Caroline Rose is looking for optimal fun. This is why, on a visit to the Toledo, Ohio, zoo, she steers us to an elevated wooden walkway where we can feed giraffes. “I know their tongues are, like, this big,” she says.
It’s a morning off on Rose’s year-plus tour for her second album, a mischievous set called Loner. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter is wearing her signature costume of all bright red, socks to watch – the kind of bold signaling that probably appeals to animals as well as the indie-rock scene. We arrive at the giraffes, and she is right: Their tongues are as big as she said, and green-black. One of them wraps a long tongue like an eel around my finger. I scream-squeal, and Rose laughs, a calm and low and knowing laugh. Caroline Rose always finds the joke.
Loner’s allure rides on her ability to suss out the absurdity in every situation. “Hi, welcome to animal prison,” Rose says as she hugs me when we first meet. Her music has a spaced-out intelligence, an impish energy, plenty of venom and jokes. Her perspective on the world snaps, because it’s light on its feet and has sensitive skin. Even if the structural circumstances suck (micro: a zoo; macro: global-climate-nuclear-deathtrap), Rose can have a precise sort of play with it, criticizing the whole enterprise with a slicing one-liner.
“There’s a place for being straight-up angry,” she says, “but I think that satire is a tool for translating anger or pain. It’s such a stronger message. You can wield it as a really powerful means of making a point by making someone laugh.”
Rose is a musician, producer, arty comedian, on the early edges of making her name. Fans come to her shows for a scene that’s “both lighthearted and psychotic at the same time,” in her words. “If people are weird enough to buy tickets to our show, they already know what’s up.”
All 11 tracks on Loner have the light slap of satire. And she’s got many targets. She goes for party culture in “More of the Same,” harassment in “Cry!” and quiet ordinariness in “Jeannie Becomes A Mom.” The details are sharp, the insults are cutting. It’s full of urgency, which is remarkable because Loner took a painfully long time to make. “I had a kind of pointed knowledge of how I wanted it to sound,” she says, and she labored over it. She spent two years on the album and it almost didn’t come out. It was shelved, then she was bought out by another record company. “I ran into every snafu under the sun,” she says. “There was a time, I thought this could be the end.” But she made an album that was hers, and, in taking her time, found the contours of her weird sound.
Rose’s first album, an alt-country piece from 2014, sounds now like it was by a different person. And it was, sort of, she says. She took years of self-discovery, looking for her sense of power. She got wild in shows, took herself less seriously, and started only wearing red, rather the uniform of basic black-and-white that she had adopted in order to be taken seriously. Rose’s summary of these years recall the liberating difference between being carefree and careless: she stopped caring what people think about her and devoted more care to her work, her sense of art and play in the world.
Rose is all power-shade, glossy-lipstick red now, with the neutrals in her wardrobe almost completely weeded, she reports. “I love monochrome. When you see everything in one color, that person really thought out what they’re doing,” she says, and gives a shout-out to Pedro Almodóvar, for his saturation and kook.
Across a bunch of grazing beasts, someone calls out “Caro” loudly. We look over the zoo and see that her band is pretending to spy on us with a viewfinder contraption.
“They’re the cutest people,” she says. “We pride ourselves on being the nicest band of all time.” They seem like it. To woo their current opener, Cardioid, they sent a video of them all singing their favorite Cardioid song. They’ve been touring since September and are on a visible bonding-high. “We’re at the point in our relationship where we needed a plant to take care of. Except,” she laughs, “a cactus turns out to be a really terrible plant for a van.” They keep it in the cup-holder and it keeps pricking them.
“Prickly,” Rose says, showing me her palm. The conversation turns to assholes, ones we know and don’t. I represent the prick them back position, and Rose is much more thoughtful: “I do think being nice is the next punk rock. The nice band, the nice person is way more interesting than another asshole out there.”
Rose has a heartfelt undercurrent. There’s a seventh-birthday party happening at the zoo for an elephant named Lucas, which reminds her of getting weepy over animal videos with her father. (The one that really got her showed an elephant painting a portrait of another elephant.) Both her parents are artists; Rose grew up on Long Island and now lives in Philadelphia, where she’s building out a studio, to start producing more. She co-produced Loner with Paul Butler, and wants to produce her own work and then other people’s. “I just love it, and I think, I’m good at this,” she says, “A lot of times you just don’t realize you have the capability until you realize that you’ve been doing it.”
Now, as her tour heads toward the West Coast before weaving her way back East and Midwest again for shows in the fall, she’s stretching out in the role she’s made for herself, as a bright and energetic cut-up. She’s made a portable recording rig and plans to prioritize writing more music in any free time she scrapes up: “It’s so therapeutic. I need to write, in some way.” The hope is that her listeners will share in that sense of relief. “That’s the beauty of a good pop song: You can be talking about something serious, but it makes people feel good.”