Josh Rouse on existential angst and break dancing

MADE TO MOVE: The questions on Josh Rouse's The Embers of Time cut deeper than pop-savvy musings on love found and lost. But the singer-songwriter's trademark sense of groove prevails. Photo by York Wilson

Singer-songwriter and long-term expat Josh Rouse is known for many things: hats, consistently solid albums, songs culled from his own life that adeptly score the most cinematic moments of his listeners’ lives. There’s the sweetly sexy “It’s the Night Time” from Nashville (2005), the disco-esque “Love Vibration” from 1972 (2003); the dreamy/dancey “Quiet Town” from Subtitulo — recorded just after moving to Spain, his home now for a decade.

Rouse’s newest album, The Embers of Time (the tour for which brings him to New Mountain on Friday, June 19), contains plenty of contenders to add to that hits list. Lead track “Some Days I’m Golden All Night” captures both tropical breeze and pragmatic angst. The Neil Young-flavored “New Young” aches with harmonica and thoughts of trading ambition for a slower pace of life. “Crystal Falls” shares DNA with “Quiet Town,” though it shakes off the drowsy lilt in favor of a caffeinated charge down memory lane.

There’s a certain amount of autobiography woven into Rouse’s work. “I’ve always put a lot of myself into songs,” he says. “If you’re not sacrificing something, it’s kind of glib.” Not that the musician eschews songs that are purely entertaining but, “For me doing this, making that connection — even if I never meet these people — putting it out there and having people respond to it and get something out of it is powerful,” he says.

Early press releases for The Embers of Time stated, “Josh Rouse turns existential crisis into career milestone.” It’s a claim both sensational and squirmy. Fittingly, the album is full of thoughtful observations. “Early 40s, how ya doing, what’s the deal? / How’m I s’posed to look, how’m I s’posed to feel?” Rouse sings on “Time.” And on the delicate “Pheasant Feather,” he asks, “Am I hunter or a fox?” These questions cut deeper than pop-savvy musings on love found and lost. Even if they’re drawn on fictional storylines, the nervy truth of Embers‘ tracks surfaces.

“I could have not said anything,” Rouse says of that wincingly personal angle. “Where I’m at, here’s another record, these are great songs, but how are we going to market it?” But there is more to the existential crisis theme than mere merchandising: “Some of songs are about that — living in a different country for a long time and feeling isolated, going through your early 40s and [thinking] how am I supposed to deal with aging?” Rouse jokes that it’s best to leave something to the imagination.

One element of The Embers of Time — and all of Rouse’s catalog — that is decidedly not fictional is the deep groove. “Worried Blues” shimmies and struts with contagious rhythm, its easy melody reminiscent of a J.J. Cale composition. “The Ocean,” from 2013’s The Happiness Waltz, is a slow dance with a thick sway; “Movin’ On,” from Josh Rouse and The Long Vacations (2011) pulses with a reggae beat. A recent guest on the Sodajerker podcast, Rouse talked about how important groove is to songwriting and how few songwriters ever discuss it.

“Everyone has their own sense of rhythm,” he tells Xpress. “The older I get, the music that I love the most is the music that was informed by rock ’n’ roll. Early rock ’n’ roll really swings because it’s coming right from jazz.” That’s innate in Rouse’s albums. Other sonic and style elements, gleaned from his years in Spain to his time spent traveling around the U.S. and living in various locales — Arizona, Georgia, South Dakota and Nashville, which he still considers his base when touring this country — are felt as well.

Perhaps not as obvious: “I grew up dancing. I was a break dancer when I was a kid,” Rouse says. “I did Michael Jackson routines. Everything.”

Next step: Add that into the live show. Just a thought.

WHO: Josh Rouse with Walter Martin
WHERE: New Mountain, newmountainavl.com
WHEN: Friday, June 19, 9 p.m. $18 advance/$20 day of show

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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