Rosali opens up with 'Bite Down' - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
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Rosali’s Bite Down is an album of standouts. And yet, some songs still manage to separate themselves from the pack. “The Hills” comes smack in the middle of the first side of Philly-rooted songwriter Rosali Middleman’s newest record and represents a new level of synergy between her and her backing band, The Mowed Sound (bassist David Nance, guitarist James Schroeder, drummer Kevin Donahue). Methodically paced and beautifully rendered, “The Hills” finds a haunting middle-ground between psych-rock freakout and an age-old folk tune, as bashful as it is bold, as confident as it is retreating.

“I wanted to challenge ourselves,” Rosali tells me during our recent phone call, citing “The Hills” as the ideal blend of what she and her band do best. “That was a really grounding moment. It ties a lot of the album together.” In truth, the whole record shines with simmering duality, as does Rosali, an artist of inimitable style and undeniable fervor. I got a chance to talk with her about Bite Down, her career-defining time in Philadelphia, and much more. Make sure to catch Rosali and the Mowed Sound at Johnny Brenda’s this Saturday.

Rosali - Hills On Fire

Sean Fennell: You made both this record and your last record, No Medium, with Mowed Sound serving as your backing band. Was this the first time you’ve worked with the exact same group of collaborators for two consecutive projects like this?

Rosali Middleman: You know, it’s fun to experiment with different players and have each record be its own project, but after No Medium and touring that record a bunch, it really felt like we’d become a band. They are incredible players and we have so much synergy and fun together that I knew I wanted to make another record and see where we could take it. I’m in this era where it feels more like we are a band that creates the music together, even though I still write the songs.

SF: Correct me if I am wrong, but you didn’t really have much of a personal relationship to the band before the last record, right?

RM: Not too much. When I was in Long Hots I did a two week tour with David Nance group, so that’s when our relationship first formed. In that concentrated time we got to know each other as well as you can know somebody riding in a van all day and playing shows. But yeah, I didn’t really have the kind of deeper connection I do now. So I think this record has a lot more freedom and looseness because we are so comfortable with each other.

SF: You mentioned relinquishing control a bit during this record. I imagine having been someone who has worked on a ton of different projects, whether in other bands or playing on other people’s records, it helps to have been on the other side of that equation.

RM: For sure. When you are on the participant’s side and maybe not the writing side, it feels good when somebody welcomes you into their world and trusts you for the way you might approach their work. As a player, you then become generous in the way that you give yourself over to the creative process and the song and the music. With my band, I wanted them to feel like they are just as important in the process. There is a lot of love that goes into it and I think that is evident to the people listening to the music. The control aspect of it for me was just about letting go of the songs themselves. For previous records, I would have this very specific idea about what I wanted from the song and those things were much more set in my mind before going into recording sessions. Where with this one, they were much more in their infancy. I had the melodies, and I knew what the song was about, but as far as where we were going to take it and where the sonics would end up, that I left open. That was hard. It’s like letting your children out of the nest and trusting that the people involved are going to nurture it as well.

SF: Do you hear that difference in the way you were able to collaborate when you listen to this record?

RM: Definitely and even in how we approached it. We recorded in the same place, which is Jim Schroder’s basement, but this time we were sitting in a circle and playing through the songs to get the feel and kind of feeling things through organically. Last time we did some of that but it was mostly Jim and I tracking the parts, building it more traditionally. This time around it was more collaborative with everyone that was playing.

SF: This record really has this raw and energetic feeling to it. Are you typically meticulous about the recording process, or do you favor something more natural?

RM: Definitely something more natural. I do like adding the flourishing bits at the end to level it up a bit from just a band playing a song. I get meticulous in the mixing part and the sonics, adding these little sparkles on it, but I do really like the organic feeling as the groundwork for the songs. Also, when we play it live it’s not that different in spirit. We’re interpreting the songs and everyone is very open to that interpretation in that live, raw context.

Rosali - Rewind

SF: So while you had the consistency we talked about for this record, as far as where you recorded and who you recorded with, your life outside of the music consisted of a lot of big life changes in between records, is that something that you feel manifested itself throughout Bite Down?

RM: For sure. In that time I quit drinking, I left Philly after living there for 12 years and having such a community there, and I had some other areas of personal upheaval. You know, just life stuff. It was really difficult. Then I settled in North Carolina in this totally rural setting and took a break from playing for a bit. It was a very inward period and was about getting right with myself. I think the attitude on a lot of these songs is from that perspective. It was less in the moment and in the feelings, and more looking back from a standpoint of having grown and now feeling rooted. And also not having the crutch of drinking to loosen me up, it came from very intentional moments of writing and having to create ritual around my process. In that way, I feel like it is a deeper commitment to myself and my art, and feeling really empowered by that.

SF: I’m glad you brought up Philadelphia. You’ve always been a favorite of WXPN and I was curious now that your time in Philly is over, how you might look back at that time in your life and how that might have shifted the arc of your career?

RM: I grew up playing music and performing as a kid and in college, but I don’t think I got really serious about songwriting and making music until I moved to Philly. The scene there in the early to mid-2000s was really fun and vibrant and really cross-genre. I would go to a lot of house shows in West Philly, everything from a noise show in a warehouse to a freak folk show. It felt like a small town / big town situation. It was really fertile ground to hear people and see what they were doing. Jack Rose, Meg Baird, Kurt Vile, et cetera. The underground scene there is very strong and exciting.

There’s also the whole Philly attitude. It’s a tough city and I think that definitely helped me roughen up. I grew up in the midwest and I think Philly gave me a little bit of an edge and this power that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else. Also, a lot of the people I collaborated with I met there. Long Hots was a big project for me that I think has a very Philly sound. Then just having other musicians come through and tour. That’s how I met Mowed Sound. So I don’t know if being somewhere else I would have ever had those connections and interactions. It was all very formative for sure.

SF: I’m a really big fan of the album art for Bite Down. How did that come about?

RM: First off, I think the cover is funny. I didn’t want to look pretty, which is something I think women in music are expected to do. I also didn’t want to take myself too seriously. So when I had my inspiration boards going for my album art, I had a bunch of vintage horror movie posters, Japanese and Italian movies, all slightly campy. But then also I think I was very connected to nature throughout the writing process for this record. I wrote a lot while being out in nature. So I was kind of playing with those themes. I took tons of photos the day of the photo shoot but at one point I was just standing behind this curly willow making all these faces just to loosen up. My photographer friend Asia Harman was snapping away and when I got that photo back I just couldn’t stop laughing and couldn’t stop looking at it. It was a little scary because it is bonkers but I also wanted to challenge myself to embody this kind of wild nature. I also wanted to push up against the pigeon-holing I sometimes get of, you know, the sensitive singer-songwriter, when I do a lot more than that. I think the cover is a little shocking, which is what I wanted.

Rosali and The Mowed Sound performs live at Johnny Brendas on Saturday, April 13th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the WXPN Concert Calendar.

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