There’s long been something that draws humanity to the color red. Throughout history, it’s been associated with passion, attraction, anger, power. There’s even evidence that it can increase metabolism, respiration and heart rates. Caroline Rose’s new album Loner has a similar draw—it’s a deft blend of rockabilly and synth-pop glossed with a thick coat of soul that is fast, fun, guttural, screaming, smirking.
When I called her, the 28-year-old artist was sitting at a coffee shop in Nashville wrapping up a mini-tour with Ron Gallo. After a night of hosting a party (complete with hot tub) in their Airbnb, she was reading Ann Power’s Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music.
VMP: There was a four year gap in between your last record and Loner. Did you write the songs on this record over that period of time?
Caroline Rose: I had like 9 zillion songs that never came out, they all probably could’ve eventually. But the songs were actually collected over a handful of years. I’ve never stopped writing. So the songs started coming shortly after I put out the last record. It was an interesting situation because, by the time I had put out that record, I had already found this new sound and was kind of honing in a new band. So I was already in transition by the time it came out. So in this transition period, I’ve taken the time to make sure everything’s been assembled correctly and the branding is right. But yeah, the songs are over a series of years, and it’s kind of a collection of my transition into basically what I feel like is music that really represents my personality accurately.
What was going on in your own life outside of your music while you were writing these songs?
It felt like a pivotal change. I think something amazing happens at like 25 when you just stop caring so much about these incredibly lofty aspirations you have for yourself in your early 20s—all this pressure you put on yourself and caring what other people think. It kind of just starts being dismantled around 25. For me, that was a pivotal year. Then, after that, it was really just no fucks given at all. And it continues to be that way. As I get older, I'm giving less and less fucks about what people think and things that I think, looking back on it, are kind of silly ... For instance, being taken seriously was something that I really held near and dear to everything I was doing and saying and I don't care about that at all anymore. In fact, it's like actively the opposite.
A goal of mine now is just trying to dismantle as much of my ego as possible. Because I think it really inhibits the creative process. So that's been a big transition, letting go of things that just don't matter that much. And embracing more of my character, and being cool with that, both on and off stage.
I think I've been actively trying over the past few years to make my personality on stage and what I wear and how I act in interviews and all of those things, to make it more like what I'm like behind closed doors, like bridging the gap between those two personalities is something I've been really, really trying to do. And it feels like I've done that. I feel comfortable with everything now, and that's not that easy.
So are the visual themes—the red tracksuit and the video aesthetics and everything—based around your personality?
Yeah, red's my favorite color! When I first met my manager, I would wear the same outfit on stage every night. It was black and white because I didn't want what I was wearing to detract from what I was saying and singing on stage. I wanted my lyrics to be taken seriously. But in my personal life, I was always wearing red, monochrome red all the time. And my managers were like, "It's so strange that you are so flamboyant in your personal life, but you look so different on stage." And honestly, I don't know why I didn't realize that sooner. And I remember another friend saying something similar, and that's when it finally struck me that I needed my personality to come through in my music more.
I wear red every day. In fact, over the last few years, I've phased out all other colors. So, now if you look in my closet, there's not a single article of clothing that's not red. And it's just what brings me joy. I love it, I love being the kooky weirdo in red.
I'm interested in your "silliness," because a lot of your work explores and discusses being a millennial, the larger state of things, being a woman, being queer... Those can be some really heavy and self-serious topics, and you've moved away from that. But you also nail that "laugh to keep from crying," absurd, fun tone. Was that intentional or just a product of you becoming a less serious person all-around?
I think both. It's definitely intentional. But it's also me, right? You know, if you really take apart the songs they're all serious, it's all serious subject matter. Some of it's more emotional personally to me, and some of it is more of a comical frustration with the world. But they're all serious songs. But a huge interest of mine is taking serious subject matter and flipping it on its head ... where it sounds and looks like a pop song, but the subject matter is really meaty and weighty and has some deeper value to it. That's the type of pop music that really interests me. Like, if you take "Billie Jean," that is a masterpiece of a song. [Michael Jackson]’s singing about something that's really serious, it's an issue that is personal and kind of scary, and he set it to this incredible groove that makes you really satisfied—you can dance to it, tap your feet to it, you can put it on in the car, but most of all, you're going to be listening to it and you can listen to it multiple times and pull different meanings from it. So, that's the type of stuff that interests me, and that takes time to really foster.
Yeah, I totally got that from Loner. Because when it first came on, I was like, "Dang, this slaps, I wanna dance." But then I'd be listening and "Money" would come on, and I'd be like, "Dang… capitalism."
The age that we're living in now is more absurd perhaps than ever in the history of the whole world. You can either look at in disgust and curl up in a ball and hide, or you can get out and protest and be angry. Or you can insert protest into everything that you do. I think the use of satire is such a powerful tool of protest. Because, oftentimes, it's kind of like, hidden, right? If you dissect a joke, or if you see people laughing, it's like "They must not be protesting because they're having a good time, and protesting is serious!" But it's not, or it doesn't have to be serious. The message is serious, but the way that it's delivered doesn't have to be this weighty, sad thing. It can be fun, it can be danceable. Protest can come in many different forms. And for me, the use of satire and humor is hugely important to what I'm trying to say, because it's a really effective tool to get people to listen.
A funny moment on the album when I listen to it is "Smile," because it reminded me of when a creepy dude tells you to "Smile" or like, "Smile, baby." I felt like it could be an inside joke between women or anyone who's experienced that. I don't know if that's exactly what you had in mind, but it made me laugh out loud and cringe a little bit.
It's funny that you mention that because I did not mean for it to be an inside joke, I thought it was something [for] anybody who experiences being told to smile or being told to look happier. The amount of times people have told me that is just mind-numbing. So I didn't think of it as an inside joke, but what's funny is a lot of men don't get it! [laughs] I was actually surprised by that, because some of the things I think are so obvious, they're not that obvious! It really is like a female experience, being told to smile. Not even sometimes being told, a lot of it is subconscious—people kind of expecting you to be nice and polite and put on a happy face and cater to other people's feelings. And not everybody experiences that, definitely not.
I do think the same feeling applies to people who suffer from depression and people are frustrated with them for not being happy. So there is a broader appeal to that, but for sure, it was delivered from a place of bona fide frustration—just, people expecting things from you. And a lot of my songs permeate that feeling of someone expecting you to be a certain way, and you just don't wanna do that, plain and simple.
I also wanna talk about “Bikini.” It's really brilliant and I was torn listening to it. Because on one hand, I interpreted that song as a commentary about misogyny and the value and role and expectations women in America… but it also made me want to put on a bikini and dance! So, I was interested in your intention.
That makes me happy! Because the point of the song, and I touch upon this in a lot of my songs, but the power dynamics among people are really fascinating to me. How do they form? Why are they still around? Why are things this way? But it's absolutely a feminist anthem. And I think it's different, being able to control, being able to dictate your own culture and your own power is really important. Just like, within certain cultures, you have your own language, and that's your thing, that's your source of power, that's something that you control and no one else does. When we're talking about our bodies, that is ours. No one should have control over someone else's body. And I think that's why people are so fired up in the news right now. People do not understand that. It's one of those things, especially as women—and it applies to men as well, but this is really predominantly a female issue because it's so rampant within out community—of other people not really knowing or understanding that our bodies belong to us and we don't have to give anyone else access to them. It should not be implied that a model has to do a naked photo shoot because, "Well, they signed up for it." No. Wrong. That is not correct. It's not implied, it shouldn't be expected for actresses to do a nude scene because you're an actress and “That's what you sign up for.” That is not standard, and I think people are finally waking up to that, that this is real and this is something we all have to deal with. The rules are kind of being rewritten and a lot of people are upset about that. It's like, have some empathy. Everybody could have some more empathy; we could really improve in that department.
It's interesting, I was just reading about Aziz Ansari and the reactions to it. It's an important and nuanced conversation, but there's a disheartening amount of defense among men when you talk about defining the boundaries of what sexual assault is and how those power dynamics play out. There's so much nuance and it goes so much bigger than a lot of people think. But that's why I feel like songs like "Bikini" and the stuff on your album is important—they're accessible, but add nuance to the conversation and the culture around it.
I did not plan for the album to come out in such a timely manner [laughs], but it does seem like kind of a prescient moment to be talking about this stuff. It is slightly comical though that these are things that women have been dealing with for fucking ever—and queer men, I think, have to deal with this too. But it's something we've been dealing with for so long and have been talking about actively amongst ourselves, and that finally it takes one story that exposes this really high-powered businessman for people to wake up to it. I think it's a really similar story within the black community of, "Hello, these are issues that have been happening forever." But one white person breaks a story or says, "Hey this is unfair," and then all of a sudden everyone's listening. There's got to be a better way. Respecting other people's voices… like within the queer community—the queer community is big about that, about being held accountable for your actions and exposing bad behavior—it makes it more egalitarian when you are actively communicating about issues. And there's not active communication within mainstream media or society at all. There is a hierarchy and it is definitely not equal, it's not equal at all. There's room for improvement within every single community for sure. But I think it's good that people are finally discussing this, and it took a long time, and who knows where it'll go.
I think the next big thing is to figure out how to take all this finger-pointing and exposure of bad behavior and figure out how to turn it into something that's gonna be lasting. For instance, not just exposing individuals, but exposing the behavior that is systemic. This is a systemic issue; it's not a fucking witch hunt… it's just individual examples of something that is a much bigger issue. Who knows what will happen next, I'm really curious to see.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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