‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to trauma dump’: Caitlin Rose on leaving her dark days behind

For nine years, the Nashville singer-songwriter felt desperately ‘stuck’. Now she’s back with a glorious new album – and, she says, it’s a hopeful gesture towards the future

A while back, singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose made the decision to move to west Nashville, some distance from the hipper neighbourhoods of the city’s east, where for many years she had run happily amok, drinking at Dino’s, playing at Grimey’s and, before she broke through in music, working at the diner Bobbie’s Dairy Dip.

The relocation brought her an outsider’s perspective on the city that has been her home since she was seven. “It’s not the worst thing, honestly,” she says, sitting in the shade of her back porch on a warm autumn afternoon. “I like it over here. There’s four restaurants, and one bar, and my family.”

Rose is 35 now, and it has been nine years since she last put out a record. Long enough to drift a little from the heart of the city’s music scene, and long enough, certainly, for people to wonder where she’s been. It’s a hard story to tell. When she speaks today, her face holds the tightness of knowing she will be expected to explain what happened – just what it was that halted the upward trajectory of her career.

Rose was 23 when she released her debut album, Own Side Now, in 2010. The record revealed a remarkable talent: a lyrical candour and wit, and a voice that sounded lovelorn and world-weary, placing her somewhere between Iris DeMent and Loretta Lynn. She was Nashville blue blood – her mother, Liz Rose, is a Grammy-winning songwriter who wrote for Taylor Swift – but she seemed to represent a new generation of young, genre-blurring country singers who were unpolished and soulful.

Caitlin Rose at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, in 2013.
Caitlin Rose at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, in 2013. Photograph: Matt Kent/Redferns/Getty Images

She returned three years later with The Stand-In. An altogether more ambitious record, with pop hooks and several co-writes, it gathered commercial attention and critical acclaim. But Rose’s relationship with the album today is uneasy. In the past few years, she says, she has largely dropped its material from her live sets. “It doesn’t speak to me as much as Own Side does,” she says, “because I co-wrote it. And, granted, I love those songs, but I never really figured out how to translate my love for those songs in a live sense.”

It was somewhere around this time that “the wheels were falling off in certain ways”. She recorded sessions for a third record, but nothing ever quite felt right. Months rolled by, and then years. When she talks about it now, she describes herself as “stuck” and in “wrong situations”. She speaks of “not accomplishing anything” and of “feeling defeat”. Sometimes an idea would rise in her mind: “I’m going to quit.”

Rose has thought long and hard about whether to tell the full story of what happened to her; to explain in detail what sent her off course. Her decision not to divulge everything at this moment is an effort to let her new songs speak for themselves. “We’re in such a weird time right now, where in some ways I feel obligated to share,” she says. “But I don’t think artists owe their stories, I think they owe music. And I’ve owed music for a long time. So I don’t want to add anything to my bill.”

In the past, she might have been more open. “I think there’s a part of me where I just want to be in a bar, drunk with three people, and tell them everything,” she says. But she has learned in recent years the importance of keeping boundaries. “Especially if you are a person with trauma, and you know about trauma-dumping,” she says. “And you know about that moment where you walk out of a place and you say: ‘Oh my God, I just told a total stranger the most deepest horrible things that I’ve ever told anybody …’” She has learned to have control over her own story. “That’s something I really wasn’t able to do for a long time.”

Rose in sunglasses at the Stagecoach music festival, California, in 2015.
Rose at the Stagecoach music festival, California, in 2015. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

Still, there has been a certain process of evaluation. She has a new record to promote, and she is aware that a young female artist telling a hard story could lead to more coverage. But for Rose, this is not a fair or comfortable exchange. “I feel like there’s someone out there who’d say, ‘You’re shooting yourself in the foot not sharing your traumas,’” she says. “But in this moment I feel very accomplished, I feel very proud.”

She is tearful suddenly, and her voice sticks. “I’m in such a good place right now, and I don’t want to hinge this new record release on something that sucks,” she says. “I want to be happy, I want to be excited.” She blinks a bit and laughs. “I’m not going to trauma dump, don’t worry! You’re not in a bathroom, and it’s not three o’clock in the morning in a bar …”

The person who lifted Rose out of the mire was her longtime friend and collaborator, the producer Jordan Lehning. Every few months, Lehning would call and ask whether she was OK. He would take her to lunch, and as they ate, Rose would tell him the same things, over and over: “I am stuck, I am frozen, I am paralysed in a career sense and I don’t know what to do.” Lehning’s advice never wavered: “Let’s just do it! Let’s just make it!” For a few brief moments, Rose would feel galvanised. And then she would flounder again.

But Lehning did not give up. “He is a person who I trust, who I adore, who I know has my back in any kind of creative situation,” she says. “Him saying, ‘I really want to help you paint whatever picture you are trying to paint right now and I am behind it’ was a really special thing. There was no time limit, there was only time.”

When the shift came it was sudden. In late 2019, Rose took part in a tribute show to the late David Berman of Silver Jews, singing their Black and Brown Blues backed by a band made up of William Tyler, Jack Lawrence, Luke Schneider and Brian Kotzur. “People I’ve known for years, and some of the most amazing musicians in this town,” she says. After the show she told them: “‘I wish I could just do this with you guys!’ And somebody said, ‘Why can’t you?’”

She called Lehning the following day and told him to book a studio. Two weeks later, she cut her new record. And Cazimi is the record Rose was born to make: a glorious swell of alt-country pop, heartbreak and hooks, with a Courtney Marie Andrews duet thrown in for good measure. More than anything, it’s a product of her hyperfixation on single songs: “Those diamonds that shoot past you, where it’s not the genre, it’s not the style, it’s nothing, it’s just that song.”

She talks about its influences, about lying in the back of a van at a branch of Autozone in Amarillo, Texas, and hearing Jackie Blue by Ozark Mountain Daredevils play on the radio, and being hit afresh by its sadness. Or of singing Bette Davis Eyes at karaoke. Of learning harmonies from some strange combination of Wilson Phillips songs and the Louvin Brothers. “It’s everything I heard growing up,” she says. “We’re all, like, children of [early music-sharing service] LimeWire so I don’t know what my brain has ingested.”

Lehning approved. “This is the most ‘you’ thing you’ve ever made – it’s just that nobody knows who you are,” he told her. She smiles. “I think after 10 years of trying to be stuffed into boxes, or trying to figure out if there was a box I could be in, I put whatever the fuck I want in now, and it feels right.”

Rose is a big fan of astrology; this afternoon she refills her drink in the Nashville heat and talks of how she is a quadruple cancer with a Gemini moon in Venus, and how the only fire in her chart is in the 10th house of career. “And I feel like I stifled a lot of fire in me.”

People might laugh when she talks about astrology, she acknowledges, but it helped her find a new acceptance of life and its vagaries, and gave her a whole new lexicon to explore. Cazimi, for instance, is an astrological term for when the sun and another planet are perfectly conjoined. “So it’s supposed to empower that planet instead of combusting it or outshining it or destroying every possibility it has to succeed.” It seemed the right title to mark her return, a hopeful gesture towards the future. “It’s a feeling that encompasses what I maybe have wanted for a long time,” she says. “Just a moment of empowerment or shine that I hadn’t really been able to latch on to before.”

  • Cazimi is out on Friday on Names


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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