Rosali Steps Out With One Of 2024’s Best Albums

One of my favorite singer-songwriters working today is Rosali Middleman, a 41-year-old Michigan native who records and performs as Rosali. I became a fan in 2021 upon the release of her tremendous third album, No Medium, a cathartic collection of stormy folk-rock tunes spotlighting Middleman’s remarkably tender yet tough vocals and the loose-limbed instrumental backing of the Omaha-based David Nance Group. It’s all raw vibes and electrified feels, like Sandy Denny jamming with Crazy Horse on a late night in the mid-1970s.

Rosali had come to my attention the previous year via a bootleg recording of a War On Drugs gig from December 2019, at which she performed a cover of The Pretenders’ “Birds Of Paradise” with the band for a hometown audience in Philadelphia. By then, she had been a fixture of the Philly music scene for more than a decade. When she moved to the city, she was interested in noise and experimental music. For several years, she performed in an improvisational outfit with her then-boyfriend. After that relationship ended, she drifted toward more structured and conventional sounds, drawing upon the music — Neil Young, British folk, the Grateful Dead — her musician-parents raised her on.

On March 22, Rosali will release her fourth record, Bite Down. Just as No Medium was one of my favorite records of 2021, Bite Down is one of the best things I’ve heard in the first quarter of 2024. It’s her first release for Merge Records, who signed Rosali after the critical success of No Medium. She says the pandemic lockdown, and her move away from the city to more secluded and peaceful environs in North Carolina, inform the album. Whereas No Medium contains bracing songs about addiction, romantic loss, and mortality, Bite Down approaches those themes with a flinty, indomitable fighting spirit.

“Being a human is a complex thing, and I think the older you get, you understand that the hardships you go through are there to teach you things,” she says during a Zoom call last month. “If you let them, you can experience growth in ways much quicker and profound than if you were to try to resist it and fear against them.”

Musically, Bite Down continues Rosali’s partnership with Nance and his band, now known as Mowed Sound. (They put out their own very good album in February.) Unlike most singer-songwriter records, Bite Down does not sound like a solo artist backed by a coterie of hired musicians, with all of the distance and staleness that implies. It sounds instead like a band record, created by a gang of likeminded individuals expressing something authentic and true together. It’s a real achievement.

This is your first album on Merge Records. Did knowing ahead of time that Bite Down would be your highest profile release to date affect you as you were making it?

I tried not to let it because you never know how anything’s going to go. I don’t ever want to make music or art with a commercial idea or any of that in mind. But I definitely felt pressure on myself because I felt like No Medium was an important record to me and to a lot of other people, and I wanted to make a record that was just as good as that.

I think you nailed it. You recently said about this new album, “I resolved to bite down on the proverbial bullet; sink my teeth into the flesh and bone of being in the world, devouring the obstacles in my path and gloriously savoring all that is on offer — good or bad.” What did you mean by that?

I think it’s partly related to post-pandemic life. That feeling of the bottom dropping out and now, what are we doing with our time? How do we care for our communities? All these big, big questions. And also feeling totally helpless and not sure what to do with myself, with my time, how to be of use, how to be of service. In the midst of that, I turned 40 and I moved cross country twice. I moved to Michigan for nine months to help family out before I moved to North Carolina. Like a lot of people, I fell into depression during that time. There’s that whole concept of you just got to lean in. And I was like, I need something that’s more severe than that. I’m biting down. It’s just accepting life.

A lot of singer-songwriter records sound like a songwriter backed by hired musicians. But the last two records you have made sound like they were made by a real band. You’re fully integrated into what Nance and the other players are doing. Can you talk about that dynamic? It seems important to you.

Definitely. With No Medium, we didn’t know each other that well when we made that record, I had met them a few times when I was living in Philly, and I was a big fan of their work. Then we went on a tour together with my other band, Long Hots, which is a garage-rock trio. We both had 7-inches coming out on Third Man, so we did a two-week tour. We were all in the same van, and they’re just the best people. We became super close in that short amount of time, almost like you would going to summer camp And that’s when Dave said, “We want to be your backing band for your next record.” So, I took him up on the dare and found myself in Omaha that fall.

The experience making that record was really fun. And then being able to tour with it a bunch, we became our own band. The energy that we all have together, now they just feel like family. They’re my best friends. I’ve spent the most time with them over the past couple of years than anybody else, really.

When we went to make this record, I went in with the songs less developed than I normally would because I wanted it to be a band record. Now we all had that language, that psychic stage telepathy, a deeper understanding of each other. I love the way they play. I love that they’re very flexible and fluid in the sounds. It’s not just this hard rock thing going on. They can be very sensitive and delicate as well, which has always been a big part of my music along with the harder side.

When I listen to Bite Down I imagine you and the band recording at midnight. That’s the vibe I get from the music. But apparently that wasn’t the case?

No, it was very business hours for the most part. We recorded these in [guitarist] Jim [Schroeder]’s basement in Omaha. He had housemates, three other people who lived there, so we were very conscious of not playing too late. The last record, we would stay up. There’s some vocal takes I did at 2 a.m. But this time, it was very, very tame and mature.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse often comes up as a reference for your records. Some of that comes from Nance, who is a big Neil fan. But I hear a lot of Neil in the music you have made on your own. The instrumental guitar album you made under the name Edsel Axle has a song called “Present Moment” that reminds me a lot of “Cortez The Killer.”

Definitely been a huge Neil fan for as long as I can remember. My parents are both musicians. They had a rock band growing up. So I was heavily influenced by Neil. I think his tone is… it’s one of those that hits you in your soul. Both his singing and songwriting have that capacity of just deep feeling in its tonality.

I’m from the Midwest also, and I think with Dave, that’s partly our synergy. There’s that heartland feeling to it that.

Definitely. I’m also from the Midwest, and I get the heartland rock vibe.

It’s something specific about being Midwesterners that we all understand. Even though Neil is Canadian, there’s something kind of Midwestern about Canada.

Before moving to North Carolina, you were part of the music scene in Philadelphia in the 2010s. That was when Philly was basically the capital of American indie rock. How did that inform you?

I moved in the beginning of 2008, right in January. Philly at the time, it was so affordable to live in, which is partly why I think it became the hotbed for a lot of musicians and artists. I was super into noise and experimental music, and West Philly had a lot of house shows where a lot of that was going on. You’d go to a noise show, and then you’d go to a folk show in a different part of town. It’d be the same people operating in these scenes. It had this “small town, big town” kind of vibe to it. I immediately started meeting people from Espers and Mary Lattimore and Jack Rose. They’re all close friends. Mary and I ended up living together for a few years.

It felt very positive. And it kind of happened immediately, just by going to a show. Somebody would be like, “Oh, you’re new. What are you up to? What you like?” And that opened a lot of doors creatively. Watching friends blow up, like Kurt Vile and The War On Drugs, was incredible to experience. It was just a very exciting time.

I think the first time I heard you was on a War On Drugs bootleg where you perform a cover of The Pretenders’ “Birds Of Paradise.”

I’m friends with Charlie Hall, the drummer. He played on my second record. He’s doing a lot of percussion. And Robbie Bennett, he played on No Medium. I was very close with him. Robbie’s wife, Kate, is a good friend. I know Adam and I would say we’re friends, but I was definitely closer with them. They were in more of my social circles. I remember being in Denmark in 2014, I got family over there, and then seeing Adam on the cover page of a music magazine. It was so cool to see them experience that growth. They’re all just very sweet, humble people.

The first time I heard you sing I thought, “That’s one of the best voices I’ve heard in a long time.” And I still think that. Maybe this is because of the “Birds Of Paradise” connection, but I hear some Chrissie Hynde in your style. The other comparison I would make is Sandy Denny. You sound like a tougher Sandy Denny to me. Do you consider either singer to be an influence?

Definitely Sandy Denny. Growing up, Fairport Convention was huge in our house. I was maybe 12 or something when I first connected to hearing her sing. At that point, I was definitely a singer. I’ve been in choir my whole life. I used to do state honors and competitive singing growing up. At that coming-of-age time of realizing the character of somebody’s voice, her voice was just so powerful. It’s similar to Neil’s guitar. It’s like when somebody has this rawness about them and it doesn’t seem affected in any kind of way, it is just their pure expression. That really struck me about the way she sings.

Chrissie Hynde, less so. I don’t know if I really sound like her. I have a toughness in my delivery sometimes, which I think has come out of my time in Philly. Growing up, I was a huge fan of ’90s R&B divas, like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. They were hugely important to me.