"I'm a mediocre songwriter, but I'm a good record maker," says Josh Rouse. The first part of that statement is arguable Rouse's 2003 album 1972 is a lush folky/groovy/disco-y meditation on that year; Subtitulo from 2006 examines his transition from the U.S. to his present home in Spain, in pretty melodies and infectious beats.
"It's just the work you put into it," Rouse says. "I'm good at putting the songs together and production and making it an album. I wish I had a bit more luck in the singles area, but I've always kind of dug album tracks, the deeper cuts. If I get an idea for a record and I work on it for awhile, it usually turns out pretty well."
His latest release, El Turista (Yep Roc), is a departure from the poppy rhythms of She's Spanish, I'm American (a 2007 EP recorded with then-girlfriend, now-wife Paz Suay) and the spacious, jangly compositions of 2008's Bedroom Classics, Vol. 3. It's a departure, partly because El Turista is the first album on which Rouse sings in Spanish.
It's been six years since Rouse left the U.S. for Valencia, but it wasn't Spain, per se, that inspired the language choice. "I did a couple covers of Bola de Nieve — he was kind of like the Louis Armstrong of Cuba. I really liked the way that he sang," says Rouse. Inspired, "I wrote some of my own songs. Part it was that I needed to do something new for myself."
The other departure is that, instead of the folk-and-pop base that has typified Rouse's sound, the album borrows inspiration from bossa nova — especially its bass and percussion. Bossa nova, it's worth noting, comes from South America, and its Brazilian performers sing in Portuguese.
"I'm a big fan of Brazilian music," says Rouse. "It's kind of a no-no, actually, to sing in Spanish over Brazilian songs, but I figured because I'm American I can get away with it. I'm not Portuguese and I'm not Spanish, so maybe they'll give me a get-out-of-jail-free card. And it kind of worked."
On the bio notes for the album Rouse adds, "I know it's kind of funny, this Midwestern guy doing Brazilian songs in Spanish. I don't know if it fits, but I like the way it feels." Furthering the world-travel feel, the accompanying book looks like a passport, complete with the stamps and Rouse's regulation photo.
As strange and experimental as the album might sound, the end result is a congruent, fluid, easily digestible collection that sweeps from start to finish through cinematic landscapes of sea and sky, shoreline and sultry city streets. (Likely Rouse's neighborhood in Valencia impacts his writing. He describes the area as a coastal town with a lot of palm trees and a lot of older people in the neighborhood.) The Brazilian influence lends polish, an effortless suavity that seems to come naturally to Rouse, the musician, if not Rouse, the guy. After recording El Turista, he says, "I listened to the record and it turned out really well and I thought, 'How did I do that?'"
How he did it was, in fact, almost an accident. Bored with writing pop songs, Rouse decided to take some time off. "I really didn't have a plan for the record. … I got together with the producer Brad Jones and said, 'Let's do something that has less pop structure and is almost like a soundtrack.' That's kind of how we started," he remembers. "I kept saying, 'I'm not making a record.' That's code word for, 'I'm really making a record.'"
One track, "Lemon Tree," appeared earlier on Bedroom Classics. Another, "Cotton Eye Joe," is Rouse's Latin-flavored remake of an American folk tune, inspired by a version recorded by soul singer/songwriter Terry Collier. And then there are the originals, like the breezy "Valencia," easily reminiscent of João Gilberto.
"The world is flooded with male folk pop singer/songwriters," Rouse says. "There weren't so many when I started out, but now it's a popular genre. I wanted to do something different."
Living in Spain has given him the freedom to do just that. "The states can be very competitive sometimes," the musician says. "I might feel like, 'I've got to put another record out. Josh Ritter just put a record out.' But here I'm kind of disconnected from that, which is nice. For awhile when I first started, I always had the next record done. The songs were written and I was just waiting on the record company. But now … I'm not quite as ambitious as I used to be."
El Turista — the name both a comment on Rouse's outsider status ("Living in a city where you weren't raised, you're always missing a few things from where you come from.") and his life as a touring musician — benefits from that decompression. It's unhurried, textured, thoughtful and expansive as a nine-to-fiver released from the office to a white-sand beach with nothing to manage but a tall, icy drink. "Even since I've lived here, the records I've made here have a different feel," says Rouse. "There's just not as much of an agenda."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Josh Rouse
what: Singer/songwriter with Spanish band and Brazilian rhythms
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, May 22 (8 p.m., $14 advance/$16 doors. theorangepeel.net.)