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On their new album, Good Morning, America, Lawrence Rothman takes the micro approach to the meta. It’s like “as above, so below,” only in reverse. In other words, this collection of songs sees Rothman confronting the insanity of the past year in the context of their own life experience and, in doing so, finding their humanity.
As you might’ve noticed, Rothman identifies as gender-fluid — hence the use of they/them pronouns. But they’re not militant about it. As a matter of fact, during the photo shoot for this story, I repeatedly caught myself forgetting this. I finally confessed, “You know, Lawrence, I’m a boomer and I call everyone ‘dude.’ ” To which they replied, “Dude is totally OK!”
The point, indeed the overarching gist of the album, is to seek and see the humanity in others. Through this exercise, we might actually find acceptance — not just for them, but for ourselves, too.
Looking beyond the lyrical angle, the music and production are, in a word, stunning, with guest appearances from Amanda Shires, Lucinda Williams, Katie Pruitt, and Caroline Rose. Rothman chose well, weaving each guest artist seamlessly into the tapestry. The performances work whether taken alone or in the context of the album as a whole.
Good Morning, America is a musically complete statement. Yes, the songs hold up beautifully on their own — I definitely have my favorites! — but do yourself a favor and listen to the entire album.
Much love and thanks to Amanda Shires for her participation, and to Jaan Cohan for letting us hang out at Jaan’s House artist hostel to do the interview.
— Chuck Allen
“Thrash the West” (feat. Amanda Shires)
Amanda Shires: The first time I heard this was October or November, when I didn’t know you from Adam.
I used to play with this guy named John Prine, and he told me once when we were on tour together, after me asking, “How come I’m allowed to be on tour with you?” He said, “Oh, I listen to everything that comes across my desk.” When he did that, I’m like, “I want to do that like John Prine does.” So every time somebody asks me to come sing on a record, I always listen to it.
During COVID, I wasn’t really into music, not playing, and then this song came. I put it on my little speaker, and I thought Lawrence’s voice was beautiful, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do this.”
I know that songs are lots of layers and meaning. They can be about whatever you want them to be, really, But what I think is, it’s like a post-apocalyptic song. What is it about?
Lawrence Rothman: Well, what’s interesting about it is, I wrote it in a place where it was like a post-apocalyptic version of yourself after you’ve had a nuclear meltdown. Like, you’ve been nuked as a person. What’s that feeling like, after you’ve been nuked? It is almost like your body’s like an apocalypse.
I wrote it from a very personal situation that happened as a kid, where I felt like a nuclear bomb hit me and I was in a chaotic state. I never really dealt with it in song or poetry or anything. I was sitting at my table one day and thought I needed to deal with it, and I started writing “Thrash the West.”
Also, the state of the world, and COVID, and Donald Trump, it felt like our country was being nuked from the inside — like a madman was in office. So that was hitting me from the left, and my own experiences hit me from the right, and all the lyrics just came out of the older me grown up.
There’s an apocalypse that’s happening in the world right now that’s affecting me, and then there’s the younger me — merging the two together into a song.
AS: How long does it take you to feel comfortable about songs [that are] that personal?
LR: I never did it until this record. My last record I did a little bit, but this record I did it on almost every song. I think it was a result of being kind of inside this COVID bubble, where you are coming to terms with a lot of things you never want to think about.
I reached out to you, Amanda, to sing on it because I just love your voice so much. I didn’t think it was going to work out. I thought it was a long shot, and you agreed to do it. I didn’t want to believe it would happen until I actually saw the file in my inbox.
AS: You know what else is interesting? I said yes because you asked me to sing. You know, people ask me to play fiddle and I’m like, “Please don’t do that!” I love to play the fiddle, but why can’t I just sing?
LR: I have always liked a woman’s voice in the background or with mine, because my voice is so deep, and when I try to sing my own harmonies or have a more masculine voice behind me it never works.
I’ve really struggled. I’m always looking for vocalists that can guest with me that can complement me somehow. I have a very diverse palate of what I listen to, as well.
My daughter, my brother and I discovered your music pre-COVID with the To The Sunset record. There’s a song called “Swimmer” that I must’ve played a thousand times, and your older records, a song called “Harmless” [from the 2016 album My Piece of Land]. I just became very appreciative of your songwriting, the poetry in the lyrics. I’m a very big lyrics person, and the voice just felt to me like all of the voices that I like: Emmylou, Dolly Parton, and things like that. I do a lot of indie rock music, so I thought, “How am I gonna get this wonderful poetic country artist to sing on my songs?” So, I threw a dart out there.
“Benadryl and Cereal”
AS: [Bendaryl and cereal] sounds like a lovely combination. Have you tried that?
LR: I have.
AS: Why would you do that?
LR: Well, this is why I don’t take Benadryl anymore, or any of those over-the-counter cold medicines. I took too much of it one time and I felt really shitty. … There was nothing in the house except for milk and cereal, so I thought if I ate a bunch of cereal maybe it would counteract the Benadryl. And I ate so much cereal that I got really sick. And Benadryl is purple?
AS: Kind of a pinkish.
LR: Pinkish-purple, yeah. I thought I was throwing up blood. So I said never again.
Going back, the whole record deals with past wounds and sort of getting attacked, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Then this COVID situation, everybody at the same time going through this emotional attack on our brains and our wellbeing. I felt there was a parallel there.
So when I was writing the Benadryl and cereal one I had a cold, and I thought, “At least it wasn’t COVID.” then I got COVID, and I thought, “What do you do? Do you go to the doctor? Do you stay at home? If you go to the doctor, are you going to get somebody else sick?”
It was very confusing, especially in the early days of COVID, when I got it. Confusing what you did when you got sick, especially when I didn’t feel like I was on my deathbed. After three days I ended up going to the doctor, and in the office the wait was so long, and they’d do you one by one. It was so isolating, in there for hours by yourself.
AS: Do you think the title should’ve been “COVID, Benadryl and Cereal?”
LR: Ha ha, maybe! And I toyed with COVID in there, but I didn’t want to date the song.
AS: Yeah, as a professional songwriter I think you made the right choice. But did you write the music first?
LR: No, I wrote the poem first. That day I went home, and I couldn’t be around anybody. I was in my studio, so I went to my piano and wrote that into a voice memo. So that’s that.
“Breathe” (feat. Caroline Rose)
AS: That song sounds really personal. If you’d like, we could talk about the production.
LR: What’s funny about that song is the production.
I completely finished the song — full mix, full everything. It was one of my proudest productions I’d ever done.
I had Pino Palladino on the bass, Jim Keltner on drums, I had two piano players, I was playing all these African instruments that were super hard to get into my house — I recorded myself playing those — so I went really deep with the production, and had a 12-piece string ensemble.
AS: I don’t know the whole story of the song, but it’s really cool for what I interpret as you survived to put all that stuff into it. It was crazy cool.
LR: I wanted to overdecorate the pain to kind of mask it, so it was a very grandiose production.
AS: But not to mask it. But to me it sounds like ... “decorate the pain” was a good way to put it, but I was thinking, “Make something beautiful out of something ugly.”
LR: Yeah, I wanted to do that too. I think that’s where I ended up. I did all that, and was so proud.
So I got to London — during COVID I had to go to London to score a film. And it was the last song I mixed. And it’s like 1 a.m., London time. I actually had just met you. We had already met, but you texted me a song idea and we wrote a song through text that night.
It was a Sunday at the end of my session. So I leave the studio, and I thought I needed to play my mix and rock driving through London with it. The closer I’m getting to the flat where I’m staying, I started to think, “I hate this. I fucking hate this, this is terrible.” I’m like, “Where is my voice? Am I tired?”
And I’d spent two weeks on this production and four days mixing this song on two mixing boards. We had a multi-track, so it was 64 tracks of tape that we put it on. It was nuts. I wasted so much money, and I’m like, “I fucking hate this!”
And the mastering session to master the whole album was the next morning, but I was ahead of time because I was in London, and I couldn’t move it because it was right before Christmas and it was the only time my engineer could do it. If I missed it I’d have to find somebody else. So I was like, “No! It cannot go on my record like this. It’s fucking terrible.”
I get back to my flat where I had a mobile Pro Tools rig on a laptop, opened up the hard drive — because I always carry a hard drive backup with me — with headphones on, and I muted everything but the piano and my voice. And I thought, “There is the song.”
I unmuted some synths I had done and a drumbeat that I had done, just me playing the drums. And the bass. And I was like, “Now that’s the fucking song.”
AS: Who’s that about?
LR: That’s about my mom.
AS: Oh, that’s awesome. I also like to think about it in my own way as a love relationship. Is that wrong?
LR: Oh, that’s wrong! I mean, I love my mom....
AS: I mean, is it okay if I have my own version?
LR: The thing is, songs should be for the listener to put their own interpretation on.
AS: Yes. I used to get upset when I learned that a song wasn’t about what I thought it was about. What is “The Fix” about?
LR: I wrote that one about my mom and her father. Her mother, who passed away before I was born, I got ahold of her diary, and there’s an entry in it that was really beautiful. When he went off to the war, about how there was an ocean between them, and she missed him. And she was, like, an alcoholic, and struggled all her life, but her diary entries were like poetry. So my mom had given that to me because they were so poetic, and she thought maybe I could use them for something.
But back to the theme, it was always trying to pull from the past. I just thought I’d open my Grandma Lillian’s diary and see what I could pull from that, and that entry. She was like, “I wish I could fix this so I didn’t drink so much so I could be present.”
My mom struggled all her life, dealing with the fact that her mother was an alcoholic who died when she was 17, so I thought, “I’m gonna write a song that is my grandma’s story for my mom.”
“My Body is a Perfect Storm”
LR: So I wrote that because I was watching a Daniel Day Lewis movie [Phantom Thread] where he was a fashion designer. It came out about three years ago, and in the movie the wife would get him sick on purpose so she could care for him.
I was thinking about it during COVID, and how our bodies are. You don’t really think about them every day. But once that virus hit, we were so much more aware of everything inside my body, appreciating “Oh my god, I can breathe!” — because some people can’t breathe with COVID — the fact that you can inhale and exhale, you take that for granted every day.
I was thinking about how much I took my body for granted all my life, but also how as a human you like the things that are bad for you — the sugar, the alcohol, the drugs. And your body’s like a perfect storm, how you can beat it up and, what is it they say, like every seven years you have like a new complete cell makeup?
So, that’s where I was getting at with it, really. Your body is just the wildest thing ever, when you think about how much it can take, how much of a beating it can take it and how much you can abuse it. How some people have abused it and lived to be 90, and others abuse it and live to be 20.
“Decent Man” (feat. Lucinda Williams)
AS: I play that song on loop a lot. I really like it. I think Lucinda Williams did a great job on it. Production-wise, I don’t know how you got her in the same room. I mean, I love her, but if I called her she probably wouldn’t come over.
LR: We had to do that one virtual. It was in the thick of COVID when we did that. She was the first person I reached out to, to feature on the record, because I had been listening to a lot of her catalog during COVID.
I wrote that song at my kitchen table. It was in the thick of Donald Trump craziness, and the country erupting with all the racist things that were going down, and all these states and protests. One day my daughter just got so frustrated, because she was at home and couldn’t go to school, and she goes, “Are there any decent men left? With these presidents and all these #metoo men.” And I thought, “That is a really good question!” I took that and it was like, instantly it was like a waterfall. I wrote that entire song in a 20-minute spew.
I was listening to Lucinda’s catalog, and I thought, “There’s no way I can sing this song by myself.” I needed someone to do it with me, and I wanted someone from a different era. I didn’t want to do it with one of my peers, my age, I wanted someone who had really lived, and thought Lucinda would really be the dream. I’d been listening to Lucinda since I was 12.
So we just cold-reached out and I was like, there’s just no chance. But we did it, and that was wild, because she really loved the lyrics and got right back. It was just a matter of how we were going to do it, because we were in the thick of COVID. I hadn’t done remote sessions at that point at all, so I was a little nervous, because I have such a particular way that I like to record things.
AS: You’re very meticulous.
LR: I was like, “Hopefully it’ll fit,” you know? And they did their thing. Ray Kennedy recorded it. I got it, and I was just like, “What’s it gonna be?” I put it right into the Pro Tools session it was in, and I was like, “Oh my god, my vocal sounds like shit now!”
And then Ray was asking me how I recorded my vocal because he liked it, and I said, “How did you do that, because what you did is the perfect vocal!” And he did it on that mic, the actual mic from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, so that was really cool.
AS: Well, this one, when we were becoming friends, you wouldn’t let me hear any of the music at all. You used to be way more guarded about it.
Because I agree, people do listen to music passively sometimes, and it’s not cool if you put all your heart and soul and your feelings and life out there for display, and people aren’t listening to it right. I got so offended that they would even think that I would listen to it poorly. Then I felt guilty.
But I remember when I got to hear “Dear L.A.,” and I was so thrilled.
LR: “Dear L.A.” I wrote while in Nashville when staying in a friend’s guest house. I had been away from L.A. for about a month, and though I was born and raised in Missouri, sometimes you gotta check yourself that you aren’t getting sucked into the negative part of Hollywood/L.A. culture. People can be very vampiric.
Recording in Nashville gave me a perspective on L.A. I hadn’t had for a minute. In that song I wrote from the perspective of me now and the perspective of when I was 19, driving 36 hours straight from Missouri to California with my brother and an old girlfriend. The L.A. I dreamed about, and now, 20 years later, the L.A. that lives in me and the scars I wear.
“Glory” (feat. Katie Pruitt)
AS: I said, “You are a goddamn fool if ‘Glory’ is not on your record! I’m not going to work with you anymore if it isn’t on the record!”
LR: Yeah, so that would not be on the record if you didn’t intervene, Amanda.
AS: What was the inspiration behind that?
LR: I was in a mood. I was looking at Twitter and all these people tweeting their lives: famous musicians, all the rhetoric you see on Twitter. People had a lot of time to tweet, and I thought, “At the end of the day, nobody is going to care about you when you’re gone.”
Really, truly, do they really care about you and all your glories and all your ego and your boasting, “look at me” stuff? It’s all just wiped out when you die. It doesn’t really matter how big you are. You just fade away. I mean, you look at fame and musicians, the whole thing just fades away.
AS: Is it also about a person?
LR: No. It was about me looking at a bunch of people. I was getting a little too misanthropic for a second, and I was looking at my peers in music and thinking, “You all need to just take it down a notch.” And social media just sort of amplifies everybody’s egos in a way, just “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” And one day you’re just going to be old.
The only sort-of celebrity story I have, which was the one that kind of changed my career path, was that in 2012 I met David Bowie. He was actually at my house — that part of the story is too complicated — but he was at my recording studio at my house. I had built up a collection of solo songs and got comfortable enough with him to play the songs that would become my solo music.
AS: And y’all probably got to know each other?
LR: Yeah, as much as you can be acquainted with a person like that, because there was a wall.
But the thing he said was, “That’s what you should be doing. Don’t change a thing.” And I was like, OK. Because at the time I was experimenting and thinking of things like alter egos and becoming nine different people when performing live, and he said, that’s exactly what you should be doing and don’t change a thing.
AS: Be yourself?
LR: Yeah. And that put me onto doing my solo music. At the time he brought up what we were just talking about with Twitter. He said, “One day when I’m gone, I’m just a tweet. I’m a birthday tweet.” And then he died four years later, and I always think about him saying, “One day I’ll just be a ‘Happy birthday, David Bowie’ tweet.” That’s how he thought about it, and I was thinking about that a lot.
“Sexless in Your Bedroom” + “Not a Son”
LR: So then, “Sexless in Your Bedroom” is an interlude. Just music. You helped me with that as well, because it was originally called “Open Mic Night, Carthage, Missouri.”
AS: Oh, god.…
LR: I know, and you said, “First, the title’s too long, and I like it as a song. ‘Carthage’ should be a song. Don’t waste it on an interlude, but bring it back home to being about gender fluidity and the struggle with that, and bring it back into the title.”
So I thought, “Okay, how did I feel, my first sexual experience being gender fluid, and not being open about it?” I felt sexless, and that’s why I called it “Sexless in Your Bedroom.” And it opens up the second-to-last song called “Not a Son,” which, that’s the most personal thing to deal with, like, gender fluidity and …
AS: Sidebar: Do you ever feel like people are too curious?
LR: No, because I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen. I kept it personal for my whole life. When I was in bands and doing interviews, I never was open about it until 2016. That’s when I started doing interviews and talking about it, because I think it’s something people need to be more aware of. And in 2016 you could barely call it gender fluidity, because it was all very new to a lot of people.
AS: Because in hindsight, I asked you way too many questions, probably. Hopefully, I didn’t make you feel like a curiosity.
LR: No, but that’s the point of why you write about it and are open about it: to educate people.
AS: Yeah, and I’m not anymore, because I know you. We’ve talked a lot.
LR – Well, we ran into an experience with some really nice people who owned a restaurant. We’re not going to say the name of it, but it was a great experience. Because the more you’re open about it, the more people can fix old rules, or maybe rules they weren’t even paying attention to. We had the conversation, and that’s why you have the conversations. It’s why I have the conversations, so at least I can update their thinking, or turn them on to new ideas about what is going on in society that they weren’t thinking about. Like a lot of my parents’ friends have no clue about this kind of thing.
AS: I think Nashville does it kind of good.
LR: As you travel deeper into the country, there are more people who aren’t aware of these things. That’s why I like to talk about it, because they’re not against it. They’re not bigots or have a problem with it, they’re just not aware. Like my family in Missouri. They’re not aware of being gender binary or gender fluid. They don’t even know what that is. But when you talk about it and show them, they’re like, “Oh!”
LR: And then the last song is “Homesiick,” which was strictly about COVID, being homesick, and actually I was home sick.
There’s also that weird thing about being in a COVID bubble and being sick, and everything shut down. You kind of get used to liking the fact of not seeing people and get comfortable in this weird, closed-off isolation. Especially for somebody like me, I like being alone a lot …
And so there’s that weird comfortably numb feeling that you can get. That moment there where you think, “Oh, you don’t have to have an excuse anymore. You don’t have to leave.” I wrote “Homesiick” about that. I like being home sick right now, because it’s an excuse to blow off responsibility and write songs, and nobody has to tell you to get out of bed.
AS: We were too, because I have a high risk with some heart stuff, but it’s cool, it’s fine. But also, my darkness did not like COVID.
LR: Yeah, I don’t know if I want to leave my cocoon! And what kicked my ass out of it is, I had to go score a movie. I wasn’t making any money and had to make some money, so I scored a movie and left and went to London, and then I mixed my record, and that led me to Nashville where I worked with you in December.
Well, that’s all the tunes.
AS: You did a good job letting me ask personal questions. I know you’d much rather talk about production!