Band: Josh Rouse
Album: The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse
Label: Yep Roc Records / H’Art
Josh Rouse never planned on making a holiday record.
“I was never a holiday record kind of guy,” he laughs. “Growing up, I remember hearing Vince Guaraldi and Bing Crosby and all the staples everybody listens to each winter, but I never collected Christmas music or anything like that.”
It makes sense, then, that ‘The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse’ isn’t your typical yuletide collection. Written off-and-on over the course of the last ten years, the record is joyful and festive of course, but, much like the holiday season itself, it’s also laced with an undercurrent of longing and melancholy. For every playful portrait of giddy lovers on New Year’s Eve, there’s a stranded traveler spending Christmas alone; for every slick St. Nick in a suit and sunglasses there’s a lonely ex-pat waiting by the mailbox for cards that never seem to come. The arrangements are eclectic and intoxicating, drawing equal influence from Rouse’s Midwestern childhood and his decade-and-a-half spent living in Spain, and the performances here are sparkling and fizzy to match, blending jazz sophistication with rootsy sincerity and sly crooner charm. The result is a holiday record built for the long haul, a wholesome, whip smart collection that’s guaranteed to stay with you well after the snow has melted and all the decorations have come down.
“I decided that if I was going to make a holiday record, I didn’t want to load it up with sleigh bells and choirs and sing the same old standards that everybody else has already sung,” says Rouse. “I wanted to write something that folks hadn’t heard before, something they could listen to year-round.”
Hailed by NPR as “one of contemporary music’s most engaging singer-songwriters,” Rouse first emerged in 1998 with ‘Dressed Up Like Nebraska,’ a stunning debut that Billboard proclaimed to be a “dark horse gem.” Over the next twenty years, Rouse would go on to release eleven more critically acclaimed albums, honing in on a warm, ruminative sound that fused elements of vintage folk, rock, and pop with modern insight and observation. Q called his breakout release, '1972,' "the most intimate record of the year," while Rolling Stone dubbed his follow-up, 'Nashville,' "a landmark album," and EW described 2013’s 'The Happiness Waltz' as "a big contender for Rouse's best work." In 2014, Rouse won a Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) for his song "Do You Really Want To Be In Love," and in 2015, he returned with ‘The Embers of Time,’ an album which landed him yet more critical praise alongside tour dates with legendary songwriter Nick Lowe.
“It was Nick that opened my eyes to how great holiday records could actually be,” says Rouse. “He showed me that you don’t have to be sappy or sentimental with it, that you can be yourself and put your own stamp on the tradition.”
Rouse had already begun experimenting with his own holiday songs by that point, writing a Christmas-themed tune or two every December just for the fun of it, but he’d never really considered recording or releasing them. Sometimes he’d perform the tracks live around the holidays; sometimes he’d sing them to get a laugh from his kids; sometimes he’d save them as voice memos on his phone and forget that they even existed. By the fall of 2018, though, Rouse realized he’d written more than enough material for a record, and, inspired by Lowe, he headed into Nashville’s Alex The Great studio for a four-day whirlwind of a session produced by longtime friend and collaborator Brad Jones.
“We recorded everything, even my vocals, live in just a couple takes,” says Rouse, who cut the album with the same group of musicians that backed him on ‘1972.’ “I’d give the guys some hints and direction here and there, but we work so well together that very little needed to be said. I was smiling after every performance.”
That blissful comfort is abundantly clear from the outset, with funky album opener ‘Mediterranean X-Mas’ swaying gently like a palm tree in the breeze. Backed on the track by a slippery guitar line and an infectious groove, Rouse catalogs scenes from a beachfront holiday, his narrator wearing flip flops as he struggles to remember his high school Spanish and makes “faux snow angels in the sand.”
“I pictured that song as a postcard from someone who’s living or traveling abroad,” says Rouse. “The narrator’s experiencing a very different kind of Christmas than he grew up with, and he wants to share that with the people he cares about back home.”
Finding yourself far from home for the holidays is a frequent theme on the record. On the dreamy “Christmas Songs,” Rouse sings as a stranded international traveler taking comfort in the sound of familiar carols, while the lounge-noir “Letters In The Mailbox” finds him meditating on the acute loneliness that comes with spending Christmas on your own, and the jazzy “New York Holiday” calls to mind ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ as it waltzes through a winter wonderland in the Big Apple.
“I’ve spent most of my Christmases for the last ten or fifteen years abroad,” says Rouse, who recently relocated from Valencia, Spain, to Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s a warm, sunny sound on this album that comes from that, but there’s also a longing for the cold weather and the winters I grew up with that I think comes through, too.”
The rollicking “Sleigh Brother Bill,” for instance, waxes nostalgic for childhood days of downhill sledding, and the breezy “Easy Man” lights up at the prospect of a white Christmas. “Hanging out with the in-laws / they’re really not so bad…The forecast calls for snow / I’m happy as a clam,” Rouse sings on the lighthearted track, which he co-wrote with another longtime collaborator, Daniel Tashian, who recently took home a pair of GRAMMY Awards for his work helming Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour.’
“I approached writing these songs like I was soundtracking a film,” Rouse explains. “I was trying to bring all these little holiday scenes around the world to life with humor and heart.”
In that sense, the album fits seamlessly into Rouse’s catalog, just the latest chapter in an extraordinary career built on transportive, empathetic storytelling and rich, cinematic production. “This season brings the best of me,” he sings on “Easy Man.” ‘The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse’ is proof of that.
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After spending the better part of a year touring behind his critically acclaimed eleventh album, ‘The Embers Of Time,’ Josh Rouse was ready for a change.
“Coming off such a heavy record, I wanted to try something different,” he explains. “I wanted to explore new sounds and write with a fresh backdrop.”
Never one to ignore the call of his muse, Rouse traded in his trusty acoustic guitar for a synthesizer, a move that quickly pulled him in a slew of exciting, unexpected directions as he found himself freshly inspired by the endless array of possibilities at his fingertips. Where ‘Embers’ was a deeply personal, countrypolitan contemplation on identity and anxiety, the new material that poured out of him was breezier and more carefree, crafted with an 80’s-inspired sonic palette that complemented the shift from somber introspection to more playful observation. The end result, ‘Love In The Modern Age,’ is an album that still bears Rouse’s distinct fingerprints, even as it pushes his limits and forges a bold new chapter more than twenty years into his celebrated career.
Hailed as “a talent to outrank Ryan Adams or Conor Oberst” by Uncut and praised for his “spare and easy sounding guitar songs” by NPR, Rouse first emerged in 1998 with his debut album, ‘Dressed Up Like Nebraska,’ which Billboard called a “dark horse gem.” Over the next two decades, he’d go on to release a steady stream of critically lauded records that would solidify his status as one of the his generation’s most acclaimed songwriters, both in the US and Europe, where he’s lived on and off since 2004. Q called his breakout album, '1972,' "the most intimate record of the year," while Rolling Stone dubbed his follow-up, 'Nashville,' "a landmark album," and EW described 2013’s 'The Happiness Waltz' as "a big contender for Rouse's best work." In 2014, Rouse won a Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) for best song for "Do You Really Want To Be In Love," from the film 'La Gran Familia Española.
As he began work on ‘Love In The Modern Age,’ Rouse was caught in a moment of international limbo. He was ready to relocate from Spain back to Nashville with his family, but his wife’s green card process was stretching out interminably. As they awaited news from the US government, their Tennessee home sat empty for more than a year, and Rouse found himself making regular trips across the Atlantic to check in on the property.
“I started working on songs with my old friend and writing partner Daniel Tashian on those trips,” Rouse explains. “I’d just finished reading Sylvie Simmons’ great Leonard Cohen biography, ‘I’m Your Man,’ and it got me really into Cohen’s synthier records. I told Daniel that I thought it’d be fun to write some stuff in that vein, so we’d start with these moody soundscapes, and then I’d write lyrics on top of them.”
Inspired by Cohen and cult heroes The Blue Nile, as well as the English bands Rouse grew up listening to like The Cure and The Smiths, the songs were cinematic and enveloping. Each track created its own entrancing world out of dense synthesizer textures and shimmering electric guitar lines. While many of his previous albums were recorded with a full band performing live in one room, Rouse built up the tracks on ‘Love In The Modern Age’ a layer at a time, recording the majority of the instruments himself between Spain and Nashville.
“It’s definitely a laptop and headphones record,” he explains. “There’s a lot more architecture involved in putting an album together like that, but it’s a really empowering way to work. The songs have a different character when Daniel or I play every instrument on them ourselves.”
The record opens with “Salton Sea,” a driving, ominous track that lays the groundwork for the album’s unique blend of electronic and organic elements. Rouse’s smooth, warm vocals drift above the music, a distinctly human element awash in an ocean of manipulated tones. On the Tears For Fears-esque shuffle “Businessman,” Rouse captures the loneliness of isolation in an era of constant connectivity, while the winsome title track marks the ups and downs of a relationship that can feel more digital than physical, and the late-night, lounge-y “Ordinary People, Ordinary Lives” finds him playing voyeur as he peers out his window and into the homes of his Valencia neighbors. The song also draws sonic influence from the street musicians he would encounter on his way to recording sessions.
“In Spain, there are these Gypsies who make their own sound systems,” he explains. “They’ll have this cheap keyboard that runs on a battery pack, and they’ll load their speakers onto a luggage cart and pull it around with them. I would hear them out front of my studio blasting these Arabic scales and singing along, and it was so cool that I really wanted to try and cop that sound.”
While Leonard Cohen is an obvious touchstone, especially for Rouses’s baritone delivery on the pensive “There Was A Time,” his vocals on the album also frequently draw on New York punk and new wave, calling to mind David Byrne on the intentionally simplistic “Hugs And Kisses” and Richard Hell on the infectious “I’m Your Man.” It’s quite a bit of musical ground to cover, but it makes sense when you consider that Rouse crafted the album over a longer stretch than any other release.
“I spent six months recording this, which is more time than I’ve ever taken on a project,” he explains. “You can work quicker when you get the guys together and play it live as a band over two weeks, but I really wanted something different for this album. It’s still my singing and my storytelling, but there’s a big shift in the production, and using those new instruments definitely brought out something in me that wouldn’t have happened with just an acoustic guitar.”
Much like love in our modern age, the album is defined by the coming together of those physical and digital worlds. Underneath it all, though, lays the same endless search for human connection that drives each and every one of us. Times may change, but the song remains the same.