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There's a fairly simple theorem that almost universally applies to confessional singer-songwriters: The degree to which they open their troubled souls on an album is directly proportional to how closed off they are in person. For instance, speak with an artist who's just dropped the most sincerely revealing collection of songs you've ever heard, and you're liable to enjoy an excruciating, dental-work-like session of one-word replies, contemptuous stares and uncomfortably long, lint-picking silences.
Of course, there are understandable reasons for such dispositions. While some people are shy or have an enigmatic image to uphold, others may just be more guarded than a presidential motorcade or tired of being grilled by fifteen journalists in one afternoon. And a few are simply of the attitude that, "Hey, I've already spilled my dysfunctional guts on that little disc you're holding. What more is there to say?"
Rosie Thomas, however, has none of these issues (okay, so she's not real fond of the fifteen-interviews-a-day thing); she's one of the rare exceptions to the rule. Yes, her second Sub Pop release, Only With Laughter Can You Win, is a deeply personal, candidly autobiographical affair, rife with imagery that lays bare the 26-year-old's self-doubts, imperfections, fragile hopes, regrets, yearnings for love and spiritual incertitudes. And, yes, this pensive vibe is only amplified by her sweetly searching soprano-to-falsetto -- strongly influenced by Joni Mitchell -- and a sparse indie-folk sound mostly derived from subdued acoustic guitars, church-lobby piano, barely-there percussion and the occasional twinkle of a xylophone or purr of an organ.
But as she checks in via cell phone, the only thing remote about Thomas is her current location. She's at a tour stop in Vänersborg, Sweden, happily standing outside in the frigid evening air to chat (the club in which she'll soon perform with good friend and fellow Seattleite Damien Jurado is too noisy for conversation). Gracious, frank, and impossibly cheerful and animated over the course of an hour, she's the polar opposite of the "sullen songstress." Still, even members of her own family sometimes wish that weren't the case.
"My older brother said to me once, 'Rosie, could you please just be more mysterious? Could you not open up all the time? Just play your music!'" she says with a laugh. But Thomas says she feels compelled to give people much more of herself during her performances, in conversations with fans before and after shows and while encountering nosy scribes -- privacy be damned.
"It's part of me. It's just the same as me giving them my music," she explains. "If I talk to people and give them my personality, then I feel like what I'm doing is very real, and it makes me more comfortable with doing it. So I don't mind being vulnerable for people I know and don't know. In fact, it's the only way I can be a performer. It makes me feel that I'm doing it for the right reasons.
"I think because I make music for a living, it allows me to be who I am, and that's been my fight so far in life," she continues. "I just wanna get to figure out who I am, because I wanna be that person. I don't wanna keep apologizing. I don't wanna be embarrassed about it. I don't wanna hide anymore. I just wanna be who I am and present that to people. If I were like, 'Yeah look at me, aren't I hot? I have cool pants on! I'm mysterious, and wow, I'm so cool,' I would fail deeply, and it would all be completely for the wrong reasons -- so I don't know how to do it any other way."
So time spent with Rosie means there are no cagey or prefab-sounding answers to questions, just plenty of unsolicited, charming anecdotes about her childhood, her brother's lousy old job, Jurado's incessant farting in the tour van, her run-in with a hapless Swedish journalist the day before (his recording equipment got stolen so he had to jot down every single word she said...slowly) and more. And as those who have seen her live can attest, there's absolutely nothing resembling an aloof, super-serious demeanor -- even if that would befit Thomas's oft-solemn oeuvre. Sure, she and her band take the music seriously, and her quietly penetrating songs are very likely to touch your heart and maybe even moisten the ol' eyeballs every now and then. But once the final chord of any tune begins to fade, you can bet it will be immediately followed by a giggle, a kooky joke, a bizarre story or just generally unbelievable goofiness -- at least until the next bittersweet number kicks in -- rather than a perfunctory "thanks" under the singer's breath.
To some, this juxtaposition might seem pretty odd, perhaps even jarring, but Thomas has no inclination to send her audiences off into the night searching for razor blades or a bridge to jump off.
"I got this writeup the other day, and the guy said, 'It was really beautiful but she laughed too much, and it took away from the mood.' I was like, 'Man, go watch someone else that keeps her head down the whole time, because that will never be me,'" Thomas says. "I guess you can ruin it for some people if they want to think of you in all black, hair in your eyes and crying all the time. Ugh, I did that in high school! No more! That was a terrible time, and I made a choice not to be like that anymore."