Artist Spotlight: Rosali

    Rosali Middleman is a North Carolina-based singer-songwriter and guitarist who records and performs as Rosali. Raised by musician parents, Middleman became involved in Philadelphia’s experimental and DIY scene as an adult, releasing her solo debut, Out of Love, in 2016. It was followed by 2018’s Trouble Anyway and 2021’s No Medium, the latter of which saw her being back by David Nance and his Omaha-based band, now known as Mowed Sound. On Friday, Rosali will release her fourth album and first for Merge Records, Bite Down, where she’s once again joined by Nance, guitarist James Schroeder, and drummer Kevin Donahue, as well as Destroyer collaborator Ted Bois on keys. It’s a magnificent album that crackles with the energy of the band tracking the album live while also mirroring Middleman’s self-reflective and conversational – even in its introspection – songwriting, which can feel intimate, playful, patient, and deeply resonant in its simplicity. She fights the grief and resentment that’s built up over years of romantic entanglement with attention to rest, joy, nature, and slowness. “I’ll sit for hours/ Gazing at the light/ And I do wonder/ And waste my life,” she sings, taking a sweet turn at the very end: “No, I don’t wonder/ If I waste my life.”

    We caught up with Rosali for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about how changes in her environment have affected her songwriting, collaborating with Mowed Sound, sobriety, and more.

    I’m sure you’ve been asked a lot about Philadelphia and how the music scene there has shaped you. But you recorded your previous album, No Medium, at a farmhouse in South Carolina, and you wrote the new record after moving to North Carolina. I’m curious if the new environment has affected or inspired you in any way that you can describe.

    The majority of the record was written in North Carolina, where I moved two years ago. But during that time, I was touring a lot with my band, the David Nance crew, Mowed Sound, so some of it is infused with that energy of constantly feeling a little unsettled, moving around a lot. I just recently moved closer to Durham, but I was living about 45 minutes outside of Durham, in a pretty rural town, and I wasn’t really socializing that much. When I’m home, I spend a lot of time alone with my dog, which was a completely different experience from living in Philly, where my housemate was a bandmate in my other band Long Haunts. We played music all the time together, and I’d play with my band or just jam with other friends. In Philly, it was very much external influences in the circles there, people shared ideas on a daily basis, which was really amazing. I was there for 12 years, and over that time was in various groups and improvisational situations with other musicians, or witnessing the work of other artists that I admire; I used to live and play with Mary Lattimore before she moved to LA.

    Moving to more of a rural setting takes away the distraction of the city, which is a very urban, loud, intense environment, energetically. I feel like being part of the scene is not as much my daily life, even though in my heart, I still am part of that [laughs]. So the influences are coming more from what I’m clearing up in my own head, sorting out my thoughts and my experiences and reflecting on those things without a constant peer review. It’s just quiet, and it’s maybe also more of a maturity of getting older and not needing that input as much so. I do feel like a big part of it is the landscape as well, a lot of inspiration is just being in the woods and listening to the birds and observing the sunlight; there are a lot of rivers near where I live, so being near water. A lot of that more internal dialogue.

    I do feel like there is a conversation between that restlessness and a more quiet, reflective mindset, which is maybe coming from the album’s musical dynamics but also seems like something that’s happening internally.

    Yeah, for sure. And being a more internal review doesn’t mean it’s quiet or peaceful [laughs]. I can be an overthinker, and when you recall something, you can still kind of feel the energy of how you experienced it, but you’re just not reacting in the same way. Also, reflecting on something that might have been a challenging situation, a past relationship or heartbreak, from a place where you’re kind of over it, you can speak to with a little more, “It is what it is. I’m not pining for that situation.” And then in that, maybe having a little framework that there’s a hopefulness, a playfulness for people listening to the music having more of an uplifting experience through these dark themes. There’s no “woe is me” to it. There’s power in it.

    There was a rawness to the lyrics on No Medium, which you’ve said also came as a result of getting older and not needing to guard yourself as much. How did that mindset develop going into Bite Down, where you’re digging into some vulnerable situations? Do you feel even less of a guardedness, or did it complicate things?

    I know personally, and a lot of people I talk to getting older, the things that I used to feel really embarrassed by and vulnerable about when I was younger, it does not matter to me anymore. In my earlier writing, I definitely felt like it needed to be a little more poetic – not that I think what I currently write lacks poetry – having statements that are veiled in this way and not revealing too much. The older I get, I just want to be clear, and I don’t feel its vulnerability in this way. Yeah, I’m still affected by it – right before a song comes out or record comes out, I get extremely nervous and feel that, like, “Oh no, I’m about to share this thing that a lot of people are going to hear.” I have this moment of fear, but at the same time, what I’m trying to get across in my music and lyrics, when I’m in the moment of writing them, I want to be super clear about it, not veil the words. The song ‘Slow Pain’ on this record, for example, being kind of brutal in some ways  – I don’t feel the same need to hide my personal self or hide or be nice or shy about any subject matter. I feel like that’s the way it is the older I get about anything, not just songwriting.

    You mentioned ‘Slow Pain’, and there’s that line that stood out to me: “Hold it so I don’t spill out/ Keep quiet and wait it out.” Which is interesting, because I do feel like your music holds the feeling or the grief, but not in the way of repressing or shrouding it. It does spill out.

    Yeah. And that line is about that feeling where you’re maybe in public or you feel like you’re about to be overwhelmed and cry in front of somebody you don’t want to cry in front of, or knowing a place and a time to experience those feelings.

    Talking about perspective, I wanted to bring up something Destroyer’s Dan Bejar said in the bio for the album, which is that some of the songs sound like they’re fighting their way to achieve a sense of ease. I guess he’s talking more about the sound of the album, but I’m curious if a similar thing happens in the songwriting process. Do you feel the need to settle your perspective or reach some kind of peace in order to lay something down?

    I kind of write in piecemeal ways, so in some ways it is a little fighting toward a sense of ease. A lot of it will be stream-of-consciousness as I’m coming up with the phrasing, the cadences, just trying to get those thoughts out. I sometimes am in a state where I’m feeling shitty and I’ll be with my guitar and record voice memos and just let things come out, and then I’ll listen back, maybe days later or even that night, I’ll hit pause and then play it again in a different way and let things come out. Once I have a handful of those that I’ve done over a week or two, I’ll listen back and start writing everything out that I have, and from there I do a bunch of editing and pull out what I think are the strongest phrases or words. And from there, I start actually finishing the song and the narrative, refining it to a point where it feels like it is the finished song.

    Sometimes it comes out quickly – the last song on the record, ‘May It Be an Offer’, was pretty much written in one sitting; that felt like a prayer that came out. Whereas, like, ‘Slow Pain’ took me a lot longer to finish the actual lyrics – I had a lot of different phrases for that, and I was really trying to get to a place where it touched on what I was feeling in the song, but also be a little playful with it. ‘Hills on Fire’ was another one where I had a ton of different variations on the lyrics. Even when we were tracking the record, there’s some songs that I didn’t have finalized. So when we were doing scratch vocals, all playing together – because much of the record was tracked live – I was just trying out the vocals, trying out the lyric. And I rewrote some of that in while making the record, because I was like, “I don’t like saying this, I don’t like singing this.” And sometimes they just come out fully formed, and when that happens, I’m like, “I don’t know where that song came from, but I’ll take it.” [laughs]

    You mentioned ‘Hills on Fire’, where there’s poetry to the lyrics that just intertwines with the flow of the music so organically that, as a listener, you have to guess it came out that way.

    With ‘Hills on Fire’, the refrain was the first thing I had. All the different verses, it was just small wording and things like that that kept changing. I think that’s the first one we tracked that, when we finished, we were like, “This is it, we’re done.” The only overdub is our vocals, so that was all played live. I think part of it is, that song has a very much in-the-moment feeling to it because that’s how we did it sonically. With Jim’s guitar parts, it was like, “Oh, he’s still going, we’re just gonna keep playing these chords,” and then we’ll look at each other and it’s like, “Okay, now we’re coming in here.” There’s always time after you finish the instrumental parts to refine the vocal lines, so it was listening to how we were all playing and Jim’s lines that helped me distill the words down. I was debating having a whole different verse in there, but I think the power of us playing together is so potent that it doesn’t need to stay. And then the benefit is that I still have unused lyrics I can go back and make a new song out of it [laughs].

    This is your second record with Mowed Sound as your band. Did that sense of familiarity either ground or push you in different ways while making Bite Down?

    This is the first time I’ve ever made a record with the same people. After we made No Medium, there was even a feeling of, “This may just be my Crazy Horse record.” But when we toured so much on that record, we were all like, “We’re a band. We’re just getting started, we have to see where this goes.” We’re like family at this point. We know each other so intimately that I trust them fully. They understand me as an artist, as a person. This record in particular, I went into it with the songs less fully formed – moods were there, and I use a lot of adjectives to describe the moods I want, but I didn’t really give any guidance other than that. We were there all together almost every day, approaching the album as a band, so everybody wrote their own parts. I had the chords and the structure of the song, but we all just played and feeling out the song. It was definitely the most collaborative record I’ve ever done. Jim  Schroeder, he recorded both No Medium and Bite Down, and he’s been my biggest collaborator over the past six years. It was mostly us shaping No Medium, where this one was a band record.

    In some ways, it was really challenging for me. In my head, going into it, I was like, “It’s gonna be great because they’re the best,” but in the moment, knowing this is my record, these are my songs, not having them fully finished, it was sometimes hard to let go. You get to a point where you’re like, “Is this how the song is? Am I sure about it?” It took a little bit of more surrendering to the group, which is what I wanted to do. It’s easier said than done, especially being so used to being the person really guiding it. It pushed me in even writing the songs to some degree, like maybe I want to write something that feels a little tough because I know that they can handle it. But at the same time, knowing that they can handle being delicate in those moments, that they’re not going to squash or overpower an open, sensitive moment. It’s a lot of trust, and I feel really lucky to have them in my life as my band. I think it’s it’s a really special magical thing we have going on right now, and I know it’s not easy to find sometimes.

    You said that the direction was sometimes just a mood, but even that direction must be hard to figure out sometimes.

    Yeah, definitely. It was a lot of processing, and things came to the surface really quickly that I didn’t know even was there when we were in the studio, so I just started feeling super emotional. Finding those adjectives, I just kind of led with my heart and how I was feeling. For example, ‘Change Is in the Form’, that’s the oldest song on the record. I wrote that for my second record but couldn’t figure it out, but I think it’s because this band was supposed to play it. There’s a guitar solo part – like on every song [laughs] – but I had Jim and Dave play that together, so they recorded at the same time. I was like, “I want you guys to play this part like your heart has just been ripped out of your body, and you’re looking at your heart.” And they’re like, “Okay, thanks, jeez.” [laughs] They did that in a couple of takes, and it was perfect. He nailed it. So I’ll explain things and scenarios or feelings and try to give imagery to get across the feeling, because I’m also I’m self-taught with music. I don’t have a lot of music theory language. It’s a lot of intuitive things – it’s emotion, it’s imagery, it’s color, and some of it you don’t even realize what you want until you’re in it or listening to things. Especially in this setting with this band, it’s a growing, exploratory living organism.

    Another collaborator on the record is Megan Siebe, who plays cello on two songs and brings a particular mournfulness to the title track. What do you feel like she brought to the songs?

    Megan came in after we recorded those songs. She’s a longtime friend of Mowed Sound, and she’s just an awesome, jovial character, which is funny because she plays these beautifully heartwrenching melodies, but she’s loud and funny. We tracked ‘Bite Down’ for 13 minutes, just playing it over and over again to settle into this zone with it. I liked the idea that the song is kind of eternal and it’s going on forever, and you just tune into this frequency for a moment, and then it’s gone. By the time we whittled it down, we had more of a sense of where the song was at.

    All the people who came in to add sparkles and parts that weren’t part of the core band – Kev, Dave, Jim, and Ted – they didn’t get to hear anything, they just came in the studio. We described a little bit the vibe or what the song is about, but then let her go, and she did a take that was super affected and spacey. But it kind of took away from the actual subject matter of the song, which is maybe the heaviest song on the record, so she did a few takes, and I think her playing and improvising along the way allowed her to put her own interpretation into it, still giving it a little more free-form openness. I just really love what she played. And then on ‘Slow Pain’, she’s just chugging along with the bass part. You almost don’t notice it’s there until it ends, which I just love. You can hear her draw out the final note, but it shifted the whole energy of the song.

    I’m wondering how much of what we’ve talking about in terms of process and digging to the core of a song ties into that phrase, Bite Down, which is quite visceral but also has a different meaning in the context of the title track.

    It was the song first, so the title of the album came out of that. During the first year of the pandemic, a lot of conversations I had, people felt super depressed and hopeless – that sense of nothing makes sense, there’s no purpose to anything. That was a recurring theme, even in my own personal life, definitely experiencing those feelings. This idea of biting down, it’s like getting a grasp on something, sinking your teeth into it, understanding whatever it is. For a while, I just had that, “Bite down on it,” I didn’t have anything else, and slowly that song came to be as the song is on its own. But then with the album title, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to call the record, throwing around various ideas, and Bite Down was on the list. When I was talking to Mac [McCaughan], who runs Merge, he was like, “What about Bite Down?” But I was like, “You know, that song is kind of about suicide in this way, is it too heavy? Because the record is about trying to find joy in darkness…”

    But I was thinking more about Bite Down, the phrase and what it means as this command, taking it out of the context of the song and the lyrics of, “Help me, I can’t bite down.” This idea of looking at life from this perspective, like we were talking about in the beginning of this conversation, on the other side of a lot of things, understanding that life and the experiences you go through – the good, the bad, the neutral, the boring, the surreal, it’s all part of it – and not fear the horizon that comes that toward you; to accept it, bite down on it, to fully embrace all these situations; to grow and have more understanding of life, have more experiences, have more empathy. It became more of a battle cry to see the goal of it, the goal of life. That is what these songs as a collection are about, and that is where I am in my own life. Feeling a little empowered, then, from claiming those words, making it more of a mantra. Even as a joke with my girlfriend, we’ll be like, “You got something hard to do? You better bite down.”

    Given how a lot of the album is about the breaking and hardening of a relationship, I was surprised by how much love there really is, especially on a song like ‘Hopeless’. You hold onto it in a way that doesn’t feel stubborn but open-hearted and empathetic. Was that a tricky balance, even with the perspective that settles with time?

    I’ve been single for years – I’d been in a pretty bad relationship that I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to get involved with anybody for a long time.” So a lot of it is coming from developing a very strong relationship with myself. And sometimes the “you” in the song is me, it’ll be a conversation with myself, using past thinking, or the inner critic is the person I’m in a relationship with. Taking a long hiatus of being in any kind of committed long-term relationship – sure, there’s people I would have casual things with, but even going into these experiences with some knowledge, with openness, with no need to cling to anything, not putting a label on somebody else, projecting your hopes and fears onto somebody else. It’s those lessons I’ve learned as time has gone on with taking long periods where I’m mostly trying to be in a relationship with myself that can have that buoyancy.

    It is a balance, because you can’t escape the spectrum of all of these things – it’s just how you make choices and confront them. Even being able to look back and laugh at yourself, I think that’s a big part of it, too, with this record; not taking yourself too seriously, even in the serious moments. It’s part of what the album art is – to not feel destroyed by life events and grow from there. I think holding on to regret or holding on to hurt and not being able to reflect on how you are a player in all of it, too, trying to be self-aware – I feel like that’s where a lot of this record is written from, from a grounded, self-aware place, at least I’d like to claim. This is my first record I’ve written sober, which is also a challenge but definitely clarified things for me.

    Can you talk more about how that affected your creative process?

    For the longest time, I felt like I couldn’t access my full creative side if I didn’t, like, have a little wine or be a little buzzed in some way. Because it is hard to drop that self-critic energy that can come in as you’re starting to write that can prevent you from getting it all out. Trying to get to a place with writing where I was like, “I don’t need those things, I’m capable of like finding my way there” – it just took me to new ways of practicing where I’d really have to set intention to some degree. I couldn’t just be like, “I’ve had a little wine, I’m gonna sit down and I’ve got this thing that’s coming out.” While those moments come naturally to me now, they used to not. It was almost like a dead zone. One of one of the hardest parts of sobriety was reacquainting myself with my muses, my songwriting processes, because I had relied on alcohol to get there; and also to mask emotions, and as escapism.

    Finding those processes where I set intentions – I would light candles and do meditations and really try to communicate, almost treating it like an ancient way of talking to muses, stepping into this realm, almost like a psychological backdoor to the way the alcohol would just kind of kick that door open. I’m entering into this space almost like it’s sacred, and hat was a new process. I think there is that clarity in it, like I fully know what I’m saying, what I’m doing. That, I feel, is the biggest change. It’s a little more challenging because it requires that added energy and consciousness, but I think it’s much more rewarding in a way, too, because it’s a dedication. I’m dedicating myself to myself, to my life, to my artwork. Continuing down a path of drinking more and more, as I was, that becomes self-destructive, and I wanted joy. I wanted to feel those things naturally and to experience the full spectrum of all life’s experiences. I wanted to feel them with a clear mind. That’s what the record is.

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

    Rosali’s Bite Down is out March 22 via Merge Records.

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