A Rousing Rendition
Nashville indie-rocker Josh Rouse remains humble amid success
By Michael McCall
MARCH 20, 2000: Josh Rouse laughs gently, as is his nature, as he surveys the spoils of being a hot item on the American indie-rock scene. For instance, he's been reeling through an avalanche of daily interviews focused on the release of his second album, Home, which came out March 14 on Rykodisc subsidiary Slow River Records. Many of the interviews have been with publications based in Europe, where Rouse has been particularly well-received. He jokes about struggling to understand questions presented in broken English over international phone lines, and then listening to the interviewer try to translate Rouse's Southern drawl.
For comic relief, he offers a hilarious imitation of how German interviewers tend to ask questions that never end, with Rouse mimicking how he strains to follow the thread of the question. "They sort of end up answering the question for you, so it doesn't really matter," he chuckles. "Then at the end they say, 'Josh Rouse! You are great interview!' "
In a sense, Rouse's music resembles those foreign conversations. His words aren't always clear, and the threads of his lyrics don't follow linear narratives, but the songs have a strangely mesmerizing, emotionally resonant effect. He uses a repetitive structure to create a hypnotic effect that makes every shift in melody and instrumental tone carry a particularly sonorous weight. Using a guitar, bass, and light drums to set a basic foundation, Rouse and co-producer David Henry sparingly add cello, violins, brass, and vibraphone to impart harmonic texture to the songs, while Rouse's tender tenor gives the music flesh. Whether sounding fatigued, buoyant, or achingly desirous, Rouse's voice adds a whisper of sweet soul to the warm yet detached throb his arrangements create.
His music shares aesthetic territory with other critically acclaimed indie bands of the moment, including Yo La Tengo, the Pernice Brothers, Lullaby of the Working Class, East River Pipe, and Nashville's Lambchop. But each band has elements that set them apart, and Rouse's is the feeling of innocence and the lack of pretension that comes from his studied-yet-spare arrangements and his stream-of-consciousness lyrical style.
"I wanted to make a feminine-sounding record," Rouse says without sarcasm as he sits in a Melrose area bar, smoking cigarettes and looking a bit tousled from his heavy schedule of concerts and nonstop interviews. "I wanted it to be like mellow pop music. I purposely did that. I grew up with soft-rock stations--that's all we had where I grew up, in Nebraska. It was Fleetwood Mac and stuff like that on the radio."
But no one is going to mistake the songs on Home as updates of such '70s soft-rock favorites as "You Make Loving Fun" or "Baby, I Love Your Way." Even though Rouse is unabashedly open to pointing out his influences--an unusually unselfconscious trait for a modern indie-rock musician--his music is thoroughly of its time.
"I wanted this one to be more of an orchestrated pop record," he says when comparing it to his acclaimed debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska. "Instead of just guitars, I wanted trumpets, trombones, vibes, cellos. I wanted it to be different, but it still ends up sounding more like me than anything else. I think that has something to do with how I write the songs, and something to do with how me and David (Henry) work together."
As for the influences, he says he originally set out to combine his favorite artists--to take the earthy quality of Neil Young and Tom Waits and combine it with the hypnotic guitar work of U2's Edge and The Smith's Johnny Marr. He hears those influences in his songs, he says, as well as other things. His background in playing trombone and violin as a youngster can be heard in how he and Henry (a cellist since his youth) arrange the tunes. He also credits the first time he heard Lambchop live as a particularly influential moment for him.
"I'd been in Nashville less than two months," Rouse says. "I went to see Yo La Tengo, and Lambchop was opening. I thought they'd be this punk band, but they set up and started doing this mellow thing. It had the same guitar sound I'd been envisioning using.... They were doing what I wanted to be doing."
Those two months in 1996 were particularly fruitful. After attending high school in Clarksville and dropping out of Austin Peay after two years, Rouse had lived in Arizona before moving to Nashville "because it was close to my father and it had nightclubs," he says.
Besides Lambchop, he met young music impresario Chris Moon, who was running an artist management firm, concert booking agency, and aspiring record label under the auspices of his company Anhedonia. Rouse heard a compilation of underground Southeastern bands Moon put together called Soundtrack to the Bible Belt. "It had all these great bands doing really creative, cool music," Rouse recalls. Moon heard Rouse's music, liked it, and became his manager.
Later, when Rouse recorded some songs in Henry's living room, he gave the tapes to Moon thinking the music could come out on Anhedonia. But Moon sent it to several bigger labels, a few of which responded positively. Among them was indie heavy hitter Rykodisc, which quickly offered Rouse a deal on Slow River, at the time a new pop subsidiary the company had launched. While Rouse was still parking cars as a valet at a downtown hotel, his debut album started getting rave reviews from such disparate sources as Billboard, College Music Journal, New York Daily News, The Boston Phoenix, No Depression and the English magazines Mojo, NME, and Hits.
Next came the tour offers. Rouse received special invitations to tour with Son Volt, Patty Griffin, Wilco, Joe Henry, Aimee Mann, and the Cowboy Junkies, as well as having his songs used during the TV programs Party of Five and Dawson's Creek.
Of course, as Rouse says while joking about his level of independent-label success, he's still parking cars when he's not out on tour. And, on many of his tours, there are nights when, as opening act, the crowd noise is so loud that he wonders why he's playing at all. Still, as he points out, three years ago he wasn't even looking for a record deal when everything fell into place.
"I'm happy to be at the level I'm at," he says, adding with a laugh, "If I had signed to a major label, my career would probably be over already. Instead, I've got a second record coming out, I'm out touring with bands that I like, and things seem to be growing and progressing at a good pace. It seems to be catching on. I feel very fortunate about everything."
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