Artist Spotlight: Gena Rose Bruce

    On her sophomore album, Gena Rose Bruce makes it clear – to herself more than anyone – that she doesn’t want to waste any more time. “Too many times you let life go by/ Well now’s the time to take the wheel and drive,” she sings on the single ‘Foolishly in Love’. The Melbourne-based singer-songwriter released her first EP, Mad Love, back in 2015, before coming through with her debut album, Can​’​t Make You Love Me, in 2019. But during lockdown, when Bruce was living in a small apartment with a grieving partner, the frustration of not being able to fully live up to her creative ambitions led her down a dark path. Deep Is the Waywhich arrived on Friday, finds her embracing songwriting with a new sense of purpose, fortitude, and indeed, depth. Working once again with producer Tim Harvey, Bruce widens her musical scope and is able to balance emotional complexity and vulnerability, taking ownership of her desires while letting whatever conflicts arise play out rather than forcing a way through them. Even without any real answers, she stands firm in her pursuit of honesty: “All these questions will lead us to the truth,” she sings on ‘Harsh Light, “And our love will hold true.”

    We caught up with Gena Rose Bruce for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about collaborating with Bill Callahan, her headspace going into Deep Is the Day, being a dreamer, and more.

    I wanted to start by asking about your collaboration with Bill Callahan. What was it like sending lyrics back and forth without really having any prior contact?

    It was kind of perfect for my personality, I think, because it just felt like we really were able take our time and think about what we were sending each other. Maybe if I was in a room with Bill Callahan, I might have just been either so nervous or trying to please him, like, of course I like that because he suggested that. But having time to actually sit with what he had sent over lyrically, I could be like, “Oh, actually, that’s not right,” or, “That is right.” I think it gave that space where it felt like I didn’t need to know him as a person or anything, we were just strictly there to write the music in the song, and for me personally that made me more confident with it all. I felt like I could be really honest and kind of more brave as well with what I was sending him, because I didn’t have to see his face when he read it. [laughs] I really enjoyed that experience. And I think during lockdown, it just was fun to try new things, because I don’t think I would have done that previously.

    What perspective do you feel like he ultimately brought to the songs, and did your approach to songwriting shift at all as a result of your correspondence?

    He definitely pushed me as a songwriter. In the past, I might have maybe accepted things, like, “Yeah, that will do, I’m happy with that.” But he kind of goes, “We’re happy with it, but let’s keep going.” He’s like, you know when it’s too much, when you’ve overkilled a song, but that’s like a perfect place to be because then you can always bring it back. But to stop when things are good – you’ve just got to keep going, which I kind of applied then to some of the other songs on my album. I went back to all the ones I thought had finished and, like, wrote a new bridge and added verses. It wasn’t perfecting a song, it was more just playing with the song. And I find he’s really good with metaphors. He’s really poetic with his lyrics, and I’m a little bit more conversational, I think, with my lyrics. So it was really cool to see what he would come back with and made me think a little bit more poetically in what I’m trying to say as well.

    I hear that approach in the album, of almost stretching out the songs a bit. But you also leave space for the production to bring out the subtleties of emotion that you’re describing, and part of that is through the use of electronics. What led you in that direction on songs like ‘Misery and Misfortune’?

    I always hear kind of melodies going on, but I’ve never really wanted to put a lot of other vocals on my tracks. Especially with ‘Misery and Misfortune’, those backing vocals were the synth. I’m a huge fan of Weyes Blood, so all her synths really inspired me. She was on my reference for every song, as well as Electric Lighthouse Orchestra. I just like weird sounds on songs that don’t really make sense, and my producer, Tim Harvey, is really good with that kind of production as well. I feel like we tried all the weirdest sounds we could find, it’s something really fun to just have sounds from everywhere. And emotionally, I think it works because a lot of my songs emotionally feel all over the place sometimes.

    Do you tend to analyze your own lyrics or your music? Working that way with Bill Callahan, I assume that puts you in a position where you’re maybe forced to sit down and look at the song in a more critical light, but I’m curious if that’s something that’s part of your process in general.

    I totally do it. It kind of comes in stages – I think when I’m originally writing, I’ll just write whatever comes out, but when I get in with the band or production kicks in, it’s like weird certain words just don’t sound right against a type of instrument. I feel like that’s my number one thing in songwriting, the lyrics, so I’m always trying to make them come out as clear as they can be. Often when I get in the room with Tim, we then do analyze it, because sometimes they’re very personal, and it’s important to decide what you want to share. So we always do check everything and make sure that I’m comfortable with that, or we’ll just find a different way to say it that’s not going to hurt anyone [laughs] or not going to hurt myself.

    ‘Deep Is the Way’ seems to encapsulate a lot of what you were grappling with during the pandemic, this heavy fog that many of us were faced with. But you also see a way out. At what point in the process did those hopeful realizations come to you?

    It’s interesting, I think me as a songwriter is someone who I almost aspire to be. The songwriter me is like a good friend, so they’re always seeing the best outcome in the hard situations. I didn’t feel personally that I was in a super positive place, but I think the writer in me could kind of see past that. It’s like this weird brain switch when I’m writing, I’m just so in that world. Every time I listen to music, I realize the music that I love always makes me feel good while I’m listening to it. And there’s some music I listen to that I really want to love, but it puts me in a mood where I don’t feel good. And I think it’s just really important to me that I want my music to make people feel – not necessarily positive, but to feel like there’s always hope, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy. Even when I feel like things could never get better, I’m stuck in a bad place, I do want to always believe that you can get out of it.

    There’s a beautiful simplicity in the way you describe sadness, too: “Just like the sun/Sadness is real/ Just like the sun/ It’s going away.” I read that the title and the sentiment of the song were also inspired by your love of gardening. Can you talk about that?

    Yeah, gardening’s really helped with my mental health, to be honest. It’s more just about being in nature, actually getting your hands dirty and touching soil – there’s something really grounding about that, and that really helped me feel connected again to myself, caring for something. It’s hard to say how it came in into my music, but I think when I started gardening, I started writing, and it helped me be more of a grounded person. When I’m not connecting to myself, I just can’t write, I’m not in a good place, so it really helped me find myself.

    Throughout the album, there’s this tension between darkness and light, hope and despair, reckless love and deep love. Which of these ended up being the hardest to write about?

    I do find it hard to write about the darkness, because I have to maybe go to places that I don’t always want to go to. And it’s the hardest parts to share as well – I guess a lot of the time, the people around me might not have known what I was going through, and having to share that is just a little bit harder. That would have been the most personally challenging to write about. But love is a hard thing to write about too, and from a technical point as well, to not make it sound cliche or anything. I only really could say that I found love within this new album, so it was like my first shot at writing about love.

    What about different expressions of love, like the recklessness of ‘Foolishly in Love’ and ‘I’m Not Made to Love Only You’? Was that different from the more grounded songs?

    The more reckless songs, like ‘Foolishly in Love’ and ‘I’m Not Made to Love Only You’, they just felt like songs that I really needed to write because they’re conversations that are pretty hard to have with people. It’s not something you want to share always to a lot of people, but I think it’s something that I really question a lot, and I’m always someone who’s kind of questioning everything. I was at a stage where I was – I’m in this relationship, we’re married now, so it’s like everything was coming together and I was just kind of panicking about really what it is that I want, and what I see love as. It was just a confusing time for me, but it was really necessary because I think I got a lot of clarity out of writing those songs. They’re questions that don’t always really need answers, so it was almost more about processing all those thoughts.

    After having that clarity, were you tempted to go back and reshape a song like ‘I’m Not Made to Love Only You’ – or even just retitle it, because that frames the song in a specific way?

    Totally. I made the decision, though, to keep the title. I just don’t believe that people should be always even held necessarily accountable for what they express, because it is just thoughts and processing everything running through you. I don’t know what I believe all the time, I’m always changing what I want, and I don’t necessarily think anyone is made to love one other person. I feel like that’s a statement that I really do believe, and I guess I never wanted it to be interpreted as unfaithfulness, because I’m not really talking about that. I think that’s what I was more scared of.

    Looking back at the making Deep Is the Way, what does it mean for you to be true – to yourself, to others, or to your ambitions as an artist? Is that something you’re still questioning?

    Yeah, definitely. I think that keeps changing as well, but I just think honesty is one of the most valuable things we can give to each other. Just being able to question those deeper things and having a safe place to share them. As an artist, I really just want to come across as honest, and also a friend – for me, music feels like I’m hanging out with a friend, and I would love that to be the same with my music, that people feel like they’re not alone. And I think that’s why honesty is important, because they all come hand in hand – to be a friend, to be honest, to not feel alone.

    Where does your relationship with music as a friend stand at the moment?

    I feel like recently, amazing. I kind of fall in and out of love with music all the time. I’ve had times in my life where, I write music, and then when I’m listening to it, it kind of brings something up in me where I’m like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” But I think now I understand why I’m obsessed with music and having music around always, because I honestly feel like there’s people out there writing stuff that is exactly what I feel and we need to hear. I definitely am more conscious of what I’m listening to and how it’s affecting me.

    You sing about dreams and dreaming of a bright future, but also the negative effects that can have. Do you still feel like a dreamer, and what does that mean for you right now?

    Yeah, definitely. I think it’s something I’m really understanding about who I am as well, that I am a dreamer. And as I get older and things become more financially hard and there’s so much going on in life in general, I think I’ve had to really understand what it is and why I’m dreaming, and what I value in my dreams. I’m not going to lie, my dream is to be a musician, and I think I have to really understand why I want to be a musician and pull myself out of that sometimes. Because sometimes I’ll get to a point where I’m determining my happiness upon my dreams – I don’t think it should determine how happy you are, how much your dreams are coming true and how much they’re not. I think it should be something separate. And for a lot of years I would let this dream of mine – if it wasn’t going well, then other aspects of my life weren’t going well. I’m definitely trying to still be a dreamer, but trying to be a bit more grounded at the same time.

    I think I’ve tried to learn to love the dreaming rather than the dream. That’s actually the most amazing part of it, and I never want to give that up. I’ve definitely thought about it and tried, maybe for like a little bit, and it’s just not worth it, when you don’t have that, the dreaming of the dream. [laughs] It’s like, I don’t even want the dream – I just always want to be dreaming. Because that’s actually a safe place, that’s in your control, and that’s up to you. But the dream – you’re never going to really be able to control that.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Gena Rose Bruce’s Deep Is the Way is out now via Dot Dash/Remote Control Records.

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