Jeff Rosenstock: An Anxious Songwriter for Anxious Times

For years Jeff Rosenstock was one of punk music’s best kept secrets.

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He toured the world with his critically acclaimed anti-capitalist pop punk band Bomb The Music Industry! (or BTMI! or just Bomb), carrying t-shirt stencils and spray paint to all ages venues and house show basements in lieu of merch. He started the first donation based record label, Quote Unquote Records, a full year before Radiohead popularized the idea of pay-what-you-want music. And through decades of solid output, rigorous touring, and unyielding punk ethos, he cemented himself as one of the unsung heroes of DIY.

But that changed in 2016. Two years after BTMI! played their last show, Rosenstock released Worry. (stylized with a period), his third solo LP, to massive critical acclaim.

After years of relative commercial obscurity, Worry. pushed Rosenstock into the forefront of indie rock. In a matter of months he went from supporting tours to headlining his own, and being offered spots on big music festivals like Pitchfork. Magazines and websites that hadn’t given him the time of day were suddenly reaching out. And soon after it was announced he would be composing the music for Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek. After two decades of struggling to pay the bills with music, things are finally looking up for Jeff Rosenstock.

But he’s still as anxious as ever.

On his fifth LP NO DREAM, Rosenstock breaks his streak of album titles ending in some kind of ellipsis.

“The album title is supposed to be ‘N O  D R E A M’ with spaces between the letters and a double space between the words,” he tells me over the phone. “But it was impossible to do that in these modern times. You can’t do the double space. Because the way html code works, it just erases it. So that was the plan, but also it feels nice to be free from the burden of having to think of a clever way to do something every time.”

He recently moved from his longtime home of New York City to Los Angeles, though he’s barely been out of the house due to COVID-19. Instead he’s spent most of his time in quarantine composing music for Craig of the Creek, and when he’s not sick of staring at screens, occasionally playing video games. He cites The Messenger as a recent favorite, and says the pixel art influenced the cover art for NO DREAM.

“I went through Animal Crossing and at some point I got so burnt out on Animal Crossing that I got burnt out on everything,” he tells me. “This past week, Christine (his wife) has suggested watching season 5 of Queer Eye which takes place in Philadelphia. Just as a nice thing to feel good while terrible things are happening around. And hearing some nice, really strong Northeast accents may kind of make me feel a little bit less homesick.”

NO DREAM sees Rosenstock veering back into more self reflective songwriting following the overtly political punk songs of 2018’s POST-. Surprise released on May 20th, and recorded three months earlier, the album features 13 spirited punk songs pumped full of nervous energy.

“I just wanted to make an unrelenting punk record, and also I felt like the slow songs I was writing just didn’t have the energy that I felt I needed in my life,” he says.

I tell him I admire the way he’s managed to endow a sense of frustration and catharsis into these songs while still keeping a humble perspective. To me, this is not a bitter record.

“It’s nice of you to say it like that; I think a lot of people don’t see it that way,” he says with a nervous laugh. “I still get ‘bitter, angry, manchild, angsty, boyfuck Jeff Rosenstock makes another whiny record.’  It makes me feel bad when I see that stuff. But also I understand too that I need to develop some thicker skin when it comes to that. Because I’ve been incredibly lucky, and our band has been incredibly lucky over the past few years”

With that luck comes perspective and for Rosenstock that’s been key to coping with his anxiety.

“I felt like a big breakthrough for me mental health-wise, songwriting or not, was when I kind of started to develop the ability when I’m feeling super depressed or super anxious to understand that that’s a mental issue, and that it’s something I’m going through. And it’s something I can acknowledge I’m going through. And it’s something that will at some point pass, at least whatever specific thing that’s getting me down. So I try to be aware of that when I’m writing a record. I always try to land somewhere that feels like I’ve achieved some sort of emotion growth personally by the end of the record. “

There is marked growth and maturity on this record, even if it’s occasionally buried in self doubt and existential dread.

On “Old Crap” Rosenstock bemoans himself for slipping back into old habits.

“How’s it animosity can just cut right through the fog / of a pixelated memory that you figured was long gone / and it shapeshifts into guilt that corners you into rights and wrongs / ‘cause you told yourself you’re the kind of person who knows how to move on.”

Rosenstock screams his inner fears and anxieties over blast beats and thrashing guitars building into a biting lyrical crescendo.

“You can call it ‘angst’ but I ain’t seen proof / that the world ain’t fucked / and we ain’t just doomed to the truth. / I’m still gonna do all of the things I want to do.”

It is easy to perceive bitterness in these songs without a closer listen. But in truth wrestling with his emotions in his songwriting has always propelled Rosenstock’s trajectory emotionally and creatively.

Like in “The Beauty of Breathing”  where he expresses discomfort with his newfound celebrity and the social expectations that come with it.

“I walk outside and people say “hey” / and sometimes I just wanna say ‘hey, go away. / Go away.’ / So I guess I better stay inside.”

Confronting and validating these uncomfortable ideas allows Rosenstock to keep his head above them.

“When I was on tour it could be a bit of a struggle for me to remain grateful and not just be overwhelmed by the parts of it that make me feel really anxious,” he says. “That was a difficult thing to articulate in a way, when you put out a record. ‘Well I’m gonna sound like I’m an ungrateful piece of shit.’”

“Something that I had struggled with is just trying to understand having this kind of overwhelming anxiety and a bit of an existential crisis about how to be a person that I would want to be when I do meet people. Because my songs are very personal. I want when people talk to me for me to not feel afraid to talk to people. I don’t want to be a person where I’m only acting on trying to be reflective of what I think people want to see in me.”

“There’s a lot of confusion that comes along with attention when you are a person like me that feels anxious at those things. Some of the things that I wrote about on this record was a handful of years of doing some self reflection and really asking myself difficult questions, and acknowledging that these are ways that I felt. Even though it’s a hard thing to think about or think through without feeling a little bit ungrateful.”

While NO DREAM isn’t as overtly political as its predecessor POST-, it does have its moments.

On the title track “N O  D R E A M” Rosenstock sings about his disdain for capitalism and a broken leadership that ignores the cries of its people.

“The only framework capitalism can thrive in is dystopia. / Fuck all the fakers acting like they’re interested / in hearing us when we yell / ‘Hold accountable the architects of hopelessness and neverending violence!’”

It’s no accident that Rosenstock’s music became more political as his profile rose. On Worry. he penned the poignant “To Be A Ghost”, a fevered rallying cry in opposition to police brutality, positing the crucial and unfortunate truth that “hate’s not a fad that dies with its virality.”

“Worry. was like my fifteenth record and I was trying to just approach things in a different way and also realizing that I had a platform and I was talking to people,” he says. “I think people need to hear about this stuff who might not know about this stuff, and at this very moment in time I know that I will have a larger platform than I might have in the future. And I would be a bad punk and I would be pretty hypocritical if I didn’t try and address this stuff now that I have a larger stage to address it from.“

Even though he is nervous about COVID-19, Rosenstock has been attending Black Lives Matter protests in LA and says the current climate gives him hope for change.

“I think it’s important that everyone just keeps on fighting and doesn’t let up the fight when something else is trending,” he says. “The Black Lives Matter movement is important. It’s important that we say black lives matter. It’s important that we acknowledge that the system has been set up in a way that the police are saying black lives do not matter which is fucked up and completely unacceptable.”

Rosenstock says the rallies he’s attended have all been peaceful and following CDC guidelines.

“The only people that didn’t have masks on were the cops, which is telling to me,” he says before commending the organizers for keeping things safe and accessible. “It’s very nice to see that a lot of organization has taken place in the last week to I think create a sustainable movement and a sustainable energy against our racist police state.”

NO DREAM isn’t the only Rosenstock album to drop this month. In The Key Of The Creek: A Craig of the Creek Musical came out just days later to coincide with the release of the first musical episode of the popular children’s show. Rosenstock says he personally pushed for the episode and wrote and recorded the music in an Airbnb.

“What is in the final musical episode is what I recorded in the Airbnb,” he says. “And it was kind of important to me for it to still be kind of homemade and janky feeling because I feel like that’s how the kids make stuff. The kids on the show are always creating stuff and I wanted the musical to have that spirit in it.”

The premise of the episode is that the lead character, Craig, is stuck inside and has to use his imagination to have fun instead, a concept which Rosenstock says “ended up being very reflective of the times when the episode came out.”

He flew in to voice direct some sessions, a process he says was both exciting and intimidating.

“Y’know I don’t give myself enough credit for having made records for other people, having produced records and stuff,” he says. “And I felt like I was a kid in adult’s clothes.”

Rosenstock credits the animators, actors and crew with bringing everything to life and inspiring him to work harder on the music. He says the show helped inform NO DREAM in its own way.

“I think for NO DREAM specifically, if anything it kind of made me realize that the trick of having these really elaborate, maximalist arrangements is you still need to have a good song,” he says. “I think it encouraged me to do more paired down and smaller arrangements on this record. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m burnt out from using orchestral arrangements from doing Craig of the Creek stuff, and mixing those things up, or if it’s because the energy of the show made me realize what the energy of punk is. There’s a lot of things that are kind of all working in tandem with each other that I try to just not acknowledge, and try to just move on with the flow of everything.”

For Rosenstock, finding success later in life has given him empathy, perspective and a strong sense of gratitude. He represents the everyman in a way, a working class songwriter with his fingers on the pulse of a society that badly needs good representation.

But even if all of his newfound hype somehow died and he had to go back to playing in people’s basements, that wouldn’t change much for Jeff Rosenstock.

“It’s okay for nobody to give a shit,” he says. “I think in a lot of ways it felt more comfortable when nobody gave a shit because it felt like I could say whatever the fuck I wanted.”

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