When she sings, her smooth and soulful voice sounds like a pile of white goose feathers and satin sheets. You want to curl up atop that voice and find comfort and rest. When the music stops and she begins talking, your comfy bedding evaporates and you find yourself on the floor next to your kid sister -- and she’s grinning from ear to ear. Her speaking voice is … well … a little squeaky and a bit silly and perfectly suited to her stand-up comedy persona, the ever-bumbling Sheila. That one diminutive young woman can evince two such entirely different and extremely potent voices is just one of the mysterious contrasts surrounding Rosie Thomas.
Her debut, When We Were Small, is a quiet, sublime album from a record label that brought the world Nirvana (SubPop). Her simple arrangements of piano and strings receive airplay on college radio next to Sleater-Kinney and Blackalicious. And she loves to make people laugh while sharing her intimate and earnest songs.
"In second grade," Thomas recalls, "when we had indoor recess [because] it was raining outside, I would do stand-up comedy in front of the class. So I would pray for rain: ‘Please let there be rain. I want to impress Matt Borden today.’"
When she performs, she usually takes a break from the music to introduce "Sheila," a character as graceless as Thomas’ music is graceful. Thomas never saw herself as a songwriter, and when she challenged herself to try it, she discovered that she wrote very slow, sincere songs.
"I love comedy because it allows me to give both parts of self," she says. "I don’t always walk around overanalyzing everything. When you know yourself really well -- and I’ve worked really hard to be as honest as I can with myself as possible -- you need a break from those things. So I use craziness in comedy as a sense of relief, because if I thought of these things 24 hours a day, I’d be a wreck."
Thomas’ parents performed in nightclubs around Detroit when she was a child, and she and her two brothers often joined them on stage. She took piano and guitar lessons, and after graduating from high school, she and her father would often perform together. She even toured briefly with Motor City’s Velour 100 in the late ’90s.
When Thomas moved to Seattle at the end of the decade, though, it was for theater school. She had no intention of becoming a professional musician and began doing stand-up comedy at local clubs. She became friends with indie rocker Damien Jurado and sang on "Parking Lot," a track from his Ghost of David record for SupPop in 2000.
"[Jurado] brought it in for them to review and I remember him telling me, ‘Rosie, they really like your voice. They heard you sing, and I told them that you’re a friend of mine and that you play your own music.’ I thought, ‘SubPop? No way, dude. They can’t be interested.’ And I kind of shrugged it off."
But an executive from label attended one of Thomas’ solo performances and approached her after the show. She recorded a self-titled EP in 2001 before releasing When We Were Small last January.
The album opens with the sweet, shuffling "Two Dollar Shoes," a guardedly optimistic song of lasting love that quickly transitions into the somber lament "Farewell," as Thomas sings, "I was wrong I guess / I was wrong I confess / I miss the way / I miss the way you sing with me," layered over sparse piano. By track three, she’s already building back into a hopeful and carefree contentedness on "Wedding Day," one of the most beautiful songs of the year, both musically and lyrically:
Yea I’ve had enough of love
It’s been good to give up, so good to be good to myself
I’m gonna get on the highway with no destination
But plenty of vision in mind
I’m gonna drive to the ocean
Go skinny dippin’, blow kisses to Venus and Mars
I’m gonna stop at every bar
And flirt with the cowboys in front of their girlfriends. ...
It’s gonna be so great
It’s gonna be just like my wedding day.
The rest of the album is filled with more beautiful sadness -- for losing love in "Lorraine" and "Finish Line," for missing the joys of childhood in "I Run," and for an abused wife in "Charlotte" -- with Thomas’ resolute strength always filtering through. "October" serves as both a guide and a warning for would-be suitors: "Tell her you miss her when you’re close enough to kiss her / And that you’d walk a thousand miles to tell her so / But never, never leave her."
The closing track, "Bicycle Tricycle," is the perfect conclusion to Thomas’ nostalgic, lovelorn offering. She yearns for her tricycle, her strawberry-red flower dress and her roller skates to protect her from "every boy that falls in and out of love with me." The arrangement of piano, cello, guitar and drums builds and fades and builds and fades, as audio clips from her childhood reveal the Thomas family gathered in warm conversation. The piano and a faintly droning Wurlitzer and the voices of children disappear into emptiness.
Her family will play a larger role on her follow-up, which she hopes to release this spring. After a European tour in support of Brian Ferry, she returned to Seattle and began recording the initial tracks, and over the holidays planned to have her parents and brothers add guitar, piano, harmonica and backing harmonies. She says this one will have more piano than guitar and more songs with a pulse to them -- more drums, more bass and more soul in the vocals.
"Lyrically, [the new] record isn’t about having a broken heart; it’s more about the things I’ve been learning about my life, all the pressure we put on ourselves, how to forgive ourselves."
"Sheila," too, has been busy. She spent much of the European tour in front of the camera for an upcoming documentary. Though she’s recovering from an accident involving bulls in Spain, she’s excited about her new band, The Strawberry Jam.
"Mostly cover songs," Thomas said of her alter ego’s newest venture. "I don’t tell her this, but they’re terrible. She thinks they’re beautiful. I think she’ll be doing ‘Solid as a Rock,’ ‘Pump Up the Volume.’ She’s thrilled so we’re all supportive of her decision. She’s got a full band now; she’ll even open for me -- fifteen minutes of jamming to some of the most terrible songs I’ve heard in my life."
Whether through comedy or music, Thomas is happy to have found a way to entertain people, to make them laugh and offer a connection through her songs.
"All I do is -- I’m a completely broken person and a weak person, and I admit those things in my songwriting. I make the choice to get over those fears, to push myself out on stage and just to perform whether I’m scared to death, whether I’m scared what people think. I just make the choice to get beyond that because it really doesn’t matter. When it’s all said and done, I’ll know that I tried to use my life, my brain and my heart for good things, and hopefully things that God would want me to do with my life."
See the rest of our 20 Signs of Life in 2002.