Meet Haroula Rose

Multi-talented Haroula Rose talks with Pollstar about her latest album, placing her songs on TV shows, and those ever-persistent panic attacks right before she walks on stage.

Rose’s professional adventure isn’t strictly limited to the world of music.  The Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter served as associate producer on the 2013 film “Fruitvale Station,” and her songs appeared in the 2014 film “Still Alice,” 2012’s “For A Good Time, Call …” and on several TV shows, including episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and “American Horror Story.”

We connected with Rose just days before her new album, Here The Blue River, dropped March 25 on Thirty Tigers.  Inspired by the imagery invoked by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The River,” Pablo Neruda’s “The Book Of Questions” and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon A River,” the album features Rose at her gothic-storytelling best and is a departure from the acoustic folk of her 2011 debut disc, These Open Roads.

Photo: Photo by Javiera Estrada

You’re working in film, music, and writing. Are you almost constantly in creative mode?

Yeah, I think I am.

Do you see inspiration almost everywhere you go?  Can something as simple as ordering a cup of coffee result in an idea for a song, short story or even a film?

You just never know where it’s going to come [from].  I feel like a lot of things tend [to come from] smaller insignificant moments. … I try to be engaged with people, even the ones I don’t know. Like the person who works at Starbucks, or whatever.

What came first for you – music, film or TV?

I think it’s music because my mom is a great singer and my family was always playing music while I was growing up. … I remember seeing certain films while I was young. My siblings … would be watching stuff a lot, and [I] fell in love with that medium as well.  I think music was first but they were both really early.  I was having anxiety at some point when I thought I had to choose and focus on that one path but I realized they are quite complimentary.

(please click on image for complete album cover art)

But it must have been a good feeling to have a broad range of opportunities?

Yeah.  I have to look at it that way otherwise I can go into anxiety mode. … It’s so easy to start feeling anxious about things, sometimes.  It think that probably goes along with creative stuff.  It feels like you’re not doing enough or … I dunno.

Are you a little anxious right now because the new album comes out in a few days.

I feel like it’s a really interesting cocktail of excitement, mostly, and I’ll feel anxiety.  It’s mostly hoping people will take a minute to listen to it from start-to-finish.

Does your film and TV experiences result in more visual moments when songwriting?  Are you translating images into words and melody?

I think this [album] comes from an internal place.  Actually, I think it was [about] the hereafter and our place where we exist for a small amount of time but nature perseveres before and after us.  That’s visual, but at the same time it feels kind of internal.  In terms of songwriting, I feel it comes from the melody first.  I’ll start fiddling on an instrument, usually a guitar.  I wish I knew how to play the piano better.  I’ll start playing notes and the melody will come.  If it feels right, the words come and match the feeling.  Whenever I start with lyrics first, it seems too heavy and not emotional.  Then, I’m like, “Maybe I could co-write this idea with someone else,” because it usually comes from music first, then the words for me.

Have you had any opportunities to play the music on stage?

Last night was the first time I played the new songs [live].  It was awesome. It was at the Standard Hotel in the East Village.  I think it might have been my favorite show I’ve ever played.  It got me feeling really good about the upcoming gigs.  I have to do a lot of them solo but there are some of them where I have friends who are musicians in those towns that I’ll link up with.  I wish I could bring the whole band with me the whole time.  Hopefully, on the next one.

[Last night] was really great.  I felt so pumped.  It was packed.  There were a lot of good vibes in the room. The whole city skyline was behind me. It kind of felt surreal in that way. … People were really listening to the lyrics and it was fun talking with various new people afterward about the songs. It just felt really cool. I was excited about how the songs were resonating with the people.  And my parents were there and that was fun.  They usually can’t make it so it was nice to have them there too.

Do you enjoy talking about your music with fans after a show?

It’s fun.  I really like it when people say “this line means a lot to me” or “this song makes me feel better.”  I’ll get messages like that.  I feel very rewarded by that. … You don’t get it all the time.

Is there a person or group that hears your new material first and offers feedback?

I play stuff for friends and there’s a group of songwriters, all girls, and we get together a few times a year and play each other new songs and get feedback.  That’s really fun.

How do you balance the artistic side with the business of your music?

I don’t know if I’m that great at it because I think there’s always, always, always more to be done.  That’s just another never-ending feeling.  At least I’ve made peace with that feeling.  If I’m doing as much as I can do and not going crazy, then I’m all right.  But it would be nice at some point to have someone help with booking or management.

Here The Blue River is your second album.  Many artists have said they had all their lives to write their first albums but only 18 months to come up with the second.  Any thoughts on that?

I don’t have pressure, per say, in that way. I took a big long break and focused on other stuff until I felt pretty ready to put this one out there and have people take it on their own terms.  Once you put it out there it’s not even yours anymore [and] I’m OK with that.  I think inspiration comes from a lot of places … from things I’m reading, a poem that really hit me.  I like that it comes full circle. You experience something, you read it, you can write about it, then other people can … hear it.  That gets me really excited.  I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to match myself or beat myself with a [new] album.

Photo: Photo by Andy Farnum
“I really like it when people say ‘this line means a lot to me’ or ‘this song makes me feel better.’ …  I feel very rewarded by that.”

Do you prefer to record live or lay down individual tracks to mix later?

I’ve done both. … I try do to these little homework assignments or challenges … to keep things new. … The next one I’d like to do everything live.  This one was very different.  [I worked] with different collaborators and musicians.

You mentioned growing up in a family where everyone listened to music.  What kinds of music did you hear during that time?

My folks are from Greece.  Because they’re immigrants I think they feel more connected to their homeland by listening to music [from Greece].  I remember hearing all these different and interesting rhythms and instruments while growing up.  Like the clarinet in the song “The River (Drifting)” on my album. … I’d love to record in other languages, too.  I know Spanish and Greek.  Greek is the first language I learned, so that’s the first music I heard.

You said you enjoyed the room you played in last night.  What do you look for in a venue for your live shows?

That one was really interesting.  It seemed like it would be cold because it’s all windows and it’s in a fancy hotel.  But the crowd [included] people who were old friends, new friends and fans, and family.  All the people in it made it a great room.  I don’t think it so much matters where it is, but more about who’s there and how it feels.

What goes through your mind during the five minutes before you walk on stage?

I’m usually having some form of panic attack, a serious existential crisis and wondering why I’m doing this with my life.  I mean it never goes away. … Yesterday was my best show ever, the most fun and got me excited about the tour.  But I’m sure every single night I’ll want to throw up before the show.

How long into the performance does that feeling last?

Usually about one and a half songs.  Then I feel good. That first song I’m like, “Oh, my God!  I’m going to forget the words.  I’m going to puke on stage.”

I feel better when I read stories or interviews with people, like Carly Simon or Barbra Streisand, really major idols, and they would have [even] a worse anxiety.  Then I don’t feel like such a failure.

You’ve had several songs placed in television shows.  Other than royalties, do you see a monetary result, such as in a spike album sales?

I’ll [look] at which songs that are getting played the most [on Spotify] and they’re usually ones that are on shows.  They’re also the ones that are bought more. I’m going to go on tour in China at some point this year and that’s directly from the promoter over there hearing [my songs] on the China version of Spotify, a playlist from “American Horror Story” or “How I Met Your Mother.” … He reached out to me and said, “We’d like you come and play these 12 cities.”  Those are really cool opportunities that I don’t think would happen otherwise.

Do you think song placements on TV shows is becoming almost as important as getting songs on the radio?

I think so, maybe. I don’t really know.  It feels like it is because I’m not making pop music.  It’s not like I’m going to get all those radio plays that Taylor Swift or Rihanna gets. For someone like me, TV matters.  The people who pay attention to those things will be able to access [my music].

How is TV placement handled?

Usually what happens is I have an agent type person who handles the rights and they pitch to people.  They’ll call me and say, “We have an offer for this amount for this song.”  [The answer is] usually “yes,” unless I have a co-writer.  Then I’ll check with them.  That’s part of why Thirty Tigers is helping on this record.  They‘re pretty amazing. … They really believe in that model.  It’s like, “Let’s get your music out there the most we can. Then you win and we win.”

What happens on the day of an album release?  Are 100 CDs shipped to your home or is there an event or ceremony?

I don’t have anything planned for that day.  I should have a listening party or some kind of little thing in my house. … I don’t have a show set up.

What are your weekends like when you’re not working?

I live in Los Angeles so it’s nice to be able to go on a hike.  I also love to cook. It’s nice to have friends over, hang out and watch something on TV, or a movie someone brings over.  I love going to the movies. I also love theatre.  It [all] helps me think.

Do you carry a notepad or recorder for those unexpected moments of inspiration?

I like writing things down.  Sometimes I’ll get an idea and record it into my voice recorder.  I have a number of those.  I like looking at what dreams are.  I think that’s a part of our lives that are still mysterious and kind of cool.  There’s a huge book on [film director] Federico Fellini’s dreams … from this dream journal that he kept by his bed for years. He’d wake up and the first thing he’d do is sketch out what his dreams were.  I think that holds a lot of secrets to things.

It sounds as if, no matter what’s going on during any given day, you’re having a lot of fun.

Yeah, it’s fun.  There’s a part of me that tends to feel anxious, though.  I’m neurotic about the passing of time, singing about people I love getting older and I’m not around all the time.  I get sad about things like that.

If you could talk to your future self from five years in the future, what would you ask her?

I would ask what she was so worried about. … I feel pretty lucky right now. I’m pretty excited about everything.  But it definitely comes with some sort of, “Oh, boy.  I hope I can make it all feel really worth it.”

Photo: Photo by Javiera Estrada
“I took a big long break and focused on other stuff until I felt pretty ready to put [Here The Blue River] out there and have people take it on their own terms.”

Haroula Rose’s upcoming shows (all dates supporting David Wax Museum):

March 31 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground
April 1 – Portland, Maine, Port City Music Hall
April 2 – Turners Falls, Mass., Shea Theater
April 3 – Fairfield, Conn., Fairfield Theatre StageOne
April 7 – Old Saybrook, Conn., Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center
April 8 – Brooklyn, N.Y., Rough Trade
April 9 – Philadelphia, Pa., Johnny Brenda’s
April 12 – Richmond, Va., The Camel
April 13 – Durham, N.C., Motorco Music Hall
April 14 – Asheville, N.C., The Grey Eagle
April 15 – Johnson City, Tenn., Willow Tree Coffeehouse and Music Room
April 16 – Nashville, Tenn., City Winery Nashville
April 17 – Decatur, Ga., Eddie’s Attic
April 18 – Decatur, Ga., Eddie’s Attic
April 27 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton Live
April 28 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
May 5 – Carmel, Ind., The Warehouse
May 6 – Chicago, Ill., Schubas Tavern
May 7 – Spring Lake, Mich.,  Seven Steps Up Live Music & Event Venue
May 8 – Cleveland, Ohio, Beachland Tavern 

For more information, please visit Haroula Rose’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Tumblr blog, SoundCloud page and YouTube channel.