Time Traveler
Josh Rouse, the iconic singer-songwriter and serial nomad, reflects on age, love and the quest for meaning
by Bill Donahue

Everyone must endure his or her share of existential dilemmas in the course of a human lifetime, but few have the courage to deal with their problems as publicly as Josh Rouse has. Apparently, even celebrities are not immune to the dreaded midlife crisis.

Rouse, the acclaimed singer-songwriter and indie folk icon, has established himself as one of music’s most resilient performers in part by immersing himself in unfamiliar territory. Originally from Oshkosh, Neb., he moved around throughout his career but has since absconded to Europe and put down roots in Valencia, Spain. Successes aside, Rouse remembers finding himself in an emotional whirlwind, feeling unmoored and struggling to find answers to some of life’s thorniest questions.

Although his memories of growing up an only child without a strong father figure seemed fresh in his mind, all of a sudden he was a man in his early 40s, a husband and father of two, living as an expat in a strange place without a strong sense of community, and trying to stay relevant in an absurdly fickle, increasingly unstable industry. Instead of spiraling into the morass, however, Rouse used this period of vulnerability to feed his creativity. The result: his 11th studio album, “The Embers of Time,” which Yep Roc Records released earlier this month, supported by an extensive tour that will bring him back to Philadelphia in mid-June.

Many of Rouse’s previous albums told stories of seemingly fictional characters trying to make sense of a complicated world in matters of love, family and the search for meaning. In the song “James,” for example, the song’s title character fails to cope with life’s changes and turns away from his family only to seek comfort in the bottom of a glass. In “I Will Live on Islands,” he imagines a wrongly convicted prisoner who dreams of life on the outside, envisioning sand beneath his feet and palm trees on all sides. And on “Hollywood Bass Player,” a musician wanders the planet in search of a place that feels like home. By comparison, the songs on “The Embers of Time” seem largely autobiographical.

“I was tired of living where we were in Spain,” he recalls of the feelings he had while penning “The Embers of Time.” “I was feeling isolated. At the time we were living out in the suburbs [of Valencia], where there really was no community. [My wife and I] have two small children, and they’re great but they take up a lot of time, and I was feeling disconnected to a lot of things. Also, I was going into my early 40s, so I guess you would call it a midlife crisis. It was stuff that really doesn’t matter, because I was healthy and life was good, but I couldn’t stop having these feelings, so my wife said to me, ‘Why not go talk to somebody?’”

Rouse took the advice of his wife—Spanish-born Paz Suay, a fellow artist and occasional collaborator —and connected with the only English-speaking therapist in Valencia. The doctor specialized in Gestalt, a form of psychotherapy that promotes self-awareness to help a patient to accept his or her current reality, instead of pursuing a new one, as a way to realize one’s true potential. 

“I had to go to therapy, and I wanted to go,” he says. “I was talking about myself and about my life all the time, so I think that definitely led to these songs. No one died; there was nothing like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened.’ It was just an existential thing. So that’s where I was when I was putting together this record.” He pauses and adds, jokingly, “The next one will be a party album.”

Some Changes
Whereas many of today’s most popular artists revel in hubris and false positivity, Rouse’s latest is all about exposure and vulnerability—cracking open his chest and letting others see inside his heart. Look no further than the album’s soothing opener, “Some Days I’m Golden All Night,” which speaks of his nomadic lifestyle, his personal struggles and his feelings of inadequacy despite his sky-high ambitions. It, like the album’s other nine songs, sounds bright and sunny, with lyrics that serve as a sort of confession that is equal parts love letter to the past and an acceptance of where life has led him, which, all in all, is a pretty good place.

“This record is quite a bit more personal,” Rouse admits. “A lot of songwriters I grew up listening to—Bob Dylan, in particular—wrote about themselves; they wore their hearts on their sleeves, which is out of fashion and has been for a while. One thing I learned in making this record is that, while there is so much preoccupation with the actual sound of a song, there is a message in the lyrics that means something to me; there is meaning in language. I’ve heard so many different times from so many different people, things like, ‘Your songs helped me through this time,’ or ‘I got married to these songs,’ or ‘I broke up to these songs.’ That’s a really powerful thing.”

Hardly a “downer,” “The Embers of Time” underscores Rouse’s acceptance of the way things are. In other words, although his life is changing, that’s OK. He’s living in a beautiful part of the world, for example, and he has addressed some of the issues that led to his “midlife crisis” in the first place. He and his family have since moved out of the suburbs to be closer to the hustle and bustle of Valencia’s city center. His two sons attend a Montessori-style school, while he and his wife have ample opportunities to partake in cultural events, among other benefits of city life. 

“The weather here [in Spain] is great; it was 75 [degrees] today,” he says. “It’s a good place to live. We’ll always have roots here, because my wife’s family is from here, so it will always be a base. I’d also like to have another base in the [United] States. I’ve decided the ideal place is some kind of small California town where the weather is nice year round and the people are friendly and cultured. I realized today that I like places where palm trees can grow.

“It’s weird, because I do come from a small town, and I do like that setting because it’s great for a young family, but … a lot of people don’t ever leave their small town,” he continues. “I definitely feel it’s important to go out and travel. I’ve met so many Americans who have never left the states or even their tri-state area. It’s good to go out and do that because it opens your mind up.”

Next Steps
Rouse’s experiences—his formative years growing up in Nebraska, his move to Nashville, where his career took off, his escape to Spain, his brief return to the United States to live in Brooklyn, etc.—have certainly enriched his life. His body of work, which has been influenced by his time at home and abroad, has been lauded as exceptional by the likes of everyone from the New York Times and NPR to Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, the latter of which praised him for his “sharp wit, slightly obscured by the moody earnestness of folk and new wave.” His gently rocking songs blend elements of blues, classic country and 1970s soft rock, even Brazilian bossa nova, to create a truly distinctive sound. As a result, his words and music have graced the soundtracks of box-office hits (“Eat Pray Love” and “Vanilla Sky”) and primetime shows on network and cable television (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Six Feet Under”).

No stranger to Philadelphia’s live music scene, Rouse is a veteran of the stage at the likes of the Tin Angel in Old City and World Café Live in University City. His Philadelphia-area fans won’t have to wait long for his return. On June 14, he will headline what promises to be a marathon performance at World Café Live. “It won’t be Bruce Springsteen length, but it will be a longer show,” Rouse says. “I’ve got so many records now that it’s tough to make a set list.”

Beyond the immediacy of his upcoming tour, don’t ask Rouse to predict what his future holds. As suggested by the chorus in “Time,” one of the most stirring songs from his new album, he knows he doesn’t have much choice in the matter, and he’s all right with that: “Time keeps on telling me who to love and where to go / And time keeps on pushing me further on down the road.”

“I have no idea what happens next,” he says. “Life can always take left turns. We’ve been talking about coming back to the states. Musically, I don’t know either. I’ve got a big body of work now, so my immediate goal is to go play these songs and put on a good show. I take it a few months at a time and try not to plan too far ahead.”

Photograph by York Wilson