Take a Deep Dive into Rose Droll's Lush World of Songwriting
Rose Droll is an Oakland-based singer-songwriter and producer. She was part of Phluff’s own Untitled Fest at SXSW back in March and released her debut album Your Dog in November of last year on San Francisco’s Father Daughter Records. I had the pleasure of chatting with her on a Friday afternoon about how she got into music, her creative process, writing fiction, and everything in between.
Rose is a really good conversationalist. From the moment she answered the phone, she talked to me like she was chatting with a friend, apologizing for rambling and getting off-topic. She was still riding a high from the show she had played the night before at Oakland.Secret, a community art space in West Oakland. I saw a photo of her from that show on the venue’s Instagram, sitting cross-legged on the stage with her guitar, bathed in blue and purple light. She laughs as she told me, “I’m kind of getting into this thing lately where I don’t want to stand if I don’t have to. Because when I write my songs, I write them generally just cross-legged on the floor. So I’ve been thinking, if the vibe is right at the show, why don’t I just sit on the ground so I feel as close to being on my bed as possible?”
Rose started regularly playing shows in the Bay Area a little over two years ago when a friend offered to help get her more gigs. Before that, she had been playing shows here and there, but it made her nervous because she didn’t feel like she was part of the community. Years later, she’s released an album on one of San Francisco’s most well-known labels and finally feels a sense of inclusion. “There’s support coming from people who are outside of the people that I’ve known for years. It feels nice to get a sense of community now and to feel like people want to support me based on the art that I’m making. Now I’m actively making an effort to play more shows and be a part of it.”
Rose told me about her childhood; sharing about her parents, her community, and the music that surrounded her. “I was homeschooled growing up, and most of my interaction was with people in the church. It was my world growing up and music was a huge part of that. There was always lots of music going on and a lot of really great orchestration.” Being exposed to harmonies and complex orchestration at a young age has been a huge influence on the way that she looks at her own music today. Growing up, her mom played guitar a lot and would always sing around the house, making music a common thing at home. She says her parents were always supportive of her pursuing music, but in a hands-off way. “They put me in piano lessons and were like, ‘We’ll see what happens.’” Rose actually gives piano lessons now, so it sounds like things worked out. She told me she’s had a lot of interesting interactions with parents and kids who she’s taught. “One of my students told me they were getting ready to apply to college and they never considered making music their major because their parents would kill them. Hearing these types of interactions makes me feel so lucky to have supportive parents. It’s so fascinating to me because it’s such a delicate balance. There’s so much that goes into it, so it’s astounding when it works out for people in adulthood.”
She first started experimenting with writing music at the end of her high school career. “I heard one of my friends play a show in my hometown. I thought ‘That’s so beautiful, I wish I could do that! There’s no way that I could do that.’ But I knew a lot about playing and song structure from taking piano, so I wrote one song and never stopped.” Creatively, Rose Droll might be one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve ever met. I asked her how many work-in-progress songs she thinks she has, and it seemed like I had asked a dreaded question. “There are a lot of work-in-progress songs… There’s no way to calculate it. I plugged in a hard drive when I was talking to a friend about an old song I had written years ago, and when I typed in the name of the song, a MOUNTAIN of stuff came up that I forgot that I had. I have a really poor organization system, so there are hundreds of songs that will just get lost, but I’m sure some of them deserve to be lost, you know? It’s definitely thousands, a scary thought for me because I’m overwhelmed, but it’s a ton.”
For Rose, songwriting is something that comes naturally and almost automatically. “It speaks to a part of my brain that needs to write music constantly. In college, I hung out in the piano rooms a lot, so I would spend entire days working out song structure, and how to write better songs. Then I eased out of that pressure and worked on writing more casually. For a really long time I always thought of myself as an accidental musician because nothing ever worked out the way that I wanted it to work out. That’s still sort of how I think of it because everything sort of seems...not like it happens by accident, but maybe happens more on an improvisational or spur-of-the-moment kind of vibe.” Often when she starts writing something she might have an idea in mind for how she wants it to end up sounding. While she doesn’t know if that has ever worked out exactly as planned, she does have some really specific goals for some of her songs. “I have some super strict orchestration ideas that I’d love to slap together in a record, but aside from that, everything that I make on my computer at home ends up sounding some way that I didn’t really anticipate. I’m always a little surprised at how things turn out.”
It always starts the same way, with one small thing. “I’ll generally write on whatever instrument is available. For example, ‘Boy Bruise,’ I wrote that when I moved into this extremely small room in the Mission District, I think in fall 2017. All I had was a desk and my guitar, so I would just sit down in my little chair and write on that, but the arrangement ended up being so much different than what I tracked when I was sitting in this tiny closet-sized room, you know? I’ll track something and come back to it and if the single layer of guitar and vocals moves me in any way or interests me at all, then I’ll build it up little by little. I’ll keep building on that and then it’ll turn into something that I’ll listen to when I’m all done and think ‘Damn, how did that happen?’ That’s pretty much how everything starts. I usually don’t re-record things, I just take the demo and build on top of that.” When I saw Rose play for the first time last summer, she played an early acoustic rendition of her song “Boy Bruise.” I remember hearing that song on the album later that year and barely recognizing it under all of the lush layers of vocals and beats.
But it’s funny: she’s said in interviews before and mentioned to me again that she prefers not to play the songs from her album live. “I really didn’t anticipate doing these songs live and that’s one of the reasons why I allowed myself to record with a ton of layers and work really hard on arranging.” The only time Rose truly feels free and comfortable while performing is when she plays by herself-- when she doesn’t have to worry about arrangements or other band members. “When I do any live stuff it’s usually just me and a guitar and usually songs that I haven’t recorded. Playing live and recording seem like two completely different worlds, you know? I used to have a lot of trouble trying to marry the two in my mind in a way that felt ok, but I’m getting used to the idea that there are different venues for art to come out in different ways. That recording can be one thing and live could be another, and they don’t have to add up and even out. Now I’m getting into the vibe of letting recordings be recordings and letting live things be live things without feeling like they have to match.”
Rose mentioned going back to old songs and having them move her, and I’ve always wondered if songs were written for a specific moment still have the same emotional resonance that they had when they were written initially written. “That’s actually something that I think about often because everything that I write, even if I’m out of that headspace later, if I captured a feeling really well lyrically ten years ago, I’ll go back and be pulled right back into that feeling. It’s a little weird because I think it’s really special that that’s something I can do, but because I do get pulled back into things, it’s hard to move on from things that I think people normally are allowed to move on from, you know?” There are a lot of things that she wrote about in order to process what she was going through, sort of like self-therapy. It’s something that she’s working out: how to manage and deal with what she wants to compartmentalize and separate herself from; how to acknowledge those past situations without scrapping the art that came from them. “That’s actually kind of my goal now, to write in such a way where I can go back and not be like ‘that was a bullshit thing that I said,’ as long as when I wrote the song, I was being true and honest about how I felt or how a situation was, or how I thought. Then even if I don’t feel that way now, if I captured that emotion accurately in relation to how I process things, then I will be pulled right back into it. That’s how I can look back on my progress and development lyrically.”
A lot of Rose’s songs are based in reality, and she told me she used to feel bad about it. “I’m sort of coming to terms with just accepting it. That’s just what happens when I write. It does end up being deeply personal, but I can’t really help it, you know?” That isn’t to say everything she writes is about specific moments in her life. She told me she’s written a lot of ballad-y songs, emulating the style of 50’s love songs, more like classic love songs of longing than songs based on personal experience. Interestingly, she also writes fiction. She shared that whatever she writes in fiction almost always has nothing to do with her personal experiences. “I mean I’m inspired by something like a conversation that I have or something that I see. I’ll write a couple of sentences or a paragraph based on some sort of reality that happened, and then it turns into something that I didn’t even try for. That’s so nuts because I’ve never thought about that before. It’s really weird that in fiction I’m able to compartmentalize it. But I guess when I’m writing it doesn’t have to do with me, you know? I’m just writing about other people and creating situations and stories that I think speak to human behavior and speak to things that interest me. When I write music, I don’t know what it is but it just has to be more personal in some way.”
I asked Rose if she has any advice for aspiring musicians, and though she denied being a good person to ask, she actually had some great advice. “I have no idea. My whole vibe is just creating a lot and often and doing that if that’s what you’re into. One thing I see that holds true, is the people who do their art often and just do it because they feel they need to, those are the people who break into a tier above those that view it differently. It’s a lot of work, but making art is fun.” Rose is clearly someone who practices what she preaches and is creating stuff non-stop, whether it’s meant to be heard or lost on a hard drive.
As for what’s next for Rose Droll? “I have no idea! I honestly don’t know. I’m going to maybe track a little bit at the end of the summer and see if that works out. My label was a one-off contract for the Your Dog record, so I don’t feel a specific pull one way or the other, but for sure another record as soon as possible. I think I’m going to go with the flow and see what songs come up.”