Interview: D. L. Rossi on how cancer, divorce and depression have aided his songwriting

How personal tragedy can help  produce music that sounds uplifting.

While D. L. Rossi’s musical path had taken him to Nashville that doesn’t mean his story is automatically similar to the many other aspiring singer-songwriters making the same pilgrimage. He first became aware of his love of music as part of his strict Christian upbringing in Michigan and it was this that first prompted him to move to Nashville to try and develop a career.  Life then threw a few curved balls his way in the form of testicular cancer, divorce and subsequently depression and anxiety. Such adversity can sometimes attract people to a structured religion but in Rossi’s case, it resulted in him becoming a stronger more independent thinking person who questioned the appropriateness of his religion when the fellow members of his Church couldn’t accept his recent traumas as part of life and understand that they should be treated as such and not viewed as something completely negative to be ignored or hidden.

Rossi developed significantly more self-awareness and recognised that his love of songwriting was very deep and that it is the one thing he needed to continue to do. This is where his story again takes a twist as he decided to move from Nashville back home to Michigan from where he continues to develop his career. He has just released a new record ‘Lonesome Feeling’ and with his history and a title like that, listeners may be surprised at how upbeat the album sounds. While it does reference his past traumas the music has a sense of groove with surprisingly positive lyrics which prevents the charge being levied that the music is too maudlin or depressive. Through all of this D. L. Rossi has shown an honesty and determination to develop and improve his singer-songwriting capabilities, taking inspiration from multiple sources. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with D. L. Rossi over Zoom to discuss his new record, how his experiences have fed into his music and the challenges of recording an album remotely during COVID restrictions.

Where are you at the moment? Are you back in Michigan?

At the moment I am living back in Michigan but this week I am actually back in Nashville to play a show and visit my brother who lives there.

Did you go back to Michigan because of COVID or was it for other reasons?

Originally I was back in Michigan because I had an uncle who had had brain cancer the summer before COVID started and I was visiting backward and forwards with my parents. It was a very aggressive form of cancer, and when he passed I moved back home not knowing how long I would be there, but to just help my folks with his house and just getting everything together. As I stayed there I visited Grand Rapids and once everything started shutting down with COVID I was stuck near where my parents lived for a while, then last June when things started opening up a bit I moved to Grand Rapids and it just kind of felt like home, I enjoy the west side of the state.

Is this move reasonably permanent now?

Yeah. The west side of Michigan is like really, really beautiful, Lake Michigan is on that side and it has been nice living here since everything shut down again, to be able to go to the National Parks and go and be by the water and stuff like that, and it has become this really peaceful place for me to live and I have enjoyed it.

How much Michigan is in your new record ‘Lonesome Kind’?

I wrote half of the album transitioning from Nashville to Michigan and I wrote the other half probably when I was in Michigan. It kind of shows up in some of the songs like ‘Gold’ one of the last songs on the record, and I had been sitting on that just re-working and re-working it for over a year, but there are then songs like ‘Great Lakes State Line’ that are obviously about going back to Michigan and ‘Hangs’ I wrote in Michigan and ‘Oak Tree’ was also written in Michigan. ‘Whiskey’ was an older song from Nashville and ‘Don’t Wait Up’, the second track, I actually wrote with a friend in Nashville. So it is kind of split right down the middle.

You were in Nashville for quite a while, weren’t you?

I was in Nashville for a little over three years.

What did your friends and fellow musicians say when you said you were going back to Michigan?

You know, I think a lot of my friends in Nashville were surprised I was making that change. The perception is that you come to Nashville to grind and make it, you can kind of rise to the top, and I moved to Nashville as a way of wanting to re-focus on my music because I had just come out of my divorce, and I wanted to immerse myself in a place that would be inspiring and that would challenge me. However, I never felt I was in Nashville to rise to the top of the Nashville artist’s scene, I just came as a way of growing because there are so many talented people there, so many great writers, so many great musicians, I just wanted to be immersed in it. I guess I probably always knew there would be another move, at some point, but it was a surprise for a lot of people because the perception is that everything is happening in Nashville. In a lot of ways that is true, you know.

You have had a very emotionally challenging few years and you were brought up in a very religious household. How much did your upbringing help or hinder you in dealing with the challenges?

I would identify myself as quite a  devout Christian leading up to just about a year after my cancer diagnosis and after recovering from my surgery. It started to deteriorate a little bit and the reason I was kind of stepping away from it, moving away and stepping past it, had more to do with the fact I was beginning to ask questions my community weren’t super comfortable with me asking, and that just gradually pulled me further and further away. Also, what I found was that in my area a lot of the people I came across really didn’t have a lot of productive things to say to me during my cancer diagnosis and my struggles with depression. I was also getting a divorce and it was a lot going on and I often thought I was actually comforting those people because they were struggling with the fact this stuff was happening to me.

To me, it just seemed like death and loss are just part of our lives and we have to learn to cope with it, In religious backgrounds a lot of times, especially in America, death is the enemy, right, and if we conquer death and these things is more the attitude than the reality of accepting that these things are part of life, and coping with that and learning to find the beauty in that. As I was just starting to process those things I found myself just being pulled further and further away. I think there is beauty in spirituality, religion and tradition, but for me, because I was pushed out and rejected I have set it aside. While I have set it aside I am not angry about it, I have had too many feelings about it and just had to move on with my life and find my own contentment if that makes sense.

You sound fairly comfortable at the moment. Is that a fair assessment?

Yeah. It has taken a long time for me to start feeling that way about it, but yeah, I feel more comfortable in my own personality and in myself than I probably have most of my life. At the end of all those things we were talking about, there is a lot of chaos, a lot of hurt and a lot of struggle but on the other end of it, right now, I am in a season where I feel at peace.

How much did your music help you through these struggles?

You know, as I started going through counselling as my life started going through these turbulent times, I didn’t even understand it, but music was like my subconscious’ way of working out what was going on and revealing my truest self. I wasn’t even aware I was even doing that until, you know, later. I’ve even had seasons in my life where I was trying to get away from music because I needed to do more serious things like when I did have a normal job when I first got married. It always kind of came back though because that voice has to come out and express itself for me to know where I truly stand. Songwriting for me, the songwriting process of writing the songs, for me is a necessity, performing is really fun recording is also really, really fun, but what I found recently is that whatever season it is and whenever it comes, songwriting is a real necessity.

You have left Nashville, so you are not a Nashville songwriter sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day. How do you write your songs, is it whenever you get the inspiration or are you more disciplined about it?

The only time when I give myself a break is the season that I’m in right now when I have just released something and I’m expending energy just promoting and talking about the record and all those things. I’d say about July I will get back into the normal routine that I have which is I try to write at least an idea of a song every day in my phone and in my notes. I picked that up, I think I was listening to an article or reading an article about Ben Gibbard right after they had hit really big with their album ‘Plans’ and he got to a stage and started writing every day and it was starting to look like his job.

Now when I am in my normal mode I always have a guitar near me in my apartment and I spend at least an hour allowing inspiration to hit me and if inspiration comes and I get a song I feel is true and is starting to become something, my discipline is I force myself to finish the song, and by that I mean create a structure like if it is a verse write a chorus and a bridge and then put it in my phone. I will then leave it completely alone for the rest of the day and I will come back to it the next day. I will then be kind of in a cycle of inspiration where I allow myself to hear stuff, and after that, if I have stuff in the bank I will revisit the songs I have written and start editing and crafting the song and try and figure out what I am trying to say and how I can say it better.

How easy was it to record ‘Lonesome Kind’ remotely and how did you go about it?

My brother had a studio in Nashville that I was in but we were basically sectioned off and I was in the control room with my brother, and then a drummer would walk into his house, we left the front door open, and he would lock the front door and walk into the drum room. There would be a screen because there were no windows in the studio, and there was a screen by the drum kit, a screen by myself and my brother. Tyler Chester who co-produced it was in LA and we would all just say hi via screens [laughs], and then start working for the day, trying to get the basics of a song down. It was a very interesting experience to record that way.

How enjoyable was it?

I have told people it was kind of a once in a lifetime experience because of the conditions we were in because it would have been April last year when we were recording it, and so we hadn’t done anything in months, any music, so here we had a two-week window to work on music. I think for the first two days, me and drummer  Ross McReynolds were talking about it recently, and we were both pretty nervous and everyone was also pretty nervous because we were just getting into that mode again. Probably by the third day, there was just this surreal, spiritual-type thing when we were dealing with something we weren’t sure when we would be dealing with it again, and you were with people feeling very similar emotions and they were equally as happy to be there. It was kind of unlike any recording experience I have had in studios in Nashville since I was like an 18 year old drummer. It was just so very different and I don’t know if we will get that experience again because of the situation we were in back then, it was so nice such a warm place to be if you had to put it in a spiritual sense.

Why did you stop playing the drums?

It was just kind of a natural process. I was in a band with my brothers and when I turned 19 I was like, hey guys, I have to start writing and I showed my songs to my brothers, who at the time were writing the songs for the bands, and they were like, oh, and they were helping me finish them. I would then start working on singing the songs, right, and I started to realise I was OK at this singing thing and there were some local churches and people were saying you should sing in church because you are writing these songs and you could get good at this. It was a gradual thing and I just ended up getting more opportunities as a singer-songwriter and so I made it my main focus.

Some reviews of ‘Lonesome Kind’ have said there is a hint of Motown on the album. Where do you think that may have come from?

[Laughs} You know, I think that all of the groove and the funk that people are referring to are in the drums and the bass that Ross McReynolds and Tyler Chester laid down on the record, you know. I think that that the bass lick on ‘True Blue’ reminds people of the era, so it is reminiscent of it and the record certainly has more groove and soul to it than anything I have ever released. When people say that I am just thankful they are throwing it out there rather than it being any of those things specifically [laughs].

The cover of ‘Lonesome Kind’ is quite eye-catching. Who designed it?

A friend of mine who I connected with, he was living in Portland, Oregon, and his name is Van Andrew and he is actually a singer who was on ‘The Voice’ two seasons ago and through mutual friends, I knew he did graphic design. I found this bunch of different art that was depicting the South West with images that made you feel isolated and I sent them over to him and asked if he could do something for the cover. He sent me over the cover that ended up being the cover of the album and I was just, yeah, this is great do a couple more and I think he knocked it out of the park with that artwork.

You have clearly been through a few hard times but the lyrics on the album are not particularly depressing are they?

Yeah,  I think for me it kind of ties back to my time in religious spaces and asking about things I was going through, things like my depression and anxiety which I was struggling with after my cancer diagnosis and surgery and recovery. Always being told these things are bad and things to be exorcised or taken away and I happened to have a really great counsellor who walked me through things like what anxiety is as a function of the brain, do we understand what depression is as a proper function of our bodies and brains. He walked me through the purpose of these things and how they related to our bodies as a benefit first. He was giving me the prompt to stop thinking that my body, myself and my personality were a problem, which was kind of my first base.

I think what the album reflects is that for me, a lot of the things that we think are depressing about life happen to be where the most unity is if we are willing to get down in it and see our human entity in those places. If you can do it right, and I haven’t always done it right as an artist or a writer, I mean a lot of my favourite artists are messing about in that area,  and get in there and are honest you can really start to say things about what it is to be a human in a powerful way. I am thankful the record doesn’t come across as depressing because that was not my intention for it, it was just to look at some of the really difficult things about our lives and be able to say that they are difficult but also a kind of beauty in it, you know. Hopefully, that is where that comes from.

Who made you want to play music, who are the main influences that are still with you?

As a kid, you know, I grew up on a lot of Christian contemporary music and my dad played in bands and I’d listen to him jamming with his friends and so I was aware of the Beatles and stuff like that, but we were never able to listen to that in our house on a regular basis so it was only when I started playing music with my brothers that we started breaking out and started doing more contemporary stuff. For me, the biggest early influences were just like emo rock bands, because that is what I was listening to at the time. Jimmy Eat World was one of my first big bands growing up, but it was just more about the music, the emotion and I was just attracted to that. As a writer, they have just been a few guys who I would say, are a huge influence. The first one was an artist who is mainstream now but started out as a Christian artist, David Bazan, and he was also with Pedro The Lion, and he was very influential for me at the beginning of my journey to find my voice.

More recently, one of the first things I tried to do when I was in Nashville was really become a student of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen and to try and understand what those guys were trying to do with their music and their art. Apart from those guys probably the biggest influence over the last eight years is David Ramirez from Austin, Texas, and he is a huge influence on me, mainly because his voice made me believe in how my voice works because I don’t have the highest voice, you know. The low end of his voice was somewhere that I started to play around and I found I could sing in those ranges and maybe grow that as part of my own style. Great artists steal, right, [laughs], so I was stealing a lot from him. For this record, it was like a patchwork of Jackson Browne, and Tom T Hall, Simon and Garfunkel and I was just trying to get into the great songwriters like Nick Drake, on ‘Pink Moon’ and those things, and I was trying to start growing in the rhythm and poetry of the words and trying to get the words to start playing on the page when I am like looking at them. So that is kind of the progression for me but the core guy is David Ramirez for me.

You mentioned Nick Drake, what is his current reputation in America?

I think most people just know him for ‘Pink Moon’ because he is on soundtracks, and that is how I actually started listening to him because I came into music at such an older age, but I liked getting further into his records and listening to the way he could play his songs, the way his chord structures and melodies played together reminds me of what Jackson Browne did on ‘These Days’. There is a flow to what he is able to do with his voice and his guitar playing, I am not the best guitar player but I am trying to kind of study these guys and there is just something magnetic about that music that draws you in on such a rhythmic and musical level.

Apart from your new record, what else did you do with the COVID downtime?

You know what, I have done a few singles that I hope to be able to finish and release by the end of the year, not a full album, but I was able to remotely work in my apartment, basically putting together these songs and sending them to my friends while we were mixing and mastering the new record. Again, I got inspired and I also did like remixes of some of the songs with just me and my guitar playing in my apartment using maybe some loops and some samples that are maybe a little bit more digital that we are going to try and put together and release at the end of the year as well. So, yeah, I have definitely been trying to keep myself busy and continue to be creative.

It is actually very tough to get music out there these days, isn’t it?

Yeah, yeah, luckily with this record I kind of pulled together a plan where I have a few pieces of content like music videos that I can give to people who are helping to promote the record and they have a lot of assets that they can use for the promotion of the record. It is probably even harder right now than is normal because there is a lot of music and we are all competing in the exact same space for people’s attention, and people are also worn out.

Is 2021 going to be more of the same with some gigs starting in late summer if at all possible?

Yes, I’ve had my first vaccination shot and I get my next one soon and then hopefully more show opportunities will present themselves, and if not like I said, there is a lot of music and art that I have to release until the end of the year so we are set up to continually release music if tours don’t open up as much as we hope.

The singles you have recorded, are they just for fans?

That is something I learnt from listening to Bruce Springsteen about what our jobs are as songwriters, it is to create a space where people can come and feel safe and understood, and feel part of something. Right now everyone is so isolated and one of the few places where I can do my job as a songwriter is to send more music out there for them to be able to have, and I want to try and do that right. Certainly, I would love to do it live and if that is not the case I still have got to keep writing music and recording it.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which 3 artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

There is an old record that someone recommended from a Michigan artist Joshua Davis called ‘Fool Rooster’ and it is kind of americana, rootsy record. There is another Michigan artist who is a good friend of mine who has just released an EP called ‘Everything Thing Will Be OK Eventually’ and his band is called Michigander and I think Jason did an amazing job on that and it is really easy to listen to, it is kind of upbeat summer music. I kind of find records and then wear them out, and Pheobe Bridges’ ‘Punisher’ record I haven’t taken off my rotation since it came out because it is so good.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I hope everyone is doing OK because I don’t have any context or understanding of whether our lives are similar or how things are for you over there. Is music happening more there?

No, it isn’t but COVID seems to finally be under some form of control. The expectations and hopes are that music will be back by late summer if everything goes well with the gradual release of lockdown. There are couple of area shows that will be test events for the government.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling over there twice when I was a guitar tech for different artists and I had various jobs in Nashville as a guitar and drum tech. I got to go and see some shows in London and work at some festivals, and I just think some of the best fans and some of the best energy experienced at a live performance were there in London. The fans also have a deep understanding of the music, as well as an appreciation. I can’t wait until that can happen again and I can come. I have dreamt about just getting on a plane and coming to London and then going on to everywhere. I love London because it doesn’t feel so far away and I have enjoyed exploring it just walking around, walking into a pub and having a great time with somebody, and then there is the history and the beauty there.

D L Rossi’s ‘Lonesome Kind’ is out now and is an independent release

About Martin Johnson 359 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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