The cocktail of talent, ingenuity, and hard work is what first draws listeners to an artist and their music. But it's that indescribable and illusive quality that solidifies those fans. It's something you can't put your finger on. But who says you've got to understand every lick, lyric, and beat in the first place? If you've seen or heard Susanna Rose perform, it's pretty clear there's more than meets the ear going on here, more than simply a pretty girl singing and playing some pretty guitar.
Rose is quiet and unassuming. She's always smiling beneath a cascade of chestnut tresses. And it's this big smile that you hear as it conversely permeates and melts the overcast melancholy of her lyrics. She claims to know only a handful of chords, yet the way she gently renders them in simple picking patterns and fills, it's as if she invented them. Her sound is utter magic.
Though she didn't pick up the guitar until her early 20's, Rose, now 27, was a musical child. "I previously played piano and sang as a kid," Rose says. "I sang to myself a lot and would make up songs. I had my own radio show. I'd do all the voices and make up commercials. But I never thought that I could be a songwriter. I never put that together. It never clicked in my head."
While studying abroad in London, Rose befriended a singer-songwriter who showed her a handful of chords. "I was like, 'That's so amazing. 'How do you do that?' He said 'It's easy. There are thousands of songs with just two chords.' All I had to do was learn two or three chords and get some words that rhymed. So I started writing songs with the five chords I knew."
She returned to the States in 2009 with her five chords, and that winter recorded her first CD, "Mirage," in Tim Avery's house.
"We had a house party," she says. "And I gave it away in brown paper bags."
Now on album number three, "Snowbound," Rose has solidified her sound somewhere in the twilight between lonely and ironic. On the song "Old Broken Heart," she sings about wondering what to wear to an ex-lover's wedding, before admitting that she hasn't been invited yet. On songs like "Benediction," she plugs in a full band that calls to mind Lucinda Williams Americana without the epic loneliness.
The sound is stripped down to the essence of a beautiful voice and a plaintive guitar weaving and tiptoeing throughout. You can hear the dust in the air as she sings. And gone is the bombastic, histrionic warbling that chokes this genre, replaced by bittersweet, insightful music played beautifully. Yet according to Rose, there is no set approach to writing.
"It depends," she says. "Sometimes it's a lyric, a line or two." Regardless, the marriage of the two is captivating.
"That's the kind of music I like," she says. "I love Iron & Wine. I love Bon Iver. Ever since I was young I've liked sad music. I feel a lot of crap has happened in my life. Melancholy music helps me acknowledge that it's real, so I gravitate to that. It feels authentic to express songs that are melancholy. But I want to write more, mix it up a little. Especially at shows, I see people feeling it, and I want to give them a break – also for contrast." The only caveat: it's gotta be real.
"I won't make music that doesn't feel authentic to me," says Rose.