Maggie Rose: Unchained Melodies

Dean Budnick on June 17, 2024
Maggie Rose: Unchained Melodies

photo: Sophia Matinazad


“I wasn’t expecting to land a record deal for this one,” Maggie Rose reveals, as she describes the genesis of her new studio album, No One Gets Out Alive. “These were songs that I had to write because they captured how I was feeling at the time.”

However, that purity of expression and freedom from expectation yielded Rose’s most inviting and impactful work to date, which prominent label Big Loud Records released in early April.

“A lot of the songs were written within a six-month period when I was going through a tough time with the aftermath of the pandemic,” she elaborates. “It put a lot of stress on relationships that I thought would last a lifetime. Also, the industry was in such poor health, which impacted my touring career. I typically write with a bigger group of people, but this was much more insular and personal. The list of collaborators that I wrote these songs with was a lot smaller than it has been on my previous albums because of the personal nature of the music.”

After she completed this series of compositions, she recognized they were intertwined in a manner she had neither anticipated nor cultivated.

“There came a point when I recognized, ‘OK, there’s a theme gathering here. It’s about healing and peace and swinging for the fences and just going for it, without a guarantee of success or worries about failure.’”

Given the nature of the material, she reached out to Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes, John Paul White, St. Paul & The Broken Bones), who had produced her previous album, Have a Seat.

“Since I wasn’t signed to a label at the time, it was just the two of us, dreaming up what we could do. Ben is such a good friend and, given the intimacy of these songs, I felt safer having him handle this again. It’s always fun to dig deeper the second time around. You can go a little bit further with that person when you’re already at a level of comfort.”

That comfort extended to other aspects of the recording process, which took place at Starstruck Studios in Nashville, the city where Rose has resided since moving there in 2008 at age 19. Starstruck is owned and operated by Rose’s management team, which allowed the sessions to proceed at their own pace. The locale also facilitated the participation of some stellar area residents, including guitarist Sadler Vaden and drummer Chad Gamble from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit.

Rose’s other principal collaborators all had worked with her on prior occasions. For instance, Don Hart (Trey Anastasio, Randy Travis), who arranged some of the music on No One Gets Out Alive for a 64-piece orchestra based in North Macedonia, had written a song with Rose that appears on the Sugar Maple podcast. Beyond that, she notes, “Zac Cockrell played bass on a bunch of tracks on my last record, and he was in the Shakes with Ben, so they had that familiarity. I thought Peter Levin, who’s a good friend of mine, would be a bullseye with his musical sensibilities, and he has a great chemistry with Kaitlyn Connor, the keyboardist in my band. Kyle Lewis was auxiliary, and he’s my band leader. Bobby Holland, who engineered the whole project, produced my album Change the Whole Thing in 2018 and I enjoyed watching his friendship grow with Ben.”

“The ideas were free-flowing in this safe space that Ben created, knowing that we could spend an entire day just tracking one song,” she adds. “It really allowed for things to blossom in the way that they did. I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna, but it was pretty magical.”

You’ve said that this album represents your ongoing efforts to define yourself as a creative artist, rather than allowing others to impose their own terms. Was there something that expedited the process or has it been an accretion of experiences?

My love of singing and connecting with people is what brought me to Nashville. When I was 15, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band welcomed me to join them and sing at their shows on the Jersey Shore. I would leave all the Bruce Springsteen material to them, but they were kind enough to back me up and cover all these different artists I loved. Eventually, they let me sneak in my originals, so I could see if they were connecting with people who were coming to these venues to escape into live music.

That’s when I realized the importance of the story and the performance. It’s great to be a good singer and technically capable, but I think that’s just a small part of the equation. Then moving to Nashville and starting to collaborate, write my own songs and find my voice, made me fall in love with that component even more.

I was thrown into the Music Row way of things very early. In 2008, I moved here. I was signed to a major label as a 19 year old and put onto the fast track of how music was typically released in Nashville, especially in more of the commercial country genre.

While that was such a great opportunity, I do think that I was completely overwhelmed by the machine and the process. I had to reclaim the music over the last couple of albums by having life experiences and asking myself those important questions about what kind of artist I wanted to be.

Then the rug was pulled out from underneath me in a pretty dramatic way when I was about 24 years old. It was very formative for me. The label I was assigned to folded. I had country radio politics blow up in my face with another similar song, and I realized that I did not want to be defined by that ambition anymore. I wanted to make music because I love making music and because of that I was able to circumvent and survive what felt like catastrophe at the time; although, now it’s like, “Whatever.”

That was a catalyst for some of my best music. I felt empowered by that. I felt like I triumphed over a system that had made a lot of really talented friends of mine hang it up and leave Nashville.

I do think Nashville’s a better place for me because of the community I eventually found myself in. But I have been operating kind of as an independent artist since that moment when the label folded, and it was a second opportunity for me to claim my independence and carve out that special spot that was unique to what I was doing— which was kind of transcending genre. It’s motivated by my desire to tour and put on a live show and constantly be out there keeping that rapport with the audience alive wherever that takes us.

In terms of finding your voice, can you point to a moment that felt like you were finally on the right track?

I think it was an album that was released in 2018 called Change the Whole Thing, but I started it around 2017. It was done completely live. I was independent once again, and I wanted to put together all these talented people that I knew in Nashville. It was about that live urgency and what you’re capable of and also understanding what my capabilities were as a vocalist.

I never really understood that about myself, and this album, being live and being sonically different than anything I had released, made me realize, “OK, this is the direction I can go in and I don’t need to subscribe to this production approach.” I am a more capable vocalist than I had realized and I also amassed this incredible group of collaborators in Nashville. I think I’ve carried that through to the most recent album, too.

You mentioned that you wrote most of the songs on No One Gets Out Alive over six months. Was there a particular one that initiated the process?

There were a couple of songs that were written in pretty rapid succession. After I wrote “No One Gets Out Alive” with Natalie Hemby and Sunny Sweeney, I knew that I was most likely going to call the record that. Shortly before I wrote it, I was writing with Chuck Harmony and Claude Kelly, who are so talented—they’re part of a group called Louis York—and we wrote a song called “Fake Flowers.” That’s one where I kind of allow myself to be angry, which is not something I’ve always been really comfortable doing in my music, but it felt good. Another song that I wrote with them called “Vanish” was about a relationship that ended where I didn’t have closure. So that song was kind of a replacement for that.

The writing is always part of the magic for me. When I try and think about approaching the next record, I’m always like, “Oh, my gosh, this will never happen again.” And then it happens.

So there’s that stream of inspiration and there’s also the production aspect of it. I keep referencing “No One Gets Out Alive,” but that song was almost like a folk ballad with the work tape. Then, I brought it to this band and we all kind of meditated on it. They were like, “This song is about living life with urgency and going for it.” So we turned it into this much bigger cinematic or orchestral song, and that was a pretty pleasant surprise to me. It was also something that I probably wouldn’t have realized if it weren’t for all the people who were involved in the process. I’m grateful that I approached this project with a lot of fluidity because it made each song get the treatment that it deserved, so that it could be completed to the best of my ability.

The way you describe recording that song parallels the way plenty of listeners will receive it. Although the title might sound daunting or foreboding, the actual sentiment is something else entirely.

I love the juxtaposition of the title and how ominous it sounds without context. Then you hear the record, and even down to the outro with that big, surprising overture that we do at the end, I wanted it all to be kind of flipped on its head and have people expect one thing and receive another.

I think that that was the first song we ended up tracking as a band, and it really did sort of set the tone. That was an idea that I kind of wanted to carry through the rest of the record. I wanted to make it big, cinematic and grandiose, with that Field of Dreams concept—build it and they will come. But yeah, it was a play on words. I knew that the title would be intriguing and maybe off-putting to some, but at least it would pique people’s curiosity.

Don Hart arranged the orchestra at the end of that song. Before we discuss him, though, I’d like to take a brief Phish digression, since Don’s worked so closely with Trey Anastasio over the years. I heard you were at MSG for Phish’s New Year’s Eve show. When did you first connect with their music?

I owe that to my husband. We’ve been together 10 years, married almost eight, and I became a big fan by proxy. I think he’s been to maybe 80 shows in his life, and now I’ve been to at least 25. I think my initial reaction was, “Where have I been all these years? This community is so loving, and the rabbit hole goes so deep on how much you can nerd out about this band.” Their music and musicianship is definitely something to be admired. So I felt like I had unlocked this little secret that so many people are in on. [Laughs.] It was a cool discovery to make in my mid-20s.

Back to the orchestra on No One Gets Out Alive, how did that come about and when did you initially meet Don Hart?

We used the FAME Orchestra project out of Macedonia, and Don was kind of the conduit to make all of that possible. Ben Tanner had been wanting to implement this orchestra and Don Hart is such a capable arranger.

Don had become a friend of mine a couple years ago through RJ Bee and Tom Marshall. He lives in Nashville, and I believe he heard a song of mine on WMOT. He tweeted at me, and luckily my husband Austin saw the tweet and, of course, knew who Don was. He freaked out and was like, “How can we make this come together?”

Actually, this goes back to the pandemic. That’s when I learned how to play the piano—I’m using that word very liberally. I learned how to write on the piano because I had the time. While I was sitting at my house, I also learned how to play “Shade” from Sigma Oasis, which is an album that was really important to me during the pandemic. It came out at a time when there were not a ton of releases.

RJ Bee had his podcast, Past, Present, Future, Live! with Osiris Media and had me on as a guest, so I played that song. Then RJ and Tom gave me a podcast with Osiris called Salute the Songbird. After my interview with RJ, they realized that they needed more female-driven programs on the channel, which was awesome of them. Then Don Hart, Tom and RJ wrote a scripted podcast called Sugar Maple, which has so much crazy, awesome original music that Don had everything to do with. I co-wrote a song with [Chris] Gelbuda and Don called “Two Arms to Hold Onto” for one of the episodes of that podcast, where I also played a fictional character, Belinda Rose.

That’s how we became friends and started working together. As this album started to present itself, I played him songs that I was thinking about cutting. He was there for every part of the recording process, just sitting and observing while we tracked. Then when it came time for him to make all these amazing string arrangements, he had so many beautiful ideas. I put all the trust in his hands, and he was able to conduct this 64-piece orchestra for “No One Gets Out Alive.” He was able to get 30-something members on “Mad Love,” and he also had a 12-piece string ensemble that he recorded in Nashville for some of the other songs. He also wrote this beautiful meditative outro for “Lonely War.” I knew that would be the penultimate song of the record, and I wanted it to resolve this record in a meditative way before the reprise of “Another Sad Song.”

I remember him playing it to me for the first time in Nashville. It was one of those moments I will never forget, where I was like, “How did I manage to find my way into this creative process with such talented people who gave so much energy and creativity to this project?” That investment on behalf of everyone involved was so meaningful to me, and I think they pushed me to make it bigger because they wanted me to go there.

Beyond the juxtaposition of “Lonely War” and “Another Sad Song,” can you talk about the flow of the album as a whole?

I think I scared some of the more business-minded people on my team by insisting on opening the record with “No One Gets Out Alive,” as it’s so big. But I was like, “This is what the whole project is about. It’s about being bold and daring, so we have to start it with this.”

A lot of people wanted that to be the last song, but I wanted it to start off pretty bold because that’s the theme of the record. “Fake Flowers” was the next boldest thing I could think of, and in my mind, it seemed to be the one that would be cool if we needed to give people a shorter song that would succinctly represent the tone of the record.

The B-side has a little bit of darkness, kind of like Phish. There’s a dark period that you need to dig people out of. So we get tonally a little more somber, and then the hopefulness comes back with “Lonely War.”

I knew I wanted “Another Sad Song” to be last because this feels like a different kind of a collection of songs for me. I didn’t want to have to apologize for how I was feeling. I was like, “Sorry if this is not the happy go-lucky, funky music that you may have been expecting from me, based on the last two records.” But it felt honest and it felt like I was giving people a glimpse into what was going on at this stage. There’s this bigness at the beginning, and then sort of an angry second act, and then peace, hope and almost closure at the end, which is what I tried to find through making this record.

On Salute the Songbird, you spoke with so many thoughtful, accomplished artists. Do you think any of those conversations manifested themselves in some way on No One Gets Out Alive?

Without a doubt. The correlation is so obvious if I think about it because it got me excited about music again. It made me feel not as alone. It made me appreciate all these other artists’ processes, these people who I thought had everything totally figured out. “Melissa Etheridge, she can’t have a problem in the world”—yet, she does.

I felt very united with my fellow musicians again after a time when logistically, it was so hard to get together. But I also was voraciously listening to all these new projects that were coming out, and it broke me out of a rut, where maybe I had been listening in a more patterned way.

It also motivated me. I think there was some healthy competition too, listening to what a lot of my peers were capable of doing during that time. I think it got me really excited about going into the studio and making this because I had been recording the podcast for over a year before we started tracking.

Given the scope of amazing artists who appeared on Salute the Songbird, this may be unfair, but thinking back, what’s the first moment or idea from one of those exchanges that comes to mind?

Oh, that is unfair. [Laughs.] There was one conversation with Yola, who was having such a meteoric rise. Maybe I listened to her album too much before I interviewed her but I was intimidated. I thought she was going to be so precise in how she talked about this album, but she was free-flowing and gave herself a lot of grace with her creative process. She talked about how cyclical her creativity was.

I admired her and the record so much that I thought I would be intimidated, but she made the whole thing so approachable for me. I remember being very comforted by that conversation and how she was handling everything that was coming her way, which was a lot.

As we speak, you’re about to perform some Grateful Dead material at a show in New Orleans. Do you have a favorite song and what does that canon of work represent to you?

It’s “New Speedway Boogie.” I’ve been trying to learn all the lyrics, and I’m realizing just how much I love that one. There are also ones where I can jump up with people, like “Sugaree”—I love the happiness of it. “Bird Song” was a wake-up alarm for me for a while, but I had to change it so I wouldn’t associate my tiredness with it. [Laughs.]

I almost mentioned this earlier when we were talking about Phish, but it’s been really interesting to see these young teenagers and early 20-somethings discovering the Grateful Dead—just their takes on it and that community. I feel like my new familiarity with Phish was similar to that, however long ago it was.

It’s just so cool to be part of something that’s so much bigger than even the band itself. It’s this music that invites people to collaborate and jam together. Even if they don’t know the songs perfectly, there’s this welcoming environment to it. The sentiments in these songs are really cool and abstract in some ways.

They’re also redolent of that moment you were in whenever you heard them for the first time. There are just not that many bands like that outside of Widespread Panic, the Dead and Phish. They’ve put an effort into keeping this thing going because it’s an idea, even more than just the individuals who comprise the band, if that makes sense.

Just as I think a song can be bigger than the singer or the songwriter, for what it’s worth.

I think it’s worth a lot. It’s liberating when you approach music that way. It’s not about you. I don’t think it’s as daunting if you look at it that way. It’s about the connection and whatever you’re evoking in the audience. That should be the thing you’re trying to help live on. The music should be timeless and not the glory or whatever else comes along with it.