Rose Cousins Draws Her Own Conclusion
Many things can happen after making a spark. More often than not, nothing happens. The spark goes out, be it a damp sky or flimsy match to blame. But sometimes candles are lit, or blazing fires grow to warm us. When Rose Cousins released We Have Made a Spark in 2012, her flicker metamorphosed into fireworks, their colors blooming to show the talents of the Boston-area collaborators with whom she made the album. And the fireworks were audible well past Boston or Cousins’ native Canada. While Cousins won a Canadian Folk Music in Award (in 2012, for Contemporary Singer of the year) and a Juno award (in 2013, for Best Solo Roots and Traditional Album of the year, for We Have Made a Spark), impeccable press reviews and copious live shows spread her reputation far and wide, leading to collaborations and live appearances with the likes of John Gorka and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
But being an eloquent streak of pyrotechnic light comes with its own limitations. The touring got exhausting for Cousins, leaving her still depleted when she came to work on her follow up. She took some time experimenting with another love — photography — and hand-picked Grammy winning singer-songwriter Joe Henry to produce the new record. That record, Natural Conclusion, out February 3, is chock-full of the clear-eyed melodies and lyrical poetry that first got Cousins noticed. Yet, she also pushed herself as a songwriter and musician, charting new terrain with her trusty instincts intact. Natural Conclusion may have roots in discomfort and exhaustion, but Cousins sees it as simultaneously the most sophisticated and most vulnerable thing she’s made — as well as the best.
You’ve said that you left the last album cycle feeling exhausted. What was the most exhausting thing about it for you?
Not having roots is absolutely exhausting. It's on a spectrum day-to-day. I certainly am not the artist who tours the most in the world. There are people who do it on a larger scale and more often. I've done it for 10 years, and that's a great amount of time, and I've learned so much about touring. Something that drives me is I'm motivated by learning, and I'm motivated by striving. By the end of my last record cycle, I was just exhausted, and was searching for the thing I was striving for. I felt an unnerving disconnection. I felt like I needed to reset and find it again. It's a very uncomfortable feeling, but from discomfort you find out if you want to search again. Maybe I didn't think that I was going to be on a search. It's an interesting pile of things to contend with, but out of that comes new things, including this album.
You got a lot of well-deserved attention and accolades for We Have Made a Spark. Did you feel pressure going into the making of this one?
Pressure is only a perceived thing. It's not something that actually exists. So I had to remind myself of that. It was definitely a little bit on my mind in the lead-up to making a new record. Once it came time to record it, I was feeling pretty affirmed about the process, and I'm very, extremely happy with the results.
What are you most proud of with Natural Conclusion?
I see it as a whole thing. I don't see that it has different aspects. I think it's the most vulnerable thing I've made, the most sophisticated thing I've made. I felt nervous about lots of things about it, which means that I was pushing myself into new areas, whether it was the vulnerability of the songwriting or the scenario within which we recorded it, which was partly with characters that I did know and some that I didn't. I felt really good about the decisions about who was going to be involved in the project. I just had to go in with trust. In order to grow, we have to be uncomfortable, so I'm excited about the result and I do really feel like [it's] the best thing I've ever been a part of.
What makes you say it’s the most vulnerable thing you’ve made?
I've had a couple of the songs on this record for a few years, and sometimes I feel like maybe there isn't going to be a way for a listener to come in on this song and be able to put themselves in it. Or maybe I'm talking about something that is so incredibly vulnerable to me or my story, which isn't something that I would talk about or reveal about because I don't think it's anyone's business and I do think music is about finding your own way into it. There's a deeper level of vulnerability in that for me that no one would know unless I talked about it. Without knowing everyone's reaction to it, I know there's a deeper vulnerability to it because I know that's where the songs came from and what they're about.
And the vulnerability going into the recording was working with Joe Henry, who I trusted implicitly, but had never worked with in that scenario. Also, him bringing some characters who I knew would be exceptional but I hadn't met yet. [That was] in contrast to my last record. I made it with a huge group of friends who all knew and loved me and who I knew, so there was vulnerability in that scenario as well. But that good kind of discomfort. Making something that didn't exist and putting it out into the world — I keep saying to myself nothing's gonna change the way I feel about this record — but it is an extremely vulnerable thing. To say "here, I made this. I made a career out of doing this." There are other factors and people involved in terms of the level of exposure it gets, whether it resonates or not. I have created my life around making this as a job. So it's vulnerable on a lot of different levels. Anyone who is willing and brave enough to create anything and deliver it is vulnerable. I feel a new and healthy level of that for this project.
In between records, you returned to your love of photography. What does photography teach you about music, or vice versa?
I've done photography for a really long time. I did both photography and music for only myself for the longest period of time, and I still am trying to figure out a way to share the photography that I've done. I really have only taken it for myself, like the music used to be only for myself. Photography is another interpretation of the world; it's just visual. A song is an interpretation of an experience, but so is a photograph. Both photographs and music are deeply, deeply meaningful to me, whether they're shared or not. There's a catharsis in photography, a connection, and there's a catharsis and a connection in music too. You or I could see a photograph and say "whoa, that's an amazing photograph" and do the same thing with a song, whereas someone else might look at the same things and pass them by. It's an expansion of one's interpretation of the world. I'm excited that there is some of my Polaroid photography within the artwork of this record, and I'm working with my design team to figure out how to incorporate more of it eventually into something I can share alongside the music.
Working with collaborators, how do you describe the sound you want to get across? Do you refer to other musicians, or to moods, or other things?
The song comes in with a structure. With this record, Joe and I thought very carefully about the characters who would become part of the project. They would become the ingredients. They're the sounds that are going to come. Joe is such an incredible person for these songs because I always feel like my songs are squirrelly. They're not set to a standard form of song, but those squirrelly parts of them are very important. The poetry is also very important. Joe cares very deeply about those two things. We picked characters we knew would have the versatility and intuition and incredible creative ability to lend to those songs. Basically, I sit down at the piano, I play through the structure of the song, we just go for it. There was no deep discussion about who would do what and where. This is what's so great about choosing characters very carefully — it becomes this amazing conversation that you're capturing live. For me, and I know Joe feels this way too, you go, you do it, but not very many times. Once you do something, you start thinking about what you want to do rather than reacting to what's happening in that conversation. That can't necessarily be anticipated, aside from the basic structure of the song.
Finally, you get a lot of your inspiration from reading. What are your favorite things to read?
I always have something nonfiction on the go, which is a biography or a psychology book, and poetry. And then I would switch out one of the nonfictions for a story some time. I love reading poetry for the fact that, if my brain is occupied by a lot of things, it's extremely distilled and meaningful quickly. And brilliant. I've been on a major Charles Bukowski kick the last couple of years, and I love Leonard Cohen. I love having poetry with me all the time because the economy of words is important, as it is to songwriting. A couple of the biographies I read were comforting to me, especially when they were about musicians. Within all those biographies at some point, the musicians or the band burn out. It made me feel better!
I read Graham Nash's, which I didn't think I would resonate with at all, but did. I write a lot about struggle, and I'm interested in struggle. I read Carrie Brownstein's, which was great. I'm reading a Canadian artist's now, Bif Naked. She came in with the skater punks and then got into indie alternative. What resonates with me is when everything is brought down to the level where we are just actually humans and everyone reaches a capacity. In that quest to be better or accomplish more, I'm happy to be reminded I'm not the only one with limits.