamed to share it. I mean that’s how my mom started, was just being in a room and occasionally piping in and having a great idea. And Jody Williams, who was running a publishing company in town at the time, said, “I think you’re a songwriter.”

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So it wasn’t that she was scribbling away ideas for 20 years and then all of a sudden all the songs came loose.

I’m sure she always had a very creative tendency. It had never been tapped. And I think that’s probably the case with a lot of, especially women: Nobody ever says, “Hey, I actually think you could do this,” or encourages them to try. And she ended up being pretty good at it.

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William Tyler played guitar on many of these songs. He is the person on this record, other than you, whose work I know the best. How did you end up working with him?

I had no plans to track a record. I wasn’t working with a label. I was literally just existing in a sad little void. And they asked me to do a David Berman tribute—to sing a Silver Jews song at a club called Dark Matter. And it was William, Jack Lawrence, Brian Kotzur, Luke Schneider. This group of people represented the Nashville that I had missed a lot, in a lot of ways. And after the show, I think I was just sort looking mopey and saying, “Wahhh, I wish I could just track a record with you guys.”

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And I think it was Jack who was like, “Well, why can’t you?” So the next day I said, “Book a studio, let’s do it.” And we did it. And it was so kind of healing for some of the, I don’t know, bruises I was carrying from a little bit of the time before that. I don’t know, man—they made it something fun again for me, and it hadn’t been fun in a really long time.

Was that Berman tribute just after he died?

Yeah, in 2019. David was one of my heroes, a person who represented this idea of Nashville to me that not a lot of people get.

What was it about Berman’s work that spoke to you so specifically?

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That he was foremost a writer. Obviously, melodically and musically, he was brilliant. But foremost, he was an amazing writer. And it was almost like he was always translating his writing style to accompany his musical style. And I always really appreciated that. The way my brain focuses is: If I can’t look at it on paper and like it, I don’t want it.

He published a lot of really great poetry, too. Do you feel like there’s a book in you someday?

I don’t know. I read a lot of poetry, but it doesn’t come naturally to me in that way. I’m used to a set of rules, and I’m used to … By rules, I mean song structure. Song structure is really important to me. I try and step out of it sometimes. It doesn’t feel natural. And with poetry, I think poetry is editing after, and I think I edit during.

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I think there are poets who write exactly the way that you write, who edit during.

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I have this weird fascination with the idea of what a poet does. There’s an instant, there’s a moment that creates a poem, and then you figure it out. But with songs, it feels like more of a building process. Because with poetry, my favorite poetry cuts the fat, and with songs, half of it’s going to be fat. You just have to make it better.

You’re right that the structural requirements of songs force you to leave in the stuff that, in certain kinds of contemporary poetry, would go. But there are still poets who work in structures, who write sonnets and villanelles and do amazing things.

I’m intimidated by the idea of it. I scrutinize myself so much, and I’m so judgmental of my own thoughts that it doesn’t feel like it’s something that I could do freely until I’ve really figured out my shit, maybe.

Great news: You sound like every poet I’ve ever met.

Thank you.

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