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28 November 2022

Caitlin Rose: “I’ve never been embarrassed of who I am”

The Nashville-born musician on trauma, getting older and taking nine years away from music.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“I don’t think I’ve ever been embarrassed about who I am or what I like,” said Caitlin Rose. With Own Side Now, a collection of country songs released as Rose’s full debut album in 2010, Rose “really was just who I was, and it was fun”. But with The Stand-In, her slicker, wittier, 2013 follow-up, for which the then-26-year-old Rose played with a 1930s-40s Hollywood look, “there was this weird kind of costume effect that took place”.

“There’s a lot of aesthetic that happens in a music career – if you’re a woman, mostly,” said Rose, now 35, down the phone from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. “The point of [The Stand-In] was to create something with that effect, but that takes so much work, just around image. Keeping up with it was impossible.”

Performing complicated her relationship with herself. Living up to an image other people had made of her “created a dysphoria”. Sometimes she would be at the merchandise table before a show, and a fan would come up to her and, not recognising her, ask: “Do you know what time Caitlin is playing?” That led to a “weird, out-of-body experience”. 

“It lent itself to some pretty dissociative habits, so in a way I wanted to get out of my body. But in a way it also made me realise that, ‘Wow, it’s a good place to be – in your body.’” She described the experience as like being in a “mental black hole”: “you come in one way and you come out twisted up and completely different from what you thought you were. It takes a while to get back into an understanding of who you are and what’s actually important.”

After two critically successful albums, which took Rose on tour around the world, she didn’t issue any new music for almost a decade. Her new record, Cazimi, released on 18 November, reintroduces her remarkably honeyed voice, which sits atop tight songwriting. While country was previously Rose’s mainstay, here she plays with pop and jangly guitar rock too. These songs are not all new: in fact “Blameless”, a melancholic number underscored by pedal steel guitar, and “Getting It Right”, a co-write with Courtney Marie Andrews that growls with electric guitar, date back to 2014, when she was still touring The Stand-In.

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“I did a couple years of touring on that album,” she said. “But that was around the time that the wheels fell off of everything. There were a couple of bumps in the road that led to some down time,” Rose said matter-of-factly but would not give further details about exactly what those bumps entailed. She is not, it quickly became clear, willing to offer up her trauma as part of this record’s story.

She was still co-writing “around town” – around Nashville – including “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”, the country singer Margo Price’s 2015 debut single, and tracks by the rock band All Them Witches and the Dallas Americana group Old 97’s. But writing about herself was proving far more difficult. “It was a Sisyphean nightmare – you roll the rock up the hill and then it rolls back down and flattens you. A lot of the time was like that.” She wrote countless songs, but multiple attempts at recording them failed.

Rose described herself as having “a history of a candid nature”. A decade ago, her live shows consisted of lots of swearing, and jibing with her band and the crowd. Over the phone her manner was warm and relaxed, especially when speaking about her songwriting process. But on the topic of the personal circumstances that informed the record, she was audibly more guarded and hesitant.

[See also: Nick Cave interview: “I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous”]

Rose’s mother, Liz Rose, is a notable country songwriter in Nashville. Her credits include 17 Taylor Swift songs, including “Teardrops on My Guitar”, “You Belong with Me” and “White Horse”, which won the 2010 Grammy Award for best country song. Her father, Johnny B Rose, used to market country music for major labels. Country is in Rose’s blood, but growing up what she did was “a very separate thing”, Rose said. “I grew up playing punk shows, and I wasn’t inviting them.”

In the nine years since she released The Stand-In, Rose wrote songs for other artists, worked at a candle store, ran a Poshmark shop (a US-specific version of Ebay or Etsy), and spent lots of time babysitting her nephew. “I don’t know, man,” she said, growing animated, “I frickin’ live my life. I’m trying to stay away from the absence” – the period of time when she did not release any new music. “To me it feels like lost time, but I’m having to give myself a little grace and see it as building time. I was building this, and it just took a long time to have the right parts.”

Rose had known she wanted to name the album Cazimi for a long time. The word is an astrological term for when a planet is perfectly conjoined with the sun. “It’s a perfect conjunction to the point where that planet is supposedly in the heart of the sun, and it is more glorified than combust. It’s a brief, shining moment of empowerment. It’s a nice thought for me because it’s like you’re either under a rock or you’re blinded, you know? It’s about finding that moment that feels like you’re being nurtured by this light instead of a) hiding from it, or b) being obliterated by it.”

Her team regularly told her the album name “wasn’t the one”, but she stuck with it, she said laughing, still impressed at her own persistence. “I have a really great team around me for the first time,” she said – people who she trusts are working for her for the right reasons. The first time around that “just wasn’t built in. I think it was all very fast. For me, I was 21 and thrown into an interesting thing that I didn’t quite have the necessary skills for.” 

Her experience recording and promoting Cazimi has been comparatively positive – primarily because at 35 and on to her third album, Rose treats herself differently. “That’s another part of getting older: you teach people how to treat you, and that’s something I’ve had to learn in very painful ways. For all of the insecurities I still tote around, and my innate personality weaknesses, I have a more connected way of thought now. I feel a little less mentally confused. It’s easier for me to stand my ground and tell people what I want or what I need. And in turn, that makes people more comfortable – when you tell them what you need or you want, then they can understand it and they don’t have to read your fucking mind.”

It makes sense, then, that Rose refuses to hook this album to a harrowing personal story. Trauma sells. Lots of records – particularly those by young women – are promoted alongside stories of artists’ suffering. Rose won’t have it.

“Trauma is a chicken or egg situation,” she said. “You’re never really going to know what can set off that domino effect.” She offers an example to explain what she means: in 2017 she rolled her ankle, and almost every year since then she has rolled a foot, an ankle, or both. Two months ago she broke her foot and had to have surgery. “I hobbled around on that thing for ten days thinking it was a sprain, like an idiot. When [the doctor] checked my foot, he also realised I had a torn ankle ligament, which is why I kept falling, why I kept rolling my foot, why I couldn’t walk like my normal walking self. 

“That’s what it [trauma] is to me. Is it one thing that happened, is it another thing that happened? All of these things line up in a way that makes life impossible to move forward with. Everyone has one of those after ten years of life, and I don’t think anyone has to name theirs. I don’t think people’s stories are owed to anyone. You know, man: roll your foot one time, you’ll break it eventually – until you figure out what was actually wrong. Finding that out was a big part for me. That’s not something you have to name for anyone.”

“Cazimi” is out now on Names.

[See also: Wilko Johnson interview: the long goodbye]

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