Josh Rouse – In search of the lost chord
When Josh Rouse was 13 years old, he played the trombone so well that he became the youngest member of his high school’s jazz band. The compliments of parents, teachers, friends and passersby convinced young Josh that he had a rare knack for music. He would later try the violin, and at 17 picked up his uncle’s guitar; after being shown how to play Neil Young’s “Ohio”, Rouse picked out the chords to U2’s “Running To Stand Still”.
This was in Nebraska, one of seven states that Rouse called home before he left for college at Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tennessee, and before he settled in Nashville and started making records. He lived with his dad for a while, then he lived with his mom and stepfather, then back to his dad, then back to his mom and his stepfather’s best friend. And there was his trombone, and there was his violin, and there was his guitar.
It may have been in Utah where Rouse was the junior member of the jazz band, or it may have been Wyoming, or South Dakota. It doesn’t matter. Despite regional differences, what Rouse mainly remembers is starting over again in yet another small town — either making new friends or getting ripped for having “The Cure” inked on his sneakers — and having to reconnect through music.
So wherever he was, the story is this:
The high school jazz band was doing a concert, away from home, and the typical routine called for the conductor to point to different members of the band to stand up and solo. Only Josh never got picked, typically. Until this one show, when the finger landed on our young hero, and even now, well over a decade later, Rouse recalls standing up and blowing out a solo that had everybody in the room — Rouse included — staring in disbelief. It was something remarkable, and mysterious, and enough to sustain a man with several more moves left to go before he put down roots.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Rouse concludes, “But that was my biggest moment in music so far.”
Where does it come from? Two of the hottest writers in the comic book business — Englishman Alan Moore and Scotsman Grant Morrison — have publicly advanced a theory that the act of creation isn’t far removed from the practice of magic. Not sleight-of-hand, handkerchief-wedged-between-the-fingers stuff, but honest-to-goddess conjuring.
Yes, it’s also work. Rouse says that in the beginning he practiced the guitar constantly, in his room with the door shut — so much that his dad probably thought he was on drugs. And he went through all the dumb-kid musical phases, including a punk band called The Victims Of Society, he admits sheepishly.
He remembers that their best song was a Nina Hagen cover, which Rouse introduced to his mates as his own work. When he broke down and told them the truth, they weren’t just mad, they were morally outraged. Aside from that bit of plagiarism, Rouse’s work since he left college and started slowly forging a career has been his own. But though he admits that his songs don’t come often, they do come easy.
“I go through spurts,” he says. “I’ll be really going through a dry spell, then in a night, I’ll come up with the basis of four songs.”
The basis for Rouse is the melody — “I never really have lack of melodies,” he says — to which he adds words either as they occur then or as they occurred earlier, while sitting around the house. Rouse explains, “Sometimes I’ll write words down and and I don’t even know what they mean. I’ll write ’em on scraps of paper and leave ’em around the house and lose ’em.”
When he’s picking around on his guitar, he just starts singing and — there’s that conjuring element again — takes whatever comes out. “It’s just what fits the mood.” he says. “I don’t edit it that much. I try not to think about it…just that this song makes sense.”
In 1998, on the heels of playing a few under-attended gigs in his then-new hometown of Nashville, Rouse startled scene-watchers in Music City (and elsewhere) with a remarkably assured debut album, Dressed Up Like Nebraska. It’s hard to articulate exactly what left Rouse’s new neighbors so slackjawed — his sweet raspy voice, his imported Europop melancholy, or his straightforward, winning rock sound. Knowing the envy-racked Nashville rock scene, likely the biggest surprise was that this virtual unknown, working in a coffee shop at the time, somehow landed a record on a small but respectable label (Slow River, a subsidiary of Rykodisc), and was getting national and international attention.
Rouse, 27, still suffers from a lack of respect at home, and when he appears live there, it’s typically as an opening act. “I’ve sold more records in Louisville than I have in Nashville,” he says, matter-of-factly. But if it makes his bitter contemporaries feel any better, Rouse is as baffled by the minor success of Dressed Up Like Nebraska as anyone. “I don’t know why people like it,” he says. “There’s some moments that are good. If I catch it on the radio, I’ll think, ‘That sounds okay.'”
Understand this: Rouse is very proud of the album, happy for the good reviews, and glad that his label thinks enough of him to make his music a marketing priority. He’s just surprised that he connected for a solid base hit on his first swing. (But then, hitting is timing, they say.)
He’s also bemused by the way critics rushed to categorize his style. The acts that inspired him most were the Smiths and Neil Young, but it was the latter influence that got the most attention. Never a true scholar of Americana, Rouse was taken aback to find himself slotted as part of the insurgent country movement. “The thing was recorded in my living room. Is that why it’s considered ‘roots-rock’?” he wonders aloud, somewhat ruefully.
His rootsy reputation probably was furthered when he recorded an EP last year with Kurt Wagner, frontman for Nashville’s eclectic ensemble Lambchop. Then again, Lambchop is a similarly square peg in the alt-country circle with which they’re often associated, given their instrumental diversity and their deal with indie-rock stronghold Merge Records.
The two friends had intended to go by the name Chester for their side project, but Slow River insisted that they use their real names, and thus the EP itself became Chester. The five-song collection showcased Rouse’s developing pop sensibility, but Wagner’s typically bent common-folk poetry garnered as much, if not more attention — especially in Europe, where the popularity of Lambchop ensured extensive press coverage.