claire rousay Masters the Art of Emotional Resonance on sentiment

The Los Angeles-based composer and singer-songwriter’s latest collection delivers a spectrum of emotions colored by expressive, refreshing candor.

Music Reviews claire rousay
claire rousay Masters the Art of Emotional Resonance on sentiment

If you’ve been following the career of Los Angeles-via-San Antonio-via-Winnipeg musician claire rousay, you’ve heard a little bit of everything: music concrète most definitely, arguably the primary mode through which she shares field recording-laden compositions. But her dives into free jazz and electropop are just as remarkable. She embraces the term “emo ambient” for her evocative work; it’s the kind of genre descriptor that might evoke a chuckle at first, suggesting a crossing of Hot Topic-coated teen angst with the kind of neoclassical ambient electronica that you’re more likely to see performed in an art gallery than a VFW hall. High culture and adolescent follies aren’t supposed to be near each other.

But rousay isn’t concerned with what’s supposed to be near each other because, after all, everything is near enough to each other to be subject to her tape recorder’s steady ear. While ambient music often has emotional properties, rousay’s work lays them bare with delicate instrumentation and layers of everyday sounds that resonate like a home video. Now, on sentiment, her first full-length for the legendary label Thrill Jockey, rousay filters her process through a pop prism to put forth her emotions with stark clarity—and she succeeds.

The pop that rousay constructs on sentiment may sound infinitely different than that which often gets labeled “pop,” but the faint outlines of song structures and deep, affective resonance tie it to pop as it’s understood today. Perhaps its closest relative might be the bedroom work of Orchid Tapes, who often utilized at-home production, found sound and experimental techniques with which to chart an emotional dialogue within fluid structures. sentiment makes perfect sense as pop in a context where the immersive compositions of Foxes In Fiction, the diaristic entries of Blithe Field and the extremities of katie dey are all understood as working with pop’s glorious and bendable toolbox. sentiment approaches such an act of exploration with warped vocals and tender-strummed guitar more than rousay’s albums typically feature, but they’re buttressed with recordings from the field that is her everyday life.

“please 5 more minutes,” which features Lala Lala’s Lillie West on guitar, synthesizer and vocal, feels the most like an old-style bedroom pop song—the delicate keystrokes and strumming of a repeated guitar cannon over murky synth hums feel weightless. When rousay’s manipulated vocals enter, they pierce the fantasy with a vignette: “I’m completely drenched like that time/In the river you looked and swore / ’This never happens’ / I bet it does.” When West speaks at the end, the pace is so accelerated that it can come off as misplaced. It isn’t. As the instruments swell over rousay and West’s shared vocalizations, the mounting desire for more overtops all thought—enveloping the composition in disarming want. Layering disparate pieces like this begets a poetic sense of resonance that makes rousay’s compositions so loaded and so appealing.

sentiment opens with “4pm,” a stark voice note that came from an experiment: Write some text, send it to 20 friends, ask them to record themselves reciting it. In the end, fellow diaristic ambient composer Theodore Cale Schafer’s recitation made it onto the album; rousay cites the duality between his deadpan expression and her manipulated vocals as a moment of sensory excitement. His speaking only lasts for half of the track’s length before found sounds and instrumentals swell and coagulate into what becomes the opener for “head,” a slowcore-tinged entry centered on the lyrics “Spent enough of my whole life giving you head / Just in case you need to forgive me one day / For something that I did.” It’s riddled with doubt and limitlessness that is scary and craved.

“it could be anything” is even more unhurried, with guitar-playing so unadorned it recalls Horse Jumper of Love. rousay’s opening lyrics, again delivered with piercingly manipulated vocals, are as nakedly confrontational as one might expect in today’s emoscape: “Do you ever think about what I’m doing / When he’s doing you / ’Cause I do / Maybe just hanging around / Maybe just blacking out ‘til I feel okay.” rousay sometimes forgoes lyrics, letting Julia Brüssel’s violin and Emily Wittbrodt’s cello dance around each other before falling away to expose rousay’s recorded ephemera. Brüssel isn’t the only violin contributor on the album; frequent collaborator Mari Maurice, who performs as More Eaze, plays on “it could be anything,” “sycamore skylight” and “lover’s spit plays in the background.”

One special standout is “w sunset blvd,” a snippet of a conversation between rousay and a friend as she indulges in a Coca-Cola in a popular cafe. She lets us in on a moment where she’s treating herself—suggesting she’s either desperately sad or experiencing something special. It could be either or nothing; it’s still notable to bask in the artist’s day-to-day life, soaking up the sounds of Los Angeles and an innocuous conversation, thinking of how those exchanges somehow stay vivid in our memories. This leads into closer “ily2,” featuring Meg Duffy of Hand Habits on a masterfully finger-picked guitar. There’s something brutal about “ily2,” as we see rousay beg for her counterpart to say “I love you, too,” recognizing that it could be a lie but still wanting to hear it. There’s a cruelty to one’s self—an urge to secure fleeting moments of emotional security—that rousay narrates throughout sentiment unflinchingly. It’s uncomfortable, but her music often thrives in the uncomfortable.

sentiment is arguably rousay’s biggest statement since a softer focus—a suite of carefully reconstructed emotions preserved in amber; a request for the world to see what’s possible with tools she’s known for using and those to which she’s more green. Her synthesis of unrestrained emotion—characteristic of emo, with more subtle methods of emotional cartography—make for an album dripping in pathos, something for which she might get knocked periodically. It’s hard not to resonate with the emotions she presents; when you’re surrounded by their mist, you can only interpret what you’re breathing in by recalling those feelings and underlying causes yourself. Emo’s aggressive delivery can inspire immediate distancing for some; emo ambient won’t let that happen. sentiment is the work of someone who understands that emotions are a full-body experience, and rousay’s work responds with a sensory palette beyond what a typical song can muster. Does it devastate? Sometimes. Above all else, this little archive of rousay’s emotions cancels the distractions outside and sinks you in a bath of feeling. The best response is to ease in.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Aquarium Drunkard, Bandcamp Daily, Slumber Mag and more. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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