Claire Rousay knows how it feels to be an outsider. Before she made a name for herself as one of the most intriguing ambient-experimental musicians working today, she’d listen to artists like Explosions in the Sky and Sarah Davachi and tell herself they existed in a universe she’d never be able to access.
“Back then, it felt like those people were on a different plane,” she said. “Now I consider them friends and communicate with them on a semi-regular basis. It seems surreal. I wouldn’t say it’s deserved, but it definitely feels like I have a better sense of what I’m talking about when I interact in those communities.”
Rousay’s new album, A Softer Focus, released on American Dreams Records April 9, confirms her status as a consequential figure in experimental music. It picks up where her previous work left off, combining field recordings and mood-setting background music to mesmerize the listener while inviting them to pay attention to life’s small moments. Softer is a collaboration between Rousay and visual artist Dani Toral (who, like Rousay, is based in San Antonio), and is very much “a record about making a record,” as Rousay put it. “We decided to document ourselves creating artwork individually. Then we collaborated on what the final product would be,” she said. “A lot of the recordings [on the album] are of Dani and I working in her studio, making ceramics and digital art, then having conversations.”
Softer could be considered Rousay’s poppiest album, though calling any of her music pop would be a big stretch. There’s perhaps a greater use of instrumentation on Softer than her previous works. The tracks are generally shorter, and in at least one instance autotune is deployed. In that sense, Softer is more immediately accessible than much of her discography. “I really like pop music,” she said. “But I’ve never been that good at making it.” That’s fine with her, though, because Rousay has found her niche in creating expansive soundscapes anchored by found sounds. Softer feels like the culmination of this style, which she’s been honing for the better part of two years.
Furthermore, Rousay seems to have captured the moment. Her music is fit for a pandemic. While many people were twiddling their thumbs in isolation (thanks, quarantine), Rousay reveled in the mundanity. Her field recordings feature seemingly banal noises, like water running, people talking, children laughing. These small moments were rarely placed under the microscope during pre-COVID times, but as quarantine consumed every aspect of existence, they came into sharper focus. For some folks, all that downtime became a source of stress. Rousay leaned into the lonesomeness, however, creating a Warholian world where everything is art, and thus everything is beautiful.
“All my work starts with recordings of myself in my house or at the park, going on a walk with my dog. Mundane activities that, over the past 13 months, were heightened by the pandemic,” she said. “Before COVID, I was touring all the time. I forgot about the simple joys that come with staying home, making dinner and playing with my dog.”
Rousay, a percussionist by trade who grew up learning piano from her mother (a professional pianist), spent time in DIY bands and as a session musician for country artists before finding an identity in the experimental world. She’s risen to popularity (the vaunted music review website Pitchfork gave it was always worth it an impressive 7.7) by exploring how space, location and human connection interact and influence each other. Rousay likened her craft to posting on Instagram: “I record everything and then put it on a record, instead of posting my lunch or something like that [on Instagram].” In this sense, Rousay’s recordings feel like auditory snapshots of specific moments in time that are meaningful to her in one way or another, even if they capture something as simple as walking the dog or rummaging around the house. “It’s all about the vibe I was experiencing that day,” she said. “I’ve found that [the recordings] usually come around lunch and dinner, when I’m relaxing, reading, or doing something quiet.”
Rousay, who’s transgender, grew up playing piano in church, and as an adult has performed at large Texas evangelical churches because “those gigs pay the same amount of money I’d be making working 40 hours a week at a restaurant.” She dropped out of high school at 16 because the band she was in at the time earned a gig at South-by-Southwest (she eventually earned her high school degree), and spent the next half-decade playing in various groups. Rousay began moving away from group performances after realizing that, much of the time, they weren’t in touch with the audience. She struck out on her own with an emphasis on “reading the room,” as she put it, during live shows (which, by the way, are mesmerizing). The response to Rousay’s solo career has been overwhelmingly positive. She was featured in Pitchfork (as previously mentioned) as well as NPR, which noted Rousay’s gift for “enchanting the ordinary.” All this success has allowed her to live the dream of operating as a full-time musician. “I don’t know how long that will last,” she said. “But I don’t have to have a job right now, so that’s nice.”
So there it is: Rousay, once a self-proclaimed outsider in the world of experimental music, has earned a seat at the table by focusing on that which is on the outside: that is to say, everyday human existence and the brilliance it contains. “My influences are much more external than internal,” she said. “That’s what my music is about at this point: finding yourself in a specific space and location, and exploring that world.”
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
The best music and literature consumed by Ourland’s editor over the past year.