“Doesn’t belong to me like it used to,” proclaims Rosali Middleman on “Mouth,” the opening track to her new album, No Medium. With members of the David Nance Group soaring behind her, Rosali sheds many a demon on this new work. Her arc on the record is a steep one, confronting addiction, heartbreak, and loss with raw intensity. Across vast oceans of ragged and scorched guitar, country-rock jams and lilting piano ballads, she comes to terms with, and leaves behind past selves–being born anew amongst the embers and the grace of embracing reality on your own terms.
We caught up with Rosali at her sister’s place in Michigan to talk about the new record and more. | c depasquale
Aquarium Drunkard: You wrote these songs in South Carolina, in self-imposed solitude in a farmhouse. What sent you there to do that?
Rosali: That was in January of 2019. I was supposed to go on a tour of the UK with J Mascis, but it got pushed back until May pretty last minute, so I just had that block of time. And friends of friends had been renting out this house to artists and writers for very cheap. And I had already starting writing some of the songs, but I went down there to just use that time I had freed up to work on this record.
AD: Was there anywhere in the farmhouse in particular that you found yourself writing the most?
Rosali: Yeah, there was a big open room with really tall ceilings, so it sounded really good, and lots of light came in. So, I had all my gear setup in there, but I did a lot of writing actually just walking around too. Finding inspiration from nature, which is something I’ve always drawn from, and just being in the quietude. You can hear your thoughts better.
AD: Did you write the songs on acoustic guitar? They have such a naturally electric feel, it’s hard to imagine them any other way. Did you know you would ultimately record these with a full band?
Rosali: Acoustic and electric. I definitely knew it would be full band, but not necessarily that sound … that came later. I have a Casio that has the best drum beats, and I brought down a few other things. But I had been playing a lot of electric guitar with my other band, Long Hots, so that language and sound had kind of become an extension of myself that was really potent at the time. And I think the feelings and thoughts and emotions in the album are electric, and passion-driven, and intense, which really lent itself to electric guitar, and layers and layers of electric guitar on some songs. It came naturally.
AD: The album deals with some heavy topics, and is pretty raw and vulnerable, but the songs are just undeniably catchy and they really are total earworms that, in a perfect alternative world, feel like radio hits. At any point during the writing or recording, did you get the sense at all that these songs are really good?
Rosali: I guess I’ve always written kind of catchy songs – it’s part of the nature of what comes through me (laughs). But yeah, these songs, it being vulnerable material…what it comes down to is that making music that’s catchy and melodic makes the songs really accessible in ways that can crack open these feelings of rawness and vulnerability, so that other people can access that within themselves. You know, I walk around and I sing a lot and I have melodies – I think a lot of it is from growing up in a very musical family and having all kind of traditional folk music playing, which have inevitably catchy melodies, having survived centuries. It’s just something that’s ingrained, I guess.
AD: How did you get hooked up with the David Nance Group and, at what point did you know they would be the band for this record?
Rosali: I was on a Long Hots and David Nance Group tour in that summer of 2019, and it was just such a fun tour, we became close friends, like family. And they had previously opened for a solo show of mine in Philly right before the tour, and so midway through the tour Dave suggested that they be my backing my band. And I was stoked, because they are such an awesome live band – their intensity, their tone, their playing. Eva from Long Hots called it “going to church,” you know, because they just go there, and extend songs, and it’s what I just really enjoy out of seeing a live rock show. So, yeah, when Dave suggested it I was super flattered, and said yes immediately. We had talked a bit about what we wanted it to sound like – we’d throw out various ideas, and songs with Mazzy Star vibes came up and other various stuff we’d send to each other. But in reality, when we first started playing, it was just like: first thought, best thought – this energy is right, let’s do this. And I think because they were already a band that had their own language, and I was so familiar with them at this point too, we just instinctively arrived at something that felt great.
AD: What did playing with the band bring out in your own performance?
Rosali: I think some of the heavier jams – not that I’m a stranger to that – but the extension of that and their guitar tone wizardry. So, drawing on them as players, that intensity. They know how to talk it out amongst themselves. When I listen to it, I can feel the different personalities that are at play. I hope that comes through to the listener.
AD: And vice versa, what do you think your songs brought out in the group’s performance?
Rosali: Well, maybe some of the quieter side, and the softness. There’s some very feminine songs, and there’s restraint maybe too. I remember Dave telling me, “I really like how you leave a lot of space in your playing,” and that’s not something anyone had said to me before. But yeah, there’s a minimal-ness or an openness to it. And delicate feelings that were brought to the table. On “Your Shadow,” the instrumental breaks between verses are long, and I remember them suggesting I truncate it, but I wanted to keep it as is because it was in the space that the contemplation and remembering occurs. Same with “All This Lightning” – we’d originally recorded it with drums, but I felt like it needed to be a little untethered from that, to feel like you really would slow dance to it, but in your own way. I think little things like that. And I honestly just had so much fun making the album with them. “Tender Heart” was especially magical to record, mostly live, with a late-night clarity vibe. Man, I was really looking forward to touring this album with them.
AD: I really like “All this Lightning,” it’s got this really lovely country ballad twang to it. It’s a very romantic song and I know the refrain came from witnessing an actual lighting storm, but it also feels like it could serve this beneath the surface metaphor of inviting danger and recklessness. A lot of the songs feel like the narrator is speaking interchangeably in that way – like they could at once be addressing a lover, a past vice, even yourself. Could you talk more about that songwriting approach?
Rosali: “All This Lightning” is one of my favorites on the record, too. And it was some of the wildest lightning I’ve seen in my life, but yeah that refrain refers to that electricity you feel with somebody. And for sure some of that recklessness of it, too. I’ll use the trope of a love song to talk about bigger, universal themes of human nature. There’s double meanings, sometimes, triple meanings (laughs). There’s a little bit of poetry and a veiling of things, but also it makes it broader in a way so the listener can feel their own self or their own experience in it. And also, I think feelings and emotions aren’t just one thing, and when you’re experiencing a moment that’s maybe really intense, and you might feel one way, but then reflecting on it you might remember some random detail that might have felt mundane at the time, but now later on holds some significance and potency.
AD: Does this record have a nakedness and vulnerability that you felt was lacking from the past record?
Rosali: Yes, there’s something about this one I feel is much more intense and raw. I had a lot of anxiety about it, and I was trying to figure out why, and I still don’t know if I have figured out why that is. It’s just more brutally open, which I feel good about and it’s important to me to do that. To be raw and open in a way, as corny as it may sound, may be helpful to other people. And I think the nature of the sound, itself, of the album, and the instrumentation just elevated the directness. It’s also something that partly comes with growing older and getting to a place of not needing to shield myself as much. Going through some really intense things, which after a lot of reflection, and in the writing and recording these songs, I felt ready to shed, and to express it, and to be in a place where I felt a lot stronger and braver and more honest.
AD: “Whatever Love” is another favorite and feels like the most cathartic song on the record. Can you talk about how this particular song came about, and if it holds any significance in the overall song cycle of the record?
Rosali: I had just that melody for a while and I was trying to hone in on what the attitude really was, you know, just stating my case. And I actually didn’t finish writing the lyrics to that song until I was on the airplane flying to Omaha to record. I had a lot of lyrics, I had a lot to say, and was just editing it way down on the place and trying to streamline it. Like, the song is a conversation and you’ve been through this thing with the other person before and you’re just like “this is where I am, meet me where I’m at.”
I’m proud of it, but it’s a song that song I feel … a little sheepish about. We went back and forth a lot about where it should go in the sequence and there’s something about it that I maybe feel a little protective over. Which is ironic, considering how direct the song is. But, it’s a moment of clarity, it’s the end of the cycle. It speaks from a changed perspective and that newness is strange and well, new. It’s a different way of being. I have changed, I know what I want, I know who I am, and it feels funny to say that. The line “I’ll be the Fool, you set free,” is the archetypal figure. The Fool, a character who walks through life, not caring what others think of them, laughing at life’s challenges, getting back up when you’re down. And that’s where I’m at. I’m the fool on my next adventure and that feels fresh.
AD: On “No Shadow,” you sing: ‘The regrets in reflection becoming something more / Maybe when I start believing it becomes something more.’ It’s a really beautiful lyric and a very optimistic perspective. Are you a believer in the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that if you can only just believe something of yourself, then it’s true?
Rosali: I do believe it, yes. It’s easier said than done. That song was inspired by a family friend from growing up who passed away in a car accident when he was 16. His older sister and I have been friends since we were babies. I was writing that song and playing the chords, and here just came into my thoughts and memories very strongly. I just got a very strong sense of him. And there’s a sadness about it, but yeah then there’s that last line, and it is hopeful, and I do believe in that. I do believe in … optimism. We have to be optimistic, and I’ve struggled with negative thinking my whole life, and trying to not indulge in that and not lose hope. And when you think of the beautiful people and things that come in and out of your life, especially how intensified those feelings are right now on a day-to-day basis, it’s optimism that life goes on. And trying to do the most with what you have, and the time you have, and the people you have.
AD: You cite a number of 70s records as influences on the sound of this record, such as Iain Matthews’ Journey From Gospel Oak and Gene Clark’s No Other. But I read in an interview you recently did with Philadelphia Weekly that you grew up on stuff like Nirvana and the Velvet Underground, and it’s those more scorched earth rock sounds I hear coming through on this new record. Was any stuff like that on rotation for you during this process?
Rosali: I’m kind of always listening to that stuff … I was listening to The Stooges’ Funhouse a lot at that time. Also, this King Blood album on Richie Records, I was listening to that a lot. That kinda riffy garage rock stuff. It’s also intertwined with Long Hots and our sound … you know, we call it basement boogie.
AD: Yes, you’re in a truly wonderfully primal rock trio called Long Hots with Eva Killinger and Kathryn Lippman. I have several questions about this band, but I’ll start with the dumbest: In 2018 you guys put out a cassette called Monday Night Raw, do you all watch wrestling?
Rosali: (Laughs) No … I mean, in a way. That tape is all from a Monday night practice, like a rehearsal that was just totally in the zone. So, we were like, “oh yeah, Monday Night Raw” I mean, just as a phrase, but we were aware of the … wrestling (laughs).
AD: How did Long Hots come about and what lies ahead for that project?
Rosali: I moved in with Eva, and she was going through a divorce, and I had just broken off my engagement. So, we moved in together, and we’d been peripheral friends for years, but we just became the closest buds just working through a lot of a shitty time. And Eva plays drums, she played drums in Spacin’ and she’s just awesome. And I think we had been living together for a few months, and were just like, we’re sad. We’re sad and mad, why don’t we just be that and go down in the basement and jam? So we started to and we were like, we need someone to hold this together (laughs). And Kathryn, who was also a friend, lived across the street and plays bass and we just called her over. So, we jammed a few times just trying to find what our sound was. And, on one particular night we wrote a song, I don’t think we’ve ever released, called “One Chip” about eating too many nachos. That was basically the sound people now know as Long Hots and we just started booking shows and the first show we played was 12 minutes, and that was it because we only had one song, and just kind of grew from there. We practiced all the time, which was easy cause we all lived right there, and we were working for personal catharsis. We worked through a lot of stuff. And I think people get excited, because you can really feel that when we play live, that comes through – it’s ecstatic. That’s how it feels for me when I’m playing with them, it feels like a direct connection to some higher power (laughs).
AD: You come from a pretty robust music scene in Philly that also includes Chris Forsyth, Writhing Squares, Purling Hiss, Spirit of the Beehive, and a lot more I’m no doubt missing. How has that environment helped shape your approach to music and just generally in life?
Rosali: Oh, yes, undeniably formative, motivating, and galvanizing. When I first moved to Philly in the mid 2000’s, I quickly met Brooke Sietinsons of Espers who introduced me to many other musicians, like Jack Rose, Helena Espvall, Meg Baird, and Mary Lattimore, who all became wonderful friends. Witnessing everyone grow in their own expression has been incredibly inspiring. Most of the bands you named are buds and collaborators. I lived a few blocks from Chris Forsyth, and played many shows at his space, Jerry’s on Front. Writing Squares’ Dan Provenzano played bass in my backing band and is also on my last record, Trouble Anyway. Mike Polizze of Purling Hiss is a dear friend and the best guitarist, who played the sweet solo on “Lie to Me” on that record too. My friend Gerhardt Koerner, who recorded my first album, is a secret genius songwriter and I wrote the piano part to “Waited All Day” on an old out-of-tune parlour piano in his practice space in Kensington. Philly is bursting at the seams with musical talent and it extends beyond those who play. My sweet friend Nicky Devine was a talent buyer for local venues, but she really gave me a lot of support for the last album cycle and I don’t think I could every repay her. We talked about Long Hots already, but Philly showed up for us right away, we hit a nerve or something. And playing with Eva and Kathryn gave me a whole new sense of who I was in this world. There’s just a lot of comradery there that has shaped me as a person and musician with countless nights just hanging out listening to records, talking about music, seeing shows, and learning and growing together.
AD: You’re currently in Michigan with your sister and nephew. I suppose we ought to end on the proverbial pandemic question: Have you been listening to, reading, and/or watching anything of note?
Rosali: Since arriving in Michigan, my media consumption has majorly declined. My nephew has autism and is not only sensitive to sounds, but very opinionated about music. Luckily, we share a love for Sade and reggae (his favorites being Midnite and Anthony B). When I do have alone time, I’ve been listening to Dry Cleaning’s New Long Legs, Bill Orcutt’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Gábor Szabó’s Dreams, and Nathan Salsburg’s Landwerk. I just finished reading Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, and my God, she is so smart. I envy her ability to speak with such depth and agility in conversation. I am a nervous rambler! I’m also obsessed with the comics of Simon Hanselmann; Crisis Zone – holy shit, the characters, the dialogue, it’s brilliant and raw and funny and sad.I haven’t watched much recently, but right before leaving Philly, I binged The Sopranos. I’d never watched it before and got totally sucked in. There’s something oddly wholesome about it, the late 90s New Jersey setting, the family … ahhh! It’s so delightful and disturbing. But mostly, I’ve been walking the sandy woodlands of Northern Michigan with my pup, Foxy, looking at the sky, listening to the birds, gathering stones, and letting myself just be part of things, which gives me a lot of room to think.