It makes sense that San Francisco artist Rose Droll is also a fiction writer. The 29-year-old’s songs pack the world-building details of an entire short story into three-minute pieces of music.
Her 2018 album Your Dog (a far cry from the Soccer Mommy song of the same name) traverses psychedelic pop, jazz, hip-hop and experimental R&B with the spirit of someone who has no interest in attempting to define their output.
Her voice drifts between bouts of muttery rapping, tender crooning and otherworldly harmonizing. The arrangements flip from somber, piano-laden balladry to creepy, black-as-night basslines that traipse forward while a glockenspiel pings and eerie, pitch-shifted tambourine clangs sound off in the background. The standout “Boy Bruise,” in particular, plays like the soundtrack to some sort of ghastly parade out of a kooky, ancient folklore.
Every song on the album is so apparently meticulous, conceptually dense and carefully considered. And Droll confirms all of that while speaking to Vinyl Me, Please about her bizarre and intense creative process, which involves pulling from an estimated 3,000-song pool and adding 40-60 vocal layers to each track. You can grab Vinyl Me, Please’s vinyl edition of Your Dog over here.
Read our full conversation, which has been edited for conciseness, below:
VMP: I know the music you put out before Your Dog was quite different. What did your music sound like when you first began songwriting?
Really, really wordy [laughs]. Lyrically, I started writing songs that would just never end because I used to write stories a lot. Just like fiction stories. And then I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I could write a song and put lyrics over it?” And it just ended up being this long story in prose with music behind it.
But it took a long time to whittle that down into a song structure and teach myself how to say more with less.
Do you still write fiction?
I still do that all the time, I just don’t know what to do with it. I am so proud to have been published on an online magazine that went under a couple months later [laughs]. But that was really fun, that was seven or eight years ago and I was super excited about that.
I think I was, like, 20 or something and I sat down with myself and came to the realization that if I wanted to do a lot of work in one art, I was gonna have to devote a lot of my time and energy into only that one. At least for the way that I work. And so I actively decided to choose working more on music than working more on fiction.
So, I read in a Paste piece a while back that you have 3,000 unfinished songs in the vault. Is that true?
Yeah I don’t really count ’em up. I don’t know if that sounds insane, but I have a lot of music that I write and that I’ve been writing. I was never really interested in putting it out so I never did and now it’s pretty overwhelming because I have a lot of stuff everywhere. And a lot of those songs aren’t great. But there’s just a big pile of work.
When you say unfinished, are they iPhone voice memos of melodies or are they mostly lyrics?
Whole songs. There’s voice memos of them, or — the organization of them is absolute hell. But there’s like voice memos of whole songs and then I’ll find them years later and forget that I wrote them and put them in a pile with other songs.
I have stacks of lyrics where if I look at the lyrics, I’ll remember how the song goes. I’ll be able to play it. Or same thing if I have the music and the lyrics all written out and finished and ready to go. They’re all organized in different places.
Were there some periods when you’d write three or four songs in one day?
Oh yeah, totally, it was that sort of vibe. I still don’t really go out a lot. I like to be at home and just work and write, that’s where I’m most comfortable. So maybe five or six years ago I was in a really consistent flow of doing four or five songs a day. And, I mean, it’s the same for any sort of art or any sort of work ethic or habit. Once you do something a lot it gets extremely easy to keep doing that. You get better and quicker at it.
And now I teach piano for work. And that’s been really interesting as well because I’ve been able to watch how kids learn and get results from music and it’s the exact same thing with them. The more time and effort and serious dedication that they put into it, even if they’re not naturally musically inclined, the more work that they put into it the better that they get. And it seems like such a basic thing but it’s really, really incredible to watch and it’s really cool to try to figure out how much I can do by experimenting with that in my own work. It’s something that’s pretty fascinating to me and I think about it all the time.
I read that the songs on Your Dog were pulled from many years worth of writing, right?
For [Your Dog], some of them were new and some of them were a few years old, but I’ll take a song that vibes with me. The moment that I open it up on my recording program if I’m like, “Oh, I like that I’m into it,” then I’ll work on it and rework it with whatever I’m into that day.
So for that record, it was kind of sick ’cause there were like beats or some sort of weird structure for certain songs that I don’t think if I started writing that track today it would turn out like that. So I kind of got to fuck around with a song structure from my three-year-ago or two-year-ago brain, and then add classical guitar and weird cello and strange harmonies that I’ve been getting into since I wrote that … And that’s sort of why it’s really fascinating to me to just have a pool that I can grab from, from different years. It makes it really exciting. Kind of like I’m writing with someone else.
So, why do these 10 songs feel right together?
I have no idea [laughs]. I don’t know, when I listened to them they all seemed to vibe together. My goal for the record was to never play it live. Which was kind of interesting because I ended up playing some of it live.
My whole goal was to put out my first record of kind of like my weirder stuff. And then see how that goes because I have an idea of future records to do and I want to do them with an organized theme. Like one would be piano ballads, and another one would be orchestrated string stuff. And so I have specific things that I want to hit, but for this one thematically I wanted to just pile on all the songs that didn’t fit into one strict vibe to me.
You interpolate a lot of nursery rhymes on this album. Why’d you choose to make that creative choice?
Isn’t that weird? [laughs] I don’t know, I didn’t really actively choose to do things like that. I mean I guess I do because I wrote it but in my head I’m not like, “Oh I’m gonna interpolate things from my childhood.” But it just happens naturally.
I do wonder, and this is me kind of just riffing, I had a really strong upbringing in a church and my mom would sing a lot around the house. And I was homeschooled when I was a kid, for a portion of my childhood. And so I think that a lot of my musical influences must have come from G-rated musicals and choirs at church and sweet songs that we would sing at Sunday school.
I love how many vocal tracks there are on here, especially on the title track. How many vocal takes would you say you did for this album?
There’s literally no way to tell you how many vocal takes I did. But I can tell you that it was a lot for my computer to handle. At the end there was just an ungodly number of tracks in each song, because I worked so heavily with layers. I think for vocals there would be generally like 40 to 60 layered tracks. A lot of that is because I double a lot, not all the time but I double a lot for background harmonies. And I have an affinity for cluster harmonies.
The type of music you make is weird and experimental in a way that some may describe as “trippy” or “psychedelic.” I know on the song “Boy Bruise” you sing pretty straightforwardly about using substances for creative pursuits, and so I’m wondering if using drugs or whatever influenced the sound of the record?
I used to smoke a lot of weed and I don’t anymore and primarily because it makes me less present and clear-minded. In order to produce a lot of art and get better and get cognitively healthier, I don’t think I could smoke weed that much anymore.
But several years ago I was super into it and writing a lot and so I don’t really remember track-specific, but I know when I was writing a lot of those I was smoking a lot of weed. And so that probably influenced a lot of just the structural writing, or the lyric writing. And I always go through and edit things afterwards.
When I went through last summer to take all of those songs and rework them for the month and a half that I was away for, I went completely sober in order to work them out. So I guess a blend of both. It’s not like I wrote them all when I was high but I wrote them all when I was smoking more than I am now and then [edited] sober. And I think that’s actually a good rule, too. It worked out really well.
Eli Enis is a writer and editor who lives in Pittsburgh, cares way too much about music, and drinks way too much seltzer.