If being mentioned on NPR means you’ve made it, Hey Rosetta! arrived in 2010. Along with Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors, their second album, Into Your Lungs, landed on the career-boosting All Songs Considered program. Now, with the release of their latest album, Second Sight, this seven-piece outfit out of Newfoundland has returned to the limelight. Led by singer-songwriter Tim Baker, Hey Rosetta! produces a capacious, swelling sound incorporating piano, violin, and cello into the traditional four-piece rock setup. Baker spoke to us in anticipation of the band’s show at The Ark.
In a recent interview with Music Times you said that "everyone has those songs they listen to and they get goosebumps, and that really moves them to feel something important." What songs give you goosebumps?
Well, it's difficult to describe. It can be simple… usually for me the quickest route to goosebumps is a convergence of a lyrical image and musical movement. That's the magic of what we do that I love so much, because it can be so simple: a screen door slamming, a punch in the face, a kiss on the shoulder blade, a couple chords, an easy melodic line and insistent drumming. And when they're coupled properly it magnifies both—when the words and the music speak with the same voice it's all suddenly louder—and that’s when your eyes water, or your hairs prick up, and you're truly receiving. I often forget this actually, I'm just realizing as I'm writing this. I mean, I try to create these moments of course, but I often forget how important they are, and they often take a backseat to me trying to write something sensible and coherent, almost borderline essay-like, and that can hold you back from fully exploring these more pointed fleeting moments that are so important.
Those types of songs seems to tap into a sense of nostalgia. How does nostalgia enter the equation for you when you're writing?
I don't think there's anything in your life that doesn't enter the equation when writing. Memories definitely play a huge role. What it is about time passing that makes things so much more poignant I don't know, but I think it's exactly the kind of feeling that makes lyrics (and writing and film and art) good. It's dreamlike and somehow more directly connected to your emotional core. Memories aren't fraught with all the minor inconsequential worries and discomforts and bullshit that makes the present so wan by comparison. I guess we don't bother remembering that crap. So yes, nostalgia plays a huge role in my songwriting, and not just lyrically but the grooves and melodies of the music I grew up with and learned how to dance to and sing and play.
In the commentary track for your song "Dream" you mention how a line from Joan Didion's essay "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" matches the theme of your song. What are you reading now? Are you often inspired by literature to write music?
Yeah books are arguably my biggest inspiration when it comes to writing lyrics. I have to really fight to make time in my life to read, on the road and off, but I try to have a few books on the go simultaneously. Right now I'm just starting Don Delillo's Mao II, which I'm really psyched about. And I'm also reading Dubliners by James Joyce for quick little potent hits of image and escape. And for the long hours driving in the van, I'm also reading the trashy but pretty darn engrossing historical fiction Winter of the World by Ken Follett. I find you need something like that on the road (and films, too), something that asks very little of you when you're so dragged out, something that kills the hours quickly. I've written a couple of songs heavily inspired by books in the past (“Young Glass,” based on Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger; “Seeds,” heavily inspired by Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game; “Yer Fall,” James Agee's A Death In the Family; “Alcatraz,” Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song), but I would say that almost any song of mine contains things I've read somehow.
When you sit down to write do you have something you're writing towards or do you move forward one line at a time without knowing what might come next? How structured is your approach?
Good question. Both really. It's a balance. But I usually start without a specific goal or thesis in mind, letting the chords and the melody come out of nothing, and then the first fledgling words come out of that. Then as the point of the thing becomes clearer, I take it to the workshop and refine and edit forever. I love the challenge of trying to make a point, trying to make it in an interesting and arresting way, and doing so in rhyme and rhythm that fits in the music. The song “Cathedral Bells,” for example, a very simple tune that began with the chords and the melody, and then out of the music came the line "that's when the shadow came and darkened your china face." And then from that line this whole scenario of a troubled girl at a festive party scene emerged, and then the narrator connects to her and her trouble and finds love and commiseration in the ashes and beer cups of the wee hours of the weekend. It began naturally but then took shape into a sort of narrative structure that the rest of the tune had to then fit into. Quite often I don't write narratives but there's usually a conceit or overarching image system that everything needs to fit into. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes I let the moment decide. Generally my approach is to start free and end up making sense.
A lot of Canadian bands have gained international attention in the past few decades—Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Great Lake Swimmers (Bieber). Are there common Canadian themes, lyrically or musically, you can point to?
I don't think I'm qualified to answer this, really. I feel like Canada is too large and diverse for there to be many Canadian themes you can trust across the board. One thing I suppose we all have in common is that we all battle with a long cold winter up here—mostly you spend a lot of time indoors doing indoor wintry things: playing music, reading books, imagining better days and just generally living vicariously. I guess that's something that ties us together. Whether or not it's a recipe for success is another question.
When was the last time you watched The Last Waltz?
It's been a couple years. We used to cover “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the great Last Waltz version of course, so I watched it then and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Any cover song arrangements for us to look forward to?
Oh so many in the works. We'll see if we can hammer any out by the time we get to you. Busy times. In fact, gotta fly!
Hey Rosetta! Monday, February 16, 8:00pm, $15, The Ark, 316 South Main Street, Ann Arbor, (734) 761-1451