Beautifully Wicked: Caitlin Rose Makes Heartache Sound Lovely

Life request: Can we somehow have every piece of bad news henceforth delivered in a song by Caitlin Rose? To hear this Nashville country-rocker sing is to wish that you could crawl inside her voice — half Loretta Lynn drawl, half Bonnie Raitt belt, but with a sweet sheen of youth — and stay there forever. Or at least until she kicks you out, which, given Rose's usual subject matter, would likely be the prettiest part of the entire experience.

On her brilliant sophomore album, The Stand-In, Rose's warm, powerful singing is never better than when it's put in the service of heartbreak: Realizing a lover was just waiting for her to end things (“Waitin'”), savoring the few intoxicated moments following an impromptu Vegas betrothal (“Pink Champagne”), or feeling like the lone weirdo at a party (“Only a Clown”). Some of these songs are autobiographical, and some are pure fiction, but Rose's lyrical specificity makes each hit with an unmistakable ring of truth. Often that truth is bitter — and the bitterness feels all the more exquisite when sheathed in her glassy, gorgeous calls.

There are a number of eyebrow-raising details in Rose's biography: Her mother is a songwriter who's worked with Taylor Swift; she came up playing punk clubs around Nashville; she became interested in country through indie-folk outfit the Mountain Goats; and she caught her first big break performing in, of all places, London. But the strangest thing about Rose may be her relationship with her own vocal cords. “I didn't grow up singing in front of anyone, or around anyone, or for anyone,” Rose says over the phone from her hometown. “Singing was a very private thing for me, and it still is, in a way. I can't even warm-up before a show because I don't like singing around people — I feel like a burden, or I feel obnoxious.”

That Rose could feel like a burden while sharing her vocal gift is mind-boggling — but such is the nature of shyness, a specter that has long haunted the 25-year-old. “I am still very introverted and shy,” she confesses, explaining that she began performing as a way to conquer her fear. So did playing in bars and getting heckled help? “No,” she chuckles. “It's still there.” As part of her stage persona, Rose has become a kind of comedienne, cracking jokes in which she's often the punch line. But she isn't as self-deprecating as she used to be. Instead of a defense mechanism, the stage act is now a genuine pleasure. “I can sing a sad song,” Rose says, “but sometimes I'd just rather tell a joke.”

But she's just so damn good at singing sad songs. We mention to Rose that The Stand-In is rife with heartache and spite, and she seems proud of it. “The record kind of has a wicked vibe,” she agrees. One of the first songs she chose for it was a jaunty, deceptively sweet-sounding cover of “I Was Cruel,” by Nashville outfit the Deep Vibration. In it, Rose confesses, “I would've warned you if I'd known/ But I never knew I was cruel/ Baby, 'til I met you.” It's the kind of smooth, poetic barb her voice seems born to render. “It's not the nicest, but that's what I think is so lovely about it,” she says of the song. “It's honest, and I dig that.”

As you'd expect of a talented songwriter, Rose has something of a preoccupation with words. It's evident that she reads poetry (Wallace Stevens, Richard Brautigan) from the sometimes startling agency of her lyrics. “Waitin'” is a song about realizing one's lover knows the relationship is doomed, and is only biding time until it crumbles. In it, Rose uses a classic trait of Southern speech — dropping the “G” from her gerunds — to subtly suggest an impending, foregone conclusion. She addresses her lover: “You said you were runnin' when you hit the ground/ But mostly you were just hangin' around.” Later, she notes that the “Clock's always tickin' upon the wall/ Waitin' for someone to take the fall,” always emphasizing the lack of a concluding “G” — and furthering the sense that some weighty, predetermined end is about to arrive.

For some fans, it's tempting to use the obvious quality of Rose's music — her lovely voice, her clever lyrics, her charmingly shy persona — as a bludgeon against the slicker, poppier sound of mainstream Nashville. But that isn't a battle she's interested in fighting. Rose's songs may wield pedal-steel guitar and aching, minor-key harmonies — and her voice may recall Southern queens of yore — but she sees herself as having no relationship to big-time country. “I've never had any plans to try and fit into it, if that's what you have to do,” she says. “There's a lot of money that goes into country radio. I don't have a company spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to put me on the radio.”

It's the radio's loss, though. Rose's music doesn't exactly sound modern (“I don't think I could make music if I thought it was being too contemporary,” she says) but The Stand-In is quintessential Americana. The production is crisp but unfussy, the rhythms are lively, and on top of it all is Rose's entrancing singing — a sweet voice that makes you love hearing things you don't want to hear at all.

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