Though I only prepared a few questions to ask singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas, she answers each one as if she’s shaping a new song, throwing thoughts and visions into the atmosphere, connecting them to stories and recollections while I write frantically, just trying to keep up.
Her speech is rapid, personal, occasionally random, bursting from the seams of stark humility and charming wit. Rosie’s creative imagination and personal endeavors show through in everything she does, from her humble outlook on performing and songwriting to her newest project, a collection of classic and original Christmas songs, A Very Rosie Christmas.
RT: Yeah, “the stage” is a bunch of crap. More often than not, what you do becomes your name and it becomes your heart. But there’s so much more to people. I perform because I want to remind people of that. I perform because I think people might get me, you know? It feels good to have someone relate to me. It makes me feel special not because I’m up in the spotlight but because my life has purpose … things you’ve been through do matter Rosie … and they’re not better than anyone else’s struggles. But thank God for those struggles and hardships because they’ve allowed you to understand someone else’s a lot better.
RM: That attitude doesn’t come naturally for a lot of people. Where does it come from in you?
RT: I remember what my dad said when he bought me my first guitar.
“Rosie, you are a musician no matter what.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whether you play for your family, for 10 people, or a thousand, you’re a musician. You’re effective no matter what.”
I’m so grateful for my dad’s humility as a musician. His life lived out those words. He worked a blue-collar job and stopped touring to support us. But when my mom and him would sing together down at the family restaurant, there wasn’t a bigger star in the world to me. He was my hero.
RM: We’re talking a lot about friends and family. You collaborate often with your friend Sufjan Stevens. Besides successfully managing to fool the blogosphere into thinking you guys were having a baby together, what are some other reasons you two have collaborated so well in the past?
RT: I think it was an accident. We’re both crazy. I’m such a spaz and he really needs his space. Suf has a way of saying nicely, “You need to go home now, Rosie.” The way we recorded These Friends of Mine was kind of like a science experiment. We had both just toured Europe together and felt like we were on the verge of something big. Sufjan was dealing with all the buzz generating about him and I was dealing with being frustrated at business stuff—not knowing how to say no, denying my desire to be real with people. It was around that time Sufjan asked, “Rosie, when was the last time we recorded just for fun?” So we both decided to get away and goof around a bit. We were purposely careless. Everything happened so naturally and I think it happened that way because I let my guard down. It worked because I wasn’t feeling pressured. No deadlines. No demands.
RM: I really enjoy the Friends album because of just that. It’s so simple and organic with everyone putting their own personalities and talents into it. What else did you come away with after that “experiment”?
RT: I think anytime you’re in community with other creative minds, you learn. I learned how to write differently, be patient, try things I hadn’t before. The limitations of not having a big studio actually pushed me to be more creative. We recorded with just one microphone and an eight track. When we wanted to make tracks sound loud or full, we would literally just blare stuff in the living room.
RM: When you and Sufjan got away, you decided New York City would be your destination. How did that choice contribute to the creative process?
RT: When I visited New York, I felt like I met my other half. New York is chaotic—I’m chaotic. It’s impossible to be alone there. It’s loud and obnoxious like me. I found a common thread with a city full of people desperately trying to validate themselves. I was inspired by the vulnerability of that culture; the way people spill their life out over their cell phones while you’re sitting next to them on the subway. New York taught me how to be comfortable with being vulnerable around strangers. In a way, the chaos calmed me. Some people like to write and record in their homes. I can’t do that. I need to get out.
RM: You’ve got a new Christmas album out. This one is different from a lot of the holiday stuff out there. Did you just wake up one day and think, “There are a billion Christmas albums out there. I’m gonna take a stab at one, too”?
RT: Maybe five years ago I was broke and was like “What am I going to get my family?” So I recorded a couple of Christmas songs with a friend, came across it a while ago and remembered it was really fun. Plus, I have so many great memories singing with my family and I also thought it could be really fun to tour so I got started right away. This was in late spring and I was getting married in the summer. But that’s me. I like to add more to the plate. It was such a fun process flying back and forth from Kansas to Seattle, having my mom take notes and write down lyrics while driving around in the middle of June, listening to Christmas music—all the while trying to plan a wedding.
RM: Recording Christmas songs in the middle of summer? Was that kind of weird?
RT: You can imagine it’s pretty hard to get inspired in the middle of summer so I decided to decorate the studio. I hung lights, made some eggnog, wore a Christmas sweater. It was warm and ridiculous.
RM: There are a lot of voices that show up on this album. Again, it seems like a big community effort.
RT: It was! On a few of the songs we wanted a professional choir, but we started running out of time. I realized we had all these great friends so we sent out a mass email, gave people a few days’ notice and asked them to all show up at our studio together. The result was amazing! I cried when I looked around the room because here are all my friends singing these parts I had written for them. Some of them aren’t even musicians! Most of them, in fact, are incredibly goofy people, but they all took it really seriously. They also all showed up in Christmas outfits.
RM: Speaking of other voices, I noticed Sheila shows up on this album for a while. How’s she doing these days?
RT: She’s good. Still single. She’s on the tour with us. She’s performing as Santa Claus. She can only bring one backpack on the road so she wears the outfit every day. She gets recognized a lot by little kids and starts promising things they’ll never get. She feels like a hero.
RM: There are some great original Christmas tunes that show up on the album like “Why Can’t it Be Christmastime All Year” and “Alone at Christmastime.” Where did those come from?
RT: For “Why Can’t it Be Christmastime All Year,” I told my husband, Jeff, I needed a pop song. I don’t write pop songs. He wrote a lot of it. My brother, BT, wrote the melody for “Alone at Christmastime” and my producer, Josh Myers, really pulled the album all together. If the three of them weren’t apart of it, it wouldn’t have gotten done. It touches me that we can write and tour together. I feel a lot better when I share it. That’s what I like about theatre—it’s a community effort. By the way, I rocked it as Annie in high school …even though I was, like, 17 … but anyway, you know what I mean? I don’t like being the sole person. I think that’s as it should be—everybody has their part. I’ve never really been a big control freak.
RM: Let’s talk about the future for a moment. I hear you’re working on a project with Sam Beam. That sounds like a match made in heaven. Can you tell us any more about what’s to come?
RT: Sam and I are great friends. He sang at my wedding and is just such a sweet man who has his heart in the right place. I like him a lot and I like his work. For years he’s been pushing me to do a record with him and I finally took him up on it. We’re starting in February. I’m not really sure where it will go, but we have high hopes for it. It will be great just to be around him. He keeps making jokes saying, “Rosie, I really want you to just belt something out. I want to hear some real R&B from you.” It’s funny. … I didn’t set out to only do records with friends. But this stuff just keeps coming up and it’s too fun. I can’t turn it down. It’s where I’m supposed to be right now.