Interview: Alexa Rose
Alexa Rose wrote “Medicine for Living” in early May 2018 when she was about to go out on the road for a tour. The Asheville singer/songwriter vividly remembers sitting in her house with the sun coming in through the windows and cherishes the tangible peace from the experience.
“It was one of those moments of total stillness and quiet. I’m remembering that that’s a really important part of writing and of inspiration — to allow yourself to be still and capture the moment you’re in and not be preoccupied with what’s coming next,” Rose says. “I was having a lazy summer and I’m intending to continue that. And by ‘lazy summer,’ I mean allowing myself to stand in the sun and talk to my friends and notice the garden and allow myself to be sad and moved.”
The memory and motivation has been especially strong since April 26, when the tune was awarded first place in the General category of Merlefest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. The honor means Rose is now in the ranks of past winners Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt, artists whom Rose deeply respects and feels hugely honored to be part of their club.
Rose jokes that, during her performance, she was focused on not making eye contact with judges Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan of her beloved Milk Carton Kids, but felt a sense of calm knowing that fellow Asheville singer/songwriters Anya Hinkle and Hannah Kaminer — whom she affectionately dubs “my girls” — were also there competing in the Bluegrass and Country categories, respectively.
“Anya and Hannah are both kind of newer friends of mine. We’ve just met pretty recently and to go through kind of a nerve-wracking situation like that and to keep encouraging one other through the whole process is really a special thing to do,” Rose says.
“The whole framing of that situation as a contest and as this event that’s of a competitive nature — you can really put any label you want on something, but music is about community and about, especially in Asheville, building each other up and everybody kind of showing up for each other and encouraging each other.”
Once the competition winners were announced — Hinkle’s “Ballad of Zona Abston” won first place in the Bluegrass category and Kaminer’s “Don’t Open Your Heart” took home second place in Country — the finalists got to have a mentoring session with judges Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies, Texas-troubadour Radney Foster, and host Jim Lauderdale. (The Milk Carton Kids were unfortunately absent.)
Rose describes the opportunity as “kind of a pep talk” from industry veterans where her two main takeaways — ones she says are familiar to songwriters, but still helpful to hear — were to go ahead and create songs instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, and to “kill your darlings” by letting go of the spark of certain songs when they no longer fit the evolving work.
Right after the session, all four winners (there’s also a Gospel/Inspirational category) played their victorious songs on the Cabin Stage, which is situated just to the audience’s right from the main Watson Stage, and returned there on Saturday for a set of their own. Focused on Friday’s songwriting competition and not wanting to get in proverbial chicken-counting mode, Rose hadn’t gone to Merlefest with a plan in the event that she won.
Fortunately, two-thirds of her regular band, bassist Tim Comstock (Redleg Husky) and pedal steel player Jackson Dulaney (Pretty Little Goat), were already there with their bands and ready to perform. Rose organized a setlist Friday night and opened with a few solo numbers, including a song she wrote recently about her farmer great-grandparents in rural Virginia, then brought her cohorts onstage to close out her block.
“It worked out really well. It was nice to have them,” Rose says. “With everything that’s going on in that festival, it’s amazing the number of people who came up to me afterwards and I know came up to Anya and everybody else who was a part of that [contest] to tell them how much they loved their song or be supportive and kind. It blows me away.”
In terms of processing the experience and the significance of having three Asheville artists’ talents recognized at such a prestigious event, Rose says she feels thankful to live in a special musical city and area. That magical feeling goes doubly for those “who are from this region and have family histories here,” a connection that the Clifton Forge, Virginia, native notes ties in nicely with Merlefest being a festival rooted in bluegrass and traditional music.
“You can’t really separate that kind of music from the place. That music is about where we live and what it used to be. It’s stories from generations back and I think that the richness of that here tends to fuel those of us who are younger people here who are artists and trying to write music,” Rose says. “When I do tap in to writing a song, sometimes I think it’s guided by not only the experience that I’ve had here, but knowing I’ve had a past [in Appalachia] through my family.”
She’ll reunite with Hinkle in Boone on Saturday, June 1, at the Boone Saloon, but first Rose and her band — rounded out by Hillsborough-based drummer Zach Strum — carry that renewed passion to The Grey Eagle for a headlining show on Sunday, May 19. In the setlist will be new songs and ones from the Medicine for Living album, which will be released in October — nearly a year after they were mastered.
One or two singles will be released over the summer and Rose is looking forward to having the full collection available to listeners. She applauds the visions of co-producers Bruce Watson and Clay Jones, who reshaped some of the songs, adding different arrangements than she’d played in the past and making her “fall in love with the songs again.” Her band, for which she feels immense gratitude, has also breathed new life into the songs in the live setting — a welcome perk for certain songs that are “getting some age on them” and seeming like they’ve been around for a while.
“For me, it’s all about how those songs make other people feel. None of those songs anymore are songs I’m going to sit down and play for myself, but when you go play a show and you play those songs for people who haven’t heard them or really want to hear that particular song, it’s like playing it for the first time,” Rose says. “That doesn’t get old. That’s kind of the cool thing about music, for me. That’s why we do it, right? We’re trying to express how we feel and have it be mirrored or reflected off someone else.”
Rose is also excited about having some of her favorite songwriters on the bill. Among them is the Americana duo Hoot and Holler, whose Amy Alvey (fiddle) and Mark Kilianski (guitar) recently relocated to Asheville from Massachusetts, but keep a steady touring schedule that makes it difficult to catch them in their new home base. Also elusive on the local scene is former Asheville resident Jackson Emmer, who now lives in Colorado. Rose describes him as an entertainer and storyteller with “a great sense of humor in his songwriting” and a cleverness to his language.
“When we all figured out that our schedules would line up to do the show at The Grey Eagle, I was like, ‘This is what I want my big show of the summer to be,’” Rose says. “We’re not really playing any other local shows, so this is the one to come see us.”
Cognizant that the performance is on the same night as the Game of Thrones finale, Rose encourages fans who are sensing a potential conflict to enjoy the night of songs live, an experience that can’t be duplicated later, and fire up the on-demand episode once they get home. To sweeten the deal for those willing to wait for the Westeros conclusion, she and her bandmates are considering dressing as Game of Thrones characters during their set.
Might Rose don full Arya Stark garb or rock a blonde braided wig as Khaleesi? Will Dulaney go as Tyrion Lannister? Come hear some high-quality local music and find out.
IF YOU GO
Who: Alexa Rose with Hoot and Holler & Jackson Emmer
When: Sunday, May 19, 8 p.m.
Where: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
Tickets: $10 advance/$12 day of show
(Photos by William Aubrey Reynolds)