When Josh Rouse recorded his first CD, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, he had given up on the idea that music was a career option. He simply figured he'd finish the CD, give up his job as a valet parking attendant in Nashville, and whip up a different recipe for his future career.
Basically I had bought an eight-track, and with a friend of mine, David Henry, we started recording (Dressed Up Like Nebraska) at his house, Rouse said. I was going to put it out just by myself, like print up a thousand copies and find a little distribution deal. It was going to be like a regional release or whatever.
I didn't think of it as anything more (than that), he said. I just made a record. And I wanted to do that before I kind of quit playing music. I wasn't going to quit playing music, but really think of doing something else (for a living), because I was valet parking cars at the time. I liked the record, but I didn't think anybody would really pay attention to it at all.
In fact, instead of thinking about chasing a record deal, Rouse was beginning to set his sights on applying to cooking school.
"I like to cook a lot, and I don't know, I probably would have ended up doing that and still playing music and still making my own records or whatever, Rouse said. But to pay the bills, the valet parking thing was running a little bit [thin] for me.
Instead, Henry started circulating copies of the CD, and before Rouse knew it, George Howard, who at the time had started the label Slow River Records, took an interest in the CD and signed Rouse. And when Howard was named president of Rykodisc Records, Rouse suddenly found himself signed with that well-established label.
Rouse, who had spent time living in Kentucky, Georgia, Arizona and South Dakota before settling in Nashville in 1996, had been in bands that had tried hard to get record deals before he went solo. So he is acutely aware of the irony of that turn of events.
"It was just like finally when I quit really trying, when I made a record for myself, I got a record deal," he said.
Today, it's four years and two CDs after the release of Dressed Up Like Nebraska, and it appears that Rouse won't have to consider any alternative career plans anytime soon. Dressed Up Like Nebraska went on to earn considerable acclaim, while Rouse's followup CD, the 2000 release Home, significantly expanded his following.
Now his new CD, Under Cold Blue Stars, is off to the best start of any of his albums and Rouse has not only built a large enough following to headline such notable venues as House of Blues in New Orleans, Paradise Rock Club in Boston and the Knitting Factory in New York City, he is being widely hailed as one of the more promising and distinctive new voices on the pop music scene.
The buzz is understandable based on the music on Under Cold Blue Stars, which is Rouse's strongest effort to date.
One thing Rouse said he has tried to achieve with his records is to escape some of the less appealing perceptions that can come with being a singer songwriter.
"I always thought I wanted to make records that sounded more like a band than, I don't know, I kind of grew up with the weird connotation, when I think of singer-songwriters, sometimes it's like John Denver pops into my head or something like that," Rouse said. "I just didn't want people to perceive it like that, like 'Oh no, another singer-songwriter record.' So I searched for a long time to find a name, kind of like Sparklehorse [the band name adapted by Mark Linkous]. But I couldn't find anything I thought I could live with for more than two months. So it became my name."
As Under Cold Blue Stars emphatically illustrates, one way Rouse has stepped beyond the standard singer-songwriter mold is by creating music that's layered and more produced than one might associate with a solo artist.
"That's one of the best things, I think, about the record. I don't think there's any two songs on it that sound alike. And I made an effort to make it eclectic like that."
Many of the new songs (such as "Ugly Stories" and "Women And Men") carry forth a trademark Rouse established on his first two CDs a penchant and talent for writing songs with darkly hued textures and melancholy or even downright sad emotions.
"I just like the way they sound and they feel, Rouse said of the darker moods that often populate his music. A lot of it is [using] major seven chords, which just have kind of a melancholy feel to them. When I pick up the guitar or whatever, it's just kind of what comes outI don't know, I think I like the way sad songs sound, I guess."
Josh Rouse plays Lynagh's, Tuesday, April 16.