Singer – songwriter Josh Rouse is a modern day James Taylor. Or Cat Stevens. Or Harry Chapin. You pick. A master craftsman, he has the ability to take you on an amazing journey in a song and touch your emotions. Ten albums in, he remains perhaps the greatest (and most underrated) guy in the game. Forget Jason Mraz and Ed Sheeran. Rouse is an artist you need in your record collection. West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt caught up with him backstage before playing a sold out gig at the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California to discuss “critical acclaim”, living in Spain and his upcoming CD: “Embers Of Time.”
Rocker: Your latest CD “The Happiness Waltz” feels like a return to your singer – songwriter roots after creating a few more world influenced CDs. Was that intentional?
Rouse: As far as doing some songs that were more in the “Blue Eyed Soul” vein with a basic 4/4 timing…Yes. That was the idea. The producer said, “People loved those records, why don’t you do them.” Real simple songs with almost sort of disco beats on them. I write a bunch of songs and sort of stick them in a folder till I need them. Luckily I had some songs like that already written.
Rocker: You mention disco. A lot of your songs have a nice vintage seventies AM radio vibe. Are you a student of the seventies? Rouse: Kind of yeah. And it just seems to suit what I do. I kind of like that music, to me, the sound of the records then. Even the artwork of the seventies feels right.
Rocker: Does the title “The Happiness Waltz” reflect you? Are you happy?
Rouse: No. Not really. It’s just a line out of a song that I had. It goes to reflect on how happiness comes, and goes every day. As far as the songs on the album go, I’m happy. There are some pretty good songs on there.
Rocker: Which is better for writing songs, happiness or sadness?
Rouse: I think there are “Friday Night Songs” and then there are “Sunday Morning Songs.” I kind of do both, I’ve been doing this for a while and I’ve developed a repertoire. I think I can do both although I naturally lean toward melancholy. Even if a song sounds happy I like melancholy chords in there. I like a bit of humor in there as well.
Rocker: This CD, as well as several of your past discs, feature a whole lot of geography in the songs. The first song “Julie (Come out of the rain)”? is about San Francisco. The fourth song “City People, City Things” is about New York. Were they written in those locations?
Rouse: The New York song was written there. I lived in Brooklyn for three years. I pass through San Francisco. San Francisco just sings really well. (Laughs) Nice colorful words. So no, that one wasn’t written there. I think that is the second time I wrote about San Francisco. I’m trying to stay away from writing geographical these days.
Rocker: Then you’ll end up writing a travelogue?
Rouse: Yeah, here’s a travelogue. With the song “Julie (Come out of the rain)” that was a co-write. I just wrote part of those lyrics and the music and the melody. I wrote with Daniel Tashian , who is a songwriter in Nashville. He has a band called The Silvers Seas. Really good. He played in my band for a while and he is an excellent songwriter. He’s always teaching me things. I don’t collaborate too much. Sometimes on my records people will come play on them. But as far as the writing of my songs goes, when I do collaborate, it is usually with him.
Rocker: Some songwriters are always writing songs. Some write just when they need songs after periods of nothing. Which are you?
Rouse: I’m kind of all of those. There will be times when I write a lot of songs. Then, I’ll notice at other times that three or four months will go by where I don’t write anything. It depends on how busy I am. I have children at home and that keeps me pretty busy. That and it depends on how much I’m touring. Some years the crops are a bit more abundant.
Rocker: Does having kids in your life inspire songs?
Rouse: Sometimes. We’ve got instruments lying around the house. Sometimes I will pick up an instrument and think, “Oh that’s an idea.” I’m sure them being around inspires ideas. But I usually have to set aside time to finish things.
Rocker: You have received a lot of critical acclaim over your ten albums. Is critical acclaim good for an artist?
Rouse: You know it’s kind of been up and down. Is it good? It makes you feel good. But I have gotten some bad reviews over the years too. I used to be a bit more sensitive to it early on. Now you just learn to let it not affect what you do.
Rocker: Are you tempted as a songwriter to write something specifically to have a hit?
Rouse: I would love to have a hit. But I don’t try to write hits. But I think I have songs that could be hits, maybe me not doing them, but someone with more of a pop image or a voice. I’d love them to do one of my songs.
Rocker: Have you tried to get someone like that to record one of your songs?
Rouse: No. I’ve written songs for things. Like a film. But I have never really been in the songwriting business where you’re just kind of tornado chasing. My friend Daniel who I write with does that. He’s had a bunch of cuts recorded; never had a hit yet. But I’m sure he will get that. It’s a numbers thing. I’ve known people who write songs every day. You put enough out there eventually you’ll get one. Fortunately I’ve been able to write my own songs and make a living touring. Between that and royalties I’ve been able to make a living doing this. Maybe someday, when I’m older, I may find myself writing songs specifically to sell to others.
Rocker: With 10 albums of material under your belt, how do you decide what songs to play?
Rouse: Yeah it’s tough. It’s great to have the well to pull from. But I always get someone who comes up after a show and says, “You didn’t play anything from “Under Cold Blue Star.” I go, “Oh damn. Sorry.” Usually I open it up and ask people what they want to hear. Especially on a show like tonight where it’s just me playing solo.
Rocker: Do people scream out requests?
Rouse: They do. They have on this tour. And I’ll play them depending on how excited they are.
Rocker: Of your career what is your favorite album and song?
Rouse: The song “1972” turned out really well. Feels really good and it sounds good. The song “My Love Is Gone” turned out really good. The song “Quiet Town” is just a simple song and it has become my most popular song now. It’s interesting what people are drawn to. It’s nice to have songs that you don’t get annoyed by after playing it for ten or twelve years.
Rocker: Think of the artists that are chained to that one or two songs they HAVE to play?
Rouse: Like James Taylor, if he doesn’t do “Fire & Rain” or “You’ve Got A Friend” people would start throwing stuff.
Rocker: How has touring changed for you?
Rouse: Early on I had tour support so I could bring a band out on the road. I really didn’t make money touring. I live in Spain. And I play there with a band, most of the time. And make a few bucks. In the States it’s tough. In Spain the promoter will throw in a hotel room and the meals and it helps out. Me and forty million other singers – songwriters have the same thing. We can’t afford to take a band out in the U.S. It’s too expensive to pay for traveling, salary and hotel rooms. In Spain we just did a cool tour where we played the Violent Femmes first record start to finish.
Rouse: There is a thing in Spain. A cycle or circuit of concerts called “We Used To Party.” They had Howe Gelb doing a Johnny Cash record. It was a great excuse for us to play the songs of someone else.
Rocker: When and why did you move to Spain?
Rouse: I moved there ten years ago because I met a girl. You know. Went over there and tried it out. We moved to the States for a while. Then we started having kids and moved back to Spain.
Rocker: How different is your life there?
Rouse: Last place I lived in the States was Nashville. I had more of a music community. I speak a different language most of the day. My life has changed. I have two kids. Before I could just pick up and go anywhere, do anything I wanted to. I have more responsibility now. I do have a little studio there. I have a good life. I do miss the States at times. We talk about coming back, maybe when the kids get a little bit older.
Rocker: Is your forthcoming eleventh CD “Embers Of Time” done?
Rouse: Pretty much. It’s kind of mixed, but needs to be mastered. I think I’m gonna put one more song on it that I need to finish up, put a vocal on it when I get back home to my studio.
Rocker: Where does the title come from?
Rouse: Came from one of the lyrics from one of the songs on it. As you mentioned there is a lot of geography on “The Happiness Waltz.” On “Embers Of Time” I reference time a lot. I think having children really brings you back and you remember all these moments in your life. Life is happening and it’s going by. There is a lot of looking back on childhood memories and talking about now. Thinking about how long we are here on the Earth.
Rocker: Stylistically, how is it?
Rouse: It’s a bit more folky. A few songs are just me, a guitar and maybe a harmonica. I went to Nashville and did some songs there. Pretty basic. Did some strings on a few songs. It’s different enough from the last one that I think as a fan you would enjoy it. I never want to make the same record again and again. It happened naturally. I love some artists that are one trick ponies. It’s the same song and same mood all the time. I like that. But I happen to make records that are a bit more like The Beatles in the day that they have variety on them. This upcoming record has more variety on it. It’s a bit more lyric focused and not so much the beat. Serious songs. And some humor. It feels like my life.
Rocker: When do you think it will be out?
Rouse: Most likely next March. The artwork is done by a collage artist in Madrid that we really like.
Rocker: What advice would 2013 “The Happiness Waltz” Josh Rouse give to 1998 “Dressed Up Like Nebraska” Josh Rouse?
Rouse: Keep writing them songs. My very first tour was for the “Dressed Up Like Nebraska” record and I toured opening for Son Volt. And the whole tour Jay Farrar never said more than five words to me because he doesn’t talk a lot. At the end of the tour, after the very last show he walks up to me, shakes my hand and says, “Keep writing songs.” Then he walks away. That’s the best advice you could give.
Just keep writing songs. At the end of the day what gives me the satisfaction is the creating part. There is nothing and now there is this thing.