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"I had the first three songs done, I think, and I thought, you know, this is all kind of a relationship record," Rouse says. "So from that point, I just decided it would be fun to do it like you would do a screenplay or something like that. All the kind of things that were popping up were relationship-based, so I put them in an order: Well, the couple can meet here, and then I'll just create a story from it. Which, I think if you heard the record and you didn't know anything about it, you wouldn't pick up on it.
"I kind of just did it for myself, I guess," he continues. "It was just fun, something to maybe challenge myself a little bit. Definitely not, you know, The Wall or Tommy or anything like that. I just wanted to follow a couple and their relationship from its beginning to--not its end--but it just leaves you somewhere...They have kids, and they're just dealing with women and men that are in relationships or married or whatever deal with: jealousy and guilt and love and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's not."
For Rouse, at least, lately it's been good. It began in December, when "Directions," a song from his album Home (released in 2000), appeared in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky. Not only was it perfect timing--Under Cold Blue Stars was set to hit stores just over a month later--it was also personally satisfying for Rouse. His music had been on soundtracks and TV shows before (Ethan Hawke's Hamlet update, Ed, Dawson's Creek), but this was different. Almost 10 years earlier, Rouse had taken a road trip to South Dakota with his girlfriend, using the soundtrack to Crowe's Singles as the soundtrack to his trip. Now it was one of his songs on Crowe's personal mix tape. "It was really out of the blue," Rouse says. "Cameron had left a message on my manager's answering machine, and he thought it was somebody that was fucking with him. Like, whoever is doing this, this is a sick joke."
Rouse was invited to attend the film's premiere, which was strange, he says, but not as much as it could have been. Or should have been.
"Courtney Love, of course, was walking around like a diva, but it really wasn't pretentious at all," he says. "I think they're so used to doing it that it was kind of like going out and having dinner for them or something like that...It was surreal sitting in the theater, and Giovanni Ribisi was sitting right behind me, and Beck and his bass player were sitting in front of me. My song came on, and it's in a good spot in the film, so I was like, 'Wow, this is just so fucking cool.'" He pauses, halfway between a smile and a laugh. "It seems like high school again. Like, who's the most popular, and who have you been hanging out with and all that kind of stuff."
The last year or so, especially the past couple of months, has kind of been like that for Rouse--like high school--as he starts to get more notice, as his records begin to slowly make the rounds, from one listener to the next, and from that listener to Cameron Crowe. Rouse thinks Under Cold Blue Stars is the best album he's made so far, but he still doesn't know how to explain why more people are paying attention to this one. Maybe it was Vanilla Sky. Maybe listeners have finally figured out that "Nashville singer-songwriter" doesn't always mean what they think it does. Or maybe it just takes this long.
"I don't know, you know?" he says, and you can hear the shrug through the phone. "I don't bring a lot of attention upon myself. I'm just trying to make records, and I'd like people to hear 'em, but I really don't play up the rock star thing at all. Because I'm not. I'm just a normal type of guy. You know, I'm doing semi-subtle records. I haven't really been on the radio. Well, I have, but it's just college radio or whatever. My first record came out four years ago, and I think it takes that amount of time, because it spreads through people. So it takes time to have it spread through people...I remember talking to David Gray, because I toured with him before he got big, and then after, you know, he sold millions of records or whatever. He was like, 'There's a weird thing that just happens. You can't really explain why, but it just seems like everything falls into place everywhere.'"