When Rose Cousins was a university student in Halifax, she used to sneak down to the cafeteria in her residence and play the piano – but only when nobody else was around. “I wouldn’t play it in front of other people,” she recalls. Though she was then learning to play guitar, and had started to enjoy performing informally for small audiences, the time she spent at the piano was for nobody but herself.
Indeed, it wasn’t until her second record, 2009’s The Send Off (produced by Luke Doucet, now of Whitehorse) that Cousins – known for her soulful voice and her dark, emotionally-charged lyrics – dared to let the piano back in, on a few mournful tracks.
And so it’s fitting, somehow, that with her latest album, Natural Conclusion, her fourth full-length album, and one she’s calling “the most honest and vulnerable thing” she’s ever produced, Cousins is at the piano more than ever. “I’m excited,” she admits. “Piano was my first instrument, so I feel like I’m coming full circle.”
But it’s not just the piano playing that has her feeling exposed. With this album, Cousins, who was born and raised in Prince Edward Island, pushes herself into all kinds of new territory, including her approach to writing and producing her music.
“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it.”
It has been, in many ways, a change borne of necessity. After the release of her JUNO-winning and Polaris Music Prize-longlisted album, 2012’s We Have Made a Spark, Cousins, who also won a 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year, was exhausted and in need of a break.
“I was trying to pay attention to the physical manifestations of working too hard and performing too much,” she says, thinking back. “I had worked steadily all the way through 2013, and had done a ton of touring. And it wasn’t really till I got back from a big Australian tour in early 2014 that I was, like, ‘I am a piece of garbage.’”
And so, for the first time in her musical career, Cousins cancelled some tour dates, before promptly slipping on some black ice, breaking her arm and forcing a rest. “It takes eight weeks to heal a broken limb,” she explains. “And exactly eight weeks after I broke it I had my first [scheduled] gig.”
But rather than launching another exhausting schedule of touring and recording, Cousins took a step back and made some space, using her time to dabble in the studio, and to travel to Boston, where she has many musical connections. After releasing an EP in September of 2014, Cousins says she knew she was ready to take the leap into her next challenge: co-writing.
“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it,” she says, explaining that she was drawn to the idea of writing songs that others could perform, as well as writing music for film and television. “I want to be able to supplement my income creating music that can be working in the world, while I’m also working in the world doing other things.”
For Cousins, it was also an opportunity to embrace a change of pace, swapping a relentless touring schedule for the opportunity to spend some time working with people for more prolonged times, in various cities. In the fall of 2014, she landed in Nashville, and then moved on to writing stints in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ireland and Boston over the course of the next year, building relationships and experimenting with new approaches to songwriting along the way.
“It was fun to step outside of whatever my genre is, and to write really poppy stuff or swampy stuff, or dance stuff,” she laughs. “Who even cares? It was so fun to spread my wings and just not worry about whether Rose Cousins has to sing it onstage.”
While Cousins describes herself as an introvert, and admits that she hates small talk, she says she enjoyed the intense personal conversations that would develop with people she’d only just met, as they got down to work. “My greatest fear was that I would lose the way I write by myself,” she says, “but now I know that’s not true.”
A couple of co-written songs from this period appear on Natural Conclusions, which was created with Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry. The album also features a slew of supporting artists, including pianist Aaron Davis and guitarist Gord Tough from Toronto, Haligonian Asa Brosius on pedal/lap steel, bassist Zachariah Hickman from Boston and Hey Rosetta!’s Kinley Dowling on strings, with backing vocals by friends Jill Barber, Caroline Brooks (of The Good Lovelies) and Miranda Mullholland (of Great Lake Swimmers). Both The Guardian and CBC Music have cited the album as one to look forward to in 2017.
Cousins, who has typically performed on her own, is also thrilled that she’ll be sharing the stage with a band for the first time when she hits the road to tour her new album. She’ll play 2017 dates in the U.S. and Canada from mid-February through mid-April, concluding with a hometown show at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre.
“I’m looking forward to playing with them and experiencing the music with a band, something I haven’t given myself the privilege of for the majority of my career,” she says warmly. “It’s next-level for me, just like the writing and the recording of this record has been an evolution for me.”
As she looks ahead to what she’s learned and what she hopes to do next, Cousins, also a photographer, is clear that making time for her own creativity – rather than stealing moments for it between gigs – will be critical. “I feel better as a person when I can create things more often,” she says simply. Ultimately, however, she’s focused on continuing to broaden her own horizons, both in music and beyond, as well as finding more ways to support other artists.
“I’m looking for a way to make a difference in the world,” Cousins says. “And though I know that music does that, and brings things to people, and makes a difference, I do wonder where else I could make an impact.”
In the meantime, look for her at the piano.