Rosy Nolan photos by Deb Morrison and John Hancock (live shots)
Americana musician Rosy Nolan grew up in San Francisco, lived in Berkeley and Oakland, and then spent eight years in New York City after time in Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and London. Her musical journey covered ground from punk to Carter family fiddle music and into Americana hybrids. We had a chance to chat with Rosy Nolan last week about her current direction and working on a new project with Blackbird Record Label.
AH: Have you always been into music or was that something you picked up a little later?
RN: Yeah, I started actually as a drummer in punk rock band, playing at Gilman Street, which was an all-ages punk club in Berkeley California, still is. I got involved in music in the nineties when the Riot Grrl movement was happening, right. In bands like Bikini Kill and L-Seven and Sleater-Kinney. I got really into music through that avenue, because there was a lot of encouragement just to play music and start bands, even if you didn’t know how to play music. And in fact, it was better if you didn’t. Cause that was the punk rock way.
RN: I honestly don’t know that I would’ve ever really jumped on that bandwagon if I hadn’t been so encouraged by that movement.
AH: That’s pretty cool though. How did you go from punk rock to Americana or alt country?
RN: It was a slow progression. I started out playing drums and then I decided I really wanted to write some songs and so I wrote some songs in that all-girl band and started playing guitar. Then I moved to New York and evolved into more of the indie rock scene that was happening. And then that evolved into more alternative rock. And then I had a friend that turned me onto a Lucinda Williams album that had just come out, World Without Tears. And I was like, who’s this woman? <laugh> This is amazing. And so, I got really into alt-country, which is what they were calling it then. And kind of roots rock and that instrumentation. And so I started writing more kind of folky like country inspired songs that were more confessional because I really loved her voice and her delivery and just the rawness of her material. And then that just opened up a whole world to me.
AH: In addition to Lucinda, who are some of your other influences?
RN: After Lucinda, I got into Steve Earle, Neil Young and some folk stuff. I got really into Dylan. And then I started getting into older stuff, like, Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton and just started delving deeper into more traditional music. Once I moved to LA there’s a small, like old time scene out here. So I started playing the banjo. I started exploring more old time traditional music, the Carter family and a lot of music that came out of like West Virginia and the Appalachia area and kind of delving into fiddle tunes and that kind of thing.
AH: That was definitely the vibe that I got from you when I saw you perform. It was definitely an old school, old time country music.
RN: I’ve kind of landed there <laugh> the past few years I’ve been getting into traditional country. You know Cajun music, a lot of the early American music.
AH: I know that you recently signed to a new record label, Blackbird Record Label. How’s that going? I know you’re recording the new record.
RN: We’re working on a record. My producer is Taylor Kropp. He’s a fantastic guitar player and producer. And we’ve been recording out of the Blackbird Record Label studio the past couple months, which has been amazing. Eric and Manda are just wonderful and they’ve just been incredibly supportive and I really got connected with them when I went out to AmericanaFest this past September. I did the California Country Show showcase that they do out there. We just kind of got hip to each other there and got to spend some time together. And then they approached me pretty soon after and asked me what I was doing and if I wanted to sign on with them. And I was like, hell yeah.
They do a lot of great work and they put on a lot of great events and they’re really good people. So it’s been such a pleasure. In fact, I did a show with Manda and Eric recently. I sang a song with her at the Knitting Factory in NoHo (North Hollywood) and played some banjo with them. It’s been fun. It’s opening up a lot of really cool opportunities.
AH: Speaking of banjo: banjo or guitar? Which do you prefer playing the most?
RN: I love them both. I mean, I tend to write songs on the guitar, so that’s really my primary instrument. But banjo is social, I really enjoy playing banjo with other people. I love playing fiddle tunes. I love playing other people’s original songs and figuring out banjo, coming up with banjo riffs for other people. I enjoy soloing and being just like an instrumentalist on the banjo.
My songwriting is still primarily on guitar. But I like doing both and I frequent some old-time jams in the L.A. area and gone to a lot of kind of old time bluegrass festivals and workshops and camps and all that stuff. So, I’ve got to study with some pretty fantastic old time musicians, which has been a real pleasure.
AH: Speaking of festivals, how was Stagecoach when you played there last year?
RN: Oh, that was great. We were supposed to play in 2020 and then everything got canceled. That was probably the second after South by Southwest was the first festival to get canceled when Covid hit, and then Stagecoach was soon after that. And for about two years it didn’t happen, but they were really gracious, and they invited everybody back for 2022, so we got to play last April. And it’s a humongous festival. I don’t know if you’ve ever been.
AH: I’ve been a couple times.
RN: Oh, it’s giant <laugh>. Yeah?
AH: <Laugh> yeah.
RN: But it was so much fun. It was just cool to be in that environment and Nikki Lane puts on a really great showcase. I was really stoked to be part of that and I got to meet a lot of other musicians and hang out backstage, we had our own little trailer and the hang out was really cool. And the bottoms of my feet were aching <laugh> by the end of that weekend. Cause you’re just covering so much terrain, it’s such a big property. It was exhausting, but totally exhilarating.
AH: Yeah, I know. I did it as photographer running from stage to stage. It’s a lot.
RN: And those sets are short, so you’re like, oh damn, you catch someone for 15 minutes and then you’re like, I have to get to the other side of this campus and catch these other guys. So I got a lot of steps in that weekend.
AH: What other festivals do you really like to play?
RN: Last year we did AmericanaFest, which is so fun. I really enjoyed that. I hadn’t been to Nashville in a few years and my last few attempts doing music in Nashville did not go so well. So this last year was really excellent. Not only did I enjoy playing, but I really loved hopping around and going to all the different venues and seeing so many great musicians. There are so many incredible artists coming out right now. It was just fun. I’d leave the house at like noon and come home at 2:00 AM <laugh> every night. I was exhausted, but it was thrilling to be there during that time.
AH: So I mentioned earlier that I saw you perform at the songwriter round up here in Ramona called “Songbirds of Ramona Ranch.” Do you prefer that kind of thing where you’re doing stuff on your own or would you rather play with your full band?
RN: I played solo for a really long time and there’s, you know, there’s something lovely about playing solo and just kind of being able to bop around on your own and do your own thing. There, there’s like a certain freedom to that and it’s certainly cheaper <laugh>for the artist. But the past year I’ve really been committed to playing in this four piece string band. And the music that I want to deliver has a sound and a feel and a, a certain instrumentation to it that packs in more of a punch when I can do it with a full group. I’ve certainly done a few singer songwriters in the round and then some solo sets, but a full band, whatever that is, is always more commanding and more compelling. So, I’ve been really enjoying playing with other musicians.
AH: What’s your songwriting process?
RN: I’ve done all the ways you can do it. <Laugh>, I’ve like sat in a cafe where they’re playing music on the speakers, and I’ve just written lyrics and then I’ve come home and put lyrics to music.
I’ve sat there and come up with like a chord progression and a melody and added lyrics later.
I’ve experimented with co-writing where we show up and nobody has anything and we come up with something.
I’ve done it where I have a little melody in my head to start.
I’ve done assignment songwriting where a group assigns you to write a song about some topic. I did a songwriting workshop once where they said: write a song about your favorite movie. One of my favorite movies is Thelma and Louise. So, I wrote a song called “Let’s Keep Going,” which is the last line that they say to each other before they drive into the Grand Canyon.
So I’ve done all different types. Sometimes I have to work at it for a long time. Sometimes I like put it on the shelf for like a couple years and then later on I decided to do something with it. It always hits different.
AH: I know you’re playing at Pappy and Harriet’s in Joshua Tree soon. How’s that?
RN: That’s on Saturday, January 21. I’m really excited. We’re opening up for Rose’s Pawn Shop. I’ve been wanting to play there for like 15 years, maybe more. I’m really stoked to be getting on that roster.
AH: Yeah. That’s a great little venue.
RN: Oh yeah. It’s so fun. We’ve done the Red Dog Saloon, which is just down that road. And that’s a really fun venue out there. And I love going out to the desert. I was going out there before I was playing gigs and just go for a weekend and work on songs. And hang out and have a little getaway. It’s a cool town.
AH: The Southern California Americana music scene has really taken off, like you mentioned Nikki Lane, Manda Mosher, there’s just so many musicians and bands coming out of Southern California all of a sudden.
RN: Oh, yeah, there’s been a real momentum. I’d say starting probably for me, the end of 2021 when we were kind of allowed to start playing live shows again. I picked up real quickly a bunch of shows and was starting out solo. And then by the beginning of last year I was introduced to a bunch of bands and started going out and seeing people. And from that was able to put a band together.
There’s a real wonderful camaraderie among country Americana artists right now. There are a lot of great promoters and venues with shows going on. A good friend of mine runs Grand Ole Country Bunker, and he puts on these monthly shows at Sassafras Saloon, where he’s been getting really great attendance. I’ve been doing shows with Ben Reddell at Grand Ole Echo, and he’s now booking at the Escondite downtown (LA). And those shows have been great and seems like coming out of Covid, there’s this hunger not just for live music, but for more traditional country roots, organic heartfelt music. There’s been more of a desire to see that and an interest in that. It’s been really cool to see all the bands that are starting up or that are really starting to excel.
AH: Okay, so final question, and I think this is how I’m going to end every interview I do in the the future. This is a running joke between a bunch of local musicians and myself up here in Ramona. And it’s a simple yes or no question. Nickelback, yes or no?
RN: I’m going to say yes. Yes. I’m going to say yes.
AH: Thank you. I’m also a yes.
RN: I mean, like, why the hell not, I don’t know why everybody got together and decided that they were gonna, you know, rag on them. Right. I don’t understand it. You know,
Why the hell not?
AH: There you go. That’s, that’s the best answer. Why the hell not <laugh>?
AH: <Laugh>. All right, well thanks for your time. I hope we get you and your band up here in Ramona soon or the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach.
RN: We’d love to come down.
AH: All right, well thank you very much
RN: Thank You.
Thanks very much to Rosy Nolan for talking to us. You can discover more about Rosy Nolan on her website, here: https://www.rosynolan.com