Claire Rousay On “Emo Ambient,” Auto-Tune, And Her Stunning New Album Sentiment

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Claire Rousay On “Emo Ambient,” Auto-Tune, And Her Stunning New Album Sentiment


The best way to consume Claire Rousay’s discography is to dive into the dozens of one-offs, collaborations, and subscriber exclusives on her Bandcamp. There, you’ll find a treasure trove of irreverent and deeply personal music, from the unsparing text-to-speech self-interrogation “I’m not a bad person but…” to the iPhone sound-effect improvisation “swipe” to a three-minute recording of leaf blowers. Rousay’s music is candid about life in the digital age, and her release strategy could not exist at any other time; Bandcamp gives the LA-via-Texas artist the freedom to release low-stakes experiments with as much or as little ornamentation as she wants. And if you’re worried her recent signing to the vaunted Chicago label Thrill Jockey will slow this diaristic torrent of music, you can be assured the floodgates are not closing anytime soon.

“Bettina [Richards, founder of Thrill Jockey] found me through the Bandcamp subscription,” says Rousay over the phone from a restaurant, where she’s waiting out a rainstorm. “She was like, we wanna make sure we can support you in the best way we can, but we wanna make sure that like you doing stuff with us doesn’t stop you from putting things out in the semi-streamlined but also chaotic way that Bandcamp allows.”

Rousay’s upcoming Thrill Jockey release Sentiment is one of three albums she supposedly had waiting in the tank, and she didn’t intend it as an auspicious debut for the label that signed avant-electronic pranksters like Oval, Tortoise, and Mouse On Mars in the ’90s. But it feels like her biggest album since 2021’s A Softer Focus, which arrived courtesy of another great Chicago label, American Dreams. The nine-track Sentiment features guest appearances from indie star Meg Duffy of Hand Habits and young Queens composer Theodore Cale Schafer, while Rousay’s best friend Mari Maurice a.k.a. More Eaze — with whom she’s made four albums, with a fifth slated for release later this year — performs violin and electronics.

It’s also one of the most confident integrations thus far of the two main obsessions in her recent sound: sticky-sweet emo-pop and R&B and diaristic field recordings of everyday life. Rousay has adopted the term “emo ambient” as a sort of motto, which is reductive but not totally inaccurate for someone who once interrupted a drumless eight-minute miasma to shout out Blackbear through Auto-Tune. Sentiment is Rousay’s emo record, or maybe it’s her pop record, but it’s also a hell of an ambient album.

I spoke with Rousay about the project and about her extensive and impressive body of work. Below, hear new Sentiment single “It Could Be Anything” and read our interview.

I love the pitch-shifted voice you use on “Smaller Pools” and “Peak Chroma,” and it shows up a few times on the new record. Where does that voice come from?

CLAIRE ROUSAY: A lot of the artists I like found the way that their voice works best early on and refined that throughout their career. Elliott Smith would be a good example: double-tracked vocals, pans, kind of quiet with the lows and the mids a little bit scooped out. I guess like what I was doing with all the vocal effects. I was feeling like this works for me. There’s a very specific chain that I’m using in Ableton that I just apply to every track that I do vocals on and then adjust accordingly with compression and fuzz and then Auto-Tune. It just seemed to work out when I did the track with Mari [Maurice], the “Smaller Pools” track. Ever since then, I’ve recorded the initial versions for stuff using that [voice] and then going off of that as the base rather than tracking a dry vocal and adding things onto it from there.

I really like the way it contrasts with Mari’s voice. Tell me a little bit about your relationship, how you met and how you realized you had this strong musical connection.

ROUSAY: I started playing with Mari actually 10 years ago. So this is our decade collaborative anniversary. It’s really cute. We have a new record that’s finished that’s gonna probably come out by the end of the year. I originally auditioned, or whatever the closest version of that is in the DIY world, to be in Mari’s band as a drummer. We were collaborating in a way where I was a drummer, percussionist, whatever, auxiliary person. We played the Goldrush Festival in Colorado. I met Lawrence English and Tara Jane O’Neil and all these people — I don’t even know how old I was. I was like a teenager. And now I’m friends with them, and at that festival I was just a fan being lucky enough to be in the opening act for some of these people. My relationship with Mari and our collaborations all stemmed from her teaching me how to get into this world, so I’m really grateful.

Do you see a dissonance between how you’re written about and what you’re actually trying to do with your work?

ROUSAY: There’s always like one thing in the PR blurb or in the press kit that people latch onto, then everybody else kind of just copies and pastes — not necessarily from the press kit, but at one point it was Pitchfork, and if they’re like oh yeah, it’s “mundane,” “intimate” something, then everybody else is doing that. If it’s in the press kit, it’s more or less true. At some point I must have signed off on it. But I don’t think anything that people write is gonna be 100% true just because my perception of what I do changes all the time too. It’s always gonna change, but there’s gonna be the thing that people latch onto — the percussion aspect or the intimacy or the mundane recordings. And now it’s gonna probably be like hyper-processed voice. You can’t really predict it, but then when it comes out it’s so obvious and you’re like oh, I shoulda said that in the interview because now this is the thing that people say.

Is turning “emo ambient” into a slogan a way to take back the narrative around your music?

ROUSAY: Yeah. I was actually talking to somebody earlier today about that. The best thing you can do is self-describe or self-identify. So that’s the umbrella that I operate underneath — as long as people are using that term and they’re never going to be completely incorrect. I think that’s a good way to go about it. Even with record labels, going back to Elephant 6 and like Saddle Creek, if you just say that, people know a little bit what you’re about. Mari and I tried to start a label called New Computer Girls, and it didn’t go very well because neither of us are very good with money or organization, but we were gonna be like “New Computer Girls is our thing that we’re doing, and then we can just categorize everything we’re doing under that.” It comes and goes, but self-describing is always best.

Why did you decide to have someone else’s voice [Theodore Cale Schafer’s] be the first voice you hear on the record instead of your own?

ROUSAY: I was doing a commission piece where I wanted to get like 20 or 30 people to record that exact piece of text. So I wrote the piece of text and then I sent it out to a bunch of friends and collected recordings, and his was just the one that sounded the best. I sent it out to a ton of people. My friend Andrew Weathers recorded it, Theodore recorded it, Cassandra Jenkins recorded it. Out of all of those people, I think only Theo and Cassandra were the ones that recorded it into a microphone. Everybody else did it on their iPhones. I didn’t wanna use Cassandra’s voice. I’m not saying her voice is not unique, but the way it sounded just was so perfect, I guess. And because the way [Schafer] talks in real life is kind of deadpan anyways, I think that really lent itself well to the track. Also the male unaffected voice versus like the trans female affected vocals on the rest of the record is a fun way to play with voice and perception and all that. It’s like when you watch an HBO show and they do the recap at the beginning.

In that piece of text you mentioned losing what you thought was your God, which is interesting to me because you grew up in the church and played Christian bands for a while. Tell me about that process.

ROUSAY: I don’t think there was any moment where I was like, oh, this is all fake. My distancing and deprogramming — those are words I would probably use to describe it — but like my detransition from Christianity, it was pretty gradual. I had multiple friends going through it at the same time, and we were all in a similar age range, and for various reasons each of us had our own moment where it clicked. I was really in it. I believed it. I was preaching, and I was trying to get my friends who weren’t in the church involved in the church. And one day I was just like, oh, this is all circular logic. And the only thing to prove this is itself, and then you start facing things backwards and then it’s like, oh, it’s just the same thing over and over.

I went to a David Bazan show, which sounds kind of lame, but I was like okay, if this dude can hang in there, I can probably hang in there and not completely lose my shit. There wasn’t like a huge moment where I was like, oh, God’s not real. But there definitely was like a huge moment where I was in therapy and they were talking about higher powers and things like that. I was like, oh, I don’t really have that anymore. And then I was like, is that something that I need?

You’re about to tour in support of Sentiment — what can fans expect?

ROUSAY: At most of the show there are collaborative musicians or people that will interact with the music throughout the show. So I’ll be singing the songs by myself primarily, but I have friends who are pretty good at improvising, so we’ll do improvised sections between the songs. In Chicago I have Macie Stewart and Alex Cunningham, who’s gonna be in town from St. Louis. In Portland and Seattle I got my friend Randall, who plays under Amulets, to be in the band playing guitar. My friend Lina Tullgren is gonna be doing a bunch of stuff on violin for the West Coast dates, and then Mari’s gonna be playing pedal steel for the show in New York.

All the headline shows are gonna be using this stage set where I’m basically just rebuilding the bedroom that’s on the album cover and setting it up on stage every night. I’m bringing a bed, I’m bringing walls, I’m bringing a lamp, and I’m traveling by myself and the only way to do it without losing money is to do it by myself and then hire people each night to play with me. I travel really heavy, and the workload is very extreme. I’ve explained to a lot of people who aren’t in this world, but tour isn’t necessarily fun at this level. I’m like, “You see all this stuff? I have to carry it and then set it up and do all this stuff for myself.” And they’re like, “Oh wow, that sounds horrible.” I’m like, “It is horrible — but the payoff is the only thing that matters.”

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