Maggie Rose had heard it one too many times, that phrase that makes her skin crawl: “We love her. But we just don’t know what to do with her.”
“It’s really disheartening,” says Rose, sitting at a café in East Nashville in a studded denim jumpsuit. She always knew what people meant by the phrase anyway: that it was less about not knowing what to do with her, and more about how they didn’t want to try. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., and moving to Nashville under the urging of former Sony executive Tommy Mottola, she was always a little bit more soulful than the rest, willing to give those notes a bit of a bluesy bend — especially when she really let loose. She liked writing her own songs and had a playful sense of how she wanted to portray herself. She liked being electric on stage.
And it was a few years ago when she started hearing another phrase come up again and again — from that same school of slightly backhanded compliments. “It was always, ‘I love what you record, but I really love your live shows,'” Rose says. This one, however, she took to heart. After struggling through the shuttering of her record label, mildly successful singles that she never loved to begin with (“I couldn’t get arrested at country radio,” is how she puts it) and trying to write with some sort of “workable” destination in mind, she’d had enough. She, too, knew she was best on stage. Why not shoot for that?
So last summer, Rose and her “family band,” including members of Nashville retro-rock outfit Them Vibes and her touring musicians, headed into the studio to record live — no overdubs, no magic or manipulation or isolation booths. Just a few takes from start to finish, and they got what they got. The results are an amalgam of soul, roots, blues, country and gospel with a powerful pop sensibility — as much Alicia Keys as Bonnie Raitt — that easily transcends her past work.
“We took whatever our favorite take was and that was that,” says Rose. “If you messed up, you started again. It was so liberating. I had never sung with that much conviction before, because that’s your one shot.” At first, the project was just going to be a few songs, but soon Rose realized that the approach was working so well that it had to be a complete album, the newly released Change the Whole Thing. Rose teased the new direction with digital 45s, partly to prime her fans for the change and partly to break free of the suffocating Nashville cycle, where artists have to put all of their weight behind one single to service to country radio (and, if it fails, often taking down entire LPs with it).
“Before, I had a staff of 18 people who really needed to make it work because otherwise the promotion department would fall apart,” she says. “That’s not the way you should make music. [This album] was a rejection of all that. A little piss and vinegar to send you on your way is not a bad thing, and I know a lot of women in this town have made a lot of good music because they were pissed off. Most of them, actually.”
Change the Whole Thing, however, isn’t a pissed-off record. It’s an album about love and how to hold onto it when life isn’t perfect, about reaching out to one another and making a difference in the world, even in the most minute way: “you don’t have to change the whole thing,” she sings on the title track, “you just have to leave it a little better.” There’s “Just Getting By,” where Rose tacks a Beatles-esque shine to a song about coming to terms with what you’ve got; the gospel funk of “Do Right By My Love” that finds her at her most explosive; and “Hey Blondie,” a track inspired by the singer Debbie Harry that doubles as a feminist rallying cry.
“I was watching CBS Sunday Morning and they did a piece on Blondie,” says Rose, an admitted news junkie. “She just swatted away this idea that someone could call her ‘blondie’ without her owning it first.” Rose could relate — with platinum hair, she’d been called the name plenty, and had spent ample time being upset about it. But on “Hey Blondie,” she’s more interested in forcing the world to be accountable for how it treats women, from catcalls to unequal bank accounts, than wallowing in anger. “Working real hard for my money, and working for a little less pay, don’t you think it’s funny that some things will never change?” she sings, preaching along with the horns in a Muscle Shoals-worthy moment of gospel soul. It ended up being a companion piece to the track she wrote for Land O’Lakes with Liz Rose called “She-I-O,” to recognize female farmers on Women’s Equality Day.
In fact, Rose wrote the bulk of Change the Whole Thing firmly entrenched in the divisive current political atmosphere. She’s seen a lot of rage, but, more disturbingly, she’s seen apathy — people upset with the world around them, but unwilling or lacking the conviction to chisel away at making a difference. Tweeting displeasure, but doing nothing. “Apathy is my biggest pet peeve,” Rose says. “Apathy is the enemy of artistry.”
Though she’d floated between moments of dejection and disappointment, Rose never dipped into apathy — and Change the Whole Thing is a result of what happens when you turn setbacks into fuel, instead of letting them quench the fire. After years at various labels, both independent and major, Rose is releasing Change the Whole Thing herself. Instead of pushing song after song to the country airwaves, she’s servicing this one to AAA (adult album alternative) and now laughs at how that process essentially meant sending out tracks and not having to engage in a radio tour. It all opened her up to a new kind of freedom — freedom that you can hear.
“I made a soul record. I’m not doing this because the label is telling me I need another radio hit,” she says. “I’m so inspired now. It will be quality control from here on out.”
She takes a sip of coffee and laughs. “Do I sound angry?” she asks. “Because I’m not. I’m really happy.”