Even though the music industry has changed drastically in the last decade or so, there’s still a certain career trajectory expectation: Make a great album, attract some label interest, tour in support of a big-name act, land a choice commercial spot/movie soundtrack/late show appearance, work up to headliner status, sell out a stadium, etc.
Josh Rouse was on his way. His debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, earned critical acclaim. He toured with Guster. His songs found their way into movies and TV shows. And then he up and moved to Spain. Six years later, it’s got to be a bit tedious that the expat move still defines him. But it was also a major game-changer.
“Who knows what happens if we decide to do something or not?” says Rouse. “It’s kind of like that David Lynch movie, Lost Highway, which took me so long to get.” It was actually Brad Jones, producer of Rouse’s new album, Happiness Waltz, who explained that the film is about the path in life that you don’t take.
Rouse may have chosen the path less traveled, but it’s impacted his sound in important ways, like the Spanish-language songs on 2010’s El Turista. That album sways and breathes with tropical rhythms and salt-tinged coastal breezes.
Just-released Happiness Waltz is also saturated in Mediterranean atmosphere, but what’s been catching critics’ attention is a return to the retro glimmer and soft focus of Rouse’s crowd-pleasing records Nashville and 1972. The likeness wasn’t exactly intentional. “I write a lot of songs, and have been for a while, so I kind of keep them in different places,” says Rouse. “I talked to Brad and he said, ‘Your most popular albums have pop songs with easy beats.’ I said, ‘I have some of those songs,’ and it kind of went from there.”
To the musician, though, the likenesses and differences between his albums, over the years, are pretty subtle. “I get a kick out of fans and reviews that say ‘He’s returned to form!’” says Rouse. “It’s not that different. I think if you put a pedal steel on any of those songs, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a return to form,’ because it’s making it a bit more American.”
The other influence in Happiness is Rouse’s day-to-day life. He lives in Valencia with his wife, Paz Suay (with whom he recorded the duet EP She's Spanish, I'm American in ’07), and their young children. He told American Songwriter that being a dad means, “There is no balance in my life now,” and he’s moved his studio out of his bedroom (the former site of his Bedroom Classics imprint; though he tells Xpress that he does still write songs there).
The family life lends itself to Rouse’s writing style, though. Building on the gently tumbling “Quiet Town” from Subtitulo, Happiness’ songs like “Simple Pleasures” and “It’s Good To Have You” capitalize on a sense of peace in the moment. There’s expansiveness in Rouse’s contentment. “The days turn to months and the months into years / my children have grown and I’m still standing here. / I still live each day like the very last one / I rise with the birds and I set with the sun,” he sings on “A Lot Like Magic.”
As for gaining expat perspective, Rouse says he’s been in his own bubble. “My wife keeps up with music more than I do,” he laughs. “Having children and being in Spain has changed my writing. Not hanging around all the time and being really social, touring in the states and getting connected.”
He says he suspects if he lived in the U.S., he’d think this band and that band were great; in his adopted home, “You’ve got to be something really special to even get mentioned.”
Rouse did play this year’s SXSW festival (with his group, The Long Vacations) — his first time back in eight years — and discovered Irish band Squarehead, which he describes as “Belle and Sebastian meets Nirvana. Really melodic, but really rockin’.” But Rouse also sounds completely OK with not being up on the next big thing.
“Everyone’s doing an ‘80s thing now,” he says. “Being in a bubble keeps me out of following that.”
Rouse has, instead, deepened his commitment to his own vision. He might party less after the shows, but he enjoys his concerts more. And, “You can’t put out a record every year, so you spend a lot of time performing the songs. [I] really think about what the songs mean to me, and if I can play them over and over.”
He says that older he gets and the longer people keep showing up at his concerts, the more he realizes exactly how good that experience is. “I’m 41 and I’ve made 10 records. I’m not new and I’m not old,” Rouse says. “But I know I love doing this and I’ll continue to do it.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Josh Rouse and The Long Vacations (with Eleni Mandell)
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Tuesday, April 23 (8 p.m., $18 advance/$20 day of show. http://thegreyeagle.com)