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Funny Girl

Rosie Thomas would rather laugh than cry. She'll let the music do that for her.

She's not kidding. And Thomas didn't just turn it around and become the funny girl; she became a stand-up comic. Over the past couple of years, concurrent with establishing her music career, she's done a regular routine at Seattle's Giggles Comedy Club, where she transforms into "Sheila," a fully off-center, klutzy, neck-brace-wearing, pizza delivery girl, somewhat in the vein of Andy Kaufman's eccentric and often unsettling creations. Aside from satisfying her more theatrical ambitions, the experience has made it even clearer to Thomas that mirth and misery are two sides of the same coin.

"Have you ever been to a comedy club? Have you ever sat with a comedian? They are the most miserable people I've ever met in my life!" she declares. "But the beautiful thing about comedians is that they're able to look honestly at all the shit in their lives, which takes a lot of bravery, I think, and present it to people and get them to laugh at how distorted and confused we all really are. They can come up with something hilarious that comes from a place of the deepest sorrow.

"But that's life," says Thomas, musing on her determination to clown around between melancholy musical moments. "I mean, the title of my record says it all. We're all freaked out. We're all jacked up. We all have different things to get us through, different faiths and religions and other sources to make us feel better day to day. For me, one of them is laughter. It's so ridiculously tragic, some of the stuff I play every day, that you gotta find a way to laugh at things, or it'd be overwhelming and annoying, like, 'Get over it,' you know?"

Oh, Sheila: Rosie Thomas just wants to be herself.
Oh, Sheila: Rosie Thomas just wants to be herself.

She's also leaned on her sense of humor to get her through the ups and downs of her fledgling career. It's mostly been ups so far: After moving to the Pacific Northwest from her native Detroit, where she started out doing occasional coffeehouse gigs with her dad (her parents and siblings are all accomplished musicians) and briefly playing with the local Mazzy Star-esque outfit Velour 100, Thomas met Jurado, a like-minded urban-folk artist then signed to Sub Pop. She sang on his 2000 release Ghost of David and teamed up with him again the following year to cover Bruce Springsteen's "Wages of Sin" on a Nebraska tribute album, all of which impressed the label enough to offer her a solo record deal.

At the beginning of 2002, Thomas released her unassumingly gorgeous debut, When We Were Small, to rave reviews and enthusiastic local attention. Shows were better attended, and the first half of the year exceeded everyone's expectations. And then came one of the downs.

"I had opened for Jewel earlier that summer, just four shows with her, right?" Thomas recounts with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. "Well, the crowd was great, and we sold a lot of records, so everyone was like, 'Rosie's invincible, man; she can play with anyone! Let's go on a two-and-a-half-month European tour with Bryan Ferry!' But it was tragic, completely tragic. We were heckled and booed the entire time, and by all these way older fans, even. We got the set down to four songs, and I'd run out there and play everything in fast forward and be like, 'Thank you, I hate you, bye!'"

Instead of packing it in early, though, Thomas and her band pushed forward with a lighthearted, "We've got nothing to lose" attitude, and now she looks back on the nightmare as a learning experience and a point of pride. "That was awesome, because not everyone's gonna like what you do," she says. "So what do you do when that happens? Can you keep going? Can you keep believing in what you're doing, no matter what? Naturally, I think every artist wants to believe that what they're doing will matter to someone else, that they're making that connection with people; that's the most important thing to me. And so if I don't feel I'm doing that, I sort of lose my desire. But then you think, if just one person out there gets it, that's all that matters.

"I mean, two and a half months of people yelling at me to get off the stage -- and yet I did it," she adds. "We just made fun of the whole entire thing, like, 'Yay! I've finally got my tomato-throwing story!' It sucked, but we didn't go 'Fuck this' and just give up. To me, that's more of a success than playing a great show and having people come up to you saying they loved it."

Still, those little moments after a gig -- those personal connections --are what make it all worthwhile for Thomas, and she hopes that never changes, no matter how her career progresses.

"I really want to always be approachable," she says. "And besides, I set myself up for it, so if I were ever to get bitter about it, that would be my own fault. I mean, I pretty much have always, very forwardly, told people, 'Please talk to me and hang out!' You do that at the beginning, and then it grows a bit, and you're like, 'Oh, shit!' It's hard to keep up with everyone and remember names, so you kind of feel like a phony. But people are more important to me than anything. They're what drives me to do this for a living. I think if I wasn't making music, I'd be a counselor or something."

She hesitates for a moment, then cracks up. Perhaps a little bit of Sheila is sneaking in.

"Actually, maybe not -- I'd completely ruin people's lives!"

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