Photo by Brian Vu
Half Waif Has Come Home
As Nandi Rose recalls, leaving New York City for the twisted wilderness of Chatham in upstate New York was an easy decision. The relocation allowed Rose, who performs as Half Waif, to concentrate strictly on making music, and the extra time at her craft resulted in the lavish sounds and detailed production of her 2018 album, Lavender.
But having an album fans want to hear comes a price: namely, touring for long stretches of time. While Rose speaks fondly of her stint on the road (both with a backing band and as a solo artist) and has a slate of upcoming tour dates, the transitory nature of her career kept the self-described homebody away from the refuge she had created.
Which is why she stopped. The forced stillness of a year spent at home was the basis of Rose's new quasi-concept album, a through-line she admits came as a surprise. Inspired in equal parts by the tangle of nature outside her front door, and wrestling with herself while alone, The Caretaker is a study in the beauty of small moments. Set against Half Waif’s trademark woozy synths, and spacious production, Rose's intimate revelations about operating through loneliness and introspection take on grand scale meaning. And as she explains, that’s exactly the point.
Ahead of the release of The Caretaker, dropping on March 27 via ANTI-, Rose spoke with the Recording Academy about writing through a character, exploring quiet moments and learning to love the fear.
How has having your own space changed your process?
It's so wonderful. I feel like I can treat songwriting less as like the divine inspiration strikes, and more like a daily muscle that I get to work. And just coming here, when I was working on The Caretaker, I would just come in every day and just try to write something and see what would come out when I like gave myself that space and time to write. So, I love this room. I've got all these photos of friends and family and little trinkets that people have given me. So, the energy in this room is so much love and support.
When did The Caretaker start forming?
The Caretaker's obviously me, but in calling it that and generating this character is sort of like seeing the stories like almost through someone else's eyes. It helps me to know that's who I was then and it's not who I am now. It's like sort of the character standing in for the former self of who I was when I was writing it. The cool thing about this record, and every album that I work on, is that I love doing things differently and taking different approaches, whether that's sonically, or just like mentally. After recording Lavender with a band, I found myself back to being a solo artist again after my band dissolved and I found myself alone again.
That must have been scary!
Completely scary, like major anxiety, and sadness! There were a number of reasons why it happened, and I don't think there's any blame. A big part of it was the people that I was touring with needed to go do their own thing. There was nothing but love and respect for that decision. But it was really scary to find myself in that position. And it happened right before I was going to Europe.
I didn’t have time to get a band together. I could cancel my tour or I go solo and get a solo set together. Canceling it would have been the easier route. But I really have been in this place in my life where if something scares me, then I know I have to do it. There's probably something on the other side of it that I am meant to learn, and to take a hold of and I'm not going to get there if I stay in my lane. So, I had the opportunity to start touring solo and it was incredibly empowering for me to do that. And it was that summer between my bandmates leaving and me going to Europe that I started writing The Caretaker.
So tell me about this character, the Caretaker.
The Caretaker is someone who's hired to come and live on an estate and, sleep in the little carriage house and take care of the land. But the idea is that this caretaker, who's been hired to tend to the grounds, has been left to her own devices and she is not doing a very good job of taking care of things. She's just preoccupied with memory and thoughts of her life. And so, the land is getting choked with weeds and, her friendships are failing and she's really alone in this place of isolation.
She's looking at the relationships in her life and trying to understand why certain things haven't worked and realizing that it's because the land, which is filled with weeds, to her internal landscape is completely choked with untended plants. So, its exploration of how to move through that dense jungle of feeling and emotion and clear the land so that there can be some clarity in her relationships with others and with herself.
I feel like everyone has gone through this portion of their life.
Totally. I think Lavender in a lot of ways also was dealing with how to care for the self. But it was sort of through the lens of these much bigger topics like grief and the apocalypse. The summer when I started writing The Caretaker, I got engaged. So, at first I thought, "I'm gonna write an album about love and marriage and this year of my life before I get married and it's going to be a hopeful album, it's going to be bright and optimistic." And then of course I start writing my songs, they're all very heavy and dark.
Don't you love how the muse just like takes you on a hard-left turn?
I've realized that when I feel happy and good in my life, I don't put it into music cause I'm out celebrating, either with people or, or just being out in the world. It's not the receptacle for my happiness. It's the receptacle for my sadness and frustration and, and that's just how it's always been. It’s like when I'm feeling those thorny feelings, I want to be alone and kind of untangle it in solitude. But when I'm happy I, want to be out in the world. That’s why this room has also come to be so important to me because this is like the place where the physical place where that can happen.
There's a line in "Ordinary Talk": "Don't worry about me. I don't worry about you." That lyric seems to speak to everything that you're talking about.
Totally. After realizing that it wasn't going to be a love and marriage record and I had already tackled big topics in Lavender, I sort of went into it giving myself permission to look at the smaller moments in our relationships with each other that actually come to stand for so much more. Our lives are created from these tableaux of our everyday moments. And so, I thought there was something deeper to explore there.
Are you good at recognizing those quiet moments when they're happening?
I'm not someone that needs like a lot of time after something to process it. I feel like I feel things really richly and intensely as they're happening. Do you read Patti Smith? She's like my ultimate muse in this regard where everything, every moment of her life is poetry. And I think reading her work has really helped me also be more mindful in those moments and see the poetry and artfulness of the quietest moments when you're sitting at a table having brown bread and olive oil. Like she does in M Train.
Are you able draw lines in your life and be like, "This is my daily life. I'm just going to enjoy my cup of coffee, go for a walk." Or is it all inspiration for you?
I'm on 100% all the time. It can be a blessing and a curse. It can be a mixed bag. I find it hard to turn off and rest. And I think that's one of the themes I'm exploring and searching for in The Caretaker is this idea of rest. So, the album ends with the line, "ready to rest" because giving yourself that space to turn off is really important. But on the other hand, I find it to be such a fun way of engaging with the world because everything I read or look at or see is filtered through this lens of inspiration. So, it's actually quite a joyful way of being in the world.
You've moved from New York City to a small town, you're a touring artist, you just wrote an album about a caretaker on an estate. How has your concept of like home evolved?
It's just become so much richer because now I have a physical home in a way that I didn't for a long time. Also, while writing The Caretaker, about a year ago, I told myself I'm going to take a year off the road because I had been touring a lot. And so, over the last year, I've really spent so much time at home, and come to find how much that sense of routine feeds me. And it's something I'm interested in as this career continues.
Any good nature stories?
[My husband] Zach and I went on our honeymoon to Costa Rica last August and we stayed at this amazing biodynamic farm in the rain forest and there was like a midnight rain forest walk. But what we really loved was the 6 AM bird calls. We got into birdwatching around here. It was really fun because for Christmas we ended up both getting each other like binoculars. So, he opened my gift to him and I was like, "He's gonna love it!" He just burst out laughing.
How good are you at dealing with uncertainty?
I can't tell the future, but I will always write songs. I have this very vivid memory in high school. I would go into the auditorium during like lunch period, or whenever I had a free period. And, I would just play the piano to myself in the auditorium. But I just loved it. I was like, wow, there's a grand piano, not a friend. I can just go play it. Then there was this one week where students found out that I was doing it and they started coming, so the first day there were a couple of other kids there and then like by the end of the week, there was an audience. I remember feeling so cool and amazed and proud and kind of popular for the first time. And then, because it's high school, there was the next flavor of the week. And I went back to being alone in the auditorium. I look back at that, and I am so proud of myself because I kept going. I kept going and playing for myself even though no one was there because that's how it had started was always for me. And that's a really nice reminder in my moments where I’m not sure what this career is or where it’s going.