“With Love came at a time I needed it most,” Rosie Thomas says about her newest album. “It was the award at the end of a hard time, it was the bouquet of flowers that you need when you’re coming out of something very difficult.”
If you’ve wondered where Rosie Thomas has been in the last four years, it had nothing to do with writer’s block or a lack of inspiration. This time away from music started suddenly for Thomas in the spring of 2007 when she woke up on an otherwise normal day with near-paralyzing anxiety. It was a new feeling for Thomas, who’d experienced some nervousness in high-stress situations, and she did get the occasional bit of stage fright. But this wasn’t pre-performance butterflies or stressing over an expensive bill. Thomas realized, as she sat down at her kitchen table that morning, that something was very, very wrong.
“I felt mental,” Thomas says about her unexplainable condition. “I thought, ‘I’m having a breakdown.’ Trying to pinpoint it, I thought ‘Well, I went through a breakup, but that was too long ago.’ I just kept thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
As doctors would later confirm, Thomas’ thyroid was what wasn’t going on. The singer’s non-functioning neck gland was forcing her hormones to overcompensate, causing the otherwise quirky, kindhearted Thomas to go into what she called a “dark season.” Her mood was off. Food didn’t taste right. And during this season, Thomas says every waking hour was a struggle.
Rehabbing Thomas was a long, deliberate process. Other than doctor visits to monitor her condition, months were spent not doing much of anything. But it was liberating for the singer, who is now in her early thirties, because she had never really penciled in breathing time for herself to begin with. In place of her regular pastimes—her fans will be the first to tell you how busy she is with her music, acting and comedy—Thomas spent most of this time either in bed or having tea with friends. But, also to Thomas’ surprise, it was during this vulnerable time that she would become engaged.
“He loved me through that season,” Thomas says about her husband, Jeff Shoop. And although she’s telling me this on the phone, you can practically hear her smile through the receiver. “I had nothing. I wasn’t funny, I wasn’t cute, I wasn’t silly, I wasn’t talented, and he asked me to marry him.”
The two married in August of 2008, and little did Thomas know, a recovery was also around the corner. As time went on, Thomas’ condition slowly started to improve, and she decided to take a trip where she would begin writing again.
After reassuring managers, family and friends that she’d be okay, Thomas traveled to Los Angeles, then to Nashville, then to her grandfather’s farm in Kansas to write music. It’s surprising what a little time away from music can do, because on the trip the songs that appear on With Love poured out of the songwriter.
“You’re just going to wake up and you’re going to be yourself again,” Thomas’ doctor explained to her at an appointment. “It’s like you’re going to wake up out of a deep sleep.”
“And it was true,” she says, reflecting on that prediction. “I woke up one morning and I felt okay. It was exhilarating. I can’t even begin to explain how good it felt. I took a walk, I stopped and smelled the roses on the street. I noticed the small things. I got a cup of coffee and it tasted good.”
In April 2009, two years after Thomas’ diagnosis, things were looking up. With “old Rosie” back to full form, production started on the collection of songs she was working on. But with all of her recent good fortune and positivity, the album still hit a few snags and one huge false start in Nashville before she’d get it right.
It had been three years since her last studio release of original music with These Friends of Mine. Pre-production was finished with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, a touring buddy of Thomas’, and the singer was ready to hit the studio—maybe even a little too ready. Thomas, who was then excited to cross a Nashville-recorded album off her bucket list, said she worked several days “almost like with beer goggles” in a Tennessee studio with a producer and band that just weren’t right for her. On her third day in the studio, as the excitement died down and as Thomas realized her songs weren’t sounding any better, her brother Brian made a symbolic gesture.
“He saw that I saw what he was seeing,” Thomas laughs. “I was singing with the band and he was in the sound booth, and he picked up my headphones, one side of them, and said ‘That’s a wrap.’ And I laughed so hard. I realized he was saying ‘We’ve got to pull the plug.’”
That’s when her friend—David Bazan, Pedro the Lion’s former frontman—heard about Thomas’ Nashville misfortune and stepped into the picture. He wanted to help the singer.
“We were at a party, and I was just asking her how she was doing,” Bazan says about his involvement with the album. “She said she’d been working on a record, and her experience [in Nashville] was just kind of so noteworthy and hilarious given the nature of her music. Nashville is kind of a factory for insincere, calculated music, so it wasn’t a surprise. My initial thing was not that I wanted to be the one to record it, but I just wanted to help her in any way that I could.”
And so Bazan, who says he feels a lot like Thomas’ older brother these days, took the reins on the production side of the album. It was with this older-brother-like guidance that the singer performed and sang better than she had ever before. In Beam’s case in pre-production, he taught the singer to use different sounds and voices to craft songs and “sing out” more.
“My time with Rosie is always special, and that’s whether we are making music or making a sandwich,” Beam says about working with Thomas. “She’s like a family member that I cherish a great deal, so it feels wonderful to have been able to be part of her creative process as well. To be honest, for the small part I played, it was too much fun to feel like work.”
In Bazan’s case, the lessons were in emotion. The frontman-turned-producer set Thomas on a nightly schedule of drinking a little whiskey and singing for three hours straight, trying to get the singer in the headspace she was in when she wrote the songs. And the results wowed them both.
“She’s a fucking unbelievable singer,” Bazan says. “But she has a tendency to hide from the power and the plain beauty of her voice with falsetto and whispers and stuff. But I’ve heard her sing straight and true and proud, and it’s so moving when she does that. I was challenging her to sing that way if she wanted to.”
The evidence is in the songs. With Love contains some of Thomas’ strongest, most convincing vocal performances, her most touching lyrics and most careful arrangements. “Over the Moon,” With Love’s second track, is a clear showcase of the change for Thomas. Blending Thomas’ impressive we-knew-you-had-it-in-you vocals with some Beam-suggested handclaps and R&B backing vocals, the track showcases the singer at her catchiest, and still her most deliberate and complex.
And to tie everything together, Beam caught Thomas’ signature laugh on tape toward the end of the track. “Keep it on there,” Beam said to her. “People need to see that side of you.”
“She expresses herself in an honest way,” Bazan says about her songwriting. “Her voice is so grown up and full of the confusion of being a grown-up when she lets it be that way.”
But Thomas chalks up With Love’s outcome not only to her performances. It was the people that surrounded her through these times that made With Love her favorite recording experience.
“When I thought about that and being around really good friends in the studio—Sam and Dave, [co-producer and engineer] Blake Wescott, my husband, my brother—it felt heroic,” Thomas says. “I felt like I was being applauded by the people that cared most about me. It made for a stunning record, a masterpiece in my opinion. It’s not just the songs that I think are so great about this record. It’s the experience behind it that makes it feel like it’s the best record I’ve ever made.”