Better late than never. This is my personal mantra when it comes to discovering and embracing musicians well after their initial entrance into the recording game. Such was the case for me in stumbling upon Josh Rouse’s stellar songs and warm, soothing voice back in early 2002, some four years after his debut album Dressed Up Like Nebraska (1998) emerged, earning the ambitious singer-songwriter solid critical attention.
I have No Depression magazine to thank for introducing me to Rouse’s music, as it was a brief yet persuasive review of his terrific third album Under Cold Blue Stars that convinced me to add it to my collection. Rouse recently confided to me that it’s “one of my least favorite albums,” but for me, it was the initial hook that spawned a 15-plus year, unconditional love affair with Rouse’s ever-prolific discography.
Indeed, as with my other favorite contemporary singer-songwriters like Ryan Adams, Neko Case, and Aimee Mann (to name the few that immediately come to mind), Rouse is included among a select group of artists that I’m always eager to hear more from. And having been granted a sneak-preview listen of his excellent forthcoming album Love In The Modern Age (due April 13th via Yep Roc Records) in advance of my recent conversation with him about the record’s fresh sonic direction, I’m happy to report that my enthusiasm for Rouse’s music remains fully—and fervently—intact.
Justin Chadwick: Love In The Modern Age is your twelfth studio album in twenty years, which is remarkable from a pure productivity standpoint. What’s most remarkable, however, is that your albums have never fallen victim to the “quantity over quality” trap. In fact, it’s just the opposite. So what’s your secret as far as balancing the frequency of your recording output with the consistently high caliber of your songwriting?
Josh Rouse: Thanks for the compliment. I have no secrets, and I guess it's just an inner gauge or meter, if you will, of taste. And it can definitely be off! What is determined as "good" for me has changed over the years with my growth as a human being.
JC: Right from the synth and drum machine heavy opening moments of the album’s first track, “Salton Sea,” it’s obvious that sonically speaking, this record is quite different than its immediate precursor (2015’s The Embers of Time) and the rest of your discography to date. And then two more songs in, we get the eargasm-inducing title track (saxophone and all!), which sounds completely unlike anything you’ve ever done. What inspired you to explore these new sounds and instruments this time ‘round?
JR: I think Leonard Cohen post-acoustic records. I had the help of Daniel Tashian with the synths and arrangements on the song "Love in the Modern Age" and while we were creating it we had the idea of a "Walk on the Wild Side" sax solo in the middle. We're always referencing moments of other records while were working, a lot of people won't hear that, but it's a good way to get an idea across to another musician.
JC: Upon listening to Love In The Modern Age a handful of times now, I must admit that I find myself reacting to it in much the same way that I’ve always responded to listening to, say, Steely Dan, Pet Shop Boys, The Cure or Depeche Mode records, for instance. Most of these bands’ records simply sound fucking amazing because the production and layers of sound are so meticulously crafted. My assumption would be that the process of recording the album was a lot of fun for you, full of musical discovery and a good amount of trial & error to achieve the sound you wanted. Is it a fair assumption? Or were there some challenges along the way in embracing the nuances and novelties of the record?
JR: The usual process is recording too many tracks and then stripping it all back to find just the essential ingredients, which in this case were the voice and drum and bass groove. Much like a hip-hop record! I spent some months recording the changing reverbs, the keyboard sounds. It took me about a year to decide if I wanted to move forward with this project or not, as it is quite a sonic departure.
JC: The influence of the late Leonard Cohen surfaces throughout the album, whether it be your spoken word ruminations in the title track and closing song “There Was a Time” or the reference to Cohen’s 1988 album of the same name on “I’m Your Man.” Can you talk about the role his music and songwriting played in helping you shape the album? Are there other artists that you drew inspiration from as well?
JR: A few years back Howe Gelb and I were taking about how much we liked him and he suggested I read the Sylvie Simmons biography. As with a lot of books you start to see yourself in them and I saw some similarities in our lives. Such as moving to the Mediterranean for a girl!
JC: I understand that you recorded much of the album while you and your family were attempting to orchestrate a move back to Nashville from Spain, where you’ve resided for a number of years now. What prompted the decision to return to the states, and how would you say each locale has helped to define your music throughout your career?
JR: I want to give my kids the opportunity to experience life in two different societies. I also missed living in Nashville and have been excited by the growth and energy here. Playing with different musicians and performing and living in Europe has influenced me for sure, but I'm too close to my work to see it.
JC: As I alluded to in the first question, I consider your discography to be one of the deepest and most dynamic of the past two decades. Would you indulge me (and our readers) in a little game of “album association,” whereby I offer up the titles of select albums in your repertoire and you share what each record means to you and/or what your most vivid memories of making each album are?
JR: Yes, I will.
JC: OK, let’s begin at the beginning then. 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska, which marks its 20th anniversary next month.
JR: 8-track half-inch and a Mackie board in my friend/engineer David Henry's house. It was kind of my first set of songs in which I was trying to make an "album.” Great memories of an immediate reaction from record labels without performing live. Then about a year later, I was touring around the world. It changed my life forever.
JC: Under Cold Blue Stars (2002)
JR: This was a hard record to make and I think Ryko spent a bunch of money, as they wanted me to re-record things. They were looking for a breakout record, which totally makes sense at that point in my career. It's one of my least favorite albums, but necessary.
JC: Nashville (2005)
JR: Very sporadic recording sessions, one here, then a few songs a month later. My touring band for (2003 album) 1972 we're really dialing it in from so much road work, so it was an enjoyable album to make. I moved to Spain about six months before it came out and was surprised to see it get such good feedback.
JC: Not a full-length album, mind you, but your 2007 EP She’s Spanish, I’m American recorded with your wife. Any plans to record together again?
JR: We always talk about doing some more but life gets in the way. That was done in our apartment with garage band loops mostly! It's a fun 20 minutes.
JC: El Turista (2010)
JR: I think this is my favorite recording that I've done. Brad Jones and I really sent a lot of time arranging and deciding on instrumentation. There was a backlash in Spain because I decided to write and sing some songs in Spanish. However the rest of the world mostly enjoyed it. I actually wrote the record while living in New York City. I still plan on doing a bossa record.
JC: The Happiness Waltz (2013)
JR: I see this as my adjusting to family life record, as the themes are mostly domestic. Daniel Tashian and I wrote half the record in London. Fond memories of that and touring behind it.
JC: And finally, Love In The Modern Age (2018)
JR: As the title suggests, it's my most modern sounding recording and I felt like I wanted to dig back into my high school record collection for inspiration. The Cure, Blue Nile, among others. The writing still sounds like me, but sonically it's late night.
JC: You’ve referred to Love In The Modern Age as a “laptop and headphones record.” Though I’m pretty sure it will do mighty fine as a turntable record as well. In light of your reference, how do you envision the songs from the record taking flight when you play them live? In what ways will you need to adjust your approach to live performance?
JR: They bare a similarity to Dressed Up Like Nebraska in a live setting, just with a keyboard added and lots of long reverbs! And I think I meant I made a lot of the record with headphone and a laptop.
JC: OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
JR: Beck’s Sea Change, Morrissey’s Viva Hate, The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, The Violent Femmes’ self-titled, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and one more for good measure, Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon.
SEE Josh Rouse on tour | Dates