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After spending most of his childhood moving from suburb to suburb across the country, Josh Rouse moved to Nashville, got married, and in 1998 recorded Dressed Up Like Nebraska in his living room. The record was catchy and unassuming, mixing Neil Young-styled roots-rock with heavy dollops of The Smiths and The Cure, and in almost no time, a man who had trouble getting gigs in Nashville had a record deal and was getting glowing reviews in publications across the country and overseas. Since then, Rouse has put out tuneful, emotionally engaging pop records at a routine clip, and though he has yet to break through with a massive hit song, he's built a loyal fan base that appreciates his witty, heartfelt lyrics and the way his style draws on the evocative sounds of '70s AM and '80s college radio–the kind of music that captured the imagination of itinerant Generation X romantics.
Since so many of his songs are about repairing broken relationships and settling down, it surprised many fans when Rouse left his wife and moved to Spain, leaving behind one final Nashville album, titled Nashville. Amid his U.S. tour in support of that record, Josh Rouse spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about going through changes.
The Onion: Of all the places in the world you could've gone, why Spain?
Josh Rouse: Just one of my favorite countries, I guess. I like the people, the weather. I have a girlfriend over there. We started seeing each other this past summer. She kind of helped me out with everything.
O: Given how many of your songs have been about home and the appeal of being at home, and given how much you've moved around in your life, how does it feel to be on the move again?
JR: It feels like this is what I should be doing. Maybe I'm getting older and I'm getting more comfortable with the fact that I'm kind of a wanderer. I'm happy with the way things are going and the lifestyle that I've chosen, which is bound to lead me to a lot of different places.
O: Do you see yourself settling down in Europe?
JR: Yeah, I think I'll be there for a while.
O: What's the appeal? What makes Spain different?
JR: It's a lot slower. Sometimes I feel like I should be doing something, but nobody else is doing anything, so it's okay. I'm living in kind of a beach town, so it's very laid-back. It feels like I'm on a weird vacation sometimes. [Laughs.] It can get a little boring. I'm probably going to move to a city in June, so that should be a bit of a different scene. But in general, the culture over there is very family-based. A lot of people live with their parents until they're 30. And they don't leave Spain, because they like it there. Everyone's pretty happy with the government situation. The economy's doing really well. They like American music. There's a big indie-rock scene there, which is surprising. And it's still very independent. Everything isn't a corporate chain, which is really nice. It's kind of... better than America, I think. [Laughs.] But they speak a different language, which you have to learn, and they have generations and generations of references that you have to get to know. It's been good for me, because I'm definitely using my brain a lot more. There's days that it's difficult and frustrating and I need a break, but for the most part, I really enjoy it.
O: What's the moral temperature like? It's a religious country, but not in the same way as Nashville, surely.
JR: It's not even close. Like, we have five channels on our TV, and on Friday and Saturday night around 11:00, there's full-blown porn on some of those channels. I guess this is something that's just been going on the last three or four years, but it's kind of strange. I'm not talking soft stuff. I'm talking hardcore. They're not sexually uptight people at all. There's a lot of Catholics, but it's quite a bit more liberal than in the States, which is good. Lot of hippies in Spain, too. [Laughs.] It's weird, you can roll up hash and go into a bar and smoke it, and no one's going to stop you. It's pretty cool.
O: You've described your time in Nashville as a mixed blessing, because even though you started your career there, you often had more fans outside the city than in it. Do you feel like you resolved your feelings about the city before you left?
JR: Yeah, I think I'm still friends with Nashville. [Laughs.] It's a weird town, you know? Kind of like a Robert Altman film. Quirky as hell. But yeah, I'm still friends with it.
O: Nashville feels a little like a summation. Was that intentional?
JR: I think it just ended up that way. All the records, whether I think about 'em a lot or not, kind of have some reflection on where I'm at.
O: Have you been listening to anything that might change the way you sound in the coming years?
JR: Yeah, I've been listening to a lot of weird French soundtrack stuff, like kind of '60s French soul music. I love the way that stuff feels. Big arrangements, a lot of instrumentals. I think I might do a lot of instrumental tracks on the next record, actually.
O: You once said that you're not incredibly prolific, that you write as many songs as you need for an album, and that's it.
JR: It's still kind of going that way. There's a lot of half-baked ideas that I toss out. I usually don't finish them. I edit myself quite a bit, as far as knowing what's going to be good.
O: Do you ever think about the various places you've lived, and how your career would've gone if you'd stayed there? Like, if you'd stayed in Nebraska, would you be palling around with Conor Oberst?
JR: I might've. Or I might not have played music at all. I kind of had to go places to get to where I am. So I don't know. I could've been working on a farm somewhere. [Laughs.]
O: It just seems that since you've lived a lot of places, you might have a greater sense of what your options are.
JR: I thought about moving to New York, actually. But it's cheaper in Spain, and the women are prettier. [Laughs.]
O: How would moving to New York have affected your career?
JR: I actually do better overseas. To be honest, the European lifestyle fits mine a bit better. And I like their taste. I mean, I love New York City. It's somewhere I've always wanted to live, and I may still someday. But I think over here in the States, it's getting tougher and tougher. So many people doing what I do, and so few outlets for it.
O: When someone like Damien Rice starts getting attention, do you think, "Great, that means doors are opening for music like this"?
JR: No, it means doors are closing. Especially here. That just means one more male singer-songwriter slot has been filled, you know? [Laughs.] I mean, I think that's good for whoever's doing well, and I'm not doing bad, so I can't really complain. But yeah. I think that's the way the bigger companies think: "Well, we've already got John Mayer and Jack Johnson. We've got those slots filled."
O: Does that frustrate you?
JR: I kind of understand it. They're looking at it from an entertainment-industry standpoint. I mean, look at films. We've got like four big romantic comedies out there right now. But I think I'm making fans that are in it for the long haul, and that's good. I don't think in 20 years I'm going to be listening to John Mayer and saying "Wow," like I would with a Neil Young or Bob Dylan record. So I'm not that frustrated. I do okay. What's meant to be is meant to be.
O: So you have no desire to start pulling publicity stunts, like moving to New York and getting into fights with Ryan Adams?
JR: No, no. He's kind of crazy. I'm just too normal. [Laughs.]