Photo by Cara Robbins
Caroline Rose Talks New Album 'Superstar' & Our "Sadistic" Wish To See Celebrities Fall From Grace
Caroline Rose loves the color red. It’s been the primary color on all three of her album covers and she’s wearing some shade of it in practically every photo of herself on the internet. She clearly puts a lot of effort into maintaining such a coordinated aesthetic, so it’s reasonable for one to assume that red has some sort of significance to her either creatively or personally. One would be wrong.
"It's too late to change it now is the best answer I’ve got for you," she says with a laugh. Evidently, Rose just found herself owning a lot of red clothing and then doubled down when people began to notice. She admits that the truth behind it isn’t that interesting, so up until this big reveal, she’s had fun making up lies about what the color red "actually" meant to her.
"We did a Spanish interview and I bet the translators were like, 'I think we got this part wrong,'" she says. "Because I was like, 'I wear red in honor of my mother's period that she missed having me.' And they were probably just like, 'What?'"
The good-humored New York musician is often weird like that, and her unique flavor of indie-pop is similarly offbeat. After debuting in 2014 with a rootsy Americana sound, Rose made a near-unrecognizable pivot to fizzy pop with her 2018 record LONER. But when she presented the album to her then-label, they weren't just puzzled by the stark change in direction but by LONER’s unclassifiable sound.
"I think it was hard for my label to understand where to place me," Rose says. "I don't quite fit in with the singer-songwriters—who I really admire and whose music I really love. I don’t really fit into big pop, and I don’t really fit into indie rock."
Her label didn’t get it but Rose was ecstatic about the album so she took it elsewhere and ended up reformatting her entire team. All of that added another year to the process, so by the time it was finally released she had no idea if there was an actual audience for her breed of quirky pop that was spiritually informed by rock music.
"And when it came out it was like everybody got what I was trying to do and it was such a relief,” she says. "I didn’t have to explain it. I didn’t have to explain that some of the songs are meant to be over-the-top, they’re meant to be satirical."
It’s hard to overlook the obvious hilarity of the album’s brilliant cover art, which features a dead-eyed Rose decked out in workout gear with an entire pack of cigarettes stuffed into her mouth. And fortunately, other people got it, too, and Rose suddenly found herself in the throes of a completely unexpected career. While touring full-time for two years straight she landed on a handful of festival bills that featured pop star headliners. She watched these celebrity figures command a crowd of thousands who were screaming back their every word, and Rose began to daydream about what it would be like for her to be in that position.
That’s where the seeds of Superstar, her excellent follow-up to LONER (out on March 6 via New West Records), were sewn. However, rather than write a record about a fictional person trekking off to Hollywood and actually succeeding, Rose wrote a cinematic storyline about someone with grandiose ambitions failing miserably. She stresses that the character isn't based on her own experiences, but that she does share some of their attributes. Most of her inspiration came from actual celebrities, particularly one of our culture’s favorite genres: the celebrity breakdown.
"I feel like it’s the highest form of entertainment to kind of watch someone fall from the sky. This Icarus mentality of 'we all want to support you flying but we’re all gonna watch and not catch you when you fall.' I think it’s just an interesting trait in humans because we all do it."
Rose spoke to the Recording Academy about her dramatic vision for the record, what she finds so fascinating about the failed celebrity experience and how she finds herself unintentionally relating to the character she imagined. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.
Tell me why you wanted to take the Superstar narrative in the direction that you did.
It’s not that interesting [when] a person just moves to Hollywood and becomes a big star. It’s almost a ridiculous notion, right? I feel like every other person wants to move to L.A. or N.Y. to make it, that’s why we all move to these cities. And try and make a name for ourselves. But it so rarely happens and that interests me way more, when it doesn’t happen.
But you still have to maintain this confidence, right? Like, you have to be confident or else you’ll never get the gig. And so I was kind of fascinated by this idea and I looked at myself and I was like what are my qualities that are really not very great that I could add to this character to make them a little more relatable? I wanted to create this narrative, this storyline you could follow where each song is almost an audio-visual representation of this person and where they’re at in their life. And I kind of imagined this genderless character so people could imagine whoever they want.
It feels to me like a really human idea of what a celebrity is. Not this untouchable, impenetrable figure but someone with the same flaws as anyone else and the face they put on.
Oh yeah, that’s fully what interests me. I talk about Kanye [West] because he’s such a good example of someone who has the most confidence but does not have his sh*t together. He has mental breakdowns consistently and it’s so interesting. It’s both interesting in the way he is, but also in the way we react to people like that. Like, we let it happen. Not only do we let it happen, I think we really sadistically like it. We want to see people explode into superstardom and then watch them fall from grace.
And then I think we develop this coarseness where we’re like, "Well you’re a celebrity, you're impenetrable. You’ll figure it out, you’ll get your sh*t together." But if you look at the course of history, it doesn’t really bode well for a lot of superstars. Look at Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, all these icons. And I think that’s what I wanted to get at: how does this happen?
Do you think you yourself having an audience—not a celebrity audience, but an invested fanbase—contributed to you thinking about superstars in this way? Because you had a little bit of a taste of it yourself?
I don’t think that it had anything to do with the success of LONER, because we had some modest success with it but it doesn’t reach that kind of level that really hits the nerve of this storyline. But I can say that I was curious about whether I could do it or not, whether I could make something on my own. Because I’ve worked with co-producers and I’ve always ended projects being like, “Why didn’t I do that myself?" And it’s not a knock on the people I’ve worked with at all, it’s more of an "I think I can do this" mentality. And this was the first time where I was like, "Why don’t I just do it myself?"
I was really fascinated with this idea that my dad always told me about. Both of my parents are artists and my dad would teach this class where he’d give his students five objects. It’d be like some duct tape, some toothpicks, some string and they’d have to make a sculpture. And I love that idea where you have just a pallette and you have you make something. It kind of unlocks a lot of creativity for me when I have a set of rules. So that was the approach, to see if I can make something sound big and interesting.
Would you say that that’s an analog to the idea of someone going to Hollywood and using Hollywood as their palette and it’s up to them to make something of themselves there?
Oh totally, I think all of this is happening in real-time. How the album is doing and the way that I see myself, I think I’ll just always feel like an underdog. I think even if I was sitting in some penthouse I’d be like, "There’s been a mistake here, mercury is in retrograde I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t belong." I don’t think the character is me but I can relate to the character so much because I put so much of myself into it.
It’s funny to me because the character is all about false bravado and trying to keep their sh*t together, thinking that they’ve got it all together. That is happening in real-time for me. It’s so funny, good things will happen and I’ll enjoy it and then the next moment I’ll just be reflecting on all the things I wished I had done differently. And it sucks the joy out of everything and it’s something that I’m desperately trying to work on.
I like how the third song is just this over-the-top infatuation song where the character is just begging to have their feelings affirmed. And then the next track is this minute-long interlude with one line: "Feelings Are A Thing of the Past." I feel like that’s the equivalent of a hard transition in a film, where you don’t actually see what happens but it’s implied by what you see in the next scene. Was that kind of what you were going for there?
Exactly. I wanted to get across that this person is really trying to button up their feelings and just not feel vulnerable. I kind of imagined the first half of the album being the more upbeat side where this person thinks that they’re the best, they kind of have this glossy veneer. And then I wanted to put one little piece in there that reassures people that—I wanted to peel back the veneer a bit so that you can see that this person really isn’t what they’re trying to be. The glossy sheen is peeling.
But I think everybody has been in a place at some point or another where you just don’t want to feel anything. You want to go out and have a one-night stand and not have feelings and no fall in love with someone and just be cool. Or go into a room of execs and just be cool or meet your superhero and not ask for an autograph. I think there’s so many instances you can think of where you just wish you could turn off your emotions, your excitement.