Interview: How Recording "Loner" Taught Caroline Rose to Be Funny Without Being a Joke

When Caroline Rose released Loner in February, it represented a number of leaps forward for the artist—adding an upfront sense of humor to the keen lyricism of earlier releases, while stepping away from folk and roots rock toward full-on pop songwriting.

In an interview with Reverb, Rose talks about how she spent a few years before Loner learning and honing her new songwriting and production styles—taking the time to reflect on the divide between her on- and off-stage selves, while diving deep into synthesizers and music software. Experimenting with new ways of making music allowed her a way to find a more honest artistic voice.

It also helped opened her eyes to what had been an unknown world of music production. "I really thought that a producer was somebody who had years of training and knowledge and went to music school and wears the gold chain with the cocaine pinky nail," she says. But instead, "It really comes down to your taste and your confidence—and a general understanding of how to make records.

Caroline Rose - Loner

Caroline Rose is currently on tour. Check her website for upcoming dates and more info on her music.

I want to start out by asking a little bit about your influences. Who did you grow up listening to and who inspires your sound now?

Well, I guess I should say music that I grew up listening to that still influences me, because I listen to a lot of things that—I wouldn't particularly say that Amy Grant's Christmas album is a huge influence on my music now, but definitely a lot of Chris Isaak—love me some Chris Isaak. Dave Brubeck Quartet, big time. "Take Five" is still my favorite song of all time.

When I got older I got into a lot of the more songwriter-y stuff like Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell and all the great folk writers. And then as I got even older, I started listening to a lot more punk and industrial music and Krautrock. So, it pretty much runs the gamut. I love pop music now. I think there's like a type of music for every emotion and every part of your day.

For sure. Did you start off playing guitar?

Actually, the first instrument I learned was piano, and that's one of the only instruments I'm trained on. I took lessons when I was a kid but I don't—I mean, I was forced to practice and I hated that so I kind of quit. But then I took up the guitar when I was a little bit older and I was maybe 12 or 13, and that was much more fun, because I wasn't forced to do it. And then I just got better at it. I played guitar in jazz band and trombone and I know how to play the flute [laughs.]. It still makes me laugh because, I don't know, I just picture fairies playing the flute.

That's so funny. A couple of people we've talked said that they started out playing piano and then got into guitar, but also played trombone in band.

I think the trombone—you know, I was so embarrassed by it for so long, but now I'm really happy that I know how to play it, and I own one. So, I'm putting it on my next record. I can't wait. I'm writing a brass piece for it.

Caroline Rose - "Soul No. 5"

Whoa.

Yeah, I know. All of the instruments that we are forced to kind of play in high school and elementary school whatever—it can have a purpose.

Are you already working on another album?

I'm always working on another album. I think I just want to be making music forever. And, you know, I had a two-year span where I didn't really put out any music, because I really wanted to hone in exactly what I wanted to do. And so I just was writing the whole time and getting better at production and just kind of concocting all these ideas and honing everything in. So now that I've built the foundation for this, I just want to be putting our music continuously until I die, basically. Until I get very tired.

I'm thrilled to hear that you're already writing for the next album, but what was your setup for this album?

I would produce out a lot of the tracks in Ableton [Live]. So I'd write the song on guitar or piano, or sometimes I wrote a couple songs on the OP-1. One of them I wrote on a little synth app in my phone. So I'd take all these ideas and then I'd sit down and I'd just do a demo of them, and then I'd plunk it into Ableton and produce out the tracks more.

So that's where I ended up, going into the studio with all these really fully formed tracks, and then we would either use some of the recordings that I had done or we would re-record them. I wanted to re-record a lot of them, so I ended up working with this guy, Paul Butler, who's my co-producer. He and I played all the parts. A lot of the stuff I had tracked on my own rig, so we ended up using a combination of the recordings that we had done, along with my recordings, and then I ended up finding somebody to record my string arrangements that I had done in Ableton.

And, yeah, I played a bunch of the parts. I like the way that we did it because it felt very much like me, you know? Everything that's on the album, like, 100 percent sounds like me. I will add that I, I was gonna say this before, but I love Reverb so much. I have bought so much shit from you guys. I should just set up a direct bank account that just links my bank account to you guys [laughs].

I want to dig into production in a second. But before I get there, what is the rig that you record and tour with?

I use the Apollo 8p. And then I have a vintage 1176. When I'm traveling I use the Duet, which is pretty amazing, because the pres in the Duet it sounds so good. I'm just always amazed by it. Apogee and Avid and Apollo are just an amazing trifecta of things... Yeah, so that's my portable rig and the Apollo's my home rig.

I'm beefing up my mic locker for the next batches of recording that I'm doing now—or, just continuously doing I guess. Let's see, what else do I use? I have a handful of synths that are my go-to synths. On the album though, a lot of the synths are from this really amazing studio called Panoramic House Studio in Bolinas, California, and it's just filled with these beautiful vintage synths. There's a Voyager and ARP Odysseys all over it. There's the Jupiter-6.

What the fuck else is on there? One of those old Yamaha organs, like the double-tier organs that's got all the chorus sounds on there. It's just a sick place. So that's where we did a lot of the experimental, synthy sounds. And, to be honest, we went way, way more than what you hear on the record. There's probably weeks' worth—hours and hours and hours of just weird synth sounds that we got and we just geeked out hardcore.

That was really fun working with Paul, because, I'm really into production, and the next album I'd love to produce myself. But for this one, I really wanted to work with somebody who just wanted to experiment with sounds, like making just fun, quirky, weird sounds. And he was a great guy to work with, because he was also looking just to do something fun like that.

So, the first session that we did was just messing around with just really weird, synthy sounds, and there's a cool Eurorack there that had all this—because it's one of the founders of Tape Op that owns Panoramic, so he gets all this gear from these amazing companies. It'll just be sitting there and nobody will know how to use them. So you just kind of like plug it in and figure it out. There's this amazing modular synth that we were just making all these ridiculous sounds with it. So, I ended up taking those sessions, and I'm still using some of that stuff that we did. But it didn't even make it on the record because it's so weird.

But I like working like that. I like having the core song and then having days where you just kind of, like, Sylvia Massy-style, just go in and make really strange things and just see what fits with the songs because, you know, at the end of the day, it's about catering to the songs and making them as good as you can make them.

Caroline Rose (Photo by Matt Hogan)

But I think the beauty of being in a studio with gear, especially gear that's new to you, is there's always this childish mystery to it where you approach an instrument you've never played before and you don't really know how it works and you just tinker around on it. You poke it and prod it and turn some knobs and just see what it makes. I think I'll always have that.

You said that Loner, the album that you're coming out with now, is much more you. Do you feel that it's that way because you did so much experimentation?

Yeah, definitely. And I think that it was also kind of years in the making, like, honing in. I think it's pretty hard to fully make art that really represents you as a person. It's kind of like when you're at home with your family or your close friends or something—it brings out a different side of your personality than when you're in front of a bunch of strangers or at a party or something. It just brings out a side of you that might be different than what you're most comfortable with around your friends and family.

And I think that just started nagging at me for a while where they didn't align, like my stage personality and what I was making in my music and my art. It didn't feel like a direct reflection of how I felt most comfortable in my personal life, and it would just bug me. It took a little bit of time to really dial in exactly how I could make music that sounded like me and experimenting is definitely—I think it may be the only way that you can really hone that in. Because you just don't really know how things are going to turn out until you make them, until you try it.

So, I had no idea if this was going to work or not. I still don't know [laughs]. But it seems to be going okay so far. But for sure, one thing I wanted to do was bring out the humor. I think it's a really fine line between bringing out the humor and sarcasm in music and being a joke band. I've talked about the band Devo because they're a huge influence on me. But they're also one of those bands that kind of got snared in the joke band territory after a while. People just kind of stopped taking them seriously because they wore cones on their heads and stuff. But the message that they were kind of sharing was a really important one.

Caroline Rose - "More of the Same", Noise Ordinance Studio Sessions

I kind of keep that in the back of my mind. I'm like, okay, it's good to have fun and be sarcastic and kind of poke fun at all the silly things that I do in my life and that people just kind of do in general. But there's also a balance where you can't just point and laugh at everything, because sometimes things are just serious and there's no need to laugh at them.

So I wanted to make something that represented me as a person that was one part humorous and one part serious and one part fun and one part sad and depressed sometimes. It's surprisingly difficult to meld all those things together, so it took a little while. But now I think I'm getting it down. Now I think I kind of know how to approach it better.

Is there any gear that you've been dying to try that you haven't been able to get your hands on yet, that you're looking forward to?

Oh yeah. I really want some Coles 4038s—the Beatles drum mic. I really want those. I want a Culture Vulture. I'm a big fan of John Congleton and I think he gets amazing drum sounds, and I've heard that he puts the Culture Vulture on his drums sometimes. So, I really want one of those.

I just bought a Sennheiser 441 because it sounds good on everything, but I really want one of those old RCA ribbon mics on my vocals would be sick. And I think AEA makes the RCA. They're like the RCA knockoff kind of. They're like the mods or something. So, yeah, I want one of those. I mean, I want a Fairchild. I want a lot of things, but, you know, I'm always amazed by how you can make amazing music with really a small amount of things. I want an RE20, one of those old broadcasting mics. I think they'd sound really cool on kicks and stuff.

What else do I want? I want a Hofner bass—actually I really need, that might be my next big purchase, because I don't have a very good bass. I have an old one that sounds really janky and so, on the record, I tracked the bass on "Jeannie Becomes a Mom" on my rig and I borrowed the bass and I set it up, but I really just want my own bass that sounds really tight. So, I love this Hofner bass, they've got the flat-wounds and the hollowbody. It just sounds nice and woody.

I basically want a mixture of like Beatles-era-type recording blended with some electronic modern-day stuff. I don’t know, I could probably list like a hundred more things that I want, but those are on the top. I have a portable rack now that I have with my patchbay and my conditioner and my 1176.

But I have one slot that I want to fill with something, so I don't know. Everyone has a Distressor so I was like, well maybe I'll just get something different than that—since everybody's got one of those. So yeah, I have to think about it. I'd still want a Distressor actually—it would be pretty fucking cool. But yeah, I have to make a list.

I know. That's hard to do.

But I did just buy, I just bought the 441 from you guys, I don't know, less than a week ago. So that's just arrived, I'm excited to plug it in.

There's nothing like new gear day.

New gear day is like every other week for me. I'm always buying something.

Do you have any words of wisdom for any folks out there looking to start producing their own music?

Absolutely—especially to any women or female-identifying people reading this or hearing this or however people consume this information. I will definitely say that it's way easier than you think it is. Because, I really thought that a producer was somebody who had years of training and knowledge and went to music school and wears the gold chain with the cocaine pinky nail. I just thought it was going to be something way different than it is, and it really comes down to your taste and your confidence—and a general understanding of how to make records.

Caroline Rose (Photo by Matt Hogan)

But I'm realizing more and more, especially if you're producing your own work—so much of it comes down to confidence, and if you're happy with the sounds that you're making, and if it's translating and if you're really catering to the song—which is something that it does take some time to really hone those skills in. But I am realizing more and more that these are things I've actually been doing for years. Just working on my own material and just honing in exactly what I want and how I want to say it.

And oftentimes, I'll find myself—this is what was a little bit tricky for me making this record. I went through multiple producers trying to find somebody who I realized—I really just wanted someone to have fun making weird sounds with me. Once I start making the next record, I'm going to go into it with a different mindset, because I really think that the role that I enjoy, at least in my own music, is both writing and producing it—at least at this like point in my career.

And Paul taught me a lot about the skills that you need to have and how the producer's job is to finish the album and it's as much a social role as it is a technical role. So, he taught me a lot about that, and it's definitely something that I would pass along to other people just that: A lot of it is baseline instinct and using your taste and abilities to make a cohesive body of work that really represents what you're trying to say. I'd say that's the advice— to just do it, just start. Starting's the hardest part.


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