The classic-movie-poster pose Caitlin Rose struck for the cover of her new album — a beckoning, big-eyed gaze over the shoulder and into the camera — would suggest some Bette Davis has gotten into her. Only, The Stand-In is the album title printed below her name, and that's no way to talk about a leading lady.
"There's a lot of explanations for that title," says Rose, "but to me, [it's about] the tongue-in-cheek idea of the stand-in being the lead role. I've always kind of felt like a stand-in. I get up on a stage, and I think that's why I goof off so much; I don't feel like a frontwoman."
It wasn't quite as obvious on Rose's previous releases — her Dead Flowers EP and her debut full-length Own Side Now — but she's always been pretty conscious of the role-playing aspect of what she does. When asked a couple years ago about how she blends coyness and comedy in her stage presence, she deadpanned, "I'm not bringing back vaudeville." But she spoke too soon.
The new album's last track — a deliciously insincere drunk-dialing apology titled "Old Numbers" — is a tipsy, swinging jazz tune with a smart-alecky trumpet solo. It's not such a far cry from vaudeville theatricality, and it's the perfect occasion for Rose to take her bewitching, modest singing to a slightly looser, brassier place.
"I do enjoy singing big," says Rose. "One of the first times I ever sang in front of people was doing a blues song for a tryout in a school play in the third grade. And I didn't get it, so I never sang again for like 10 years. ... It's like my reconciliation with that moment where I'm like, 'It's OK. You can do this. You did do OK. You didn't get the part because you were in the third grade. If you were in the fourth grade, you would've gotten the part.' I have to rationalize it to myself."
Self-deprecation aside, after drifting from spare, spiny country confessions toward indie-rock bite, what Rose has on her hands this time is a handsome, hooky AM-pop album, complete with first-rate songcraft, all the bells and whistles of string-swathed studio arrangements and a generous dose of twang. In the accompanying bio she makes clear that she wasn't aiming for an indie-sounding record.
"I'm already so restrained in music," Rose says by way of explanation. "I feel like if I was trying to make a record that would end up on, like, a Pitchfork thing, or if I was trying for something in that vein, it would just sound like nothing."
Essential to Rose's bigger-than-ever sound are her producers and frequent co-writers Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning, along with the dynamic guitar duo of Jeremy Fetzer on electric and Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel. Rose met Fetzer at a Fleetwood Mac cover night in Nashville, and Cullum emailed to offer his services when she played a tour date on his London turf. The two of them also have an instrumental side project called Steelism. (Incidentally, Rose, Steelism and Andrew Combs — in whose band Cullum and Fetzer also play — just returned from a successful package tour in the U.K.)
Says Rose of the Steelism guys, "I feel like they create something that I can kind of find my place in. It's like a musical cloud that I can kind of sit on. ... They've been very influential in the sound of things, especially for the more rock side of things, because they're rock snobs, and they don't let me make a misstep. So that helps. I think my taste is a lot more broad in terms of certain things, but they just have a really good rock 'n' roll intuition."
Rose's new album may come off as left-field pop-rock now, since mainstream momentum is with more insistent, less laid-back varieties of pop, but if she'd released it in the '70s — say, sometime between Linda Ronstadt's Heart Like a Wheel and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours — it could easily have made a bona fide radio star out of her, rather than a generator of loads of U.K. buzz who's still sorta under the radar in the States, despite being one of our longtime hometown heroines.
Speaking of Ronstadt, she's by far Rose's most frequently invoked influence. "Every time I start feeling a certain way," Rose says, "I can usually find a Linda Ronstadt article that says exactly the same thing, and I don't have to feel so alone." As Rose has pondered what roles feel right for her, it could be that she's learned from the discomfort Ronstadt expressed with the trappings of being a sex symbol and superstar. What's clear is that Rose is enjoying the hell out of embracing the Ronstadt model of song-driven pop eclecticism.
"I was joking with someone the other day," says Rose. "It's like, 'Do you wanna be like the next Chrissie Hynde, or do you wanna fuck off and do crazy shit like Linda Ronstadt, and do orchestral albums?' You can do whatever you want. Nobody has to limit themselves to one thing. It's just about doing what you love doing, no matter what."