Caroline Rose recovers from a double punch with a new outlook on life and death

Before Sunday's show at Skully's, the Austin singer and songwriter reflects on liberating pandemic lessons

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Caroline Rose

In high school, Caroline Rose didn’t have many friends with whom she could share deep, heart-wrenching struggles. So she started writing songs.

“It was an emotional outlet where, if I didn't express myself in some way creatively, I would have exploded or started using heavy drugs or something,” Rose said in a recent phone call.

When the pandemic hit, Rose found herself in a similar headspace. “It was very reminiscent of when I first started making music, when I was an early teenager, and I had all these really raw emotions that I didn't know what to do with,” she said. “It brought me back to a place where I was so desperate for some sort of creative outlet that all I did was sit and noodle around on the guitar for many, many months. And I hadn't done that in years. I had been so bored with writing guitar music and playing acoustic guitar that I hadn't touched it in years. But I felt the excitement of approaching an instrument and being like, ‘This is my vessel. This is going to save my life right now.’”

For Rose’s career, the lockdowns could not have come at a worse time. She’d just released Superstar, her New West Records follow-up to 2018 album Loner, and was heading out on a tour that included a canceled local show at Skully’s — a venue Rose will finally visit two years later on Sunday, March 13. “Turns out March 6, 2020, was a bad time to release an album,” she said. “I was kind of going through a mental breakdown. I definitely wasn't in the best place, and it was extremely stressful ... getting the record done and then getting ready for tour. … I also went through a really difficult breakup right at the beginning of the pandemic, so it was like a double punch that just got me good.”

While the pandemic isolation led to bouts of profound loneliness, it also allowed Rose to catch her breath after never taking a break between two album cycles. “American culture is so work oriented. The [so-called] American Dream is founded on how hard you work, and your value is wrapped up in how hard you work,” she said. “There's no point at which anyone's like, oh, maybe we should calculate the value of going out in the garden and watching things grow and spending time with our kids. … There's a whole other part of life that is just straight-up neglected. I was certainly neglecting it.” 

Of course, wrestling with long-simmering mental and emotional issues isn’t always a comfortable process. "When you start taking time to look inward and look at your past, turns out you'll find a bunch of trauma," she said. "It felt like a house of cards that had completely fallen over, and it was like, how am I going to rebuild this? I want to know, structurally, how to build rebuild this so that it is more sound."

Going through that therapeutic exercise can be difficult at any time, but it’s particularly challenging to do so during a pandemic with staggering death tolls, and especially for someone who has long struggled with the implications of mortality. “My whole life I've had this anxiety about time running out and how I want to spend my time, because you can't get it back,” Rose told Alive in 2018. “When I was 5 years old, my house burned down. We all could have died. Years after that incident, I developed all these crazy anxiety issues.”

In the last two years, Rose has managed to shift her mindset about the inevitability of death and its implications on her everyday life. “It's always been less about a fear of dying and more about a fear of how I use the time that I have, and forever that was always like, ‘My work is my legacy. I don't want to have kids. I just want to make a bunch of stuff.’ And that's really changed,” she said. “I feel like I've turned my life around in a way that when I think about my own mortality now, I find it really empowering and liberating. … My whole life I've been told that if you die at a certain age, your life is cut short. And now I think the exact opposite of that. I'm like, no, every day is a gift. There's no guarantee that you're going to live past tomorrow. And that makes me feel really grateful to be alive.” 

Now, at long last, Rose is able to perform the glossy synth-pop songs from Superstar for audiences. And while the material from the record feels like the distant past, Rose always approached Superstar through a role-playing lens, channeling facets of her personality to recount the rise and fall of a fictional pop star. “I was playing myself as a part, and it was kind of an experiment,” said Rose, who described playing the songs now as “wearing a version of myself that was from a different time. But that's still fun to me. ... You're going to have fun if it's a good song. It doesn't really matter how much time has passed.” 

For the next record, Rose has been playing with DJ equipment and experimenting in the studio with cassette and reel-to-reel tapes. “The next album is going to sound totally different from the last one, and totally different from all the other ones,” she said. “It's always going to be that way for me. Everyone just needs to get used to it.”