Interviews can be such a finicky thing. That said, having been doing this for the past few years, I can attest there are many bad interviews out there. More often than not, they are these awkward things wherein journalists take no time to study their subject first, mostly rehashing talking points or basic Wikipedia-level information. It’s a dressed-up Q&A session at best. It’s little wonder then that artists degenerate in interviews over time to being little more than disinterested and annoyed at the prospect of dealing with the press.
The best kinds of interviews become conversations. It can certainly be awkward at times. But once you start conversing more and asking less, your subject becomes comfortable with you, and with that, you learn about them, their character, their feelings on things. Even letting them go off on a tangent gets you so much more. In turn, the audience learns more as well. More importantly, though, it makes the interview process fun. Such was the case in chatting with country scion Caitlin Rose, who released her fantastic album The Stand-In earlier this year, at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. We do, of course, talk about her work and also her history. But I think you will find our deviations from that, and talking about the whole interview process itself, more fascinating.
Let’s talk a little bit about The Stand-In. What was on your mind when you were creating it? You were working with your friends on it, seems like.
I would say, lots of jokes. I don’t know. It was a quick thing. I had written the record, for the most part, with Jordan [Lehning] and Skylar [Wilson] for four months, five months. And that was just a hang, because I’ve known them for so long. Then, we got into the studio, and did a week of rehearsals, and that was a hang. Then we went in and recorded in two weeks, and also a hang. I would like for recording to be a good time, and it’s not so much something up to this point where I had these grand visions. They sort of just take shape as it’s happening. Maybe if I thought about it too much, it would come out the wrong way.
So the best way to record is just as a hang?
For me, up to now. Not to say that there’s not no work involved. There is a lot of work. But I don’t so much have a plan to stick to. I kind of like to keep it open.
I’ve been reading a couple of the interviews leading into The Stand-In, and everyone keeps saying there’s this whole combination of classic country with modern sound or what-have-you. But I feel that’s kind of weird, because… is there really a modern-country sound or is it just an evolution of what’s come before? I get the sense that, musically, there’s been some progression, but the changes have been more technological than anything else.
I think all of my influences live in my head, so I can’t really escape them at any time. I think, yeah, it has both those elements because I listen to both those types of music. If you listen to something, it’s gonna end up reflecting in whatever it is that you do. That is, if you use your influences. Some people don’t, I guess.
I was surprised that you were listening to stuff by John Darnielle. What brought you into that?
I don’t know. I’ve always listened to a lot of music. I don’t know how the anti-folk and all that stuff made its way in, but it did. And that’s when I was younger, when I was 15 years old. When you’re 15, you have obsessions, and my obsession was music. You end up on a rabbit trail, and eventually you start finding things that really click.
I might go back to that in a little bit. One of the things that I’ve noted, too, in reference to those influences: Listening to songs such as “Only A Clown” and a couple others… now, this is just a bad label to use in my opinion, but I can see bits of alt-country here and there. Like some of your harmonies sound a lot like Neko Case. Do you feel that label is something you would take into consideration?
I’m very unconcerned with what people call it, because once people start saying what something is and you’re agreeing with them, you’re sort of chasing yourself into a hole to feel like you have a place. But I think everybody has a place, whether or not it has got a title or not. I’m not concerned with what people call it, because they’re always going to call it whatever they want. It’s not going to change anything. I could change their mind, I guess, but I have better things to think about.
I used to just play really fast little punk songs. Then I would only play slow country songs. And then I guess it came to now. It’s strange, I never noticed that pattern.
That’s true. I mean, a lot of the country music I do listen to, people think of it as alt country. But I don’t think it’s that, it’s just country in a slightly different context.
It’s the same thing with the word Americana. It’s just people looking for a way to play something. It’s a big help for a lot of artists. Americana was a savior to a lot of people because music has sort of left songwriters behind, and then Americana started up their own format. So, it’s got its good points.
Yeah, it’s got its place. Moving on, there’s been a lot of talk of your mom, Liz Rose, still being active in the business, putting out a huge hit song for Taylor Swift. Does it feel awkward knowing that you have a close family member that’s still doing well in the business?
I would hope she is still doing well. I would prefer for her to be active in the business. She’s a great songwriter and self-made woman.
Does it ever get competitive or anything like that?
No. Why would you compete with your mother?
I’ve heard weirder things happen. Anyway, recalling a tweet of yours, in regard to your tour, how is your van smelling?
Smells fine, not bad. We had a situation. We took a hiatus from touring, just for when we were making the record and stuff, and somebody left a bottle of milk in that van, and it sat there for about six months. I think it’s just now starting to clear out. I think. It was the worst thing I ever had to sit in. But you know, it smells lovely. Those boys are very hygienic, and I try to keep everything cool.
Has anyone brought flowers to help?
Nooo. We did buy some air freshener. But those little tree air fresheners, I would not recommend to anybody, because once you put it in there, it’s like you’re eating it. It’s terrible. Eugh, we threw it out.
In relation to touring, how does it feel being on the coasts, where country and Americana have less of a primary role that they would in Louisville or Memphis or St. Louis in terms of general taste?
I don’t know. Touring is touring. People come out. Or as Spencer would say, in one of his wonderful colloquialisms, “If you invite them, they will come.” So it’s all about having positive energy and all that crap. I just don’t think about it. Once you’re in a van, you’re just thinking “What is the next gig? Where is it?” It’s more about finding than it is worrying.
Going back to obsessions, as is obvious, you came from a very country-based family. What drew you, as a teenager, toward punk and other genres?
What teenager isn’t trying to find their own identity through music? It’s funny, it’s almost like a different question. But I think it’s just like everybody else. I was listening to so much then. I was listening to indie and pop music. It was a rabbit trail for me, and I love to chase leads, and I love to find out where certain songs and certain things are going to take me. And once I chased that Mountain Goats lead, it led me to country music. So you never know where it’s going to lead, and you never know how inspired you’re going to be by something until you listen to it. So it’s best for me to try not to block anything out, unless I already made up my mind. Or if somebody says “You need to go listen to this band,” because usually I’ll just say “no.” I don’t know why. I think because I am so active in seeking out music personally, when somebody tells me, it’s like “I have things to do,” and I feel like a jerk. But I have trouble taking recommendations.
Sometimes, though, the right one falls into your lap, which is great. I mean, I’m really into listening to anything. But it’s all about whether you’re going to sit down and seek out something you’re not already seeking out. I just started listening to The National because a guy I know had it on in the back and I was like, “What is this?!” And I’ve heard maybe 30 people say “Do you like The National,” and I’d be like, “Uh, I don’t know.” Now, all of a sudden, I can’t stop listening to them. So it hits you at the right time, and then you’re stuck with it.
Sometimes, finding the right radio station helps too.
Yeah. There’s not very many of those in Nashville, Tennessee.
There’s not many these days. I guess I’m lucky, I live in the East Bay, and we have KALX, and sometimes when my friends and I are out driving picking up something, we put it on, something comes on, and I’m all “what the hell is this?”
The radio over here is great. I’m jealous of that aspect of living out here.
Yeah, and where I went to college, I worked at a really good radio station.
Yeah, we had 91.1, the Vanderbilt station. They played some of the greatest stuff. And now, it’s classical music. Which is great, I’m a fan of it, but man, that radio station was my growing up. It was like, you were driving around at three in the morning, and you luckily have a cell phone, and something like Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus” came on the radio. You’d never heard Tom Waits before, and it was like “Holy shit!” Then you call in and you’d say “Who the hell was that?” You have a moment. With the internet, you’re plotting it all out, or you got queues and lists. But the radio is somebody saying, “I’m gonna play something for you,” and it’s completely not in your personal space. It’s not somebody trying to impress you. It’s just, “I love this music and I want to play it.” That’s gorgeous to me.
It’s funny you mention the classical thing, very similar thing happened in San Francisco.
They all get bought, yeah. And the college started sort of weaning everybody off of it really early. They fired all the people on there who had shows on there for five years, and they said “Well, we’re gonna keep it college-based, and have the college students only run the radio station.” Which was great before, because you had these people who had been doing it for 10 years teaching these kids. So then, once they fired all the great people, all these kids come in and they didn’t know what they were doing. So, nobody listened to it anymore, so they had more reason to just boot it. It was so maddening.
How the fuck do these people get to where they are? Unless there is somebody up there somewhere saying, “Okay, the point of hiring people is to destroy things. This guy is really fucking good at that, let’s bring him in.” I don’t know what it is. There’s something fishy going on here. I’m thinking up a conspiracy theory here because I am so mad.
Sorry about the tangent.
No it’s fine. This is what interviews are made for in our case.
I think so.
I’m not a big fan of interviews. I like talking. But I notice that a lot of interviews are like, “Soooo, your Wikipedia page, could you just tell me what that says? Because I didn’t have the chance to look at it.” [laughs]
I mean, I might look at your Wikipedia page, but I…
Oh no, I mean, looking at it is great. What I’m saying is that there’s this vibe of, “So, what is it that you do?” And you’re like, “Why are you talking to me?” Because I don’t know what to say. Maybe I always viewed interviews as this really exciting thing where two people sit down and they have a great conversation. But it’s not. This is great though. This is great thing.
If I’m talking about this, that means it’s a good interview.
It can be so maddening sometimes…
Do you feel that on artists’ sides, actually? Where you’ll be interviewing an artist, and you’ll feel that they’re just trying to give you the basics.
I’ve had that happen to me twice. One was this band, which I won’t name. Guy I interviewed was very straight-shooter…
“Here’s our record, here’s what it’s about.”
I would like for recording to be a good time, and it’s not so much something up to this point where I had these grand visions.
Exactly. I finished the interview, and about two hours later, I thought, “I’m not publishing this shit.” But the other one I did was with Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion. At first, he stonewalled me, and they’re known for this, so I don’t blame them. But then I asked this really offbeat question, and suddenly he’s all, “Whoa…that’s a really good question.”
See? That’s all you have to do. But you got these people being all like, “So, like, what kind of music do you play?” And your response is, “I don’t know, what do you like, let’s talk about something that you’re interested in, because I’m bored.”
Yeah. I’ve seen some really bad interviews. I think the worst one I saw in recent months was by Ian Cohen of Pitchfork…
[laughs] I will say that I’ve done interviews with people and then later met them, and just realize that they just have really dry-ass voices. I was in an interview with someone from a magazine that I’m now very fond of; he’s very cool. But I did this interview and I’m like, “I’m on fucking speakerphone, he’s talking to me like he couldn’t be bothered.” It was so awkward. But then, I met him, and he’s cool. Sometimes, people have a voice that kind of makes you think that. Interview was good. It’s hard not to be insecure sometimes, though. It’s what it chalks up to.
I was listening to a bit of your old stuff from Save Macaulay and stuff like that, and…
Where’d you find that? They only did CD-Rs of that! I drew the covers on construction paper! Where’d you get that?? [laughs]
The power of YouTube, right there.
Oh, wow. That’s what it was. They’re all still up?
There’s still a couple taped shows. But yeah, do you ever think you could re-integrate those elements from that time back into your country music?
That is a good question. Oh hey, what do you know, I just pulled an Efrim. “Now I’m interested in talking about myself.” Actually, that is really interesting. I forgot that there was something to that, because I used to just play really fast little punk songs. Then I would only play slow country songs. And then I guess it came to now. It’s strange, I never noticed that pattern. I guess it’s about completely allowing yourself to be taken over by something for an amount of time, to let it sink in enough. Then it sort of starts to fade out because you get bored with it, and then you find something different. I really think that it was a very gradual process, which is strange. But, no, I guess I never thought of that. The punk stuff, I never stopped listening to it, or I guess I did. For three years, I didn’t listen to anything but country. It was a little sick, but a great three years of my life that taught me a lot about songs and songwriting. You have to immerse yourself into things to really get it. It’s like language. You got to go to Spain or something to learn Spanish in the realest sense.
Is it something you would put back into your mind?
I think they are still there. I really don’t know how I’ve been making music lately.
That’s always a weird thing to think about, how you make music.
[laughs, then an instructional voice] Well, I pick up a guitar, sit down, sometimes in my living room…
And then you put on pants.
[still in instructional voice] And then you… [normal voice] No, no pants. No pants in songwriting. The whole co-writing sessions, we were just pants-less the whole time. Actually, no we weren’t. One’s married. We weren’t pants-less the whole time. We all had pants on. Sorry, I killed your offbeat question.
It’s okay. I got nothing else. You got anything else?
That’s another question I don’t know how to answer. “Do you have anything to add?”
Dammit, I’m getting texts. Sorry.
No, I understand. Somebody is liking my Instagrams, and that’s… ugh. [laughs]
It’s worse because my inbox is full, so it’s all, “What’s going on???”
You know how some people on Instagram take pictures of their chats? In my case, I had 75 messages one time, and all of them were my friends, who were like, “You NEVER. ANSWER. My fucking text messages! So that means you don’t even look at them!”
[looks at phone] Stop it, phone.
Usually, you know what they say, though. It’ll be, “Sup,” or something you know is already happening, like, “On my way.” That’s always the one. Don’t text me if you’re on the way. I got it, I know you’re on your way.
Well, you know, it’s good that your show’s a little early today…
No it’s not, it’s terrible. Well, it’s good for you. [laughs]
Well, it’s just, I found out I’m dealing with some stupid stuff at my house. We’re trying to get a replacement couch, and we placed it in the front yard because it was late and it was the neighbors’…
You should call it The Replacements Couch.
YES! The Let It Be Couch!
[laughs] The Let It Be Couch. Come sit on Tim, just come sit on Tim.
[Photo: Melissa Madison Fuller]