Emmy Rossum has no problem getting into character, whether it's for a movie or an album. "For me, it's always been about playing pretend and finding a part of yourself and exploiting that side of yourself in the most positive way," Rossum tells Rolling Stone.
As an actress, she has certainly broadened her range recently. A few years ago, she was known primarily for her role in the film version of the musical The Phantom of the Opera; now she has blossomed as Fiona Gallagher, the scrappy, resilient eldest daughter on Showtime's raucous Shameless. It's a role that Rossum inhabits so fully that it's disarming to hear her recently released album, A Sentimental Journey, which is filled with sweetly fluid covers of standards. "This is the music that I was exposed to when I was a kid," she explains.
Despite Rossum's solid acting career (she also appeared in the film Beautiful Creatures and just wrapped a movie with Hilary Swank), her first love is music. "I started singing as a tiny, tiny kid, maybe two or three," Rossum says with a laugh. "I wouldn't speak, I would only sing. Then when I was about seven, the chorus teacher at my school sent me over to audition for the Children's Chorus at the Metropolitan Opera after she heard me singing in school." At age 12, she auditioned for her first film, Songcatcher. "That was the first experience I had with recording music. I got to record with Dolly Parton for that movie and that's how I got the bug."
Six years after releasing her 2007 debut album, Inside Out, Rossum was drawn back to the recording studio to create A Sentimental Journey, which is out now. "I had the craving to make more music and I was down in New Orleans filming Beautiful Creatures and the street music there reminded me how much I loved the jazz and bluegrass that I grew up with. I missed the glamour and simplicity of that music and that's how the idea for this album came about." The record is filled with the songs that Rossum learned to love as a child, including tracks made famous by Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Dean Martin and Willie Nelson.
"I really gravitated towards doing a record of old standards. It's the music I really like to sing and find comforting. I really wanted to evoke that old-school nostalgia and maybe introduce a new generation of people to those songs," she says. "My mom would play Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday albums around the house. At bedtime, instead of counting sheep as a lullaby, my mom would sing me Andrews Sisters songs. In fact, she would sing the one that's on the album, 'Apple Blossom Time.'"
Rossum's retro mindset also extended to the recording of the album, a process that took just three days. "I wanted to make the record the way that old records were made. They had all their songs, recorded them in one or two takes and that was the track that they used," she explains. "All the musicians were in the same room. The vocalist was in the booth with an old-school mic, which I used. Then it was mastered to tape." One unmistakably modern moment slips through, however: Rossum conscripted her Shameless costar William H. Macy for a very small cameo on "The Object of My Affection." 'I recorded him talking on my iPhone," she recalls.
Rossum had a very practical reason why she favors this older material: "I find it very calming, especially now living in LA and driving in 405 traffic. It makes me feel peaceful." Now that the frantic season finale of Shameless just aired, her viewers may need it more than ever, too.