The problem was, Josh Rouse was from Nashville. Well, he wasn't from there, but that's where he lived then, and where he lives now. And he sang and played guitar, sometimes an acoustic, wrote his own songs, wasn't in a band. It all added up to a paint-by-numbers portrait that didn't look much like him: "Josh Rouse, country singer-songwriter." That's what people were saying when his Dressed Up Like Nebraska came out in 1998, lazy journalists who were content to connect dots that weren't really there, writers who read more than they listened.
"That's not a good thing to be printing everywhere, because people that want the record or go to get it, that's not what they're gonna get," Rouse explains now. He's just come back from Europe, where he was promoting his new record, Under Cold Blue Stars, and he's about to leave again on a "huge-ass tour," 40 dates in 47 days.
So Rouse started explaining himself. The "country" part--or "alt-country" or "Americana" or whatever--didn't bother him too much; back then, there was at least a little truth to it. Had to look pretty hard to find it, but it was there, a remnant of growing up in the Midwest and living in and around Nashville. (Plus, as he says, "I mean, I am American, so it is Americana.") It was the second thing, the "singer-songwriter" business, that didn't sit too well. "I'm just a guy who sits on his couch and makes stuff up," he told Rolling Stone, among others. "I've never really considered myself a songwriter." He said the same thing a couple of other times, a few different ways. Said it in interviews, from the stage. The point, and it was hard to miss, was this: I'm a musician, not a singer-songwriter. Which was fine, except for the fact that, OK, fine, he was. Is. Kind of.
Josh Rouse with Clem Snide
Sons of Hermann Hall
"Just because when I was younger, singer-songwriters kind of bored me," Rouse says. "Besides, like, Neil Young. I just don't think of him as a singer-songwriter; he is, but you know, I just thought of him as Neil Young. Or Tom Waits, or something. When I hear 'singer-songwriter,' I think of John Denver or James Taylor or something like that. And [my music] is just not that: I think the records are quite a bit more involved than just a guy with an acoustic guitar. I kind of wish I'd never said that." He laughs. "Because I am--I sing and I play guitar and I do write lyrics. So I am a singer-songwriter. It's just kind of that label that I don't like. Hopefully, people will just see it as Josh Rouse. And not Cat Stevens."
There's not much room for confusion anymore. Rouse sings all the songs on Under Cold Blue Stars and wrote most of them, and that's where the Cat Stevens connection ends. Under Cold Blue Stars is based around Rouse's voice and the words he sings, sure, but he's right: There's more going on under his Cold Blue Stars than a guy with a guitar and some songs. Like the best albums, it's difficult to pin down, to back into a corner and through a pigeonhole. One listen, it could be Steely Dan with a heart; the next, it's blue-eyed, blue-collar soul (check the Marvin Gaye what's-going-on whoop near the end of the title track); the next, R.E.M. covering the Smiths, or vice versa. And so on. On every listen, however, Under Cold Blue Stars is as familiar as a friend's voice, as comforting as a warm coat on a winter day, the kind of record you don't just hear, you feel.
Backed by a group including Pat Sansone (playing pretty much everything he can get his hands on), longtime collaborator David Henry and former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee, Rouse is nominally the leading man, yet he blends into the ensemble cast, standing in the spotlight while leaving plenty of room for everyone else. Produced by Roger Moutenot (known for his work with Yo La Tengo and Sleater-Kinney, among many others), the disc is a beautiful mess of cellos and trumpets, keyboards and tape loops, vibes and more keyboards, the music finishing Rouse's sentences instead of waiting for its turn to speak. More than most records, the music and lyrics need each other, feed off each other. "Sat in the kitchen with an asthma cigarette/Out the window with an inch of regret/It's a grey world," Rouse sings on "Summer Kitchen Ballad," but without Henry's cello, you don't really see it. "Lately I've been feeling no pain/My heart is wide-open and somehow everything falls into place/And it's love," he sings on "Feeling No Pain," but you probably wouldn't believe him if the summer-sun guitar line didn't break through the clouds. It's all or nothing here: Either you're watching the movie, or sitting with a copy of a screenplay and a stack of Polaroids.
Which is what Under Cold Blue Stars is, in a way: a musical film, a loosely constructed (gasp!) concept album, following the life and love and lack thereof of a Midwestern couple--a musician and his wife who inherit a farm in the South, he explains--all the "Ugly Stories" about "Women and Men" who "can't erase what the past is." Rouse may not like the connotations that came with being called a singer-songwriter, but he doesn't mind another label: screenwriter.
"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."
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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.'"