Rising country artist Maggie Rose left Potamac, Maryland — where she was singing in a Bruce Springsteen cover band — for Nashville on the advice of music mogul Tommy Mottola, an early supporter. There, she cut her debut album Cut To Impress, with the help of veteran producers Blake Chancey and James Stroud. Rose chatted with us about songwriting, Calvin and Hobbes, her early material and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
If I have to keep it at three I would have to say Paul McCartney, Don Schlitz and Stevie Nicks.
how would you describe Cut To Impress?
It’s fearless. I’ve picked from my favorite songs that I have written or heard since moving to Nashville. From those songs I made another selection of those that best represent me at this stage in my evolution as an artist. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew what I wanted when I made it. I had no template to follow and I wouldn’t have wanted one because I think it sounds like me and it’s the perfect introduction of my sound to my listeners.
Do you have any rituals or tricks you like to use in the studio?
The producers I worked with on this album were focused on the performance and not the perfect vocal take. I would deliver a line that was “technically perfect” and they would want me to sing it again because perfect can be boring. It was a fun and casual environment for certain songs and reverent at other times. The mood was always a collaborative effort to suit the song we were working on. I am obsessed with vocal arranging and utilized my band for the harmonies on the album as well. So, having them around for the recording process made the environment that much warmer for me. That and some fireball whiskey.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
I am still in the process of learning to play the guitar and I have a long way to go. However, my main motivation to learn to play was my desire to write music. I have always had a good sense of melody but without chords to accompany my melodies I could never fully convey my ideas. Ellen Britton got me started and she made the point that no amount of practice can prepare you the way playing in front of a live audience does. So most of my learning took place at songwriter’s rounds at places like Hotel Indigo and the Commodore in Nashville.
Every artist has influences from the past. Are you being influenced by new musicians as well?
Absolutely! There are so many inspiring artists out there right now. I saw a local band play the other night at a pub a couple blocks away from my apartment and it was completely inspiring. The frontman reminded me of Robert Plant and was all over the stage even. There were maybe 15 people in the audience but he looked like he was playing to 15,000. It’s cool to see that kind of commitment to one’s craft and I think that there are a lot of people out there who are preserving that idea. Music will always been interesting if people maintain that ideology. Kacey Musgraves is a good example of someone who writes what she feels and represents who she is without affectations. I always want to remain unapologetic whenever I write or sing a song.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t sing. My band mates and I have about 50 voice notes of stupid joke songs that we have written. We’re thinking we may need to start a side project and record them because we find ourselves singing them for weeks at a time.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing when I was in 5th grade. And God, no. The songs we’re not good right away. They were lyrically weak, but, like I said, I was in 5th grade and my life experiences were not exactly songwriting fuel. It wasn’t until age 16 that I ever let one of my originals be heard by a live audience, which was a huge milestone for me and I had to be coerced by the band that I was frequently performing with. It was like ripping off a band-aid and I have never really looked back since. I still have my insecurities when it comes to sharing my originals, but then I remind myself that 16 year old me could do it with my early material and I suck it up.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was a ballad called “One Way Love” about unrequited love. I am laughing as I recall this, but I remember I had just read about the story of Sisyphus in school and I incorporated that into the song. I described this boy’s unrelenting love by saying “he just kept rolling that rock and it would fall back in place” in the second verse. My parents and my grandparents still ask me to perform that song for them and I always blush a little when they do. It was the first original song I had ever performed in front of a live crowd and despite the slightly nerdy literary references, it was a very honest song.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I just started a song inspired by a Calvin and Hobbes comic that depicts a situation I am currently going through in my life. There is a flower needing water and Calvin, holding a watering can taunts the flower by saying “only I can give you what you need.” Then, it starts to rain. My boyfriend sent me a screenshot of the comic and said “you’re the flower in this scenario” and the idea was born. Honestly, there have been much stranger origins to different songs I’ve written.
How do you go about writing songs?
I think every song comes about in a different way. Writing is also a very cyclical thing for me. I have had months at a time where I felt uninspired and super critical of any ideas I come up with. And then there are times where it is effortless and I can write a song a day for several weeks. Granted, they are not all keepers, but I’m exercising that creative muscle. I’ve found that just being open to inspiration helps. If I wake up at 3am and have some seemingly brilliant idea I get my iPhone and jot down the lyrical idea or record the melody in my head. Most of the time I wake up the next day and scratch my head wondering what the hell I was thinking, but every now and then it turns out to be exactly the idea that I needed to write at that time.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
I try to keep my lyrics as conversational as possible which can sometimes be a challenge for me. I grew up in grammar school and prep school writing a ton of prose and essays where it was good to make your writing really ornate and fancy. These qualities in my writing didn’t necessarily apply in songwriting and in fact acted as a barrier between what I was saying and what I wanted to say. I had a lot of bad habits I had to break when I first moved to Nashville. I try and think if it’s something I would say to my very best friend or someone I am trying to tell off or get in bed with. Those are the truly exposing lyrics.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Usually personal events in my life or the lives of people close to me. I know it doesn’t seem like an original idea, but truth is stranger than fiction. I have been inspired by books, movies, TV shows, fans I meet on the road, places I visit and even text messages now and then. It’s just about keeping my eyes open.
What’s a song on your Cut To Impress you’re particularly proud of?
I am really proud of “Preacher’s Daughter.” It’s a very involved narrative with a really swampy, sultry tone. This song really acted as the template for the rest of my album. I wrote it with my talented friend, Connie Harrington. On its own it is a very descriptive and dark story but the backstory for me is that I used a really upsetting experience I had been through and channeled that energy into the song. There is a connection between this person who completely betrayed my trust and our choice of the villain in this story that is satisfying to me without glorifying him.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“If you’d called the other day/ well this coulda gone the other way/ and I’d be somewhere up against your skin/ but heaven sent a little grace and I woke up in a different place/ I ain’t going back where I’ve been” from my song “I Know Better Now.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I think it’s easier. I’ve realized that every contribution I make or my cowriter makes is valid even if it doesn’t end up in the song. My friend, Ed Couppe who is a songwriter and actor always says that we have to “confuse our governors” and make different choices and go there even if it doesn’t win every time. Writing often is how I try to confuse my governor.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I don’t think there are any words that I love or hate. I get more fixated on phrasing and feel like that can sometimes be what makes me love or hate a lyric more than anything.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is . . .
How inspiration can come at the most inconvenient time. I always think “Oh, I’ll remember that in a little” and then an hour later it’s gone. It really can be easy if you drop everything to grab on to that one idea but it’s not always easy to do that.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I recorded a song written by Dave Berg, Deanna Bryant and Candy Cameron called “Better” and I released it as a single. I heard from so many people from all over the place who resonated with the song. It was overwhelming to hear these stories of loss and struggle from strangers but it was so beautiful at the same time to know that the message in that song carried so far and touched so many people. I chose to cut that song because upon my first listen I reared up. Maybe it was something going on in my life at that time that made it more poignant but I knew that I wanted to share that relatable feeling with other people in my music. That’s what it’s all about.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I love writing prose. I used to write a column in Ladies Home Journal about being a newcomer to Nashville. I would love to get involved in something like that again because it is so therapeutic for me. Sometimes I just write in stream of consciousness when I journal and it causes me to take a beat and rethink things a little.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I would write with Johnny Cash. His writing was so controversial. It still is. He was a true outlaw and a non-conformist and I want to know what it would feel like to be in the room with someone that fearless.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
This is a hard one because I don’t believe anyone ever doubted her abilities, but I used to write with Connie Harrington all the time and I wondered how it was that I could ever get in the room with her. She is so cool and liberated and I love her spirit. Now she’s got a few CMA awards, Grammy nominations to her name so I guess the secret is out.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
There are a lot of perfect songs out there. It may sound funny but I think I was lucky enough to find one of them for my album. Lisa Carver wrote “Looking Back Now” originally titled “Whiskey and a Gun” and there is not a wasted word in that song. The protagonist is a murderous, vindictive woman scorned who kills two people and eventually faces the repercussions of her actions and is killed by lethal injection. If you don’t dig deeper she doesn’t appear to be a sympathetic character but you find yourself relating to her throughout the song. I think it’s terrifying to think of the fact that everyone has their breaking point and to wonder what moment, what event, what suppressed memory could affect where that breaking point is? After hearing the song for the first time I was haunted by the story and found myself thinking about the complexity of the character and how against all odds I liked her because she is a survivor who was pushed to her own breaking point. It’s a song that has changed my life and since I started singing it five years ago it has taken on a life of its own.