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.
"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."
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?"
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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