By her own admission, Whitney Rose is an "unapologetic romantic." This isn't surprising if you know her music: it's about as throwback as you can get in the country music world. There's a little bit of Patsy Cline, some Loretta Lynn, and even some Dolly Parton too.
But Rose is old school in other ways too. As you'll hear in almost any of her songs, she's a storyteller. Rose laments that the art of storytelling in song is a dying art (something Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours told me in our recent interview). And don't even get her started on the state of penmanship instruction in schools. She told me that she was "appalled" to learn her two younger siblings aren't even being taught cursive in schools. Just typing. Unsurprisingly, Rose has never used a computer to write her lyrics. And she can only write under one condition: there can be no one around, not even anyone in the house, when she writes, although she never forces her writing. She's been known to walk out of restaurants and parties, no matter who she's with, when she feels a song coming on. She goes home and goes into, in her words, "musical labor."
Rose's new album Rule 62 came out in October on Six Shooter Records. I love it, and it's made more than a few year end "best of" lists. Read my interview with Rose after the video.
Outside of songwriting, how much writing do you do?
Not as much as I used to do. But still quite a bit. My favorite thing to focus on in my writing, other than songwriting, is short stories. I love writing short stories. That's kind of odd because I don't necessarily like reading short stories. I like reading novels. I've been working on a novel very sporadically. But songwriting of course gets my attention because it's my job.
If you have a story to tell, how do you decide whether it's better for a song or for short story?
I have turned a couple of my songs into short stories. Writing for me is therapeutic regardless of what I'm writing. I have no intention of submitting my short stories or even my novel for publication. It's just for me. If I have a great idea, my first instinct has usually been to write a story about it. But lately my first instinct has been to make it into a song. And that's been really fun because the art of storytelling in song is getting lost. There’s not too many story songs out there anymore, and I want to be a part of making that a thing again. I was really excited when “A Trucker's Funeral” did become a story song because it's difficult to write a story with melody. (Ed. note: she tells a great story about writing that song)
Do you keep a journal?
Not every day, but I've kept a journal since I was little. I think everyone should do it. It helps me understand myself better, and if I can’t understand myself I'm not going to be able to understand the people around me. And that makes it hard to be a good songwriter.
Does all of that writing make you more disciplined songwriter when it comes to the writing process?
I really tried to be disciplined for a while, but when you're on the road for two or three months straight and you get home, it feels like you're unemployed. And that can be a shitty feeling. So I told myself, “Whitney, you're going to sit down and write from 9 to 5 because this is your job and this is what you have to do.”
But it just doesn't work like that, at least for me. I'm not at my best when I'm trying to do that because it feels too contrived. I do my best when it’s spontaneous. I mean, I've been at parties where I get a great idea for a song and I think, “Holy shit, I gotta leave so I can write this song.” I've even been on a date with my partner when I told him, “Sorry, but we've got to get home because there's a song to write.” When this happens, I call it musical labor. I can't restrict to certain hours.
With the stories you tell, do they emerge because of something you’ve seen or heard?
Absolutely. Here’s a good example. A friend of mine is a rancher, and her husband is a musician. A couple of summers ago, she took a contract to work in Wyoming on a ranch. He was going to be touring, which meant they would be separated. They had just gotten married, so it was going to be a really tough summer. And we were talking about how the absolute worst feeling is immediately after the separation, though it slowly gets better. So a few months after we talked, I was on the road. I saw a sign that said Wyoming 200 miles, and I immediately thought of my friend. That song just wrote itself.
How does a song typically start for you?
For the most part, they start with the lyrics. Sometimes I start with music if I hear a melody in my head, but those are the songs that try to get across an emotion. They aren’t stories. If I’m feeling anxious or happy or a sense of loss, those are pretty easy to write. Story songs are much harder to write.
Is there an ideal environment when you are at your most productive?
I tend to be most productive in an empty room in my house. I don't want anyone around, which can be tough when you're on the road as much as I am. I don't like the feeling of someone else being present. It slows me down. I enjoy my alone time. Maybe it's because I was an only child until I was 12. Laughs. I can be alone in a room in the house with the door locked, but if someone is somewhere, anywhere, in the house, it still makes me uneasy.
If you're just writing and not singing, I wonder why that makes you uneasy.
I'm going to be asking myself so many deep questions after this conversation. I've never thought about why. This may sound crazy, and I'm not really a spiritual person, but if I'm writing something, I'm aware of energy around me. And that awareness might make me lose focus.
Do you use a computer or pen and paper for your lyrics?
I've never used a computer. I'll use anything else. I've even used eyeliner. I like a good ball point pen, though. And I know this sounds superficial, but I want it too look good. I believe in the art of penmanship. That's a lost art too. I have much younger siblings, and I was appalled to learn that as they are going through school, they aren't being taught penmanship. They're taking typing! You need to be able to write a sentence with your hand. My siblings can print, but they can't do cursive.
I'm not picky when it comes to type of pen or journal. I have about ten empty journals and about 20 full ones with me now in Austin. And many more in storage.
You said I never use a computer with complete revulsion.
If I do it on a computer, there's no telling how long it will last. I'm a little bit of an unapologetic romantic, and if I have kids I want them to have my lyric books. Not my hard drives. It's pretty cool to write with a pen because you can see the process emerge and the choices that go behind the words. That's especially important when I look back at those lyrics books for my next album because seeing why I did things a certain way will make me a better writer. It's like working out a math problem: if you do it on a computer, you won't be able to see how you arrived at the result if you don't show your work.
You mentioned walking earlier. Does movement ever play a role in your creative process?
Yes it does. That being said, I hate exercising so much. The treadmill is my worst nightmare. But I keep sane on the road by exploring cities, particularly small towns. It's always important for me when I'm on the road after soundcheck to have a couple of hours to walk around. I also love thrift shopping when I'm on the road.
All that walking around must make you a better songwriter. How can you write about experiences if you're holed up in your hotel room, right?
Absolutely. When I first starting touring, I did that. I'd hole up in my hotel room or in the green room the whole time. But that stopped fairly early. I forgot what town I was in, but I decided to go out one day. It was a pivotal moment. I met someone at a coffee shop, and it was a brief conversation, maybe two minutes. But it made me realize how lucky I was to travel and meet people. I was missing out on life by holing myself up. So from that moment, I decided to talk to people, listen to them, and hear their stories.
Does one song stand out on the new album as being the easiest to write?
The story behind "Can't Stop Shakin'" is pretty cool. It was never supposed to be on the album. I was talking with my producer Raul Malo in the studio about how the artist's life can be a stressful one. We talked about how we handle that. I mentioned how I had been suffering from performance anxiety before shows. It really sucked. I wanted to have a healthy way to deal with that because I had literally been getting the shakes before going on stage. It was awful. So before shows, if I was feeling anxious, I'd dance around the green room like an idiot singing the same line in my head I can't stop shakin, I can't stop shakin'. And he said to me, "You know that's a song, right? Go write it." I wrote that song right there in twenty minutes.
Last question: what do you like to read?
Right now I'm reading the Tom C. Hall book about the Nashville music scene. I also love biographies. I just read a Johnny Cash biography, and before that a biography on Colonel Tom (Elvis Presley's manager). Oh, and I also just read Sophie's Choice. My world is shattered after reading that book. The next book I'm going to read is one I just got in the mail yesterday, Paul Auster's book 4 3 2 1. And then I also read All the Light We Cannot See.
Fantastic. Anthony Doerr has been one of my favorite writers for a while. I love that book.
It's incredible. What really struck me was how equally dedicated I was to every character in the book. That's hard to do. Usually there are characters in a book that you don't care two shits about, but I cared about everyone. It's such a great look at the different roles that people played during that time. And I cared about all of them on both sides. I could not put that book down.