Maggie Rose photo by Ford Fairchild
Maggie Rose’s Timely Third Album ‘Have a Seat’ Turns on Listening and Being Heard
Maggie Rose’s new studio album, Have a Seat, arrives on August 20th from Starstruck Records and takes us even further into her multi-genre interests, bringing in plenty of Blues, Soul, and R&B sound in keeping with its recording location of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “Expansive” is an appropriate word to describe what you’ll find on Have a Seat, where Maggie Rose works with her band, Them Vibes, but also a wider cast of musicians who build up the album’s sound, even incorporating a string section and a horns section for the first time on one of her albums.
As strong and expansive as the sounds are on Have a Seat, the ideas behind the album are equally significant, carefully interwoven to address a time when, as Maggie Rose acknowledges, people have had a hard time listening to each other. The album’s opener and lead single, “What Are We Fighting For” sets the stage for the exploration of that idea on many levels, but the video for the song also reveals a wider narrative that you’ll find through all the videos tied to the album that are also reflected in the album’s cover art. The metaphorical “table” where we need to “have a seat” becomes literal in the videos as we encounter different versions of Maggie Rose engaged in her own internal conflicts striving to be heard and striving to listen. That’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of interesting interpretations the listener can bring to the songs and the videos for Have a Seat.
2020 and 2021 has also been a time when Maggie Rose embarked on another major project, the Salute the Songbird podcast, hosted by Osiris Media, where she interviews female musicians and artists about their work. Now in its second season, the new season has included a live show featuring several of Season One’s guests, and episodes with Sierra Hull, Amythyst Kiah, Noelle Scaggs, and Kelly McCartney so far. I spoke with Maggie Rose shortly after her return to live performance about the evolution of the sound and message for Have a Seat, how the videos help relate its powerful ideas, and about how she got started making Salute the Songbird.
Americana Highways: Do you think that playing the songs from Have a Seat on livestreams previously has influenced how you are now playing them live?
Maggie Rose: We’re trying to stick with the recordings as they are because it’s the first time we’re familiarizing our audience with the tracks, but I also think that a live performance should be something unique to that moment for the audience. In Denver, we had horn players with us, for instance. There are horns and strings on this record and this is the first time I’ve had a horn section and string ensemble for an album. But I’m definitely allowing them to strut and take some liberties.
AH: From listening to the album, it seems like these are songs that could be flexible in that way. There’s elasticity and plenty of sections where you could make changes.
MR: For sure. That was actually a conscious effort when making this album because I do have such a capable band and these songs have Soul and Blues elements to them that invite any good musician to take it to another place. It’s nice to be able to step aside and let the band do their thing. I think that not focusing on me as center stage at all times makes for a more dynamic show.
AH: I heard that you planned ahead of time, while writing, to record at FAME. Was that part of a historical perspective for you, taking part in its long history?
MR: Absolutely. I had performed with my band at the end of 2018 to be on a program called Muscle Shoals to Music Row. I fell in love with it. The studio looks the way it did back in the day when all these amazing records were being cut that really pulled me to music in the first place. So there was a sanctity I wanted to honor. Knowing that I was going to record there definitely infiltrated the writing process, but I also wanted it to be contemporary, psychedelic, and not just a throw back record. I was borrowing from the energy that I think you find there, but also trying to also bring something new.
That stemmed a lot from the band there, too, with members of my band, Them Vibes, combined with some of the original members of The Swampers, like David Hood, and then members of Alabama Shakes. Of course, Ben Tanner produced it, and he played on some of the record. We also had Brittany Howard and Emily King. The age range was all over the place. Getting out of Nashville, physically, was also really cool, because it allowed me to take some of my best people and work with some of the best people in the Muscle Shoals area.
AH: Was the writing different for you because you were leaving more things open for development once you got into the studio?
MR: I write a lot with my bandmates from Them Vibes. We always have things open-ended until we lay them down in the studio. So that part was there in the writing process, but the way that we recorded this versus the way that we recorded my last album, Change The Whole Thing, which was more of a live effort, was that we all had to, collectively, pick our best takes. That’s challenging, but it also eliminates a lot of guess work.
The open-endedness was less in the writing room and more in the tracking room on this project because we could really make this conceptual. We were in isolation rooms so we could try different things with different instruments. But when it came to the vocals, we still wanted to have that live feeling, so we didn’t want to cut a bunch of takes together. I think you have to keep that urgency to your performance with Soul music. But as for the arrangements and how we did that, I think it was more forgiving and more open-ended to invite more ideas and malleability.
AH: Were you pleasantly surprised by anything that happened in the studio that contributed to the overall sound of the album?
MR: Absolutely, I think that was true of the string arrangement, in particular. Ben Tanner arranged these beautiful string parts and I actually didn’t get to witness that in person. I was on Facetime with him a lot, but when that was presented to me, it was this crazy elevation of the music that made it all click together. That’s when I started to get the butterflies of excitement. I felt like this was really something different and an advancement of music. It was a cool day to hear all those ideas for the first time and how they fit with the music.
AH: There’s a kind of media perception of your work, from about 2018 onwards, that you’re increasingly mixing genres and trying new things. I was a little surprised by that because I think it actually goes back further than assumed. It looks like that direction might have been true as early as 2016. Is that fair?
MR: Yes. I think the media direction was just more effective in recent years, but that’s always been my brand, especially once I untangled myself more from a country direction and releasing songs for country radio. The significance of 2018 for me is that I kind of realized what my capabilities were in the studio, but even before then, I had been releasing EPs that I was making independently that ventured more into pop and R&B. I even released an EP called Variety Show to specifically call out the diversity of the songs on that one project. The fact is that I was actively looking for my voice in different genres of music and finding things that were applicable to me in a lot of them.
AH: There is a tremendous sense of celebration and energy to this album that really makes this feel like the right time to release it. It’s so welcome right now.
MR: It feels really appropriate that the release of this music is correlating with us all starting to be able to get back out there. I’m so happy with that because I loved this music when we finished it, but I appreciate it even more now because it feels like the moment is right for this music as well.
AH: It also feels like it brings a lot of conversations forward that we’re ready to have right now. There are a lot of “convictions” as the album has been described by others. There’s a real directness to a lot of the lyrics in these songs. I feel like we’re more ready to have these conversations now.
MR: I agree. I felt like that was also a factor. It’s still a very contentious time, but things have been too inflamed until now to suggest something as simple as “Have a seat with me and consider what I’m saying. You don’t have to agree.” This idea of gathering at a table and the significance of the album title has a lot to do with the fact that I want this record to project the idea of inclusivity and collaboration. Also, it includes the idea of knowing oneself and knowing where your seat at the table is. It invites everyone and makes room for everybody. Those are the themes that permeate the record.
AH: The idea of knowing that you’ll be heard is such a big deal, and also know that that comes with a responsibility to hear others, too. I feel that once you have the security of knowing you’ll be heard, that changes everything about how you interact with others.
MR: I think listening to one another has been a theme that we’ve seen throughout the last 18 months in social and political situations. I think the act of listening is really compassionate. It seems so simple, but a lot of people haven’t been heard for a long time. But it’s something I’ve done a lot this past year, too. We’ve continued to do streams and try to stay connected, but this year led me to doing a podcast called Salute the Songbird where I have had all women guests on. That has been an exercise in listening, quite literally, because I’m researching these women beforehand, listening to their amazing music, and reading their books that they have written. The most important thing in that moment when I talk to these women is to listen to where they want to take the conversation.
AH: What made you cross that threshold and not just consider hosting a podcast, but take the plunge?
MR: Osiris Media, the company I’ve partnered with for Salute the Songbird, was not just encouraging, but they gave me all the tools to make this a reality. I did a podcast with RJ, one of the founders of Osiris, and we had a great time. That led them to realize that they needed some more female hosts on their channel. They were really encouraging and felt that I would be able to engage with these other artists. They felt I’d have a unique connection, as an artist, with women who are both established and up-and-coming. They gave me full autonomy and it was a way to stay connected. I missed meeting people on the road, at shows, so it was really valuable work for me to do, on an emotional level. It was a bit of a rescue since I threw myself into it and loved it. Now it’s something I’m going to continue to do, until I get through my extremely long list, that’s growing as we speak.
AH: That’s great to hear. I was wondering if there would be a Season Two.
MR: We’re already scheduling for that. I’ve proven to myself and my guests that we can do this virtually, so when we all hit the road, we should still be able to pull it off. I’ve never been able to interview in person for this.
AH: Am I right in thinking that there is a kind of emotional arc on Take a Seat, even though there’s not a sequential narrative?
MR: Yes. The sequencing for this record was something that we went back to the drawing board over time and time again to get right. The album is book-ended with two songs that make a suggestion to the listener to have a seat with me. Sonically, we start with this huge, open-ended question of, “What Are We Fighting For”? It asks the question but doesn’t provide any answers and it crescendos with this huge, crazy finish.
That was going to be the last song on the record, but it just felt like a very bold intro to what is essentially just a big conversation. I think it’s pretty cool that the A-side is a little more introspective and the songs are a little more classic in their structure, and then the B-side is more funky R&B. You flip the record and then you have a dance party. That escalates the music and wraps it up really well with a kind of psychedelic track called, “You Got Today.”
AH: I love how the title and the question, “What Are We Fighting For” has at least two big directions that you can take. You can ask that question in a positive way, wondering what is worth fighting for, or in a more challenging way, asking if we should be fighting at all. That really works for the zeitgeist right now.
MR: You nailed it. That’s definitely the focus that I have. What’s really interesting is that we wrote that in 2019. I was on my back porch with Alex Haddad and Brother Love of Them Vibes, who are my buddies, and I was having a shitty day. Politics were so contentious and that’s where the idea came from. I wondered if we could get people to understand one another. Then the song evolved as we went through everything that we went through, collectively. I was asking, “Why am I still here making music and showing up every day?” It definitely encapsulates both of those approaches. The song itself sounds like a fight, because it’s really loud at the end. It’s the explosiveness of two people throwing their anger at one another trying to get someone to listen. Then there’s the desperation of searching within yourself for what keeps you going and what’s important to you.
AH: The video also very much reinforces the importance of this song to the album because there’s a lot of imagery from the album art right there.
MR: We Tarantino-ed our video story, so “What Are We Fighting For” is sort of the end result. Then we have two other videos, for “Saint” and “For Your Consideration.” “For Your Consideration” is the finale. With “What Are We Fighting For,” we’ve introduced the table. We’ve introduced that there are many versions of myself fighting with each other. The aftermath is this question. We’re at the scene of the fight, and we’ve survived, but there’s a question like we were talking about before: What matters? What are we putting forth our effort for?
AH: It seems really brave for you to be in the video as multiple versions of yourself and be presenting the less gracious or appealing versions of yourself, too. You show the bitchy self, the one who is not listening. That honesty feels really helpful right now.
MR: I’ve been able to hear all those different voices within myself so much more loudly this year than I ever have before. I think there has been a lot of struggle within me during this time, undermining myself, bringing on imposter syndrome, telling me that we were never going to get through this. There’s been a lot of myself arguing with my own efforts. It was pretty clear to me that I needed to work on myself, give myself a break, give myself grace, and give that to other people, too. I wanted to represent that in the symbolism of all those voices of mine fighting with themselves. Also, on a bigger scale, I wanted to address the rhetoric that’s out there and how people are dealing with one another.
Find more information on Maggie Rose and her music here: https://www.maggierosemusic.com