April 07, 2011

Getting to Know Singer/Songwriter Haroula Rose

Haroula Rose sings with the spirit of a gypsy soul, always searching for meaning or a seed of truth in each fleeting moment. Her voice is at once intimate and solacing, its gentle inflections betraying a subtle, plaintive sway that enriches moments of guitar-driven folk with the pathos of classic country.

She grew up just outside Chicago, lives now in Los Angeles, and considering even a bit of what’s shaped her artistry it’s clear that with her remarkable debut album, These Open Roads, she has found her defining purpose.

Haroula commemorated the album’s release earlier this year with an ambitious five-week residency at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the first time she’d performed at the famed venue. In fact, in recent years she’s played live on countless stages, most notably at venues like the Bitter End in New York City, Lestat’s in San Diego, T.T. the Bear’s Place in Boston, and the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip.

Though crucial to craft, playing live—like songwriting and singing—is but one aspect of her talent. “For some reason I used to think you had to pick just one thing and focus on that one-hundred percent of the time,” Haroula says, “but I don’t think that’s true anymore.” Perhaps she felt as much because her musical curiosities have, since childhood, been diverse. Growing up, she took part in musical theater and school choirs, over time learning to play the violin and, later, guitar and piano. She sang in a cappella groups and in various bands with friends. She worked for a while in a recording studio, learning tools of the trade that would serve her well in years to come. And, after graduating from college, she taught music theory to children while living in Madrid on a Fulbright Grant. 

It wasn’t until 2009, when she released a five-song EP entitled Someday that she once and for all resolved to pursue her greatest passion. “That took me some time,” she recalls, “to come into my own in the way of being able to say, ‘This is who I am, and it’s part of my identity that I don’t want to keep pushing to the side.’” And so it was not with any sense of blind ambition or naiveté that she’d made her current album.

To record it, Haroula ventured to Athens, Georgia, where she spent a little over a month getting acquainted with its Southern culture and music community. “I felt really settled in Athens right away,” she recalls. “Everybody was just so happy and accommodating to come and play. It was really, really nice, and all for the sake of the music and being friends.”

Producing the album was Andy LeMaster, a mainstay of the Athens music scene who has worked with such artists as REM, Conor Oberst, and Orenda Fink, the latter having contributed vocals to a few songs on These Open Roads. The opportunity to work with Haroula on her first, full-length album is one he looks back on with pride and admiration. “Her voice is so cool and unique,” LeMaster says. “I just loved discovering what sort of arrangements and soundscapes worked best around that."

For Haroula, absorbing the sights and sounds of Athens and its surrounding areas undoubtedly had an effect on the album’s overall vibe. “It made it seem more organic than it would have otherwise,” she suggests, adding, “but then there’s a couple songs that I feel like demonstrated this other energy there that’s really mysterious. In places especially like Savannah, where you get these really cool, old trees, Spanish moss, it just feels like you’re in another era of U.S. history in some ways, that whole Gothic feeling. That definitely had to do with certain parts of the record.”

Such influences resonate particularly on “Duluth,” a Mason Jennings cover that Haroula spins into a stark, sensuous resolution; and “Lavender Moon,” a love-starved lament steeped in a dusk, acoustic haze. “I wanted to experiment with different stuff like that,” she says, maintaining that she wanted the album to achieve an eclectic dimension. “I didn’t want it to be one emotional note the whole time,” she says. “You have to listen to it from the beginning to the end and see what this overall thing is. I didn’t want it to have all one sort of vibe. Hopefully people get that and enjoy it for that, because that was a challenge I had for myself.”

If at times her songs resonate with listeners as being heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable it’s only because she has confronted such fragility within herself. “When you’re a songwriter that’s part of what you give to people,” she says. “That’s part of what your job description is, in a way, to be able to express those things for other people to relate to and empathize with.”

On Friday night, Haroula will perform before a sold-out, hometown audience at Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago. Though just one of the several live dates she has slated across the country this year in support of These Open Roads, it nevertheless holds for her a poignant distinction. “When I come home,” she reflects, “especially to my old neighborhood where I grew up, it doesn’t feel that long ago that I was in junior high and I remember these places and all these memories come flooding back to me. But then it also feels like seven lifetimes ago. And there’s something so sad and melancholy about that, but also so beautiful too. That’s life. You do your best and that’s pretty much it, because it goes by so quickly.”

(First published as Getting to Know Singer/Songwriter Haroula Rose on Blogcritics.)