Daniel Rossen on “You Belong There” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, June 17th, 2024  

Daniel Rossen on “You Belong There”

Numinous Connections

Apr 26, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by Amelia Bauer Bookmark and Share

In the summer of 2019, I emailed Daniel Rossen out of the blue because I had been listening to the Department of Eagles and felt like conveying how much his music moved me. By then, it had been two years since Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins and seven years since Rossen’s solo EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile. Rossen released the single “Deerslayer” for Record Store Day in 2018, but I hadn’t heard it until long after I reached out, which I did by visiting his then-spare website, the only text displaying a brief note to fans that he was taking some time for himself and his family, the possibility of new music real, if a little distant. The sound of Grizzly Bear has, to me, always revolved around Rossen’s voice, sometimes mournful, or wry, or prophetic, less a belter driven by fervor, more an observer moved by quiet, intense emotion. Which is another way of saying that, as much as I admired singer Ed Droste and as delightful as I found Chris Taylor’s solo projects, Rossen was the one I was most excited to pay attention to.

The email I sent was unremarkable, fanboy stuff, a glorified thank you note, though, a few days later, Rossen responded expressing his surprise and gratitude that people were still finding something worthwhile in his older work. Charting the path of Rossen’s music is a difficult, almost futile task, not because there isn’t much material to mine and sort through, but because Rossen is such a versatile and curious musician, one who is led by intuition rather than expectation. Though Grizzly Bear is by no means an obscure group, the band has skirted a delicate line between esoteric abstraction and Brooklyn indie pop, their potential for surprise and sonic familiarity always met and subverted in equal measure. In Rossen’s solo music, such observations don’t comfortably apply. He’s aware of his place—or, in his words, lack thereof—in the zeitgeist and unbothered by it, which only makes his new release all the more exciting.

The wait between 2018 and 2022 culminating in the release of Rossen’s debut full-length album You Belong There, punctuated by speculation as to whether Grizzly Bear had silently broken up and whether Rossen had moved on to other things, felt eternal. It’s fitting then, though Rossen didn’t intend for this, that his new record traverses the timeless and ephemeral landscapes of the mind and nature that makes those years seem trivial. You Belong There is an expansive, intimate, challenging collection of music, all of it written and a great deal of it performed by Rossen himself, that sounds like the product of countless meticulous hours. Upon first listen, there is a stark contrast between the indie rock vestiges of Grizzly Bear present on Silent Hour/Golden Mile and “Deerslayer,” and the new album’s intricate guitar arrangements and jazz-inflected tempos. But Rossen’s keen experiential lyricism, here observing near-spiritual encounters, the mind through time, aging, and the hard-to-describe effect the environment and isolation have on a person, is an organic extension of his previous work, emboldened by You Belong There’s showcasing of Rossen’s formidable skill as a guitar player and arranger.

Rossen spoke to Under the Radar over the phone just after returning from the first leg of his solo tour, reflecting on his time in Upstate New York, life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, what age has clarified and deepened for him, and finding his way back to caring about putting music out again.

Daniel Rossen: Hey, thanks for talking to me.

Nicholas Russell (Under the Radar): Oh, yeah, thanks for talking to me. Are you home?

I am home at the moment. I just got back from the first stretch of this.

How was it?

It was intense, but great. The shows have been really special, a real connection to the audiences that I haven’t had in a long time. It’s been nice, but I’ve been driving all around by myself so it’s pretty exhausting.

I saw you were asking people to man the merch tables.

[Laughs] Just a couple nights. You know, sometimes it’s nice to have somebody who’s really invested in doing that and you trust them. And, again, it was a nice way to meet people who were excited about the show. A casual affair. I didn’t have anybody to help me with this stuff so sometimes I took matters into my own hands on the Instagram.

How’s it been playing these songs with just you? I’ve listened to You Belong There a few times now and it boggles my mind a little bit thinking of how you’d do it live.

Yeah, obviously a lot of these songs I can’t do live. I’m performing I’d say about half of the album. Mmm, six songs now, actually. But this record was not made with the intention of performing it this way and these songs were not designed to be performed alone at all. It’s a challenge, for sure. They do translate, but they become a slightly different beast. Also, this kind of tour…I have so much material that I’ve barely played live. So it ends up working out in this way where it folds into a lot of other older tunes I haven’t really performed and particular live renditions of songs from the past. I’ve managed to make a show that’s a little more fluid, where the newer songs wend into older songs, or have instrumental passages that connect them. New bits of things that are not on any record that relate to the songs or connect them to other material.

Have you found new connections to the older music as you’ve been playing them again?

There are certain ones. The newer material is much more technical. Playing “Unpeopled Space” live is pretty challenging, but it allowed me to reapproach certain older songs. Like [Department of Eagles song] “In Ear Park,” for instance, which I had never done live, the full finger-picking version of it. Now that I’m doing these new songs that involve a lot more facility, it’s allowed me to come back to those songs and do them in a new way. Plus, there are older songs that I don’t necessarily love, but people really want to hear. So I’ll do my set and then towards the end I’ll sort of ask the audience what they want to hear. [Laughs] Make it a more casual, intimate affair. I’m really loving it. I’ve barely done shows like this in my life. I did one short tour of solo shows back in 2014 and it was fun, but it was a new thing, a little more stressful then. This time, I feel a lot more comfortable with it. I’m excited to pursue this as a way of making music and sharing it with people. It feels really particular. I haven’t seen a lot of shows with somebody alone onstage. Often, it can go really wrong. I’m not saying that my show is spectacular or whatever, but I really enjoy doing it. It’s a way of performing I never thought I would be so excited about and engaged with.

Okay, well I have another question for you. Why aren’t you coming here to Vegas?

Uh, I don’t know. Should I?

You should! You’re not far away. It’s like, what, six hours?

Is it only six hours?

I could be making that up.

[Laughs] No, I’m down. There’s a bunch of places I don’t have plans for yet. Booking shows right now is pretty hard, it’s oversaturated. Even getting this tour in place was pretty difficult. Also, even just getting people to know the shows are happening. I don’t understand how to make people aware that I’m doing this. It helped when the record came out because I started this tour before it was released. But I’d like to come to Vegas. I’ve never been to Vegas.

It’s interesting living in the southwest because it’s so vast. I’ve never been to Santa Fe even though it’s not too, too far. So many people are moving into this region though.

Yeah, I know everyone is being priced out of L.A. A bunch of people are moving to Santa Fe, which is cool, but it’s right at this time where we’re about to enter the most terrifying water crisis of the last 500 years. Like, Jesus Christ. What’s going to happen?

Well, I wanted to back up a little bit. I’m curious about how you’ve found the southwest since moving here. You’ve talked about it a little bit, but just as a person living here.

I’ve been coming here for 10, 12 years now. My wife grew up here, so we’d come back and visit her family. I always had a dream of spending more time here and in the last few years, we started talking about having a kid and it was like, “Well, we’re not going back to New York City.” And I’ve always loved New Mexico, so that’s how we ended up here. It’s been great. Santa Fe is a sleepy little town, but it does, to me, feel like a nice midway point between living in the city and living in a totally rural environment like we did in upstate New York for a really long time. Also, I feel like people don’t really know what Santa Fe is. You mention it and people picture Phoenix.

I’m going to make a pretty big conjecture here, shifting to the record: I don’t hear a lot of New Mexico on You Belong There. It sounds a little more east coast. Is that fair to say?

It depends on who you talk to. Some people say, “I picture the vast expanse of the desert.” The record label’s aesthetic reference was “It’s like Paris, Texas!” And I’m like “Well, I don’t know.” But you’re right, to me, the record is more about our time in Upstate New York. It’s tricky to talk about these things in a promotional sense. The association of a mid-aughts indie rock guy moving out into the woods is so cliched and stupid-sounding. So I don’t want people to necessarily think of it that way. That said, the record is largely about…a numinous connection to the landscape. I wanted to make something that felt like that place. What’s that word? It’s like the feeling of truth that people can have, an almost mystical experience. A sense of truth, really. Something that feels nearly spiritual about a place, but not quite that. I was trying to push at that part of my experience there. To me, my interest in music is capturing that feeling in sound. Grizzly Bear used to do a little more of that when we were younger and I wanted to go back to it and explore it a little bit more.

The reason I was saying it doesn’t sound like the southwest, per se, is not because I was coming to it with any association with Grizzly Bear or Department of Eagles necessarily, but because I used to live in New York and there’s a weird feeling you get living in such a dense, cacophonous place where spiritual experiences, or something like that, become that much more profound when you step even a little bit outside the noise. To me, you have the opportunity for a lot of those experiences in the southwest. That’s what You Belong There sounds like to me, the parallax between those two settings.

I definitely get that. I grew up in L.A. and I lived in the city for a super long time and I didn’t necessarily have any intention of moving upstate. But my then-girlfriend, now-wife had friends that lived up there and she took me in 2008 or something like that. In a way, I know what you’re saying. I didn’t expect to have that experience of the place, but coming from the city, there was something really special. I think it was also because that particular part of central New York where we were is still pretty untouched by cool New York culture. Like, all the land there was pretty cheap. It’s unprecious, but it’s super beautiful. A lot of this former farmland that’s regrown into scrubby woods and the constant push-and-pull of beating back the wilderness from your plot of land. I found it really inspiring and romantic and as soon as I saw it, I was like, “I have to be here.” Eventually, it did result in music I care about, which is this album, but it took me basically 10 years to get to the point of finishing it. There was something about moving up there, I got lost in it. You expect to have this romantic idea of being the artist out in the wild and you have all this time, but that’s just not how it is. Unless you have an incredible amount of self-discipline and self-control, which I don’t have. So it took me leaving the place and coming to Santa Fe and having a kid and having to fight for time to finish something that could coalesce into some kind of coherent material. But I’m glad it sounds like that to you because, to me, that is what the record is. It’s very much about that place and that experience.

You answered my follow-up question, which was going to be if you felt like you could have written this record while you were still in New York.

I mean, I did write some of it while I was there and I even recorded some of it there, but I didn’t get anywhere near finishing it. For a very long time, I kept getting halfway with things and just saying, “Fuck it” and throwing them away. Or, I’d think, “Maybe this song will just sit on a hard drive for me, I’m not going to release this.” I kept doing that. I would also get easily distracted by doing other things. “I don’t know, I’m gonna go clear the brush. I’m gonna collect firewood. I don’t care.” I just got exhausted by even trying to think about my career. I stopped caring. In some ways, I think that was positive. I definitely have a different idea of what it means to make music and share it with people now, which I think is good at this point in my life. Like, if I’m going to keep doing it, I should really care about it and I do.

What brought you closer to caring again?

I’m not really sure. There were a few of these songs—“Shadow in the Frame,” for instance, is one that I got close to finishing early on. I thought it was important to get it out there. Something about having a child and reaching this point in my life where I’m nearly 40. And I haven’t put anything out on my own in a really long time, certainly never put out a full-length thing. I started to think I needed to make this statement, even just for myself as part of my catalogue. “There is this whole body of work that I know could be finished and should be finished, I just have to get there with it and decide that I care enough to do it.” Also, something to do with thinking about what I’m going to share with my kid when she’s older. I want to make something I can really feel proud of talking to her about when she’s more of a human in the world. It’s just a different relationship to my work now.

It makes sense to me. To prepare for this interview, I was listening back to the EP, “Deerslayer,” Department of Eagles, not so much Grizzly Bear if only because I was looking for pockets of you, specifically (apart from Shields, love that album)–

Yellow House and Shields are the Grizzly Bear records that I still feel closest to, personally.

But I was trying to chart a clever arc for how you got to You Belong There and all I could really come back to was that you sound less inhibited. What did it take for you to get to this point?

I think it’s been made quite clear from the way this record has rolled out that I’m an old guy now, in this world, and I don’t really need to care whether what I’m doing is cool or even remotely engaged with what people think is interesting or the discourse in music. Quite frankly, most journalists don’t give a shit about what I’m doing now and that’s fine. So for me, that’s part of it. I can do whatever I want, nobody cares. I mean, you actually sound like you want to talk about the record, which I appreciate. A lot of journalists don’t really want to do that. But the point is, I feel uninhibited in a new way where it’s like, the stakes are really low. I’m not worrying about what anybody else is thinking about what I’m doing. So if I want to go all the way into something that’s more jazz-influenced, I don’t need to worry about whether that’s cool in the right way or impresses people in the right way. I guess it could matter, but that would feel kind of pathetic at my age to care. The kind of music I like is very formalist in a way that music just isn’t right now. It just felt valuable to me to dig into my own particular area of interest.

There’s definitely a level of technical acumen and skill on this album that I don’t hear in music even from bands that I really like and I wonder if that comes from you being a multi-instrumentalist. Does your confidence in your ability to play a variety of instruments affect the way you write music?

The technique is never the point. It’s more that I don’t want to shy away from it. There was a long period where I tried to avoid engaging too much with technique because it can easily get very wanky and self-indulgent. What got me interested in it again was the fact that a lot of music I love is quite technical, you just don’t think of it that way. It’s okay to acknowledge the technique exists, you just don’t want to center it as if it’s so important. That doesn’t mean you have to dumb yourself down either. The example I keep coming back to is the song “The Inflated Tear” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which is such an incredibly moving, intense performance, but it is quite technical. So, for me, it was thinking of how I could possibly approach making something like that because a lot of my music is quite emotional. It’s me digging into the emotional side of myself and that part of making music. But how can I incorporate the technique in a way that’s effective and intuitive? It’s always meant to be intuitive.

Does that include lyrics as well? Part of me feels like You Belong There could have been an instrumental album.

It depends on the tune. They’re not unimportant to me. Something like “Shadow in the Frame,” half of the lyrics were there right at the beginning of writing it. I’m not the sort of person who’s going to write lyrics and then set music to it, I’ve never done that. It’s more like the lyric is always meant to reflect the whole feeling of the song and whatever’s going on in my mind. I tried to be a little more intentional with it on this record and tried to make them as honest and open as possible as opposed to obscure and arbitrary, which often happened in the past. Also, I feel like my voice is very important to my music. This is a funny thing to say: even if the lyrics are not the most clever thing you’ve ever heard, I still feel it’s important to have a manifestation of the song that is my voice. I am interested in making an instrumental record. I do want to try it. I’m working on a couple film scores right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen with them. I felt like You Belong There was the record I had to make first before I did anything like that.


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