It takes only about five minutes of talking to Haroula Rose to realize the extent of her creativity. Sure, she is a fantastic singer and songwriter. But she's also involved in film making, is an active photographer, and voraciously consumes poetry. All of these creative endeavors can't help but strengthen her already considerable talents as a songwriter.
Rose graduated from the University of Chicago, where she majored in English and received her Master of Arts in Teaching. After graduation, she worked in a Chicago music house producing jingles for radio and television. She spent almost two years there before driving out to Los Angeles to work at a production company, where she spent time on film sets. After seven months in Los Angeles, she accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English and drama in Madrid.
I caught Rose in Los Angeles, where she lives, a couple of weeks ago during her residency at the Hotel Cafe. She was there playing songs off her new album These Open Roads. The next day, we met to discuss her creative process, including her Hemingway-esque need for distance from an emotional event in order to write about it. Read my interview after the video.
I've found that many of the songwriters I interview have other creative endeavors besides songwriting. How about you?
Certainly my experience with film. I've worked as a photographer and made some short films. I wish I could draw, but this is the one thing that I wish is different about music: it's not a literal hands-on craft. I do play guitar, but there's no tangible product at the end of the process. I did some Habitat for Humanity work, and I thought it was so incredible to literally do something with my hands. I always thought it would be cool to apprentice with someone who works with their hands. But I am a terrible artist.
It's frustrating as a writer not to have a tangible product all the time. Someone once suggested doing a cutup. It's what Thom Yorke did for Kid A, and it's what the Dadaists would do. I cut up words from newspapers, magazines, books, whatever, then put them in a hat and pulled them them out in a random order and messed with them that way. Kind of like those magnets on a refrigerator. It's fun and it gave me some great ideas.
How does photography inspire your songwriting?
It does, but it's often someone else's photos that does it. I look through photo books and get stories and ideas for songs. They help set the mood and feeling. It puts me in a good frame of mind energy-wise. Looking at landscapes reminds me of places I've been. Or maybe I'll go back to my journal to recreate that mood.
How does your experience in film make you a better songwriter?
It's a transferable skill. Sure, screenwriting is architectural, but whatever emotions come about when writing about a character, those same emotions come up as a story in a song.
So does your process start with an image?
Usually it starts with an emotion, then thinking about how to express it. But looking at a book like Irving Penn's book Small Trades, I realize there are so many characters from 1950s America that don't exist anymore. Going through that gives me a feeling of what it must be like to be that person, and that will trigger an emotion that might lead to a song.
I wish I could spend two hours in the studio every day and use it as office hours, but I am not that way yet. I'll decide I want to write a song, so I'll look at a book or poem or image and see where it leads. Doing that opens an avenue, and where I end up may have no connection to where I started. I try not to listen to other music before I write because I don't want it to sound derivative.
It's the way I am feeling in that moment, which is totally unpredictable. I'll get inspired to pick up the guitar. I know something is going to happen, so I immediately pick up pen and paper. Then I mess with chords. It's easier to figure out melody, then words. I've found that if I start with an idea then try to find the right music, that stuff always ends up in the stack of unfinished ideas. But when the melody comes first, the words find their place.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I write all the time, but not necessarily songs. I'll journal or write ideas. I feel the oppressiveness of time happening. It's so palpable that I feel the need to write about it. That's ironic since my name means "happiness" in Greek. But I think the only way to be truly happy is by thinking about your mortality.
Do you see yourself as a narrative storyteller?
In some songs. I have some very personal songs that are like stories, but others are just emotional. They tell stories too, just not in a troubadour kind of way.
But are there times when you just feel you must write a song?
Yes, like that Spanish song I played last night. Zach and I just sat in a room and came up with a melody. He played the guitar and I started thinking about words and emotions and ideas channeled through his music. It's really cool writing in Spanish, since there is so much intense shit that you can't get away with saying directly in English. I love the way Spanish poetry sounds.
Is it easy for you to start a song, then finish it later?
I love when I can start and finish the same day. It feels like I am not doing it justice otherwise. I make a point of starting and finishing the same day.
The songs I seem to finish in one sitting are those that always start with a melody. Starting with the words impairs the melody. I find that doing that makes it harder to find the right emotional note for those words. The melody should be there to evoke an emotion that words can't express.
Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast that when he wrote, he'd always stop for the day when he knew he had more to say, because he didn't want to start the next day with nothing.
I've often thought about that. It's a very healthy way of looking at it. But it's risky. One of the things that I enjoy in that book is when he says that he had to go to Paris to write about Michigan, or to Chicago to write about Paris. I'm the same way: I need that time to settle and process. I've never opened the tons of journals that I so artfully kept when I was in Madrid. but I am at the point now where I can revisit that stuff.
But can you? Aren't you too emotionally disconnected from that experience to be able to write about it later?
I need that delay. When I was going through a recent breakup, people kept telling me that I should be getting a lot of writing material. But I wasn't. I was too bummed out. And then I got even more bummed out because I realized I was having this experience that should be great material, and I couldn't write about it. It made me feel worse, like it had no use or purpose. But now I can. I need that delay. It's hard for me to write about things in the moment.
Do you revise your lyrics?
I don't really. I can endlessly revise, and that's the problem. See this sweater? I was watching a movie recently, and I kept on trying to get rid of this one hanging thread. I ended up making a hole in my favorite sweater. That's how I feel with a song: if I start editing it, I won't stop. It's too much an analytical process for such an emotional thing.
Then you feel it's best to use what comes first?
Totally, even if the format is weird. I don't have the traditional song structure. I like when songs are nontraditional like that. I think that whatever comes out first is what people respond to.
Do you write your lyrics with pen and paper, or do you use computer?
I can't do computer. I feel too limited by it, like I'm trapped. When you write something longhand, there are no limits to the way you write it or rhythmically how it fits with the rest of the words. It feels more my own. I just like writing. No one even uses pen and paper anymore, and that's sad. I still actually send real mail, like letters.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I usually cook or clean. My house is immaculate and organized!
You cook? How does that help?
It's what I was talking about earlier. I get to use my hands. I like to cook and have dinner parties. It helps me get my mind off writing. But it's also because those kinds of interactions with people help inspire me to write songs. I don't have a TV, so I hear a lot from other people. Living in LA, I spend my time in three places: my car that I basically live out of, my rehearsal space, and home where I write. It can get kind of bleak, so I have to carve time for spending time with people.
But what if you aren't near a kitchen and you are struggling with what you are writing?
I'll take a walk and come back and finish. I need to leave the space physically and be outside. It's like a reset button. Even if it's just around the block or downstairs to get the mail, it's time to breathe. So let me ask you a question: how do you like to write?
I run every day, and I use that time to develop a theme to something I am about to write, whether it's the intro piece to an interview on this site or the reviews I write for the Washington Post. Themes in record reviews are critical; you can't just make a review a laundry list of evaluations of an album's songs. So before I start writing, a good run is my pre-writing phase. It's where I develop the theme. Then I come back home all sweaty and start writing.
See, you have to leave the space too. That's what Hemingway was talking about. I need time to process after the moment happens.
Is there an ideal space or time for you to write?
Seems to happen late at night, after I've been out or when I can't sleep. When I made this record, I knew I had to finish songs. So deadlines are helpful. I am trying to be more disciplined by creating self-imposed deadlines.
You mentioned Hemingway earlier. What's your favorite book of his?
For Whom the Bell Tolls, hands down. When he writes, I feel like I'm living it. There's a starvation for authenticity now in the arts, and something like the simple sentence is the true one because it's easy to relate to.
Who are some of your favorite authors, then?
Besides Hemingway, definitely Flannery O'Connor. I like how she's so image based. I love Tennessee Williams. His words are so poetic. And as far as poetry, I think ee cummings is amazing. Also Yeats, Wordsworth, Blake, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.