Interview by Danny Martin
I first discovered Bay Area singer/songwriter Lia Rose in 2005, at a small venue in San Francisco opening for Jill Sobule. I remember thinking this was an artist that was going to go somewhere, with her smooth, invitingly warm voice, and great sense of melody in her original songs. One song, "Hypnotist," particularly gripped me with its evocative lyrics and well... hypnotic feel. Later that year, and following a brief stint with popular indie-pop electronic band Minipop (Take Root Records), Lia formed her own 4-piece indie rock band, Built for the Sea, which featured the song on their debut album. In 2014, after a 5-year split, Rose reunited with band bassist/electronic-wizard Daniel McKenzie, and the second incarnation of Built for the Sea was born, as an ambient, electronic duo. Not long after, they were signed with Firebrand Records, the label created by Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Nightwatchman) and Ryan Harvey (Riot-Folk Collective), and home of what Rolling Stone magazine called "rebel music," per its politically-oriented, socially-conscious artists. It was at this point that Rose's longtime activism, since her college days protesting the Iraq War, was revealed to a larger audience. After having shared the stage with the likes of Morello, Joan Baez and Ziggy Marley, and having performed for causes such as PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), Doctors Without Borders, and Rock Against TPP, protest-rocker Rose had much to tell when I caught up with her last month. She shared her thoughts on a variety of topics: Bernie Sanders, Bon Iver, the myth of band "evolution," and the role music can play in changing the world.
PSF: One of the songs from your forthcoming EP with BFTS, "The Falling Kind", was recently featured on a TV show, The Fosters. Can you describe a little bit what the song is about, and some of the other lyrical themes on the new album?
LR: That song in particular is about how we're being shoved in all directions right now. I mean, the elections from last year felt like the season finale of America...
PSF: Mm, yes, a lot of people feel that way.
LR: It's just unbelievable -- the amount of gas-lighting of the American public. I think a lot of people knew that there was corruption, but the extent of just how corrupt everything is has now been more widely exposed. People who have really wanted to just keep their head down and not pay attention to the corruption, all of a sudden, they have to pay attention. And there's this rising up, this mass awakening. So, yeah, with that song, there's a lot going on. On a personal level, but also on a political level. The main lyric is "You push me, you push me, but I am not the falling kind." First thing is, I should explain that I've been a yuge Bernie Sanders supporter - like to a near limitless degree... and, what I kept seeing in the primaries - and feeling the effects of personally - were the dirty tactics used by the DNC to rig the primary election against Bernie. BUT, what I also kept seeing time and time again was that no matter how hard the DNC tried to squelch us - no matter how much gas-lighting and trickery they used against our movement - we would not back down. The harder they pushed, the stronger we got and the more we rose up. The slogan that got a lot of visibility and really nailed it, in my opinion, was: "they tried to bury us, but they didn't realize we were seeds."
(Lia and I have an exchange at this point about corporate media, and we agree about it being a huge problem that needs to be addressed. She suggests progress has been made since a lot of people are not getting their news anymore from mainstream media, and thus the establishment might be a little scared. She recommends Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent)
PSF: I was wondering about your songwriting and song creation process. Because you have on one end of the spectrum a Lennon/McCartney style where one of them would bring their own song to the other and the rest of the group would learn it... is your collaboration with Daniel more like a true collaboration, or do you still write individually and kind of bring songs to each other?
LR: What it's becoming is that Daniel and I are writing together now for the most part, and finalizing everything together. Most often what happens is we'll just get together and start talking. Usually our sessions start with just a download of what's going on in life, and how everyone is doing... almost a therapy session... it's just great. And then it turns into creating together, and you know, we both have very clear, sort of guides in each of our heads. Like if we're going down a certain path, he'll sometimes get this very strong clear vision for where it should go, or like "oh it can't go that way." And the same thing for me. And luckily, we respect each other enough to just let that dictate where we go and where we don't. There's not a lot of ego involved. Sometimes, he'll say "I can't do that one lyric" and I'll be like "you know what, that's ok - let's brainstorm other stuff." Or we'll be working on something and I'll go "I just can't handle that one beat... let's find something else," and he'll be like, "alright, let's look." And it's because we respect each other so much that it is never a big deal. I've tried collaborating with people where you don't have that level of trust/mutual respect. It just doesn't work. So luckily Daniel and I have this beautiful foundation.
PSF: That's a rare thing, not having ego involved. Everyone knows about musicians' egos. I'm glad you have that. So, I see a kind of trend in bands nowadays. You started out with sort of atmospheric, guitar-based indie rock many years ago, and you know, your last couple albums have been more kind of ambient, electronic sounds. And I see that kind of evolution a lot; an obvious example would be Coldplay. You know, their first couple of albums were kind of classic rock-ish, and now they're basically EDM. Which is maybe one of the more extreme examples, and that's not how I view you guys. So I guess my follow up question to that was, was this more driven by Daniel's electronic experimentation or was this more of a natural evolution with your own taste as well?
LR: Well, there is a lot to that... What I'll say is - that's where Daniel and I both got really excited to come back together and create again. It just happened to be more electronic this time. And we also love adding organic elements. In a lot of the tracks, you might not notice it - live drums, live guitar, live bass sometimes. We do include a lot of those elements in there because we both love that as well. And then the other thing I was going to say about this is that I cannot for the life of me be pinned down to one project. A lot of people ask "why don't you tour more?" and there's a lot of reasons for that, but one of them is I can't just do one kind of music. So while, yes, I have this project that is electronic and maybe you could say "oh it looks like you've really evolved from being guitar-driven indie rock to electronic." Yes, but at the same time... it also feels like that project just happened to end up progressing that way and could have gone in many directions. I have another project that is completely folk acoustic (The Brushfoot Migration). So I don't really see it as a progression as much as another experimentation, and another sort of branch. This is just the one that happened to become a project to the point that we record and release it, you know.
PSF: So when you perform live, how do you modify the music to suit the new lineup? I'm always fascinated by the way these new electronic bands- they'll do their thing in the studio and then they perform live, and sometimes there'll be a DJ, and sometimes there's a band. So how does your music manifest itself live? Is it very different from the recorded versions?
LR: Right, we're a duo and we have our friend Jake who plays drums and some bass/keys, and joins us for the live stuff and actually has been recording with us a bit too. What we've been doing in rehearsals is this: we'll play the songs live as a 3-piece (and actually we're just starting to be a 4 piece) -- we will strip each song down to the basics and actually turn off any tracks from the laptop, and make sure we can play through everything and that it works even without the tracks. Then, we'll add those back in. For shows, we pretty much always have live drums, live bass, live guitar, live keys, and everybody just sort of switches off instruments to some degree.
PSF: I want to ask you about one of your early songs that you still perform live, "Hypnotist." I still don't know exactly what it's about, but I was kind of floored by the line where you said "Tell me your stories of Anne Frank." That's a very evocative line, to me.
LR: Yeah, I'm happy to tell you. So do you know, Jeff Mangum, from Neutral Milk Hotel? Well Neutral Milk Hotel had an album come out -- I think it was in the early 2000's. It was so good. There have only been a few albums that have fundamentally changed me. That's one of them... like completely. And basically, I think he's a genius. I remember learning that he had these dreams about Anne Frank, and he was just kind of haunted by her and by that era, and he basically wrote this entire album from these dreams. It's called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and I highly recommend just listening to that album on repeat. It was after about 3 listen-throughs for me -- that album entered into my being. Right, so then my song "Hypnotist" - well, I was just starting to write songs and I was quite inspired by his album and so in a way, some of that song was written to him. And some of it to my brand new niece who had just been born.
You know a lot of people try to write songs but Jeff Mangum, I think he could not have stopped those songs, that album, that train from coming through, and I think that's part of the magic of songwriting. When it happens like that. And that's not to say that there aren't other ways. Some people truly work at their craft every day. And I also have been touched by those people and I bet many of my favorite songs were written that way too. So there's no one way to do it. I just feel so compelled and extra connected to those artists where it seems to have very little to do with them and more to do with "I don't know where it came from - like, something just got unlocked and I'm letting it flow through."
PSF: And that was an excellent segue to my next question, the universal "what are your influences." Do you want to name any others?
LR: I don't know, I mean definitely when I was growing up I would listen to the Cranberries - on repeat - to go to sleep to, which is a little weird. Because it's not like... bedtime music. But for me it was, probably starting very young, early teens, I'm talking every night. Dolores infiltrated me with her songs, her voice, and the production. But also, I didn't realize until years later, that she infiltrated me with her politics which were so awesome. She actually progressed from being just this indie pop band to being expressly political by the time of her, I don't know, third or fourth album. That was awesome! I'm sure that impacted me, even though I didn't really know it at the time. I actually did not think of myself as a political person until college. Also, well, I definitely love Radiohead. There was one song that just haunted me... "Street Spirit" but yeah, I'm just floored by Radiohead.
Oh! Here's an interesting thing that happened once on a kind of cellular level. What happened was, one of my friends was so excited about a new artist - she sent me a link. It was Bon Iver, and I was like "yeah this is nice" and it really was nice but it didn't grab me. I didn't quite get why she was freaking out about how good it was. Other friends were falling over him, like "can you believe this video?" and "you have to see this!" And I would watch / listen and be like "yeah that's very nice," but I wasn't getting it in the way that they were. So, fast forward to when his self-titled album came out. That was my gateway album for him I guess. Because I listened to it and started to go "oh now I see what they saw." And now I can go back and listen to all his stuff, and I'm like "holy shit, this guy is so good." It all makes sense now and I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to where my friends were. For some reason, that's an album that changed me at a cellular level. I couldn't get enough. Usually if I listen to an album too much, I end up ruining it and can't listen anymore. But not that one. I still love listening to that album.
PSF: Tell me a little bit more about what Firebrand Records does.
LR: Yes. So much. So much. But some of my favorite things so far -- Tom Morello puts on these shows called Firebrand Fridays. And we raise money for organizations like Doctors Without Borders, P.A.T.H. (People Assisting The Homeless), Refugee 4 Refugees - they provide humanitarian assistance to refugees arriving in Greece by boat.
And last year, Firebrand Records teamed up with Fight for the Future to do this amazing Rock Against The TPP tour - to stop the disastrous trade deal that was aimed at giving corporations even more power, all at the expense of workers and the environment. I could not have been happier joining that tour for some shows -- it was incredible and powerful and I think it had quite a huge impact in the end.
Lastly, I have to tell you about one show Tom put on - because, well, you'll appreciate the Jill Sobule connection. So, the show was a tribute to Joe Hill - he was a union organizer from the early 1900's who wrote all these inspirational, union organizing songs, and made quite a big impact. It was a powerful show with so many incredible performers. Hard to believe that I got to be on that stage too. And, yeah, so one of the performers there was Jill Sobule! I got talk to her again. And she didn't remember me, I don't think, but I told her we had played a show together in SF. And she was like, "oh that's great." Ha! Anyways, she's just amazing and she's so down with the cause. She's all about trying to make the world better, and that's what Firebrand Records is all about and that's really why I'm excited about the label. What Tom Morello and Ryan Harvey are trying to do is to have a record label for artists that are expressly working towards making the world better, more egalitarian. The message is, "we know that music alone does not change the world, but it is an integral part to the movements that do."
PSF: So, yeah, Firebrand Records... I love the model, it's not-for-profit, and you know your main objective is social change, but do you feel the Firebrand Record label could really propel your career?
LR: Yeah, I do, although that's not my main goal. If my "career" super launches and that becomes what I do, I will go with it as long as it is all tied to social justice. And now it is. In the past, I don't know - it's always been a tricky thing. I quit music before, partly because I was like "I don't want to promote anymore, that feels wrong." I want to play music for people that want to hear it and I want to be supporting good causes. I'm not stuck on making a career of it.
PSF: I know where you're coming from. Yeah, one of the hardest things about being an artist is that you have to be very brazen and sort of unashamed about self-promotion, and if you're not aggressive about it, it's kind of like you get left by the wayside.
LR: Yeah, exactly, and I do not like that at all. But I love what I do now, which is I play shows that I care about, that are meaningful and that are for a good cause. That's what I believe in. My thing is, 'hey, let's all get together, and play some songs, and raise some money for a really awesome organization that needs it.' You know, I have a really hard time with things that are just about making money or helping a venue sell alcohol. So I just decline.
PSF: So, that's kind of a good segue. How are you spending your time these days? First off, do you have a day job?
LR: Yes, I do have a day job. I've always kept a day job. Right now, I'm actually helping my Mom build a store in Berkeley. It is a Fair Trade and American Artisan gift shop. She has had one in Long Beach since I was a teenager, and now I'm helping her build a new store in Berkeley. And it's really cool, because it helps me pay the bills and it's also something that I believe in. Versus (formerly) working at a tech company that didn't necessarily operate with the same values that I hold dear. It's like what we were talking about before -- creating the world that you want to live in. Her store has supported many artists and their families for a long time. It's an awesome thing -- so yeah, if you want to buy a gift for somebody and don't want to go to like, one of those box stores, go to this place and you'll be supporting actual craftspeople. My Mom's name is Fern, so it's called "Fern's Garden," on Solano Avenue (plug, plug).
PSF: That sounds wonderful. I would totally shop there if I were in the area.
LR: (laughs) Yeah, I think you would love it.
PSF: And how much time do you allocate for your solo stuff, as opposed to BFTS, and Brushfoot Migration? I've watched your solo stuff on YouTube, "California," "Myself for to Blame," "Snake in the Water." Great stuff. Can you speak a little bit about your solo career... then and now, and your brief Minipop tenure, etc.?
LR: My solo stuff, yeah -- I do play a lot of solo shows for Firebrand too because sometimes it's just easier than bringing the whole band or it is just for a couple of songs. And we've talked about having me possibly join Firebrand as a solo artist too. I don't really have a solid plan for when I'll put out my next solo album but I'm sure I will. I have 2 albums that are about to come out right now, well EP's. One is for BFTS and the other is for The Brushfoot Migration. The Brushfoot stuff, I'd say, overlaps with my solo style in a lot of ways. And I actually have been playing some of those songs by myself when I play out. And sometimes I'll play BFTS songs solo too. It tends to be whatever makes sense for the show. And there is one Brushfoot song coming out that's probably my favorite song to play right now, in these times. If I can play just one song for somebody, this is the one, and it's called "Of Good and Evil." If you get a chance go to the Brushfoot Migration FB page, there's a video and you can get an idea. But we're working on that EP and it's really fun. In general, it ends up being a matter of who's in town and having a solid stretch of time to work together. But I would say it's pretty equal, between my solo stuff, The Brushfoot Migration, and BFTS.
With Minipop, they were looking for a 2nd female singer/bass player, and I was like 'I can play bass.' Well, I could play guitar. I didn't play bass, but picked it up and started learning. And they basically took me on, and had already established connections, and one of our first shows that we played as a band was opening for Metric at the great American Music Hall. I just got thrown into the fire, definitely before I was ready. I was seriously standing on stage going 'I'm in over my head.' I mean, I had practiced, but I was especially new to singing and playing bass at the same time. It was fun though. Quite a learning curve. And this was at a time, this was back in the day where you'd actually burn a CD of your 4 or 5 song EP and go stand out in front of a really cool show that had similar music and just hand it out to people, and that's what we did back then. But yeah, at the same time, I was kind of doing some solo stuff but I didn't want to be a solo artist - I didn't want it to be all about me. What I really wanted was to be a part of a sustainable, awesome collaborative band.
And Minipop was great... it just turned out to be -- there were too many cooks in the kitchen. And so Built for the Sea started to form towards the end of my time with Minipop. And well, I'm on good terms with them now, but ultimately, they asked me to leave. (laughs)
PSF: Just like Dave Mustaine getting kicked out of Metallica, and then going on to form his own thing, Megadeth. (laughs)
LR: Yeah, just like that!
(Lia goes on to describe the first bit of hate mail she received, which turns out not to be politically related but for her choice of music style. After releasing her song and video "Snake in the Water," which had a twangy, Americana feel, a fan angrily wrote "what did you do to Lia? Give me back the old..." She laughs it off.)
PSF: Well, that's kind of a sign of true success. You're getting hate mail as well as fan mail. You know you made it.
LR: (laughs) Yeah, truly. I mean I got a lot of shit for going in that direction, but I didn't really care because I wasn't trying to be any one thing, nor could I be any one thing. Part of me wishes I could be just one thing -- because there are artists like Iron and Wine where I'll listen and I basically know what I'm going to be listening to when I put that on. It's all in a certain realm, and it's just so nice, and I don't know, my songs and my albums are so all over the place that I could imagine some people would be frustrated. Like a lot of these labels and managers, and booking agents, they need to be able to "brand" you really easily and put you in a box so they know how to market you. Folks have had a hard time packaging me. And I'm also okay with that. I obviously have some critiques of capitalism (wink).
PSF: Any other comments about activism, both in and out of Firebrand?
LR: Well, I'm quite involved with something called "We are the Media." We're trying to help amplify the voices of people who are speaking truth to power, and especially amplify the voices of people who have traditionally been silenced or not given as much of a voice. And I've been spending a lot of energy reminding folks that this county has a long history of doing inexcusable things. Things have gotten better in some ways, but not without a tremendous amount of fight. It has always been the people rising up that has made the difference and been a tipping point.
PSF: Exactly, so my last couple questions are kind of related to that, and more about the role that music will play. A lot of people associate "protest music" with kind of like folk guitars, and drum circles, etc., and I was wondering in your opinion do you feel like the electronic music that your band is doing and a lot of new groups are doing, can it come to reach people in the same universal scale, in terms of delivering that message?
LR: Yeah, I know what you mean. I don't know, I think, yes, to some degree. Not like it was in the '60's. I think we're at a point where activism is just needed at every level. I would just encourage any artist, whatever genre, to speak out/sing out about the injustices you see. Like Joe Purdy, he was not expressly political, but then went through this huge transformation, spent time in Ferguson, and really learned the reality of what was going on there, what it means to be black in America these days and what it means to have white privilege. He started to write these songs that were expressly political. And knowing that he would alienate what he said was "probably about half of his base," he went ahead and put out his album anyway. To me, that's just so awesome. That's what we need more of. Saying, 'you know what, this is who I am and this is what I have to do.' I think, it doesn't really matter what genre.
But like... Rage Against the Machine... when I listened to them growing up, I didn't know that it was political... which is kind of hilarious when I think about it now. I just loved the music! My brother too, he did not know how political they were until later. But ultimately their messages got through - certainly to me - and I think to tons of people, even if not right away. So I think, part of it is, just be who you are, and be real. If you filter the world through your art - songs, paintings, writings, etc., and no doubt you're experiencing a lot around the political climate right now, then let it come out, we need it more than ever right now. And I think and I hope that it is happening more, in every genre. Yeah, I think it is.
PSF: Can we have another '60's-style revolution? Personally, I'm a little skeptical, yet at the same time optimistic. Because what can you have without hope? Do you want to expand upon that?
LR: Yeah. I think that what was going on in the '60's, and I think why so many people are so in love with Joan Baez, for example, is because she took a stand. Straight up took a stand, and she's actually been rock steady the whole time about being a non-violent direct action soldier. She's willing to put her body on the line. She says, "I'm not willing to kill anybody." And she explains that a lot of people go off to war as soldiers, and they are willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believe in. She says "I am like that soldier except I won't kill anyone. But I am willing to die for a cause. I'm willing to put my body on the line in non-violent direct action." And she has taken a strong public stand and held steady with it. And I think a lot of artists don't know themselves well enough to do that maybe. They don't have a cause that they're that passionate about. But I would encourage artists, because you are in the public eye, to take a stand for what you believe in. I actually have a lot of respect for people who do that, even if they don't have the same values I have. If they're living in congruency with their own values and they're standing up for what they believe in, I have a lot more respect for you than if you have these very strong beliefs but you're wishy-washy about it and you're not really willing to do anything about it. That is not integrity, and we need integrity so badly right now.
That's what Bernie is, that's why so many people are drawn to him, because we never see integrity in the public sphere. Certainly not in the political sphere, ever. And you've got like 40 years of integrity with him, straight up, like "let me show you how to do it." And so now, we've got this new standard.
And I believe that the more artists, the more people in the public sphere, who can just be rock steady with their values and their beliefs and be willing to talk about it publicly and take a stand, and yeah, do an action... do a sit-in or a lockdown... or something. When you show that you're willing to put your body on the line for something, I mean that is so powerful, and not everybody is going to be willing to do that and that's OK too. But if you feel called to and you are driven to do it, I think that we need these leaders and these examples, right now, more than ever.
Also see Lia Rose's website
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