The Great Discontent

Rosie Thomas with umbrella and hearts by April Brimer

Rosie Thomas

Photo by April Brimer

About Rosie

Singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas—originally from Michigan—is currently living life in the Big Apple. After fours years, two movies, one marriage, a cross country move, a long bout with illness, and lots of touring as part of Iron & Wine, Rosie returns with her new album, With Love, which focuses on the central theme of love and its transformative powers.

The album will be released February 14th [today!] on Sing-A-Long Records, was produced by Dave Bazan and Blake Wescott, and features performances by Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), BroBro Brian Thomas, members of Sufjan Stevens’ band, and plenty of other talented musicians/friends. You can view the album trailer here.

Introduction

Rosie knows how to pull at your heartstrings—just listen to her music and you’ll know what we mean. She’s got a voice as clear as a bell and lyrics that go beyond the typical pop song. And if you’ve seen her live, you know that she puts on quite the show. There are a lot of adjectives we could use to describe this little lady. She’s charming, talented, witty, compassionate—did we mention hilarious? When we talked, Rosie didn’t pack any punches. Without hesitation, she shared about her journey to becoming a full-time musician, the importance of finding her own “voice”, her love for people, how she’s taking in life in the Big Apple, and her thoughts on the new album, With Love. Thanks for being our valentine, Rosie!

Interview date: January 23, 2012

Interview

Describe your path to becoming a musician.

My parents were both musicians, so I came into this world surrounded by music. From as early as I can remember, I had music around me all the time—my parents practiced at home and they performed together every weekend at a night club, which was really cute. My parents never pressured me to do music, but when music is around you, you can’t help but be moved by it. I couldn’t help but see the connection of how music drew my parents together, how it was a bond that they shared, and how it was a way for them to affect others. I knew it was something that I wanted to do as well.

Being a musician in our family was something that everybody did. I suppose, in a way, that it just came to me. It wasn’t like a light bulb went off—it was more like a candle was lit. It was much more subtle. I knew I was meant to carry on the gift that my parents had and I knew it would be my way of affecting other people.

I remember this story from when I was 11 or 12. I was tossing and turning in bed one night and I woke up with this idea that I had to share with my father. I knocked on my parent’s door and said, “Dad, can I talk to you?” He said yes and I told him, “Well, I just can’t sleep. I know what I want to do for a living. I know what I was just made to do and I want to tell you so we can get started at it.” My dad got up and sat at the end of the bed with me and said, “Well, what is it?” I said, “I want to entertain people,” and he replied, “Alright, let’s figure out a way for you to do that.”

My dad bought me my first guitar and taught me to play. He and I started playing shows together because I realized I didn’t have enough material to play alone, but he had been playing his entire life and had hundreds of songs that he knew. We played together at coffee shops—Rosie & Papa Tom—and he would fill in the parts that I couldn’t. I only knew six or seven songs at the time so he’d play Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, or Peter, Paul, & Mary to fill in the gaps.

My dad was blown away that I could write music. The more I wrote, the better the lyrics became. I’m so glad that a lot of those first tunes I wrote didn’t get recorded. They were so bad, but it took those for me to get better. I knew I could sing and I knew I was a hell of an entertainer because I could make people laugh too, but I am still tickled that I can write.

Another thing that my dad always taught me was that it’s not success that makes you worthy, it’s your passion—it has to come from the passion, not the platform. I pursued music because I thought it was my life’s work and my gift to give to others and I knew I had a great compassion for people that went alongside of the music.

I’ve always had a compassion for people. I remember my mother saying to me when I was seven or eight, “Rosie, you take life too seriously. Sweetie, I wish you could have a lighter heart sometimes.” I would think about people all the time. I grew up in the suburbs and I remember going to the mall and looking at hundreds of people and asking my mom, “Mom, do you think these people are okay? Do you think they know they’re not alone?” I remember thinking, “What can you do about that, Rosie?” People have always been on my heart.

I’ll tell you what—living in New York, I constantly wonder how people are doing. I’m touched by the struggles I see people go through here. I watch people everyday on the subway and think, “I hope they’re alright. I wonder if they’re afraid to say they’re not capable or that they’re overwhelmed, or scared.” That really tugs at my heartstrings. Having the gift of a sense of humor can help to make those things not feel so heavy.

Were your parents supportive of your decision to pursue music?

Yes. There is no doubt that because of their love, encouragement, praise, adoration, and attention in my life, I believed that I could do anything I set my mind to.

I remember a night that I was crying in bed—I think I was in the 6th grade. My mother was playing with my hair and she asked me what was wrong. I said, “Boys at school think I’m weird because I’m funny. Sometimes I wish they thought I was pretty like the other girls at school.” The next day when I was on my way to catch the school bus, my mom ran out the door and shouted, “You are so pretty!” and I blushed. I’ll never forget that.

My parents have always loved their children so well, with such care and thoughtful intent. I’m very lucky.

Did you pursue music seriously right out of high school?

I went to California right after high school. I thought I’d start in LA, but I didn’t like it there. Then I moved to the Northwest to go to Cornish, a theatre school in Seattle. I thought that if all else failed, I could do Broadway. The problem was that I was only good at the comedy roles. Every time I was given a serious role, I would even make the teachers laugh. They said, “Rosie, you’re just meant to play comical roles.” I knew that wasn’t my passion. It was something I loved to do, but playing somebody else’s part wouldn’t allow me to deliver the message I wanted to deliver. I wanted to play my part and go about being me. I felt that was a stronger character; I have a lot to say and I didn’t want to mute that by playing somebody else.

I looked at every gift I was given in life and I tried every one of them. I even tried comedy. Stand-up is really fun, but I have a hard time ending it on a funny note. I always want to end it on a heart-tugger, but you can’t do that. You’d be booed.

One day I realized that I could do stand-up in between playing songs. That’s what started my stage banter. I remember when I got my first show. I called my dad and said, “Pop, I’m screwed because I got my first show and I don’t have enough material.” He said, “I know you’ll figure it out. Just talk to ’em, Rosie. You’re good at that.” So I purposefully came up with funny stories so I could cheat the system and fill up the whole set. And it worked. That’s when I realized I could be my own pioneer and do it all. When given the platform to do music, I can use every part of who I am.

“I pursued music because I thought it was my life’s work and my gift to give to others and I knew I had a great compassion for people that went alongside of the music.”

You said you moved to California and then to Seattle to go to theatre school. Was there an “aha” moment in there when you decided to pursue music full-time?

I think that moment happened in California. I was taking theatre courses, trying comedy, and doing music. I met this man, Eddie, in my theatre class and he had a really low voice like a foghorn. He was in his 40’s and what intrigued me about him was that he had quit everything to pursue theatre. We were out for coffee one day after class and I said to him, “Eddie, tell me… I love comedy, I love entertaining, and I love music. Which one do I choose?” He said, “I know you, Rosie. You will find a way to do it all.”

I got my first music show when I was 18. When I played that show by myself and filled in parts with speaking, comedy banter, and story-telling, that’s when the light bulb went off. I thought, “This is it. This is you doing it all.” It was my voice.

By the time I moved to Seattle, I was already playing little shows. I don’t think I knew then that I would make a living at it. That’s a whole different story. I knew that wasn’t a given because there were a lot of people who were just as talented and passionate as me. So the most important thing became doing it—actually performing. I had already known David Bazan and Damien Jurado and was very lucky to be friends with them. They introduced me to Seattle, took me under their wing, cared for me, and introduced me to the Seattle music scene.

Growing up in the Midwest and only listening to the radio, if your music wasn’t on a big record label—well, I never heard of ya. When I moved to Seattle and learned that there was more music out there than the Top 40, it was exhilarating! I realized there was a place for me and that I could do it my way. I never wanted to be anyone’s puppet, nor did I want to wear hot pants and dance like Britney Spears—but I knew I had the personality and the heart to be one heck of an entertainer!

Within that first year of going to theatre school in Seattle, I knew music was it because every day at school, all I could think about was playing my guitar or writing. That was where my heart was pulling me, even though I didn’t know then that that would be what would pay my bills.

Was it a long time for you to transition into making a living doing music?

For my first record, I was broke. It was fun and exciting. I felt like Beyoncé touring and interviewing. I said yes to everything and I remember Dave always telling me, “Don’t say yes to everything, Rosie.” I would reply, “Bazan, how can I say no?”

It was a good couple years, but by the second record, I didn’t have a job anymore. I was very lucky with getting my songs placed so that I was able to just do music. At first, it’s really weird to come off tour and not have a job to go to. You get stir-crazy and think, “What am I doing with my life? What am I, retired?” I’ve always stayed really busy and learned to use that down-time pretty well. Although, I won’t lie—sometimes I’ll get into a TV show. I have to give myself permission to take breaks too. If I didn’t, I would over-exhaust myself and damage what it is that I love to do. I have to find a balance.

You have a new record, With Love, that comes out on Valentine’s Day. Tell us about it?

One of the biggest things that Sam Beam and David Bazan encouraged me to do on this album was to reveal more of myself instead of sounding so shy. I can be very shy. When I’m playing a show, it takes about three songs before I feel like I own it. With this record, David and Sam encouraged more spunk and asked me to show my big personality. I finally have the songs to do that, which I never did before.

This is just a happier time of my life. When you’re writing a song, it speaks volumes if you’ve lived through what you’re writing about. With this record, I actually lived a season where, for the first time, love was found and not lost. It was a much different avenue for me to explore.

It’s funny. When I was touring with Iron & Wine last summer, Sam asked me to sing harmonies with him on this beautiful song he was working on. I asked him when he wrote it and he said he had written it 10 years ago. He asked me if I have a harder time writing now that I’m married. I don’t have a harder time writing; it’s just different. There’s still heartache because you’re still you and no one can fix that. I still have my own things to sort through, but it’s so nice to come home at the end of the day to someone who just adores me—his love for me makes me feel like a million bucks. It does make life sweeter. There’s a lot more contentment in my life now.

You mentioned David and Damien taking you under their wing when you moved to Seattle. Would you consider them mentors?

Without question. Damien was my first big mentor. He believed in me and was a huge encouragement to me. I needed that. When you have somebody believing in you, that can carry you. Damien really believed in my music and me as a person. He asked me to sing on the Ghost of David record. I was going to theatre school at the time and he was recording during the day. I had to skip class in order to go record. I didn’t realize he was going to ask me to sing the song alone; I thought I would sing harmonies on the track. He said, “Alright, here’s the song. Sing it.” I said, “Where’s your voice?” He said, “It’s going to be just you.” I thought that was a very weird move. I thought he was kidding. I thought of his fans and how greatly disappointed they were going to be when it wasn’t Damien’s voice on the track.

I sang the track and Damien turned the record into Sub Pop. I didn’t think anything much of it. They listened to it and asked who the girl was singing on “Parking Lot”. I think that was his plan. I’m forever grateful to him.

David was also great. He looked out for me, helped me play shows, and I think he was the first drummer I ever had. And of course, a big champion of my music was Jonathon Poneman at Sub Pop Records. When Jonathon heard that song [Parking Lot], he came to a show and asked to have coffee with me. I didn’t know who he was and I said no. Damien was there and told me it was Poneman and that I should go have coffee with him. I went to coffee with Jonathon and he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to entertain people. He asked me to go record three songs and bring them back to him and if he liked them, he would let me make a record. He took a risk on me with hearing very little. I’m very thankful to him for doing that for me.

My friend, Eric Fisher, was also a mentor for me when I first moved to Seattle. He was the first friend to play music with me—he was my first “band” other than playing with my father.

I’m also thankful for my theatre teacher at Cornish, Ellen Boyle. She kept me after class one afternoon and said, “What are you doing here? You already know what you want to do with your life—now go out and do it!” And I did.

Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?

When I got the record deal with Sub Pop, I had to make a big decision about school. In the summer before my sophomore year at Cornish, I had to choose the record deal or sticking with school. It seems funny now to think I contemplated that. I remember thinking if I was going to do it, I had to be prepared that it could go any way—it could blow up or deflate. When you’re in a position where people are putting you on a pedestal and giving you a lot of attention, you notice when that attention is taken away. I had to go into it very carefully, with the right perspective, and make sure I didn’t place my value solely in what other people thought of me. That was the first risk.

I think the second risk would be moving from Seattle to New York because I left a place of comfort. We’ve been here for a year and a half and it’s been harder than I thought, but it’s also been very humbling. It has taught me an invaluable lesson that there are times in life that are hard, and that’s okay. I remember the first month we were here and we were walking down the street in Brooklyn and I said to my fella, “What if it’s really hard while we’re here?” He replied, “Well, then it’ll be really hard while we’re here and that’s okay, Rosie.” It’s important to remember that while we can’t always get around hardship, we can get through it.

I think I’ve been a bit spoiled in life and didn’t know it. I didn’t mean to be spoiled; I don’t think I’ve been lazy, but I’ve been fortunate to have some great opportunities come to me and I try not to take that for granted. There have been seasons that have been more difficult and, I think, “This isn’t fair. This doesn’t feel right.” I’ve learned that those seasons are purposeful and important too. They’re not by accident. When bad things happen to us, we wonder what we did wrong. When good things happen to us, we don’t think that, do we? Why is it that when bad things happen, we think it’s undeserving? I think that both parts are deserving and purposeful.

Being in NY has made me more thankful for what I’ve been given and it’s made me rise above because living here, you have to. You have to be more vocal and that’s made me stronger when I have to tell cabbies, “You’re taking me to Brooklyn, buster!”

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself? What do you hope to contribute through your music?

I do feel that responsibility very much—sometimes too much. When I perform live, someone will ask after, how did you feel about this performance? I’ll say, “It was great. It was live. Whatever. It was amazing. I did that.” I don’t pick myself apart. I know what it takes for me to do that and it’s not as easy as people might think. When you’re an extrovert, people assume you can’t wait to get up in front of people. That’s not necessarily true. I take it seriously and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I thought a lot about that when I was given the platform that I have.

There was a time in life when I thought, I can’t go door to door and see how people are doing. Music is my way of going door to door. I have the opportunity to affect people. One guy said to me after a show, “It’s simple, Rosie. You have a way of comforting people.” Isn’t that so sweet? The most important thing for me, whether I’m on stage or hanging out in my “normal” life, is having compassion, comforting people, and encouraging people.

I want to remind people that we have common ground. Oftentimes we put celebrities on a pedestal and we daydream about what their life might be like; we think they must have it figured out. I want to break that down. I want people to know I’m like them. That’s why they’re at my show. We all have something in common. If I’m writing about stuff that they want to listen to and can relate to, then we must be on the same platform after all.

I’m tired of the baloney—people willing to sell themselves to be successful. I can’t handle that bulljive because I think that when you’re in a position to affect so many people, you should take that seriously. You’ve been given a microphone for crying out loud, and there are too many broken people in this world to not make something meaningful for them. It’s a greater pursuit in the end, and I think a better use of whatever gifts I have to share. My desire to do this at all only grows when it’s less about me and more for others. I get enough attention—I’d rather other people feel celebrated, understood, and encouraged.

“Oftentimes we put celebrities on a pedestal and we daydream about what their life might be like; we think they must have it figured out. I want to break that down. I want people to know I’m like them.”

Are you satisfied creatively?

Yeah, I am. Life is more about the chase sometimes than getting to what you’re chasing, yet we all think we just want to get there. I think we enjoy the chase more than the arrival. So much of my pursuit was: What am I going to do with my life? What’s my purpose? Who am I going to grow old with? To have some of those things answered feels pretty good. Then, after a while, you miss the pursuit again. You think, “Now what?” I was so used to the pursuit that when the stars started to align and things came together, it was…

Whoa, are you actually doing the thing you love? “Yes.”

Did you meet Mr. Shoop and you’re growing old with him? “Yes.”

Did you move to New York? “Yes.”

Do you have a cute apartment? “Yes.”

Do you have friends that really love you and who you really love? “Yes.”

Are you giving to the world everything you can and still keeping something for yourself? “Yes.”

What I’m trying to say is that I think I should probably feel more satisfied than I allow myself. When I’m on tour, I’m really satisfied. I’m using every bit and sharing it all. That feels extraordinary, but sometimes I go stir-crazy because I’m not sure how to be settled.

I remember the first time I toured for months on end and I came home to Seattle and saw Nick from Death Cab for Cutie—it was when they were still on Barsuk. I asked him how he was doing and he said, “I’m pretty bummed.” I asked him why and he said, “I’ve got tour blues, Rosie.” I asked him what that was. He explained that “tour blues” is when you’re living your life every day doing what you love, being passionate, your adrenaline is going, you’re constantly doing something you feel brave about and then you come home and you’ve flatlined.

It was so nice to hear somebody say that. I had been trying to figure out why I had been feeling so down after touring. Living this lifestyle is a lot of extremes—a lot of highs and some lows when you come home and twiddle your thumbs. But you need that time to twiddle your thumbs so that you have the energy to go back out and continue sharing what you have to share.

I went into this career with a little bit of self indulgence to some degree, whether it was proving my bravery and capabilities or proving to myself that I had something to say and contribute to this world or making my parents proud. Whatever the case, it didn’t take long for my perspective to change and for me to realize that I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal at all—it actually made me uncomfortable.

I realized that there was a much bigger calling for me than just playing music. When I was out there on the road, I met a lot of lonely people looking for someone to give them some kind of hope. It dawned on me that this pursuit was never about me—it was always about others. If I made it about me, it would crumble very quickly. I felt a bit of shame for how self-focused I had been and I was greatly humbled. That shift in my perspective gave me a greater passion to get up in front of people, play guitar, sing for them, and make them laugh. After all, giving is the key to happiness and with that mind-set, you can’t fail—as long as my heart is in the right place, I can’t fail—and that’s pretty refreshing.

If you could give one piece of advice to another musician starting out, what would you say?

You gotta really love it and not just be in pursuit of the platform. You gotta be comfortable with who you are. We each have our own story and we can find confidence in knowing that we’re broken and don’t have it all figured out, but that we do know a thing or two about a thing or two. Draw from your strengths and yourself—buy what you’re selling. People know when someone is being sincere and authentic. You can tell when a performer is giving you their heart.

Never ever compromise who you are, because who you are is the biggest thing you’ve got going for you. Let me explain: No one can do what I’m doing better than me and no one can do what you’re doing better than you—it’s that simple. Doesn’t that take the pressure off? There’s no point in comparing yourself to others. The world needs more of your voice, not your attempt at someone else’s voice. Bazan said to me the other day on the phone, “Don’t hold back Rosie. If anything, push yourself even further.”

When the spotlight shines on you, however big or small, just be thankful that it has shone on you at all. Don’t get greedy. The door is going to open exactly how it’s going to open for you. I really believe that.

How does living in New York impact your creativity?

Outside of music, it’s been harder here creatively because I can’t just jump in my car and go to the fabric store. One cool thing about living here is that Etsy Labs is in DUMBO, which is pretty close to me. I like to go there on Mondays because they have free classes and I really enjoying crafting and making things. It makes me feel like I’m in a small town for a while until I realize I have a 45 minute walk home through the projects because the F train has alternate service—again.

I’ve also been crafting a lot lately because I decided to take on this endeavor to make gifts for the first 200 people who buy my new record. I think I’m getting carpal tunnel, which isn’t good because I have to finger-pick on guitar (laughing).

Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people and have you been able to find that in NY?

I’m desperate for community. I think we all should be desperate for community because the friendships in our lives sharpen us. When you’re alone, you can fall apart. Sometimes you need other people to remind you of what you’re capable of. I do think good friends see you better than you see yourself.

I have a great group of friends here, some of whom I’ve known a long time. It’s been really great to get to hang out with them more often and it’s inspiring to be around friends who are doing all sorts of really great things and making their own impact on the world.

Life is different here because people’s apartments are so much smaller. The home is somewhere you sleep and not really a hub. People go out to meet up a lot more here. I do love having people over to our place as much as possible though. I like to make them tea and give them a chance to rest because I don’t think this city lets you do that very often. I’ve worked hard to make it extra cozy and friends have nicknamed it Grandma’s Palace! I’d say it’s more grandma than palace. Sometimes I even put the fake fireplace DVD on in the background—it really works. The other day someone said they felt hot while sitting by it.

What does a typical day look like for you?

First, I get up and make coffee. I don’t go out for coffee much because I was spoiled in Seattle and it’s hard to get good coffee here within walking distance. I try to work during the day like everybody else, so the typical day is me writing or practicing music and also working on comedy bits or doing voice-over work. It’s hard to have a routine because my days are really different depending on what’s happening.

My favorite days in NY are when I venture out alone—I get pumped. I was on tour with Sam for a while last year and didn’t get back home until July. I want to take advantage of being here before touring starts again and I have to leave NY for a while. I’ve been sightseeing and taking pictures even though those are touristy things to do. I’m just still not over this city. I’ve done lots of walking since I’ve lived here; I thought I joined a gym, only I didn’t.

We also have a great view of Manhattan from our rooftop and I spend a lot of time up there writing, contemplating, and having friends over to share the view with me.

Current album on repeat?

To be honest, I’m pretty bad about seeking out music. I end up listening to friends’ records, new songs I’m working on, and bands that I’ve toured with and get to know. When I toured with Iron & Wine last year, I obviously listened to a lot of Sam’s music and I enjoyed the opening sets—The Low Anthem and the Head and The Heart. TW Walsh and Damien Jurado also have really great new records out.

I really love Sufjan’s last record too. I think it’s because I got to see him perform it live so much last year. The shows were awesome and he blows my mind with all that he dreams up and pulls off. Those shows were dynamite.

Do you have any favorite movies or television shows?

Friday Night Lights for sure. That’s the first show I’ve ever really got into. When I went on tour with Iron & Wine, I wanted to take a show to watch on the bus. I was super close to bringing 30 Rock until someone recommended FNL and I didn’t know if I’d like it because I’m not a sports fanatic. I swear to you; I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus some nights, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, grab a bag of chips, and see what was goin’ on with Coach T! One morning I woke up with potato chip crumbs all over me, and thought, “Dang, I need to get a better pastime on the road.” I felt gross.

Another favorite show that Sam got me hooked on while on tour is Extras with Ricky Gervais. It’ll make ya laugh out loud. He’s got a new show out called An Idiot Abroad that I’m dying to watch! Anything that guy does is sheer genius.

Favorite book?

All time favorite book is a children’s book called Hope for the Flowers. It’s just beautiful.

One of the best books I’ve read recently is Of Time and Memory by Don Snyder. It’s a story about a boy setting out on a journey to find out more about his parent’s love story. I cried so many tears reading his words; he has the ability to capture every emotion in such poetic detail. He actually sent me the book and asked me to write music for it if it was ever made into a film. What an honor! I wrote three songs the day I finished his book. It was so inspiring. He just sent me another book and I can’t wait to read it. It’s like magic. If I read his book I’ll be inspired to write—I just know it.

Favorite food?

Pizza. I never get tired of it, which is great for being in New York because it’s only $1 for a slice. I’m a real fan of the slice. And if I could do it my way, I would only eat appetizers or sampler platters—I could live on that stuff, honest! I am also learning to cook more and have been making homemade soup, which is super easy. I gotta eat well while I’m home because, as you can imagine, tour food is not the best. I end up eating a lot of bread and cheese on the road.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Oh, wow! I want to leave a legacy that I was a good friend; that I helped people feel less alone; that I made people laugh; sang my heart out; reminded others that there is always hope; and that I was a good steward of the gifts God gave me. I guess that I want to have lived a vulnerable life with a lot of heart and know that because of doing those things, I will have been able to comfort a lot of people. interview close

Rosie Thomas mowing a lawn by April Brimer
Rosie Thomas by April Brimer

“No one can do what I’m doing better than me and no one can do what you’re doing better than you—it’s that simple. Doesn’t that take the pressure off? There’s no point in comparing yourself to others. The world needs more of your voice, not your attempt at someone else’s voice.”

Dan Mall Chuck Anderson