In sorrow she can lure you where she wants you
Inside your own self-pity there you swim
In sinking down to drown her voice still haunts you
And only with your laughter can you win
– Joni Mitchell, “Roses Blue”
It’s fitting Rosie Thomas borrowed a line from that song on Joni Mitchell’s 1969 album Clouds for the title of her sophomore Sub Pop release, Only With Laughter Can You Win. Thomas’ delicate, exquisite voice often imbues her songs with haunting sadness and sorrow — but lurking somewhere within is her comic foil, Sheila.
Developed during an extended stint at comedy clubs in Seattle a couple years ago, Sheila — a quirky character Thomas frequently assumes at the start or end of her shows — is partly her way of providing a counterweight to the sometimes somber tone of her music.
“I definitely thought, man, I can’t get my music to be upbeat here, but I’m pretty upbeat myself,” Thomas says, explaining her decision to incorporate Sheila into her sets. “I just thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make them laugh too? Because it’s something else I love doing. Then I would feel more like an entertainer rather than just a musician. Because that’s really always what I wanted to do anyways, was just entertain people.”
That much was readily apparent to a teacher at Cornish College of the Arts, a school Thomas had moved to Seattle in 2000 to attend (as a theater student). After Thomas made a class presentation consisting of music and off-the-cuff dialogue, her teacher asked, simply, “‘What are you doing here at this school? You already know what you want to do; you play music, you love making people laugh,’” Rosie recalls.
Thomas already was playing shows around town — aided by singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, who she had met before moving to Seattle — but her teacher’s comments motivated her to try standup comedy. She went to an open-mike night at a local comedy club and impressed the owner enough that she was hired to open for touring comedians.
“I think my intention with comedy was just to say, I tried it, I went once and it was great,” she says. “I don’t know if I really thought it was something I wanted to pursue. But when the owner came up to me, I thought, well, why not? It’s the same thing that happened with music, really — I just played one of those open-mike nights in L.A., and someone asked me, would you like to play a show, and it’s kind of like, how can you turn those things down?
Thomas’ musical forays in Los Angeles — where she lived briefly before moving to Seattle — weren’t actually her introduction to performing. Growing up in the Detroit area, Rosie had sung with her family on various occasions since she was in grade school. Her parents used to play at nightclubs; when she finished high school, Rosie and her father occasionally shared gigs at coffeehouses.
All of her family — parents, two brothers, and a sister — appear on Only With Laughter Can You Win. The opening track, “Let Myself Fall”, an a cappella duet with her mother, was recorded in a Michigan church and brings to mind the stark opening track of the Cowboy Junkies’ debut The Trinity Session. Elsewhere, Thomas’ contemplative balladry echoes her longtime love of Joni Mitchell; a more contemporary reference point would be Sarah McLachlan, whose legions of fans could potentially make Thomas a major seller if they ever discover her records lurking on Sub Pop.
Thomas came to the label’s attention through her cameo on Jurado’s 2000 disc Ghost Of David, which led to their duet track (“Wages Of Sin”)on the 2001 Bruce Springsteen tribute album Badlands. Next came Thomas’ 2002 disc When We Were Small, a charming debut consisting of modest melodic vignettes plus one major revelation, “Wedding Day” (which attracted enough attention to surface on ABC’s hit TV series “Alias”).
“Wedding Day” also counters the notion that Thomas’ music is always so pensive and melancholy; as she sings about driving over hills and mountains and canyons, skinnydipping in the ocean and flirting with cowboys along the way, her spirit soars far beyond all the demons that would dare to drag her down.
There’s nothing quite so striking on Only With Laughter Can You Win, but on the whole it’s a stronger album. Songs such as “Sell All My Things” and “All My Life” reflect Thomas’ continued determination to rise above, while Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron And Wine) contributes a beautiful counterpoint vocal on “Red Rover”.
“These songs are obviously more about present-day things at this point in my life. Someone said to me the other day, ‘It sounds like you’re doing much better, Rose.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m all right!’” she concludes, with a laugh that would make Sheila proud.