‘I really need to feel safe to perform these songs … because it's just a lot for me.’
Caroline Rose’s new album, The Art of Forgetting, takes a “time capsule” approach to capture a perfect storm in Rose’s life in which burnout, a breakup and a global pandemic turned into a full-blown identity crisis.
Ultimately, the universe dished out the tools she needed to process, heal and chronicle it all, turning out a transformational collection of songs. Within The Art of Forgetting is repeated evidence of one of those tools: an incredibly supportive family, including her loving grandmother (“Mee Maw”) who checked on Rose every day even as she slipped away from this life. The voice messages her grandmother left her during that time period are tellingly poignant and a window into what can buoy us in our darkest hours.
Rose sat down with me before her visit to Turner Hall Ballroom this Saturday, April 22, and explained the elements of the perfect storm that came together to create her latest album, and the strength she found in the people around her to make it through to the other side. You can listen to an edited version of the interview using the player on this page, and get the whole thing via the transcript or video below.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity
The most common theme I see around you as an artist is your pension for reinvention. Do you feel like you have a pension for reinvention? And if so, is it intentional?
Not really. In fact, I'm always kinda surprised that it’s such a point that people make because, to me, all my favorite artists have been shapeshifters, like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan and … even Joni Mitchell was constantly changing.
I feel like so many artists are always changing. That's what we do. To do the same thing twice, like make the same album twice, is just never gonna be for me. I feel like I can't sit still long enough for that; it’s boring to me.
So I've always kind of thought of myself in my work just being like a sponge that just keeps getting more and more information and life experience, and hopefully I'm getting better with time. But, no, I wouldn't say it's intentional. I'm really just kind of living my life and trying to make art that reflects how I'm feeling at the time, so it's like little time capsules.
This is the most personal album that you've made to date. And, obviously, all albums are personal, but it feels like this one goes a lot deeper. Can you explain or give a little backstory on what was going on right before you wrote and recorded these songs?
Yeah, it was kind of a perfect storm of things. I had put out an album March 6 of 2020, and I think we got four shows in before the whole thing just completely came to a shocking halt with really no end in sight.
I had already sort of been having just this, like, identity crisis? I don't know what it was exactly, but I think it was a cautionary tale for me making Superstar ‘cause I was wearing so many hats in the making of that album. And by the end of it, I felt like I had left so little over for my own life — my own personal life outside of music — that it just felt like when the shows all got canceled, it felt like a huge question of, like, “What have I done? I've left nothing for myself, and what am I, who am I without my work? Who am I without my career?”
It was a big, kind of shocking moment to me of how I need to set my own boundaries in my life and reprioritize what I actually think fuels me. And then simultaneously I was going through this really difficult breakup. It was something I didn't wanna do that I felt like I had to, for myself. But I didn't really know how to respect myself or love myself or even be kind to myself with all of this going on. And that was just personal.
I think also at the time, everybody was isolating. It was incredibly hard to be going through this painful stuff, virtually alone. I had to move out of my house, and I was staying with my sound engineer in his extra house in Vermont. And so everything just felt very out of place, and I felt really lost. And the whole time, I was kind of just chronicling this feeling.
I would say that was the worst of it, but it kind of got a little worse when I went back to Texas and then started the healing process in a totally different way. But I was kind of documenting this the whole time over the course of a year-and-a-half, two years. By the end of that time, when I had all these songs and the album was starting to come together, it just seemed like a perfect stamp in time of this transformative process that was happening for me.
And now you have the time capsule from that era.
I don't think it's correct saying you find it comforting that everyone else is going through the same stuff or is “in it” with you, but something about the universality of a global pandemic probably made it a little more comforting. Do you feel like you kinda had a “everyone's going through this, it feels more unified, like a bummer moment for the whole universe,” instead of just the universe dumping on you?
Oh, yeah. I think there's a collective trauma that we still haven't really reconciled yet. I feel like the ports opened up, and everyone just moved the hell on. And that's both insane to me, and at the same time I recognize there was a lot of pain from that time that nobody wants to have to re-live. On a global level, that was actually the thing that I had the easiest problem with I think because it wasn't lonely; it was something that everybody was experiencing.
But the parts that were difficult were that I had all this time now, and with no end in sight really. There were so many things I had to reconcile, just things about myself that I knew were causing me problems and causing me my own pain and suffering, and things that happened in my relationship that could have been prevented had I really understood myself and respected myself more and really loved myself more, I think. And that was really the hard part.
I want to talk a little bit about the themes in “Miami” because I feel like that song, especially, dives into those feelings. And we're also currently playing the song, so I feel like our listeners would love a little bit of expansion on that song — where it originated from, and what you were processing while writing it.
That was one of the songs that came earlier in the writing process. And when I look back on it, all the darker material was the earlier stuff, and as I was kind of healing through just the process of time and self-reflection and hopefully some self-improvement, the songs get a little funnier and a little bit lighter.
[For “Miami”], I felt like I had been bottling up my emotions for a really long time, just trying to keep it together, just keep it together for my band, keep it together for my relationship, keep it together for myself, just pretending that I'm this emotionally stable, strong person that can handle all these things.
Looking back, it was like shaking up a carbonated bottle, and the top is about to pop off. ’Cause at a certain point I was just like, “Wow, I have so much anger and so much resentment that’s built up.” And not only for my relationship, but also for myself. It was just like putting so much blame on myself.
I flip-flop between being the type of person that I feel really comfortable on a stage — I feel I was really designed for that in a lot of ways — but a totally different side of me feels like a complete outcast, like I don't fit in anywhere, like I’m never gonna be good enough. And the two flip-flop all the time. Which Caroline's gonna show up?
That song was really … it was almost conversational. The first part of it is thinking back on this vacation to Miami. It’s this beautiful scene where a lot of people are going to enjoy their winter break on the beach and eat some good food and drink cocktails. And on the outside I was loving it, you know, just like everyone else. But on the inside, there was just all this turmoil that was happening, and that was one of the moments that I realized how unhappy I was.
So the first half of the song is a reflection on that. And then the second half is a conversation with my mom about, like, “What am I gonna do now? I'm in this situation now. What do I do? I have all these feelings. I don't know what to do with them. I don't know. I can barely get up in the morning now. It just feels like I shot myself in both feet.” So it's really just like an emotional purge, I guess.
This album feels like it probably let you process a lot of things in a healthy way. And as you also said, you're kind of bringing your family into it, like a conversation with your mom. You also included conversations from your grandma, who you call “Mee Maw,” right?
I thought that was really wonderful and like a super-grounding thing to include in there. It just created a whole picture of your process. Would you explain the relationship you've had with your grandmother, even though she's passed? What was your relationship with her like when you were very young?
She lived down the street from our house, and we were so close. It was my dad's mother, and she's from Mississippi, so she was just always a fixture in my life. Always.
When I was a kid, our house burned down, and we lived with my grandma for over a year while they were finding us a new place to live, and I remember those years. Like I remember everything that we did, living with her and my grandpa, and my family were all really tight. We're really close. So when something difficult happens, you know, we lean on each other.
And my grandma, she just represents pure love. She represents pure love for me and my sister and my family. She stayed alive just to love us. I truly believe that she lived this really long life, and I think she held on for so long, she just wanted to experience everything with us. She would call me every day, even as she was kind of losing her memory, just to check in on me, make sure I was eating. And so on the album, it felt so right to include that.
[Her voicemails were] like the last thing that I added [to the album]. But the whole time I was making the album, I knew I needed to include these voicemails from my grandma, ’cause I had them from over the course of many years.
It was interesting to hear how, over time, you could essentially hear her dying. Like you could hear her losing her memory. She'd be saying the same thing each time, but over the course of many years, it would start to change a little bit, like she would forget things. She'd forget that she called me. She'd get distracted and be talking to someone else in the room.
So I thought it’s a storytelling device, just telling this story about this time. It was really important to include her ‘cause we spoke so often.
I feel like a lot of folks who listen could connect to something like that, too. It just felt like a whole picture of who you are and what you were going through, so I thought that was really wonderful that you included those voicemails.
Your album’s called The Art of Forgetting. Why would you say that forgetting is an art, and what place does forgetting hold in your life now? Is it something that you find helpful?
This theme of memory and this idea of forgetting kept coming up again and again. Because at first, I'd written this song “Miami,” and it's a line in “Miami.” When I wrote that song, I just had so much anger, and it just had built up, and I kept thinking of this — I think the most immediate thing at that time was this breakup that I was kind of processing. And it felt like she was moving on so quickly because our anxiety gets the best of us, and we're, like, being left behind.
It feels insane to me that you can be in love with a person and be building a life with a person and have all these memories with a person and see a future with this person, and then when it doesn't work out, you just stop speaking entirely. It seems crazy to me. And I think it always will seem insane that you can be so close with someone, and then it's like cold turkey, hard out.
I just thought at that time, “the art of forgetting” was more like taking a pill so you can move on. I was also reading this book called The Body Keeps the Score ’cause I was kind of doing a deep dive into myself, realizing that's exactly what the body does sometimes — it forgets things that are really painful that were really traumatic so we can survive, so we can move on and have a healthy life and not be dwelling on this really horrible thing that happened.
So I guess the first iteration of the title did have this heaviness to it. It was kind of dark. And then the more I was healing through this process, the more it started feeling like a healthy process of letting go of things where you can hold a memory, and then you can let it go. It seemed more like the verb was changing — to “forget” was changing from something that was a transitive verb to an intransitive verb or something like that, you know? More passive.
When I first read that, I thought that seems unhealthy to willfully forget something. But the way you're explaining it sounds very well thought out and mature, like you processed what that word actually means to you.
So, yeah, I've done a lot of thinking on it. I've had a lot of time to think [laughs].
With everything in the rearview it seems like, what's your biggest takeaway from what you just went through, and what are you most proud of yourself for accomplishing?
Man, I wish I could say it's in the rearview. Performing these songs is really difficult. It's been really difficult. And this is just the beginning, so I know it's gonna get easier as we go along. But, man, the first week of just doing radio and just these little performances, I cried every single show.
But your audience is probably there for you. So, if anything, the people who love you and follow you, they’ll support you if you need to still process emotions, you know?
I wonder if the audience realizes just how much that it’s a mutual relationship. I really need to feel “safe” to perform these songs in a way because it's just a lot for me. It's really hard for me.
Yeah, no doubt.
It’s probably why I haven't made such a vulnerable record yet — like, this is what happens.
So do you give yourself time in the weeks that you're touring? Do you take little breaks, or do you have shorter tours?
I wish I could say yes. I find my own little moments, even while we're driving these long drives. I can sit and meditate and do whatever I need to do, but touring has just always been so difficult. It's so difficult. I feel like unless you have boatloads of money to throw at it, to just have an easier experience that can allow for leisure time, it’s really like you have to Tetris your body into a situation to make it work.
I'm handling it okay so far. I'm doing better now, but the first couple weeks there’s been like three weeks of nonstop production rehearsals and getting everything ready, and I haven't had a day off yet. But I'm handling it better than I ever have before, which I have to pat myself on the back. It's been really hard, and I have like the most insane team of people. It's all my friends who are so talented and are all workaholics.
It helps to have friends, and when they're crazy supportive of you, you feel like you can do anything, right?
Yeah. I would eat an apple full of razor blades for all these people.
That is friendship.
It is [laughs].
So you’re on tour right now, but you're stopping in Milwaukee on April 22. What can folks who are going to the show in Milwaukee look forward to, and what are you looking forward to most about coming to Milwaukee?
Well, hopefully I get to see some of it besides the venue. It's usually what we get to experience, but I don't know. In little ways, we get to experience the city that we're in — like via the cheese that shows up on our rider or, like, a local beer.
But as far as the show, Turner is a beautiful room. I've never headlined a show there, so it's gonna be a beautiful night. We have this really gorgeous light show that took approximately forever to design and figure out. We're essentially a traveling circus, so we have to figure out how things will scale to different size rooms ’cause no two rooms are the same.
I actually have memorized all the dimensions of all these shows so we can fit this light show. And I think it's gonna be so beautiful. I'm just excited that it's working, and I think people have just a stunning visual element to the music, which I've always wanted to do. Obviously, we couldn't do that with Superstar, so I'm glad that it's finally happening.
Well, we're all looking forward to seeing you here in Milwaukee and with this beautiful light show. “The Traveling Circus of Caroline Rose” is coming, playing with Kairo’s Creature Club. We’re so excited to have you back, so I hope you have an awesome rest of your tour up until the 22nd, and we'll see you then.
Yeah, thank you so much, appreciate it. I’ll see you on the 22nd.