I’ve never been the type of person who would sneak into someone’s bedroom and steal a glance at their private journal. However, the universe did thrust one upon me not too many years ago when I was exploring the shelves and crevices of an antique shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. Its nameless spine caught me eye – a conspicuous culprit resting amongst the likes of forgotten cookbooks, Westerns, and Nancy Drew rip-offs. The bulk of it was filled with lengthy, handwritten prose – but to my dismay, the overall narrative was by no means overly intriguing. Mostly, it revolved around innocent Iowa farm fiascos and overly-detailed segments of a (seemingly) happy family’s saga. It was extraordinary in its own way – a piece of human life that spoke a little louder than most of the other objects in the store. But it didn’t particularly speak to me, personally, in any lasting way. Perhaps this is due to my inability to identify with the sort of typical American life that defined that specific mid-century period. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready to search for meaning in such places.
I decided to open with this because here I am – years later – writing about a different sort of innocently voyeuristic experience (one that stems from an alternate artistic medium – music). And honestly, the music in question really makes me feel like an epic blockhead (yep, I used a light mid-20th century derogatory term for the full karmic effect) for brushing off such an intimate find.
Listen to just a few of Claire Rousay’s tracks and you’ll understand why I’m having second thoughts. Though she doesn’t necessarily refer to her music as such, I consider the bulk of her creative output to be an ongoing audio journal – one comprised of raw field recordings that are augmented with a fluid blend of whispered narratives and pastoral melodic passages. Think of The Books – but with a more musique concrète approach to the compositions. If you were to start somewhere – in an honest attempt to appreciate the scope of her work – I would start with one of her most recent releases: “a heavenly touch” (available digitally [both editions of the tape are, unfortunately, already sold out] via Already Dead Tapes and Records). Here we can witness a synecdoche of the various sonic exploits that define her approach to experimental noise music – masterfully-captured recordings of seemingly mundane real-life experiences (see “taxi ride”), minimal soundscapes that eerily mimic those horrible human moments where we tend to lose ourselves in ever-expanding periods of excessive thought and dread (see “going home”), or charming odes to the self and the past (see “dice in santa fe”).
Regardless of what album is being discussed though, the point is that Rousay’s delicate, intriguing, personal, and all-out hypnotizing music exists in much the same way the previously mentioned mid-century journal does: so nonchalant that you might miss it, and honest to the point of driving the listener to question her creative motives.
“I explore very specific intimacies within my recordings and performances. I almost think of the themes/ideas expressed as the most ‘pop’ part of what I do (if one wanted to go as far as to say there is an element of Pop Music in my work). These themes usually include very common experiences such as partying, emotional relationships, and how those two things intersect. I love sampled and field recorded audio. Those things definitely help form the more personal parts of the work. It (intimacy) isn’t something I put too much thought into when composing aside from trying to relay my feelings surrounding it. I don’t love long-form narrative within music so what I try to accomplish is more of a snap-shot in time, as cliche as that might sound.”
It’s interesting that Rousay invokes the term “pop” in her humble creative manifesto. The polarizing word is, for the most part, shunned in experimental music communities – or at the very least used sarcastically. What I think she means – and what a lot of outsider music champions forget or willingly ignore – is that “pop” can refer to elements of music other than genre, production quality, or the stereotypical ethos that permeates the collective celebrity unconscious. Rousay’s fluid, free-flowing devotion to various low-key universal themes and emotions instead speaks to the most acknowledged (yet misunderstood – in terms of experimental music) facets of general humanness that keep the underlying fabric of the underground community at large from fraying and snapping. In turn, the abstractness of her compositions certainly has the ability to materialize and take shape right before our eyes – if we are willing to remain still and witness it.
And so far – since the genesis of her project in 2017 – there are plenty of folks who are. She has garnered a significant amount of fans over the last few years; her various albums (released by the likes of Astral Spirits, No Rent Records, Never Anything, or Mondoj – to name a few) sell incredibly well and transcend the usual niche communities that swarm around experimental music of the same caliber. But more interestingly – beyond the subject of fandom – Rousay’s aura has managed to entice a commendable handful of other artists to step into her creative bubble and work with her to produce hybrid works that I (along with many others) believe have dramatically revitalized the idea of what collaborative albums can achieve (both aesthetically and emotionally).
“Collaboration is something near and dear to me. I came into the experimental music world through acoustic improvised music, so performing with other people has always been an integral part of what I do. After a while, I came to despise the whole ‘first meeting’ idea that improvised music tends to worship for some insane reason. Instead, I looked for collaborators I could count on and create longer lasting relationships with. Maybe the rejection of a narrative is supplemented by this desire to collaborate over a long period of time with a select group of individuals…”
“if I don’t let myself be happy now then when?” – a collaboration between herself and fellow Texan experimentalist More Eaze that delves deeply into the transgender experience – has been one of the most talked about tapes of the year; the amount of people who have been struck and positively affected by the tracks is unparalleled in 2020’s underground sphere. In addition, “Specifically The Water” – an album written alongside Alex Cunningham that veers off into free jazz territory – has also been met with much critical praise.
“Mari is one of my best friends. We met through a mutual friend in San Antonio and that connection led to me playing drums for her pop-rock project she had going around 2014ish. From there the band seemed to change members with the exception of myself and the bassist, Matt Thomas. After some live shows I started to record for her albums under the More Eaze moniker and that recording relationship slowly morphed from a lax-dictatorship to a truly chaotic collaborative relationship where we both contributed equally. This happened over the course of 6 years and many years we had little musical interaction but maintained contact and developed a really beautiful emotional friendship…Outside of Mari, I collaborate most frequently with Alex Cunningham and Jacob Wick. I often refer to them as “my boys” because I am always fascinated by their ability to consistently be Good Men which is a rare find in this world. Alex and I have a tape/CD on Astral Spirits that is more on the acoustic improvised side of things. Jacob and I seem to always change up what we do. Sometimes it is acoustic music but lately we’ve ventured into an extremely performative style of playing. We played a few shows last year where we would quote different pop songs either melodically or lyrically. It tends to involve humor and a huge flexibility on both our ends.”
As we all know, 2020 has not been the best year for close human contact – whether it be for avant-noise experimentation or BBQs. The global pandemic has certainly dealt some heavy blows to working musicians and touring circuits – and the future of this sprawling ecosystem is still largely unclear. The bright side, though, is that Rousay – along with many other artists – has been able to adapt to the shifting landscape with little difficulty (while also being aware of and empathetic to those who who don’t share all of the same opportunities).
“I love the internet and social media. I tend to occupy spaces that are heavily regulated, compared to some darker corners of the web, but I try to have a flexible and chaotic presence within most of the user guidelines. The current pandemic has definitely given me the time and desire to be more capital O, Online – which I don’t hate. Networking has always been oddly easy through the use of social media. I have a few projects coming out that I would have never had happen unless someone messaged or followed me, or vice-versa. My feelings around streaming performances change every day. Sometimes I see some great things being done and sometimes I’ll tune in to hear someone that I love and it is just awful. I initially tried to be positive about streaming gigs but it really has proven to be a wildcard, amongst other things. Accessibility is a huge thing for me and obviously not everyone has the resources to execute a hifi streamed performance. Not only that, a ton of people who don’t have access to the internet can’t participate the same way they could in person.”
With a few projects planned for either conception or release during the remainder of 2020, Rousay plans to stay active regardless of circumstances beyond her control.
“2020 holds (hopefully) the release of my solo LP on the Second Editions label. A duo release with Lisa Cameron on Personal Archives. A follow up album to the duo album with More Eaze on (_____?) and probably a few bandcamp subscriber releases I have lined up. I am really enjoying using the subscription service on Bandcamp. The ability to interact with folks on that is really great. I am slowly starting on a larger project to record conversations with friends and release those publicly as well as some exclusive Bandcamp audio releases…As far as goals go, I just want to build a proper studio desk for my home studio instead of the cheap Ikea thing I’m using currently. Finding a better way to stream performances seems to be something I *should* do as well, haha.”
I implore you to keep your ears open for whatever Rousay releases next. She has yet to disappoint, and I only assume – based on the evidence I’ve laid before you in this piece – that her creations will continue to evolve in complexity and appeal. Even more so, I implore you to take stock of her attitude – which is comprised of qualities we should all strive to adopt or at least emulate in these confusing, trying times: humble, giving, hopeful, and quietly inspiring.
***PLEASE consider purchasing music from her personal Bandcamp. All proceeds are being donated to The Bail Project — due to the ongoing protests and worldwide fight for racial justice and police reform/abolishment***