Daniel Rossen's Solo Adventure: "It’s actually, really, so exciting, this is like a whole new challenge"
After nearly two decades of influence on the modern indie rock scene with the iconic Grizzly Bear, Daniel Rossen talks his stunning, emotional debut album solo album, You Belong There
Daniel Rossen’s name might not be instantly recognisable, but to anyone who’s had a passing interest in the best indie rock and pop of the last 20 years will likely recognise his writing, his playing, and his ever so tender voice.
As a co-lead vocalist and guitarist of Grizzly Bear, the band release five beloved albums, toured relentlessly, and were a constant force in the “indie world” (seriously, all it takes is the first note of Two Weeks to play for it to be instantly recognisable at this point), slowly changing their sound and style over the years, until in 2020 founding member Edward Droste departed the band, effectively putting them on “indefinite hiatus”.
As well as his work with Grizzly Bear, Rossen formed the duo Department of Eagles with Fred Nicolaus (Golden Suits), releasing two cult classic albums in the 00s, as well as releasing his debut solo EP in 2012 with Silent Hour/Golden Mile.
Ten years later and we’re blessed with his debut solo studio album, the absolutely breathtaking You Belong There. Beautiful, experimental and avant-garde, You Belong There is a textural record of broad folk influences, packed with intricate finger style guitar, upright bass and a range of wind instruments, the record’s dense layers reveal themself upon each listen.
To celebrate the release of You Belong There, out Friday, May 8, we caught up with Rossen for an extended chat, with Rossen’s honest, humorous and often relatable answers a breath of fresh air.
I wanted to start off by bringing up your debut solo EP, Silent Hour/Golden Mile that came out 10 years ago - is it a coincidence that a decade later you’re now releasing your debut solo full-length?
I mean, it’s the time that has passed *laughs*. Yeah I mean, there’s a reference to that in one of the tunes in a way, but I wasn’t really thinking so much about that album, it was more like, this decade of my life which consisted of kind of drifting around, especially in central New York, kind of walking away from a lot of my career and life, and kind of just like pondering the world for a really long time. This album, I guess, is a culmination of all of that time, in a way. Kind of trying to come back out of complete seclusion.
So leaving New York, you relocated to Santa Fe in New Mexico? For me over here in Perth, W.A., that appears to be a pretty big change in scenery and scene?
There’s a connect connection between the two, where they're both kind of like wilderness, kind of frontier zones of deep American past *laughs* My wife grew up here, actually, so I've been coming back to New Mexico for years.It's a really beautiful place. I mean, in a lot of ways, Santa Fe and northern New Mexico is like, obviously, a very different landscape.
But as like a place to live, it's almost like in between living in a major city and living in totally rural, you know, middle of nowhere, because it's as if you were right up against the mountains, it's pretty. There's a lot of access to nature and hikes and whatever else. But you know, there's a small town here, there's like some civilization.
Sounds divine! And yeah, I guess “New York” in my brain refers to New York City as opposed to, you know… the rest of the massive state *laughs* So I’m picturing skyscrapers on one side and mountains on the other - could you say there’s a tangible impact of your environment on creation?
I don’t know, I mean… tangible impact. I don’t know. I think I definitely tend to feel like kind of painting a picture of where I am. The sense of place has always been some part of the music that I'm making. I think it took a large part of this record, especially since I feel a lot of it was like, trying to capture the feeling of, especially the place I was in, in central New York.
And kind of the mindset I was in and kind of this combination of like going through ruminating on my life over and over again and doing it in this, this place out in the middle of nowhere. And I felt like there was sort of a connection between the two in a way, like, when I kind of spun out for a period of my life, and it was also a really special time and time that I feel a lot of nostalgia for and was, in a way almost, I don't know, I felt a kind of like, very almost spiritual connection to that place.
And I've been kind of like chasing that feeling ever since. I think, in a lot of way this record was an attempt to capture that place and that feeling. So yeah, sense of place is certainly a big part of the music.
I can’t help but think that’s like the healthiest version of “chasing the dragon” that I’ve ever heard!?
I mean, that's the thing, like part of this record, it's both like chasing a sense of place and a connection to somewhere. But also, there's a lot of rumination. There's kind of like the kind of spiral you go in or sort of addictive addiction and depression kind of spirals that your brains can send you on.
So I feel like fatalistic thinking and feeling like you're supposed to be similar, you're sort of like chiseled in place is as much I think, part of this music as also that kind of like chasing a sense of home in the sense of belonging, you know, some way.
Which leads us to the title of the album - I was going to ask about that but I feel like you’ve touched on it quite well here.
Yeah, it means a few different things. But I think, yeah, it's a combination of those. It's like a kind of chasing a sense of place and also like a kind of pain of distance from where you feel you're supposed to be.
Kind of like the way rumination and spiraling thoughts and fatalistic thinking can kind of, like chisel you into a particular mindset in a particular place? So yeah, there's a lot of that, like longing for home that I can’t really ever find.
Longing for a home you can’t find and talking about where you think you’re supposed to be - how do you know where exactly you are supposed to be?
I don’t really know, I think a lot of this record is really me reflecting back on my, my longer family history - it’s a lot of like, moving around and you know, whatever, immigrants moving to the US and kind of moving from place to place and never really having exactly an established base.
And then I don't know, I was a child of divorce, I lived out of a duffel bag a lot of my childhood and then I kind of drifted into a band, and then I was living in a van and sleeping on people's couches and kind of always moving around. And the only real sense of place I think I ever really had in recent years was my connection to that piece of land upstate and what it meant to me, it was almost kind of random like, I'm a city kid. I grew up in Los Angeles and, you know, lived in New York for a long time, the idea of like, suddenly just living in place in nature. Like some kind of 19th century naturalist, it's pretty absurd and ridiculous, but it really spoke to me.
I don't know why I really wanted it. And in a lot of ways, it kind of drew me away from any kind of career condition. Kind of made pursuing music feel very silly after that, for some reason, still kind of does *laughs*. But I felt the need to at least capture that time and capture my headspace in this record. And, you know, see what that was.
Speaking of capturing headspace and kind of reflecting on the last decade of your life, when were the 10 tracks on the album actually written?
Mostly in the last couple years. Some of them are, well, some of them are a little older. I mean, Keeper and Kin and Repeat the Pattern reached back to like 2014, 2015, 2016. The song called The Last One is quite old, and there are a few songs, a couple songs on there that are like, I would say they seem so tender that I almost didn't want to release them.
But I ended up feeling like they really had a kind of an emotional place on this particular record, so I ended up finishing them off. But for the most part, yeah, well, no, for the last couple of years.
Something I was curious about - this is probably a question for the decade prior - but when you’d be writing music, coming up with ideas, was it ever like “this is more of a Grizzly Bear idea, this is more of a Department of Eagles sound” type thing?
Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I, if anything it was like, like a couple of songs that for instance, were like, seemed too tender like I would say, Keeper and Kin and The Last One particularly were like, they just seemed too… emotional in a way that didn't relate to the music of the band, for instance.
So they kind of sat around, and I didn't honestly necessarily know if I would even release them,I mean, I was trying to make, you know, make music that would please the band, which was kind of other stuff.
And then I had these other songs sometimes that maybe… I didn't really know if I was gonna finish a record for a long time. And if I did, I didn't really know what it was supposed to be. So I guess this is not a good answer to your question *laughs*
It's not very easy to say like, where anything's gonna go, you know, like Department of Eagles hasn’t existed in a long time. Generally speaking, that was music that I worked on with Fred and it would be like Fred wrote the music that I arranged often, not always. These songs, a lot of them are written, you know, after Grizzly Bear kind of stopped touring, so it’s just music I was doing at the time.
And the older ones that stuck around were things that were just personal in a way that, yeah, didn't feel especially towards the end, or like the last record of Grizzly Bear. Like it didn't feel very comfortable or fitting to submit super personal material anymore. Iit wasn't really in the spirit of the band by that point, and it's just a different process, you know?
Absolutely, for sure. One similarity I guess with these processes might be your working relationship with Chris Bear (Grizzly Bear drummer, multi-instrumentalist, longtime collaborator), who is the only other musician on your new record - what’s it like to work with Chris after all these years?
Yeah, I mean, it's very easy. I mean, I've known Chris since we were teenagers, it’s kind of like a mind meld thing. I mean, you know, depending on the song, well, we'll workshop things a bit more, but usually his first thought is just the right thing for the music, because he just knows how I work so well.
We went back and forth, he heard all these things while they were in process, while I was working in Santa Fe, before I went out to L.A. to record things with him in the studio, so we had kind of workshopped a lot of the parts ahead of time. Yeah, certain songs, I would say something like Shadow in the Frame in particular, because it has such a fluid form, and it kind of stops and starts and it doesn't really move in a way that's very well suited to a unified percussion part.
That one, we definitely had to dig into together a lot more in the studio and kind of like, try things. But I mean, you know, because we know each other's work so well, like, yeah, working with Chris is very intuitive and very easy, and I'd obviously trust his intuition a lot. I can kind of, you know, let him follow whatever idea he has, and we can shape it from there… and I trust it. Probably his idea is going to be good, you know? There’s not a lot of micromanaging going on, that’s for sure *laughs*.
Sounds like a dream working relationship! So Chris was on drums and you played everything else on the record, including double bass which I read you played a bit of as a child?
For a bit, yeah.
All I’m thinking is your parents must have loved transporting that around?
Well, no,I didn't have it at home, it was like, band in middle school. So I played it. I was like, you know, I was like playing guitar and I picked up you know, doing like, stand up, pluck bass for like a jazz band in middle school, like that kind of thing.
And I also, you know, I've had a cello for a long time that I'm not very good with, but I can kind of hack away at it, you know, semi-competently and it’s relatable to bowing an upright bass - it’s not a huge stretch to go from guitar and cello and things like that to upright.
I picked up a little bit of woodwinds to record, that was the most foreign thing, that was the most challenging and I wouldn't say I ever got totally there with it. But I got there just enough to complete some of the ideas.
And I wanted to ask about the woodwind on the album - what are we talking about here, I heard some clarinet and I think flute?
Yeah clarinet and tenor saxophones. When I was trying to play tenor sax was particularly difficult. I mean, it's ridiculous because I worked for years with Chris Taylor who is like an expert, an excellent woodwind player, but he’s in Europe and living in Spain and you know, it was like, just because of the constraints of the pandemic especially, I ended up just playing a lot more things myself than I would have normally done
I had plans to go out to LA around I think it was April of 2020 was the studio time that I had booked to go out there and work with some players and of course, that was exactly when the entire world shut down, ruined my plans and had to figure something else out and that kind of caused me to work more on the songs and then ultimately, I started picking up some cheap instruments and just building the record myself.
Did you find that once you started learning these woodwind instruments it changed your writing at all, like hearing a melody on a different instrument leading to different ideas?
Maybe a little bit yeah, I mean, different ways of just making sound are certainly informative… change probably yes, probably change some of the melodic writing in the arrangements. I really liked the idea on this record of working with old fashioned instruments just because they're physical, they're very physical.
Working with like a synth just almost cannot be it's like, they feel more like extensions of your body you know, like saxophone is like an extension of your voice, and like bowing an upright, like the the level of intensity of movement and like bowing out parts, especially if you're not really familiar with the instrument. It's just a very, very physical kind of way of expressing yourself. I just, I don't know, I felt for some reason, it's still very important to me to dig into that on this record.
Are you still like regularly practicing clarinet or sax or anything?
Well, I've been working on doing some score work and that's kind of been an extension of, yeah, I've continued to work with those instruments as I do this work that I've been doing recently. It's just been kind of nice to kind of build out a little vocabulary of instruments that I can work with on my own.
I always imagined when I was younger, when I get older, I'm gonna be one of these guys with just like a wall of synthesizers, and like, old, old keyboards - for some reason I thought that's what I was gonna be, and instead, it's like, I'm just collecting, like, high school band instruments and crappy woodwinds *laughs*.
Ah look, you can still do both? *laughs* It’s super inspiring either way, all jokes aside! So one final thing I wanted to ask is about live shows - give it’s only you (and Chris on drums) on the whole record and there’s a LOT going on, how are live shows going to work?
Well, the answer is maybe less exciting than you might hope. *laughs* For now I’m actually playing totally alone on stage, which I've done in the past, and I really enjoy the kind of intimacy of it. Obviously, I can't pull off about half of this record, I mean, I just can't play alone - and certainly, none of it was really intended to be played, like the EP was kind of written with the idea that I could pull off these songs, just as songs without any arrangement was like kind of part of the, I don't know, guiding force of that EP, and this record is very much the opposite, it was like, I'm just going to build whatever musical world I feel like building.
And also, I really just like playing alone, I really enjoyed doing that tour that I did, it was like 2014/15. I even did some shows in Australia like that. This is a really special connection to the audience that I really kind of miss, and I think, I think some of these songs, like re-envisioning them as a very simple solo flute performance, I think it's kind of special. And like, I've even like altered - some of these songs like even on Unpeopled Space, like new pieces of the song that have changed as I've done them alone, and like bits of bits of writing that I had, like almost put into the song before I changed on the recording, like being reincorporated. There’s just a really nice, fluid way that you can perform alone that is particular, you can’t really do… it’s very hard to do with a band together and do it that way as well.
I thought you said you didn’t have an interesting answer?! *laughs* That sounds amazing. Funny as well, cos I’ll often as in an interview if playing live was a consideration in the crafting of an album, but in this case I thought “there’s no way a one man band can pull that off, probably a silly question to ask”.
I mean, it's cool. I don't know, I've been liking the idea recently. Like, if you're going to perform or if you're going to put out music, I like the idea that you are trying to challenge yourself in a way where you're trying to do something that you're almost not capable of doing. At this point in life, it seems like a good thing for me to be doing and I think playing some of these songs live, it feels like that, like trying to do Unpeopled Space alone, just really hard at getting it to actually translate and sound good.
It's super hard. And I feel like even in rehearsal, like one out of ten times, I'm actually happy with it, it feels right. But I don't know, I've figured out a way, like there’s the song Tangle on the record, it’s super strange and kind of avant-garde or whatever, I figured out a way to do that on piano alone - it’s actually, really, so exciting, this is like a whole new challenge. Like I can I can make this song into just a solo piano thing in a way that I enjoy and it's really hard to do - I'm not a very good piano player, it's hard, kind of hard for me to do without screwing up but yeah, that's that's that's where I'm headed with the live show.
It sounds like an amazing way to experience the album and we can only hope you can play it for us in Australia some time.
I’d love to go back, I would love that.