The singer-songwriter speaks to relocating, forming her band (Rosie Cima & What She Dreamed), her favorite writers, and the aliveness of music.
Rosie Cima is the type of person who receives a thank you note from the supposedly dormant email of Anne Carson, the MacArthur Genius Award-winning poet, after dressing up as Geryon, the title character from Carson’s critically acclaimed Autobiography of Red for Halloween.
Put another way, she’s well-read, hilarious, and willing to make a statement. Based in Washington, DC, Cima works as both a musician and journalist. In her portfolio, you’re just as likely to find her latest record, Blackberry Blackberry Blackberry, as you are a well-researched piece on California’s 2008 anti-foreclosure laws (supplemented by no less than four data visualizations and published by UCLA’s Anderson Review) or an infuriatingly revealing analysis of the gender ratio in the New York Times Best Seller List.
How long have you been in Washington? What do you think of it?
I moved this past February from San Francisco. During my second week, I was walking from my Airbnb to where I was cat sitting and a guy asked me if I was a musician. Then it was like, “Oh wait, I’m carrying my guitar, so that makes sense.” [Laughs.] He then said he lived around the corner and hosted house shows, and that I should come to one—he actually ended up setting my first show. From there, I got plugged into the 7 Drum City scene, because I wanted to learn drums. I met a bunch of musicians doing FLASHBAND, which is how I found my band. It was so easy. Everyone is so down to show up, practice, and escalate. It’s different from San Francisco.
How has working with a backing band changed your approach?
It’s been interesting to have a backing band that takes my music seriously, because now I’m taking my music more seriously. When I started renting a practice space at 7 Drum City, I suddenly cared a lot more about getting paid because my bandmates wanted to [help] pay for the space. I was like, “Wait, guys, you shouldn’t be paying to be in my band and only accept cuts of show profits.” It made me want to set up more good gigs and up my social media strategy.
Talk to me about your musical process.
Everything is in flux. The last record [Blackberry Blackberry Blackberry] was recorded at a warehouse in Oakland. I worked with Geoff Saba, who is known for his experimental and ambient work. He was very good at getting me to answer questions about what I thought things should sound like. I didn’t have a lot of production experience, but I knew the real challenge would be making the important choices myself. It was an education process.
We tracked most things separately, then I got a band together in San Francisco to start playing some of the arrangements on the album. In DC, I brought my album recordings to the new band and then they came up with their own interpretations. The live sound is definitely more rock.
What do you do to keep things organized with the band?
I have a spreadsheet, a list of every song I’ve ever written and some demos. I’ll flag a few and ask the band to listen and see if there are any candidates worth exploring. I’ve also been writing, and have been excited about recording new stuff because [it] feels very alive to me.
What do you mean by alive?
There were way more things to explore. I was listening to different artists with different themes. I also went on a meditation retreat that established a spiritual practice in my life and changed how I want to play music. It lasted ten days, outside of Yosemite, and was silent. I got into that because I was depressed; my brother was sick, had a really hard year, and I was taking that on. I learned to meditate and had a bunch of experiences with my body. I come from a pretty secular background, so those experiences definitely weirded me out, but it expanded my concepts of self and consciousness in a way that I’m really grateful for.
With performance, [meditation] helped me think more about what I’m doing with art and what I’m doing on stage. I used to be confused about the difference between a good performance and a bad one. There’s something about being able to be present on stage and be vulnerable. When I started out, I wanted to be natural, to not pay attention to anything I thought reflected a performance, to get up there and play the songs like I would in my living room. Then I started performing more, listening to recordings and seeing videos of myself. I realized that being in front of people is such a different thing than playing alone. I was less emotive, I was more rigid with my face. If I said anything between songs, which I did rarely, it would be monotone. I think meditation has helped me systematically figure out how to unlock all of those things, even when I’m on stage and feeling on the spot.
How do you go about writing lyrics?
I experiment a lot. I gravitated towards story songs in the beginning. I think it’s because I have a background in narrative writing; scene-driven things, character-driven things. A lot of my songs are inspired by a story someone has told me.
What writers have inspired you?
Robert Hass—I can recite his poems from the top of my head. He’s an old white guy from California and was a poet laureate under Clinton. He wrote a book on form, and each chapter is a different set on kinds of poetry. The first chapter is about single-line based poems, two deals with couplets, three with haikus, four is quartets. It gets into sonnets and villanelles later. It also looks at poems in non-English traditions as well.
I was going through this book as a prompt-based exercise. I wanted to write poems based off of the forms I saw in each chapter. They were bad poems, because I didn’t really master the forms, but they were great for songwriting. In formalism, there are a number of rules you have to follow. This sometimes can make what you’re writing seem hackneyed on the page. However, that style works with songwriting. People expect that.