It’s about ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning and I am sitting at my dining table, sipping coffee and still waking up. Normally I’d be at work at this hour, but the previous evening’s events have me moving much slower than usual. At the end of the table to my right is Josh Rouse, doing roughly the same thing I am.
It’s about ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning and I am sitting at my dining table, sipping coffee and still waking up. Normally I’d be at work at this hour, but the previous evening’s events have me moving much slower than usual. At the end of the table to my right is Josh Rouse, doing roughly the same thing I am. Sipping coffee, still waking up. He takes off his black horn-rimmed glasses, rubs his eyes, and replaces the glasses on the bridge of his nose. He’s either just towel-dried his hair before taking his seat at the table or he hasn’t washed it for days, could be either one. We’re supposed to be doing an interview, but neither of us is saying a word. Bassist James “Hags” Haggerty and drummer Marc Pisapia are slowly getting up and around, finding their way to the bathrooms and looking for the source of the coffee smell. Guitarist Kurt Perkins is still fast asleep in a guest room and will be the last one to move as, apparently, he always is.
Twelve hours ago, Josh Rouse and his band were taking the stage in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, preparing to play to a couple hundred people—a pretty good turnout, especially for a Tuesday night. Having been sufficiently warmed up by The Damnwells, a great, young, four-piece outfit from Brooklyn, New York, the crowd was ready to hear Rouse. And he was ready for them. Having had the previous night off, the band was fully rested and in a playful mood.They put on a good show, covering much of Rouse’s latest release, Under Cold Blue Stars, and touching on highlights from his two previous albums. Along the way, Josh manages to talk a girl into leaving her date to get up on stage for a dance (“Hey this is just like that Springsteen video!” he says from the mic), stray into a brief cover of (no kidding) Air Supply’s “Lost In Love,” and slip in a wisecrack about a certain close football game a few years ago between the Cornhuskers of his native Nebraska and the Missouri Tigers. Normally, doing any one of these things in a St. Louis bar would result in a thorough ass-kicking, but for some reason Rouse manages to pull off all three unscathed in the space of a 90-plus minute set.
Pulling off the nearly impossible is something Josh Rouse seems to be doing a lot of these days. In the past year, he’s released his third album on the same label, earned a slot on two movie soundtracks (one being Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky), and made a fan out of NPR’s Bob Edwards, whose interview with Josh helped broaden his audience enough to grab the position of top-selling CD on Amazon.com for a day, a feat made even more amazing by the fact that his 20 or so minutes on NPR are the only national radio airplay he has ever received in his career. He’s toured Europe twice this year already and heads off to Australia for a couple of weeks after wrapping up this string of Midwest dates. Right now, however, Josh Rouse isn’t thinking about all that stuff. He’s just sipping coffee and still trying to wake up.
When we eventually get around to talking, the thing that becomes immediately evident about Josh Rouse is the incredible amount of self-awareness he has.“I know there are people out there thinking, ‘A white boy from Nebraska should not be doing this,’ so there is a part of me that has my tongue firmly in my cheek. But I always loved listening to Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers…Marvin Gaye.” What “this” is, is the title track of Under Cold Blue Stars: a song dripping with ’70s R&B influences run through a smalltown Midwest singer/songwriter filter. And while his statement may sound less like self-awareness and more like being self-conscious, it’s not. Josh Rouse knows who he is and where he is from. So much so that he also knows some people might have a hard time taking his paying homage to those artists and that musical period seriously. But tongue-in-cheek or not, the song is incredible and the respect Rouse has for those influences is clearly there in both his music and his discussion of it.
We talk about the other songs on the album, as well. How some were based on stories of his extended family and whether some of what was ultimately set to music was born out the disillusionment about our parents and family that most of us seem to face when we reach a certain age. It’s not a lob of a question by any means, and yet he already knows where I’m going with it even before I finish asking. “No, that started a lot earlier for me…” By “a lot earlier,” he means his parents divorced when he was young and he lived with each of them at one time or another. The two environments were very different, one unstructured and the other very disciplined and perhaps overly strict. Add to that the fact that where he grew up is Paxton, Nebraska (pop. 500) and that he had little or no interest in the things his peers were into, like hunting and fishing, and the picture of this singer/songwriter/storyteller starts to become clearer.
Perspective and personal growth are funny things in that they come almost exclusively from our most painful experiences. And Josh Rouse has achieved plenty of both. There is the sense that at sometime in his life he has struggled with the damaged goods mentality and “slap of reality” that can come with being a child of divorce. And that he has known what it means to be an outcast of sorts for being into things like music and art in a place where culture is not exactly a priority. But if it sounds like I’m trying to make Josh Rouse out to be some kind of tortured artist, I’m not, and he isn’t. Far from it, actually. Because there is also the sense that he has worked through most of this stuff and has a good context in which to view it. In discussing the experiences and emotions that lead to his songs, he shows an innate ability to detach and talk about them objectively. And, oddly enough, he considers Under Cold Blue Stars to be his least personal album. “My first two records were much more personal, but with this one I felt like it was the first time I could get outside myself and experiment a bit.”
Buried somewhere in this part of our conversation is the core of Josh Rouse’s songwriting talent. Some artists are great because they know how to channel their pain through their art. But it’s Rouse’s understanding and perspective on life experiences, painful and pleasurable alike, that make him such a great artist. Choosing between following dreams and taking responsibility, experiencing the excitement of a new relationship and the inevitable wearing-off of that newness, and the scars from the pain we both cause and endure are things we can all relate to, because they are things we all have, or will, come up against in our lives. And, perhaps even more importantly, he’s able use that perspective equally well when writing about experiences that are not even his own. Although as he, himself, admits, “It’s inevitable; there’s always a bit of yourself in there,” on Under Cold Blue Stars, he’s still writing about someone else’s life, someone else’s feelings, someone else’s experience. But he manages to do it in a way that makes us, as listeners, gain the kind of understanding and form the kind of connection with the songs that come from someone opening themselves up to us on a deeper, more personal level.
When Josh Rouse speaks of his songwriting, it’s in terms of simply telling stories and writing about the struggles that go on in the day-to-day of relationships. He doesn’t see any need to examine it further. But behind the brush-off there lurks the sense that he, too, knows there is a certain magic to it. And perhaps it’s best not to go delving too deeply into what makes it work, but rather just be happy with the fact that it does. Then again, he may be onto something when he chalks it up to being a simple thing. Because the beauty of Rouse’s songwriting is that the things he writes about are, quite simply, real. And real embodies Josh Rouse as much as his music.