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Haroula Rose Carries Us on a Journey Down the River of Life

Rivers carve their way through the natural landscape unbridled, blocked only by humans via dams or reservoirs. Rivers course mightily between their banks, slicing and sculpting their own paths, even as they spill over those same banks or flow lazily between cliffs or trickle into a lake or rush into the sea.

Haroula Rose arrives as one of a long line of poets who plumbs the depths and breadths of the river, drawing deeply on its power as an image of love: the loss of love, the overflowing of powerful emotions, the receding of those same once-overwhelming feelings, and the steady flow of their beauty over time, shaping and re-shaping the contours of our lives in love.

Every song on Rose's new album, Here the Blue River, whose title she takes from Emerson's poem "The River" — "and I behold once more/my old familiar haunts/here the blue river" — hauntingly evokes a journey down a river, with tales sometimes celebratory and joyous, other times somber. The music bathes in images of water's placidity as well as its uncontrolled fury.

Zac Rae's spare piano weaves under Rose's powerfully spellbinding vocals on "This Old House," a song in which destruction fuels wonder and nostalgia but also perplexity at the loss of a love that the singer and her lover have built:

This old house
Broken down
It's still ours, it's still our own
This old house
Filled with clouds
It's still ours, it's still our home.

In the end, though, there's loss in the midst of all the beauty, and such a paradox is beyond our comprehension:

Let's go
I know we can
I'm haunted by
all I don't understand

These lyrics cut both ways, of course, since they can also express a deep desire for starting over in spite of the loss and misunderstanding that have burned down the walls of old love ("Clean the ashes from the fireplace … we could build a bright new rooftop"). Like houses, relationships sometimes grow out of our control, and we can either re-build or consign to neglect and walk away from the ruins.

"Walk Away" opens with another spare arrangement -- plunked banjo riffs that eventually build as the feeling of desolation cascades over the singer. Again, the choices are clear: find a new way or walk away. The chorus fairly shouts the choices. 

What would you do if all I needed was you?
What would you say or would you then walk away?
Where would you go if we could be free from what we know?
What would I lose if I would say these words then walk away?

Like the river, words flow with power and might, shaping all the land that would hold the waters back. The singer has nothing to lose if she utters these words and walks away; she can re-shape for herself a new love.

A spare banjo and clarinet propel Roe on "Drifting (The River)," carrying her away from the shore of her broken relationship. More than any other song on the album, this tune captures in the very strains of the music the palpable feeling of being adrift on currents beyond our control. The singer embraces this feeling and allows the cool water to carry her where it will:

It's the river and I am swimming
The cool water sweeps me away
And it feels good to be moving
I close my eyes
and drift away.

"Margo" tells the tale of a river keeper's daughter in one of the brightest musical pieces on the album. Margo, who has "learned how to kill," can "never be still," and must keep moving.

Rose cannily uses the images of nature's currents and their ebbing and flowing in the lilting "Moon and Waves." She casts the push and pull of a river's tides and the moon as a romance that is sure of itself:

Why does very river's flow reach for the sea?
Could they be lonely?
Seeking some truth to reveal
Serving their purpose for eternity
When the waves they crash
Maybe that's how they dance
While we shrug and we sigh
And another day goes by.

"Why do we pull and push away?" the singer asks, recognizing that we mimic the moon and waves, but also realizing that our love relationships will never be as perfect as theirs.

Much like Joni Mitchell and Suzzy Roche, Haroula Rose sees clearly and steadily to the soul of our natures, and she reveals in her poetry the instabilities, uncertainties, hopes, and longings that carry us down the rivers of our lives.

I caught up with Haroula Rose by phone recently for a chat about music, film, and her new album.

Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of this new album. How did it come about?

Haroula Rose: Well, I had been thinking what to write about. I knew I didn't want to write a breakup album. I had been reading voraciously, especially a lot of Emerson. He wrote a lot about the process of writing, and that just fascinated me. The title track comes from his poem, "The River," which is just beautiful. The album took a long time because I was writing between films. I was doing a lot of curation. Now it's here on my label, Little Bliss, and being distributed by great folks at Thirty Tigers. They're very supportive.

How did you select the songs for the album?

I'd write a few songs here and a few songs there. A bunch of these songs on the album came from the characters I was reading in novels. I am writing a script for a film of Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel, Once Upon a River, and some of the songs, especially the song "Margo," are based on characters in the novel. Other songs grew out of the reading I was doing at the time, including, as I mentioned, Emerson's "The River."

Tell me little about your approach to songwriting.

It's very hard. I have to force myself to do it. It's also kind of mysterious in a way that I don't even understand. Songwriting feels more honest to me when it comes from the melody first. Sometimes, when I start with words, it often feels less emotional. When it comes from my head, it feels more intellectual, and it feels less honest to me. I do start with words sometimes, but the melody is what comes from the heart and captures and stays with me emotionally.

What are the elements of a great song?

Something that sticks with you afterward. A song that lyrically paints a picture, one that lyrically you can't unravel. I love it when a melody is haunting, and I also love when an instrumental is unexpected.

Who are your three greatest musical influences?

Judee Sill, Joni Mitchell, [and] Bobbie Gentry. I never get tired of listening to their vocal patterns and harmonies. I also love Neil Young and how present he is in all his songs.

When did you start playing, singing, writing?

I was always singing when I was a kid. I had a pretty musical family. I got my first guitar when I was 16, but I was never as disciplined as I wish I had been. I didn't start performing until I got back from my Fulbright in Spain. I was singing some cover songs at a show, and a friend of my then-boyfriend invited me to come sing on a couple of commercials, so I sang jingles on TV ads for McDonald's, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden, among others; it was great that I got to do that because it gave me confidence and exposure.

What are the similarities and differences between making films and making music for you?

I feel like music and films set up a mood. Making music and making films are both very collaborative; you're working in moments with all these other people to create something. The major difference with music, though, is that you can't create something good unless you're being yourself.

I think of this new album as kind of like a movie, too. I really would like this album to be like a journey, and I want it to take you places. I wanted to make songs that feel more like a mood.

With both films and music, I never underestimate my audience.

What's your favorite mistake?

Usually something I don't do and then I regret it. Mistakes come from fear ... of not doing something right.

How have you evolved as a musician?

I still feel like I'm developing. I'd really like to try learning another instrument. I'd love to try writing a song on another instrument.

What's next for you?

I need to make this movie and that requires a lot of time and energy. I'd love to do an album of covers that are duets. I'd also love to do an album in Greek or Spanish. I love the way those instruments sound. I'd like to go to Nashville and spend a month and write an album.