Rosie Thomas is an upbeat, cheery gal who walks “with a skip in her step,” though one would be hard-pressed to believe it given the often sullen and dark mood found on her albums.
Some of that gloom could have come from her living in the rainy Northwest or a thyroid disorder that went undiagnosed until recently. Then again, maybe the light and happy feeling percolating throughout With Love, her latest album, could be the result of her medication. Yet, in talking with Thomas from her Brooklyn home — where she moved from Seattle a couple of years ago — other factors clearly have played a stronger role in changing her outlook.
One was the move to New York and the constant stimulus and exposure to new things that would break her out of her shell. Another is the strong push she received from those who helped create With Love, namely producers David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, Sam Beam, and Blake Wescott, the members of Iron & Wine, the Postal Service, and Sufjan Stevens‘ band, which also contributed to the album.
Once shy and sullen, Thomas has been lured into the light, where a fresh, positive view of the world has been waiting. That energy is apparent on the album but also was present during her bouncy phone conversation with Up on the Sun.
Up on the Sun: Hi. Where am I finding you?
Rosie Thomas: I’m at home in Brooklyn.
Oh, I saw your phone number and thought you still lived in Seattle.
Nope, it’s Brooklyn now. It’s quite a change going from the Northwest, where it’s quiet and beautiful, to Brooklyn, where it’s quite busy. My eyes had to adjust to everything around me. I was not prepared for the change altogether. The day in and day out — you can’t quite prepare for it. Everyone should win an award just for getting through a day here.
But since [I've] been here, it’s shown me more of myself, more of what works for me or doesn’t work for me. Being here has highlighted that. It does seem to matter that I want a yard and a garden and to walk down the street and not share it with a million people. It’s been a good learning process. But it’s been way harder than I thought.
I think we forget how long it takes to adapt. You develop memories of a place, and [in] moving to New York, I haven’t created those memories yet. You feel like a visitor. I enjoy touring because I can’t wait to get out. People say you have to get out to come back and enjoy living here. They’re right, I think. I like being on the road because I get to see open fields and space. You don’t get that here.
You say being in New York has allowed you to learn more about yourself, see things in a different light. Seattle was a little rainy and gloomy, and that seemed to be reflected on your albums. So has being in New York changed the way you’ve approached music and songwriting?
Change alone taps the soul and makes you grow differently. Being here takes so much thought and energy, and I think the way it’s changed me is to be more businesslike. You can’t just show up at a friend’s house on a whim. Grocery shopping feels like it’s going to take all day. You have to plan.
In Seattle, it’s somewhat the weather, but you can relax. There’s a cabin fever, a cabin feel. I’ve learned that I yearn for that. I’m already such an excitable person that moving into a city that says, ‘Go do that. Get out there. Go for it,’ can be a little overwhelming for me. Having to walk however many miles to get to a person has taught me that doing what you love is work. And I’m having more clarity on what that looks like to me, what I want to share.
I feel like I have something to say for the first time in my life. I’m sure being here has something to do with that. I’m finding identity that I’ve been able to tap into, and it’s made me really look at my heart and myself. I’ve just learned these past few years what seems to be most important, and it’s helped me enjoy making music more and sharing more and more with people.
Creatively, there are different people to create with here, which has opened up a whole different avenue I didn’t have before. It’s a community I can collaborate and grow with.
You said you finally have something to say, so what does that mean in regard to past recordings? Do you feel what you’re saying now has more value to it?
I think the previous [records consisted of] more questions for me, and I feel now I have more answers for those questions. I’m somebody who has the period in her life that’s always asking questions: What makes you happy? What brings you joy? And I think, for the first time in years, I’ve finally figured out what those things are for me, and I’m able to write about that.
I realize what I want to say to people now rather than ask questions. It all comes from the same place of heart and sincerity, but I realize a bit more fine-tuning has been done and I have more clarity on what I want to give back. It’s a bit more honed. I know myself better. There’s something gratifying about that. The better I figure out me, the better I am for everyone else.
How did you reach this point of realization?
When I made this record with Dave [Bazan] and Sam [Beam] from Iron & Wine, they both had the same opinion: “Don’t hold back. There’s so much inside you.” Dave said, “Rosie, if there’s one thing to do it’s to push you even further. Don’t hold back.” It’s kind of wonderful and freeing, and you can really be who you are.
Well, you can hear it on the album. There’s certainly an air of confidence coming through.
You nailed it. That’s really it. Being around such good friends, too, they have my best interests at heart. Making a record with friends helped to push me in ways I wouldn’t have pushed myself. My voice is bigger. I’ve always had a big voice, but I tended to get a little more timid and shyer, and my voice became more somber. For the first time, I had some gumption that I could really sing out. There was so much more soul.
One thing that’s consistent from the past albums is your emotional attachment to all these songs. You’re putting yourself out in front of everything. You really hang out there. Is it difficult to expose yourself in that way or a necessary part of who you are?
It’s definitely more the latter. It’s one of those I things I never thought twice about. For me, it’s just the way to be. I never really thought I’m supposed to sing quiet or that I’m supposed to sing out or that I’m supposed to just be myself. It’s just life and you live it however it’s supposed to be. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. Just choosing to play music for a living is a great outlet for me because I can sing about those things I am thinking about and need to get out. Someone’s got to say it, and I’ve always felt that was my role. It’s kind of who I am. I’ve always been outspoken. Someone needs to say it, and I’m not afraid to say it. I’ve got one life and I really want to live it now. I want to live it with my whole heart and help people so they’re not be alone. It’s kind of my big campaign I guess.
Do you find there are a lot of things you can say anymore? You’ve moved, gotten married and, as mentioned, have a different outlook and perceived role in life, so does some of the older music no longer applies?
I find that you grow and fall again; you climb the hill, and then fall back down. That’s the way of life. I’ll sing an older song and remember where I was at that moment. I find I can still relate to it. I have a whole different repertoire of things to write about now, but in that it’s still me. I still have my heart, my thoughts, insecurities and curiosities. It’s still all really relatable.
Now my heart’s been exposed to some different things. I know what it’s like to be loved. I know what it’s like to be loved wholeheartedly by somebody and to love somebody wholeheartedly. So I have a new platform to write from. I write from experience and I think what I go through is not that different from other people. I still struggle and have hardships, but I also think, ‘What can love do for me?’ The other day, I wrote a song about loneliness, so I’ll probably be struggling with things for the rest of my life.
Do you have a favorite track on With Love? And going into the recording sessions, was it the one you thought it might be?
They are all so fun to write and so fun to sing. And I like them all so much that I have to wonder what will come out of me next time. It’s just wonderful to be able to put my personality into these songs. I’m such a bubbly personality; I’m living with a skip in my step, but you’d never know that by my first records.
So it was exhilarating to have these songs that really match my personality, but “Over the Moon” would be my standout one. When I wrote that song, I was in front of the window. I thought it would be fun to try and do it. The way that it came together makes it my favorite.
But “A Really Long Year” means a lot to me because it’s really encompassing of a year in my life. When I wrote that song, I wasn’t sure it was record-worthy. But it’s about getting married and moving and someone being born and someone dying, so I think it’s really relatable. I enjoy reminding people to look at all that can happen in one year. We don’t know what’s around the corner. It could be different, and that’s the hope that we cling too.
“Sometimes Love” I sung with my brother. It’s really so beautiful, and I didn’t want to shock everyone with a record that’s so upbeat. It’s not what people were used to. All of a sudden, I needed to leave on a closing note that was like a warm embrace. I felt that was essential. It worked out.
(This interview appeared on Up On The Sun May 1, 2012)