The Ax Still Ringing:
The Rosebuds Tell the Truth About “the Fragile Me and You”
Having never found a woman fool enough to marry me, I cannot truly fully comprehend the difficulties connubial couples encounter and confront and deal with and hopefully overcome in their journey ’til death do they part. I mean, I’ve had numerous relationships fall apart for various reasons, and of course that never gets any less rough. You always want things to work out, right? Seems like it gets rarer all the time. So I’m always dismayed when married friends of mine announce that they’re breaking up, especially if they seemed so right for each other. It just sucks! “Not another one,” you know what I mean?
I think the Rosebuds are one of the best bands of our time. Their songs are so poetic, tender and boldly evocative, carried along with such striking music and melodies and voices. They really move and inspire me deeply, like few other musicians today. They put a tremendous amount of work – a tremendous amount of themselves – into their songs, and it shows. I also adore Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard, the band’s founders and constants, purely as people. So I’ll admit, I was shocked and saddened to hear that they were divorcing. What the hell? Why? What happened?
“I don’t really know,” answers Ivan when I rather tactlessly ask him about it. “I don’t think I wanna actually talk about that, because I’m still thinking about it. Trying to figure that out.”
“You kind of never know what’s going on with people,” suggests Kelly. “In some ways, I will say that there’s really nothing to say, because breakups are all the same, except that… I still feel like our marriage was a success, and I know that’s a weird thing to say. So I feel like if we presented to you or anyone that we were happy – ’cause we really were, and we still are, it’s just…” She sighs, gathers her thoughts. “We were really lucky that we had to write this record, because it made us sort through everything, and figure each other and figure ourselves out, so we could just be this family that we are. I mean, we’ve become this family over these years. We were eighteen when we met, sort of becoming best friends and going to see rock shows together. So I really feel like I can’t imagine not having Ivan as my family. So, we’re really lucky, for us, as a band, that we had to record this record, because it forced us to say to each other what we needed to say.”
The record she refers to is Loud Planes Fly Low, the fifth Rosebuds album, out now on Merge. Its songs delve fearlessly and openly into the midst of their personal situation, becoming in places like a much-needed honest conversation between the two of them. Which it kind of literally is. “When I go back and read [the lyrics], it definitely is,” Ivan agrees. “It’s just, I think, the things…that were really hard to say in person, or if we did say ’em we didn’t listen to each other. And now…yeah.” There’s no bitterness on Loud Planes Fly Low, no finger pointing. No maudlin self-pity. Just a wash of incredibly beautiful, reflective, sad, lonely and yet hopeful songs that haunt like the thought of a lover’s fond touch from long ago, like a heartbeat drives you mad, in the stillness of remembering what you had, and what you lost.
After finishing Life Like, the Rosebuds’ fourth album, in 2008, Kelly had separated from Ivan and moved to Greenpoint in New York City. Her intent was to focus on stand-up comedy for a while. It’s something she’d dabbled in since before the Rosebuds even started. “That’s kind of how Ivan knew I would be okay to be in the band, because he knew that I wouldn’t be afraid of being onstage,” she recalls. But once in New York, she discovered that it wasn’t feeling right. “I couldn’t be on stage as comfortably as I wanted to anymore. I felt like I was hiding something, because nobody knew that we were separated. And that was also the worst winter I’d ever experienced in my life. I was completely alone. But I just started writing every day. . It was like the biggest discovery of my life, remembering that I used to write. I have an English degree, and a Master’s degree in English Literature, but sort of the week I graduated from that we started the Rosebuds, and that just became my new life. So, man, I just spent the whole winter writing, like nine hours a day, ten hours a day sometimes.
“I had to process what I was doing with my life,” she continues, “and that was just how it manifested itself. I thought going to New York was going to be a chance for me to start something completely different, and do something I kind of always thought would be fun. But once I got there, I was leveled with this need to just go deeper inside where I already was. And that I didn’t expect, and the only way I knew to deal with it was just to write down all of my thoughts. And some of them were circular, and some of them, I just have to…I look back and I realize now, man…peeling back the layers was just so intense, for me, at that time. So reading it is exhausting, those journals. If I read them now, I just am like, holy hell!”
But when she returned to Raleigh, where she’s living again, she found that “from all of that deep thinking. It gave me a way to enter the lyrics writing for this record, a perspective to use. It gave me some kind of a vocabulary.”
“I think that set a lot of the atmosphere, ’cause in our practice room, she’d tape up all these lyrics and poems and short stories on the walls. So we’d kind of look at that, and realize what she was going through. It was inspiring to read it,” says Ivan. “People don’t know that Kelly’s an amazing writer. She has just volumes of stuff. I always try and get her to just print something up. I mean, she’s responsible for a lot of the words on these records. She has a very magical way of writing.”
They both insist that in the midst of their personal split, they never considered shelving the Rosebuds. Instead, says Kelly, “It’s kind of like…couples who have kids together, and they break up and have to raise those kids together. It was never a question to us as to what to do with the band.” Besides, says Ivan, “I knew that this record had to be made. Even when we were breaking up, we were still writing songs, and I just knew that we hadn’t made our best record yet. I was like, I know it’s gonna be the hardest thing in the world, but I’m not gonna think negatively like this.”
But I get the impression that neither of them realized how deeply and directly they’d speak about themselves, about each other, to each other, during the making of the album.
“We didn’t really have much for this album, going into it, in the way of some concrete demos,” acknowledges Kelly. “The minute we had a breakthrough in songwriting, finally, for a vibe for the record – not even a whole song, or a demo, but just an emotional direction – came when we were sitting together in a room, and both of us were playing guitar, and just kind of messing around a little bit, and in a very simple way, we just fell into the melody for the song ‘A Story.’ And that became the first real thing that we established for the record.”
I want to know how you feel
I want to tell you how I feel
I want to know how it feels, do you?
“It was difficult, because we were emotionally having this experience together,” admits Kelly. “And this was kind of the only language that we could understand how to communicate in at this level, and I think a lot of people never get that chance. Because you work and do different things with your day, and it doesn’t ever seem like you have a really great opportunity to get into it at that level with another person. And we did some serious crying when the lyrics were being written – and when the notes were being written, because they all communicate the same vibe. I think this record, lyrically, is more successful than other records, probably, because we weren’t so concerned with metaphor and all that – we just got seriously honest. And that, we were terrified of, in the beginning. But once we broke through to being able to do it, it was so much easier.”
“I didn’t even realize what was going on lyrically ’til I actually let a friend hear the record,” claims Ivan. “‘Cause I thought it was all hidden and all veiled and stuff, but she was like, ‘Uh, I don’t think so.’ Ha ha ha! Then I read ’em over, and I was like, ‘Whoa – you’re right.’ I just think it was so subconscious, and we were so into it, and it was such a hard thing to do… A lot of those lyrics, me and Kelly sat in a room and wrote together. And when you’ve got the person across the room saying to you stuff that’s that heavy, you know, I don’t think you kind of register that so you can cope with what’s going on, maybe. That might have been my coping mechanism. And I was so deep into the melodies and stuff, I just wanted to make sure whatever was said sounded good. But I knew it. I mean, there were definitely moments, like when Kelly came up with the ‘loud planes fly low’ line, that was magical to me.”
I ask Ivan what the line from “Cover Ears,” which became the album’s title, means to him.
“Well, it means a lot of things. We both grew up in North Carolina, and I grew up in a trailer in a tobacco farm where there used to be these giant, jumbo cargo planes from Ft. Bragg that would come and basically fly over the pinetop trees. You’d think you could jump up there and hit ’em, and they would just shake the whole house. You couldn’t hear for minutes while that was going by. So that image struck me really hard, but it means like when you have this really heavy thing to say to somebody, but you don’t really want ’em to hear it, so hopefully one of those planes will fly by while you’re saying this and they can’t hear it. But you get it off your chest.”
Musically, the album sounds to me more expansive and ambitious than what’s preceded it, with strings and organ and subtle guitar parts. Vocally, Kelly shines on the utterly stunning “Come Visit Me,” which could be the greatest Fleetwood Mac song by any band not called Fleetwood Mac. And Ivan brings something approaching a ’70s soul vibe on tracks like “Woods.”
“Yeah, I wanted to try something new on that one. I wanted it to be like a Bobby Womack thing or something. Or Teddy Pendergrass. Where it actually is emotional, you can feel it when you sing it….We did World Café one time, and Teddy Pendergrass was in the studio, and I almost freaked out! And I just couldn’t explain to everybody what the hell was going on. I spent a lot of time with those records. I mean, when you first get a record player, and you don’t have any money, what you do is you go straight to a thrift store or something, and I had tons of records where I would just find the songs that I liked and play them over and over and over again. But the fact that it comes out on this record, I have no idea how or why. It just kinda did.”
And I play records people throw away
To find the meaning or the words to say
I don’t know how I ever ignored this
Yeah, it’s pretty much a masterpiece, this record. A pop album, a soul album, a love album and perhaps THE breakup album of the decade. And I haven’t even mentioned some of its best tracks, like “Limitless Arms” or “Go Ahead,” or “Worthwhile,” which closes the door with these words: “All I want is to make this all worthwhile. And I know you, and it all went by too soon.”
“I hope I can perform them live,” says Ivan. “I’m worried about certain songs. It’ll all depend on the night, and the room, and what’s going on. Yeah, some of them are really hard for me.”