Charlotte McCaslin won’t just tell you which Cormac McCarthy quote gave her band Roselit Bone its name–she wants you to find it for yourself. “I won’t say what book it is,” McCaslin told ArtsWatch by phone, calling mid-tour from the middle of Arizona. “There is a Cormac McCarthy novel where he describes a woman’s skin being like roselit bone, lit from within, but pale. I won’t say what book because I like it when people find the line in the book and then tell me about it.”
This sense of mystery and ambiguity pervades all of Roselit Bone’s music–along with a rugged authenticity that earns its punk rock outlaw country stripes by piling up layers upon layers of a dark history of Americana and playing the hell out of it in every configuration from duo to dectet. Their gigantic new album Ofrenda takes its name–and much of its haunted spirit–from the offerings to the dead used in Día de Muertos altars. There’s a Chicano vibe to all of it, from specific influences like Esquivel! and Chavela Vargas and Linda Ronstadt to the broader mariachi/ranchera/norteño sound heard on radio stations all over the entire region which technically became U.S. territory in 1848 but still mostly sounds like México.
The rest of the core Roselit Bone sound is there too, that brooding, beautiful mixture of ingredients familiar from a decade-plus of intense live shows and their three earlier albums: Blacken & Curl, Blister Steel, and especially 2019’s Crisis Actor. There’s the Texas-Nashville thing: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. There’s the Americana Punk element, all those raw-hearted bands who loved surf and rockabilly–most notably Cramps and The Gun Club. There’s the cinematic element, especially the Morricone Sound, and particularly the spooky variety you hear on soundtracks like Il Grande Silenzio and Un Uomo da Rispettare. And then there’s that deeply poetic spirit, where the lyrics and the stories and the images and the music and the sounds and all the humanity are all mixed up together, the sort of thing that brings to mind Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen.
All four Roselit Bone albums are available on Bandcamp–Crisis Actor and Ofrenda are even available on vinyl, lovely vinyl–just in time for the next Fee Free First Friday. And next week the band will be returning home from their U.S. tour, performing on October 13 at Lollipop Shoppe in Southeast Portland.
We recently spoke with McCaslin about the new album, her musical path and process, and life on the road. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
The A-ha moment
I think it was just when I was handed a guitar for the first time when I was around ten years old. I just started playing random chords that people taught me, and I forget what first songs I learned, but later on I started getting into better bands cut my teeth learning Cramps songs like “Human Fly.” In general it was an immediately meditative thing for me as a kid picking up guitar.
Assembling the band
When I moved out of the woods and into Portland, I went on Craigslist and saw an ad for a bassist that was looking to start a band that was influenced by The Gun Club and The Cramps and Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. I responded to it and then I started a three piece band called Kowloon that lasted probably three years or so. We never toured, but we played around town and did some EPs.
And then I met Roselit Bone’s first drummer Ben when he did sound for us, and then we formed a band together and it was just me and Ben for a while. And then we added Victor, who is still in the band, then added a trumpet player and another guitarist, and eventually I think that the most we ever had was ten people in the band when we had flute and pedal steel and two trumpets and violins.
Songwriting and arranging
I think a lot of my songs start just as lines written in one of my many notebooks. I go through periods of writing a lot and not editing much, and not really trying to write songs. Then when I’m ready to create a batch of songs, I’ll go back and build lyrics from things I’ve written in my journal. From there I will just make sure the song works as a solo performance, or with me and one other person, because I want the songs to all work as folk songs before anything. And that’s just how I write, I want things to be adaptable. I want the song to be good before I start building an arrangement or consider introducing it to the bigger band.
I think that keeps the song and the actual writing of it from being a bad song–fluffing it up with all the tools at my disposal. I always start out trying to keep things sparse, and not just throw everything at the wall for no reason. Eventually after I sit on a song for long enough there’s a lot of orchestration that comes in, and I try to do it so that it’s dynamic and still conveys loneliness in parts, or beauty–but I don’t start out every time trying to make some epic cinematic song.
Once I introduce it to the band I usually have something like a full arrangement done, and then it’s a lot of workshopping with the different band members to make sure I wrote everything out right and make sure that everything works together in a live band setting. For certain songs, I’ll leave sections that I expect people to write their own parts for, solos or improvisations. I try to leave that up to their different strengths.
Authenticity, irony, reverence
I think that there are a lot of bands that do it wrong, and kind of play ironic country music, or they have kind of a novel take on American folk and blues. And I think that even though the Cramps were a really fun band, and they were campy in a lot of ways, their reverence for their influences was very genuine. And I think that comes through.
I think it comes through with bands like The Gun Club. We actually played with Kid Congo last night in Tucson, from the Cramps and The Gun Club. We got to play a song with him, “Mother of Earth” by The Gun Club, with him singing. So I think that it’s kind of like continuing that reverent punk tradition. We’re meeting our idols and trying to keep something of that alive.
Collapse awareness and beyond
Before this record I had a lot of climate change anxiety and general depression and anxiety related to what I would call societal collapse, what the future will probably look like with climate change, destabilizing governments, civil wars breaking out in developed nations. And I still think that’s all going to happen. So my music before was very immediate–not trying to draw attention to it, but it was a centerpiece of the songs I wrote before.
And I think we’re in it now. I think that the pandemic brought collapse awareness to the forefront of everybody’s mind, and everybody–unless they’re delusional–I think is on the same page about what’s going on. So it feels a little heavy-handed to drive that stuff home. Ofrenda is a record that’s more of a “dealing with it” kind of thing, trying to find beauty in whatever the world is going to look like now. The title of the album refers to people dying, but also the world that we’re currently in the process of losing.
People have asked me about the political underpinnings of the record–I don’t think there are any direct political opinions in there. I think that it’s more of just a salve. Some of the songs are very dark, but in those songs I tried to make the music at least some sort of comfort.
Listening for pleasure
I listen to a lot of Leonard Cohen, Timber Timbre. A lot of my music listening, because I bartend, happens at the bar. Recently it’s been a lot of darkwave and glammy punk like New York Dolls, things that can cut through the din of the bar. But in the tour van I like to listen to really challenging and sad music, because I don’t get a chance to when I’m bartending.
So on this trip we’ve listened to Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Leonard Cohen. I think my favorite Leonard Cohen album is Ten New Songs, but I like all of the albums. I think Ten New Songs was kind of a throwaway album at the time, like it went straight to the bargain bin and no one really paid attention to it. I think it’s his best writing, and I really like the production on it. It’s just him in a bedroom with a cheap Casio keyboard. An incredible album.
I’ve been really into this album by a Yugoslavian guitarist named Branko Mataja, a very beautiful, heavily layered guitar album from the 70s.
Life on the road
It’s been nice on this tour. We’re definitely on a grueling schedule where we almost don’t have any days off. But the shows have been well attended. The response to the new album has been really great, and people are showing up knowing the words to all the songs sometimes, and singing along. That’s been really gratifying after all the work that we put into this album, and the delays in doing this tour. The album was stalled about five or six years ago, and now it’s finally come out and people are hearing the music.
It seems like people are really paying attention to the deeper parts of the performance, which is relieving in a creative way because then we’re less trying to get people’s attention, heading into a mode of knowing that people are listening. That frees up a lot of creative pathways with performing, and in writing new music and new arrangements. People have been really hospitable on this tour, letting us stay in their houses, feeding us. It’s been a pretty easy one so far. We’re only about half of the way through it. But compared to past tours, which have been pretty brutal at times and pretty depressing and really hard to get through, I think that this one is different.