After a decade-long career in music, as both a solo artist and a founding member of Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls, Frankie Rose thought she was done making records.
“Someone pointed out to me that I always say, ‘That’s it, I’m done! I’m never going to make another record again,’” she says via telephone from Brooklyn. “But this time, I really didn’t think I would be able to make another record again. It was kind of by a miracle and by blind faith that I got to make Cage Tropical.”
After the release of her third solo record, Herein Wild, a period of personal hardship brought Rose from her homebase in Brooklyn back to Los Angeles, where she soon found herself completely disconnected from her former life as a successful musician. Instead of making music and touring the world, she was working for a catering company, wondering what the hell had happened.
“It’s one thing to go from being an internationally touring musician who’s financially pretty stable to being like, ‘Is this my life? Am I catering weddings?’” she says.
Though its title is a pun on the situation in which she found herself trapped, the creation of Cage Tropical proved to be her life raft. Rose devoted time to writing new music, sketching out songs in the makeshift sound booth she set up in her closet, eventually inviting in like-minded collaborators like producer Jorge Elbrecht to help her flesh out her sound. As a result, Cage Tropical might be her most personal release to date. It is certainly one of her most hopeful.
A lush exploration of alienation and rediscovery, it’s not necessary to know about Cage Tropical’s painful genesis in order to instinctively grasp its narrative. Wrapped in gleaming synths and featuring Rose’s gorgeous vocals and pristine pop melodies, the record begins in a place of stagnation (“Wasting my time,” she sings on opening track “Love in Rockets”) before slipping effortlessly to hope and optimism by the record’s end, with Rose offering herself up to the universe in the epic “Decontrol.” Rose’s dedication to her craft and her unwavering belief in music as her life’s work resonate throughout.
We spoke with Rose about the creation of Cage Tropical, making synthesized music sound warm, and how she found a way back to her true vocation as a musician. Oh, and the paranormal podcast she’s working on.
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How long was the process from when you first began to write the record to now?
About a year, because I started it in my house—in my closet, basically. There were like 15 stages to making this record, because I really did it on no budget. As I had money come in, I would work with different people. I brought in Jorge Elbrecht to help me with my demos, and we did one round, still in my closet. Then, I recorded when and where I could, which was in, like, four different studios, when there was extra time. It wasn’t like I went into a studio and said, ‘I’m going to make this record in a month!’ and knocked it out, because there was no budget. I used resources like the Converse Studios—they’ll give you two days in their studio if they know you’re recording. It was great, I think that’s amazing. I used those two days to track all my bass and drums. That’s something that would’ve taken a lot of money to do in a big studio otherwise.
Did you have all the songs for the record written before you started to record?
I had basic structures laid out, but there were some songs where I had six different versions. I will remake a song until I’m really happy with it. There were a few songs where no version was sitting right with me. It’s ever-changing until it’s finally done.
Is there a particular song on the record that went through many transformations before you reached the final product?
‘Game to Play’ went through a lot of revisions. That was a song that sounded like Depeche Mode at one point and then completely changed.
Did you know what you wanted this record to sound like before you went in and started recording? I hear a very natural flow in your work from Interstellar to Cage Tropical but this record is definitely more synthesized. Is that something you were going for?
I’m not as interested in guitars as I used to be, so there’s definitely that. I never really go in being like, ‘I want it to sound like this or that.’ I definitely think that anything I end up making is a product of all my influences, music I’ve been listening to my entire life that I love. If someone was going to ask me what kind of music I play, I really couldn’t tell you. You can hear some of the influences in it, but there isn’t any direct category for it. Which I think is nice. I don’t really want to be this or that or put into this or that genre. I just want to keep making whatever comes out naturally.
So, you started this record in Los Angeles.
I started it in my house. I turned my closet into a soundbooth and yeah, that’s where most of it happened.
Are you from L.A.?
I’m from Seal Beach, where I lived until I was like 16, then I was in San Francisco for my formative years until I was like 27.
I’m from L.A., so that’s pretty interesting to me, because I feel like there’s a kind of an L.A. feel to this record.
I think so, too. I don’t even know what that’s about. I wasn’t like, ‘This is going to be about this.’ It’s always shocking to me what I end up with. I can say that about every one of my records. They’re kind of a time capsule. Even in the artwork. My last record, the artwork is a real time capsule for me about what was going on in my life at that time.
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It seems like you were going through some difficult stuff in L.A. Is that something you want to talk about?
Yeah, I will talk about it. It was really awful. I had some family tragedy and financial problems around that. I really thought I was done for. I was working on a catering truck, essentially. It was just very dark times because, I won’t go into the reasons why, but my family needed money, and I ended up in a very unexpected place.
What helped you make your way back to music?
I had to start really small. It was almost like a return to how I used to make records in the beginning. You have no money, no budget, no help. So you do what you can, when you can. That’s also why it took me so long, but when I started, it was against all odds for me. This record really does mean a lot to me. I have super amazing gratitude that it got finished, that Slumberland and Grey Market are putting it out, and that anyone is interested in it at all, because of the hard times that I went through when I was making it.
I can relate to the feeling of finishing a big project and putting all your ideas into it and then you’re like, ‘I’m empty, that’s it.’ How did you start making music again, even though you were feeling like it was over for you?
Honestly for me a lot of it is…it’s not an easy process for me. I’ve heard a lot of writers say this, people who write novels—they have to devote time to it every day. That’s really what I did. I sat there and would just be like, ‘I’m doing this today, I’m going to work on music for this amount of time.’ Then when the songs start to come to life, that’s when it becomes a lot more exciting and fun to work on. But initial songwriting stuff for me is tedious. I have all that harsh internal critic stuff, as I’m sure everybody does. We all have the self-doubt that comes along with making something.
You said you’re not really interested in guitars anymore. Did you write these songs on guitar? Did you start sketching them out on piano?
On guitar and bass and then on synthesizer. Just real basic stuff on Logic or ProTools.
Who did the artwork?
Me! I did it, and Sean Durkin did the layout which, is amazing. I did the initial design, the woman with the palm tree. He did all the formatting and the layout. I’ve never made my own album art, but I really knew what I wanted it to look like, and I kept going around to tattoo artists who work in this style and asking them to do the art for me. But every time I’d get one back, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. So I was like, ‘I can just do this myself.’ And I did! I did it in three days. It was really fun actually.
The record has a real narrative flow from the beginning to the end. It starts out in one place and by the end—I don’t want to say it starts super dark, but it definitely starts more ‘bummed out,’ and then by the end, it’s more hopeful. When you were doing the track listing, was that something you were thinking about?
It’s weird on this one. On my last few albums, it was a very clear tracklisting for me: This is the story, and this is how I’m telling it. This album was really tricky for me to put in order, and I don’t why that is. Picking track order is so crazy, it can really change the feel of the entire record. But by the end, it did tell some kind of a story, but it wasn’t as clear for me on this one.
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Is this a more personal record for you?
My last one really was, but this one is too. Gosh, they all are. This one feels a lot different. It feels more like returning to how I made Interstellar, which is taking a lot of time, waiting until I knew something was right, working with the right people. I just really took my time. It wasn’t under the gun. Nothing was rushed and I really had to work with what was in front of me, so in a way it does make it a more personal record. I worked on this record a lot.
There were months when it didn’t get touched at all, because I didn’t have the resources, or it was just this sort of project that was sitting there for a while. There were two massive breaks. I moved to New York, which was awesome for me because in L.A. I don’t really have a lot of resources. In New York, I have a lot of musician friends and friends with studios and people who want to help. I really didn’t know anyone in L.A., so it was a lot harder for me to get this done. It wouldn’t have gotten done if I had stayed there. Or it would’ve taken, like, five years.
Do you think that having those breaks was important to the finished product?
Totally. Because that was how I made Interstellar. I had a lot of time to think over what I had done. That’s also maybe why there were a few different versions of songs. If I didn’t like something or something needed to be re-tracked, there was a lot of time to be able make those decisions. And I don’t think I ever want to work any other way again. I have done things that were under the gun and needed to be done by this date or that date, and it’s not worth it.
It’s hard to be creative on deadline. You had a lot of collaborators on this record. How did you get in touch with Jorge Elbrecht?
I love Jorge, he’s amazing. I know his work from Lansing-Dreiden, who I’m a big fan of. And I know he’s a super genius, basically. I just know how talented his is. So if I wanted to work with someone and work with them in my house, I want them to be amazing. It’s the ear, not the gear. You can have a 4-track and guitar, and you can make something incredible, and he’s one of those people. He’s an idea man. He’s really fun and easy to work with.
One thing that I think is unique about Cage Tropical is that is really synthy, but it’s not cold. A lot of synthesized music can feel mechanical, and this record doesn’t. That’s just my interpretation, but when you were working on the songs, was that something that you were thinking about, not wanting to sound overly-processed?
It’s funny you say that, because I did have a whole round of the songs that were incredibly icy. They were almost bloodless. They were pristine, but they were bloodless. It was funny because I was like, ‘What’s wrong with these?’ I couldn’t figure it out. They were technically perfect, but there was no life in them at all. It wasn’t warm. It was mechanical to the point where it was dead—it was a dead fish. I had to make some really big decisions and throw out a lot of stuff and start over. At that point everything was done in the box, like, digitally. I did have to make a big decision to take things back a few steps. I’m going to need some real sounds on here, some things that are wonky, that aren’t quite right, that aren’t quite on the beat. Because it’s real easy for me to end up with a bloodless record. It’s easier to have things be perfect, and it kind of squeezes the life out of things sometimes.
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It seems like it’s easier to make a perfect song using a computer, but there will be some intangible element that’s missing.
I also think it makes for a lot of stuff that sounds exactly the same. Everyone’s using the same palette, and everything’s right on the grid, and there’s no room for the kind of mistakes that make something awesome.
In the ‘Trouble’ video, you have a phone number on the screen for people to call. How did that work out, in the end?
It’s a Roswell, NM record. I haven’t looked into the messages. I’m having friends do it, because I’m scared. There are terrible people on the planet, but I thought it was a cool idea. I’m starting a podcast with my friend Juan [Pieczanski] from the band Small Black. It’s a paranormal podcast, and we’re going to have a musical guest. He used to have a show on Pitchfork called Juan’s Basement, so we’re going to do a half-and-half—a paranormal news show with a musical guest that we’ll interview. Some of the calls, the interesting ones, are going to make it onto the show.
When is that getting started?
We’re almost through the pilot right now. It’s called ‘Weird Night with Juan and Frankie.’ I don’t know when we’re going to release it.
You do have that song on the record named after Art Bell. We were talking about before how this record is synthy but not cold, but there’s also this kind of ‘sci-fi’ vibe to it. But it’s the old-school sci-fi—not a super shiny future but, like, a ‘gently used’ future.
I think that just permeates everything I do. It’s just in my file. My file is all that stuff. I just love old sci-fi, I love old horror movies, I love the soundtracks to them, John Carpenter soundtracks. And I love Art Bell. I listened to Coast to Coast almost every night in L.A., it was the only thing that would be put me to sleep.
How did you come up with the name Cage Tropical? That’s definitely an L.A. thing to me.
Yeah, there’s a cafe I used to go to a lot called Cafe Tropical and it just became a running joke. Like L.A., I was trapped there. It was just a giant rehab. So I just changed one letter. Ta-da, album title!
What was the most challenging thing for you about making this record?
I really had to invest in myself. I had to have faith in myself and invest my own money into making this record. That’s a big leap of faith in doing that, for anyone: to have faith in yourself and do something and hope people like it is a very hard thing to do. It’s easy in this life to not do things because of fear, so that was definitely the hardest thing. To be like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’
Was there anything outside of music that helped you have faith in yourself, or that kept you going when the little voice inside was saying, ‘It’s not good enough.’
There were a few factors. One was that I didn’t feel like a musician anymore. I was doing this horrible job and trying to do other weird stuff, but then I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m a musician. That’s what I know how to do in this life.’ If people listen to it or they don’t, or if they like it or they don’t, it doesn’t matter. I have to do this, because it’s just what I do. That came back pretty clear once I wasn’t doing it for two, three years.
I feel like a lot of people in this world don’t know what they’re meant to do and they’re just kind of adrift and it drags them down.
I feel lucky, because I caught a glimpse of what that’s like. These past few years were definitely a glimpse of what it’s like to be a person that doesn’t know what they are supposed to do on this planet. And it really sucks. So, in a weird way, it was a gift to be like, ‘Now I’ll never take it for granted. I know. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m getting to do it.’ So, lucky me!
I feel that comes through on the record. Especially by the end, with last song, ‘Decontrol,’ because it seems to me that’s a song about giving yourself up to the universe in a way. To me, it’s saying you need to give up this idea that you’re in charge of anything.
It’s completely true. That’s the theme of the entire record, honestly. I went from a place where I was absolutely trying to control everything to just throwing up my hands and saying, ‘If this is meant to be, it will be. Doors will open.’ And I did give up the control. And it’s awesome.