“Who I am inherently as a person is someone who wants to change and push the envelope,” Maggie Rose professes on a phone call with Audiofemme. “I really think that sustainability in any career, but especially in music, can only be achieved if you’re switching it up and changing it and pushing yourself and exploring your capabilities further.”
Rose lives and breathes this proclamation. Having had her fair share of experiences trying to find her identity in the music industry, it’s not hard to see how much she’s evolved from the 21-year-old who made an impression in Nashville under the name Margaret Durante with a countrified cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” Under independent Emrose Records, her back-to-back singles “I Ain’t Your Mama” and “Better” landed inside the Top 30 on country radio. More than a decade later, she’s donning a bold pixie cut and a fierce look in her eye to match, putting forth a brazen sound that continues to showcase her powerful voice.
She shed her mainstream country image with 2018’s Change the Whole Thing, a live album that further proved her superb vocal chops while introducing her undeniable soul sensibility. “It left everything on the table and laid it bare. I realized what I could do as a singer and the beauty and urgency of live music, how important that was to me. That led me to realize that I’m a soul singer too,” she describes of the organic project. “That really unlocked a huge thing for me.”
The album came at a time when the Maryland native felt she had nothing to lose, “untethered” from the confines that gated her creativity in the past. Asking herself what kind of music she really wanted to make, her response was to bring all the players in one room, writing songs with Larry Florman and Alex Haddad of Nashville-based rock band, Them Vibes, and recruited Bobby Holland to produce.
“It turned out to be so magical. The experience itself was so enjoyable and educating for me and freeing, but also the product was beautiful. It was really something that was genuinely new, and I said, ‘Okay, we have to make the whole LP this way,’” she recalls. “It felt like 10 years or more into my career, a rebirth of sorts.”
Change the Whole Thing proved to be an imperative step in Rose’s artistic journey, leading to the bluesy, jazz-infused sound that defines her latest album, Have a Seat, out Friday, August 20. Recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the album reflects the music she was raised on, Rose calling on the iconic voices that came before her in the studio including Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Bobbie Gentry.
“I know I don’t I know everything/But you’ll never know what I can bring/
To the table if you don’t have a seat with me,” Rose wisely sings on album opener “What Are We Fighting For,” a reminder to set aside differences to foster real communication. The album’s titular phrase here has the effect of a warm welcome to the listener to sit at a table where there’s always a place for them.
Though recorded primarily before the pandemic, the album is arriving at a time when the U.S. is seeing a surge in cases of COVID-19 due to the Delta variant, and follows a year of civil unrest and rallies around the world for social equity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “I realized that these themes of inclusivity, a little frustration with the social and political contention of the world, and wanting to be heard and to hear other people and be an individual, all of those were themes that were even more resonant with me after what we’re all going through,” she contemplates of the album’s title. “It is about making room for everybody at the table and giving each other the space to speak our minds, even if we don’t agree with each other. I think having the empathy and compassion to do that is the most loving thing that we can do to our fellow man, stranger, or people that we know very well.”
“On a specific individual level, for me, it was having had this conversation for so many years of where I belong on the musical landscape,” Rose adds. “This is my way of being like, ‘this is my seat right here. I belong here and only I can fill it and only this person can fill that seat,’ and having pride and power in claiming it.”
Throughout the album, gritty, yet subtle electric guitar compliments Rose’s smooth voice, neither one overpowering the other on songs like “For Your Consideration” and “Saint” that simmer like a slow burn, while “Are We There Yet” and “Do It” capture the throwback funk, soul and R&B melodies driven toward the goal of giving a live audience a night they’ll never forget (along with lyrical depth).
During a time of forced pause in 2020, Rose also tapped into the art of listening. “That was a period of time for me where I was home and really taking in the world around me and doing some self-reflection and dealing with how isolation can magnify our own internal struggles and voices that negate our efforts,” she says. She launched the Salute the Songbird podcast where she engages in deep, honest discussions with fellow artists ranging from Valerie June and Amythyst Kiah to This Is Us star Chrissy Metz, Rose absorbing their knowledge while listening to her inner voice. “I’ve always thought of development as grinding and rehearsing and playing shows and being out there and staying out there, and we did in many ways, but this was also a huge state of development for me that I probably wouldn’t have undergone in this short of a time if we hadn’t had this crisis fall in all of our laps.”
Her personal reflections go deep on the album, particularly on “Saint.” The smoldering, blues-leaning number finds her confronting a false sense of perfection projected onto her by others that she’s also made a habit out of accepting for herself. “I’m only human/I’ve made my mistakes/It’s hard to feel high when you’re falling from grace,” she states point blank in the lyrics while owning her “restless heart,” promising to “keep falling” as she watches her halo fade. It’s perhaps the most human song on an album filled with them. “Masterfully written” by Charlotte Sands, Jon Santana, and Brett and Brigetta Truitt, Rose says she felt an immediate connection to the song. “That one really floored me and made me feel seen and give myself a break. I’m not a saint; why are you expecting that of me? Why am I expecting it of myself?”
Then there’s “For Your Consideration,” a song that blends empathy with anger. The swampy, bluesy melody caters to the lyrics that encourage those on opposing sides to put down their egos and access compassion to see from one another’s perspective. “Just look at all the room I’m making for your consideration,” she sings in the defining line. “I really love that song for this moment,” Rose observes. “It’s really quite dynamic in the range of emotions that we’re going through in that song. [It] feels to me at this moment, even if it’s loud and overwhelming, expression has to happen right now, because I think that we’ve all been sitting in our own corners. Isolation can create paranoia, can make us feel misunderstood, and we start having these narratives in our head that aren’t true and maybe we wanted to duke it out.”
Meanwhile, “What Makes You Tick,” featuring Marcus King, ponders what compels us to do what we do, while “Telephone” addresses the toxicity of social media and the “erosion of information” as it passes from one person to the next, like the childhood whispering game. But “Help Myself” is where Rose gets most candid. The playful melody doesn’t distract from the clever lyricism as she takes aim at Instagram culture and its endless supply of self-help remedies to numb the pain, the lyrics addressing how our culture has adopted the habit of nursing our wounds with internet tips as opposed to doing the deep work that leads to true healing.
While in the writers’ room with Whissell and Kyle Dreaden, Rose says the trio had countless examples of “dodging unsolicited advice,” offering a dose of humor in the chorus where she nods to “pills and candy” as self-medication, eventually delivering the punchline with the admission “Despite what the experts said/I’m only here to help/I just can’t help myself.”
“We’re in a minefield of ‘here’s this quick fix to solve all your problems,’ and then we implement them and we’re still dealing with the same problems,” Rose says. “I think there are a lot of things that we can do to help ourselves, but it seems like we’re wading through a sea of tips and quick fix solutions when we really should be doing the harder work of looking inward and figuring out what the root of the problem is.”
Looking inward is at the core of Rose’s process, hoping that the intention she poured into Have a Seat will be felt by those who need to hear its messages. “Songs always change for me. I think they are these beautiful things that start to absorb meaning as they live longer. I don’t think that they really start their lives until you give them away, so that’s why we released this music,” she shares. “I want it to be an experience. I don’t want people to think that I have the answers, but I hope it’s thought-provoking. I hope people have fun and there’s a huge level of escapism. It was really awesome to be so intentional about this project. It feels like a triumph.”