Caitilin Rose on How a Nun Figurine, Astrology, Black Dragons, and More Inspired Her New Album ‘CAZIMI’

CAZIMI, Caitlin Rose’s first album in nine years, takes its name from an astrological term that refers to the fleeting moment in time when a planet is in such close proximity to the sun that it’s considered to be in the heart of it. The definition of a cazimi may vary depending on who you ask, but for Rose, it’s become a symbol of empowerment; rather than the planet being destroyed, its power is amplified, however briefly. The Nashville singer-songwriter has consciously refrained from divulging the details of what happened to her following the release of her sophomore LP The Stand-In, describing her absence in press materials as a “Sisyphean nightmare of false starts and career blocks,” not least the global pandemic that hit just weeks after recording CAZIMI. One of the people who helped push her through feelings of self-doubt and burnout, though, was her friend and collaborator Jordan Lehning, who co-produced the album with her. Making it also meant getting rid of any preconceptions about what a Caitlin Rose album signified. More than a rare, almost accidental occurrence in which enlightenment outshines the threat of combustion, Cazimi ultimately became a constant source of inspiration, something worth striving for.

Another term from the astrology lexicon that Rose fixates on and reframes is Vesta, an asteroid representing a person’s deepest cravings. Its symbolism is tied to the goddess of hearth and home, and in ancient Roman times, the cult of the Vestal Virgins was known to protect the city by keeping the sacred fires burning. It’s one of those things Rose latches on to and turns inward as a means of exploring what makes up her inner fire. Whether or not you relate to some of the specific concepts she carries through CAZIMI, it’s clear the different sounds she strings together are driven by that same fire, part of the same cycle. One implication of putting the spotlight away from the singer’s trauma is letting the music – sharp, radiant, poetically self-aware, and, by her account, a joy to make – speak for itself. It’s both fuel and armor, and Rose isn’t using it to hide but rather shed light on her own narrative.

We caught up with Caitlin Rose to talk about a nun figurine, Kids in the Hall, a novelty captain’s hat, astrology, and other inspirations behind her new album CAZIMI.


The 1996 anime Escaflowne

It was one of my favourites growing up. When I was in middle school, I kind of had a pretty big anime phase. They called me anime girl in like sixth grade, which, I don’t know if I love that. But it’s sort of this weird mixture of occult magic plus Gundam – no one’s gonna know what I’m talking about [laughs], but it has this very mystical quality to it. And it also just has this really wonderful score and theme song. I had the whole box set on VHS, which I could not find at the time, but for some reason, one section of working on this record, there was a week where I kept playing the theme song, and even playing the intro – Jordan has a big screen in the tracking room, so I kept putting that on. I listened to a lot of OSTs when I was growing up, so there is a sort of production value of the mid-90s anime, which is very specific. With Jordan, it’s like, “You put on whatever you want, let’s see where you’re going with it today.” And there was about a week where I was trying to binge that whole show again, I hadn’t watched it since I was 15. It kind of has everything that I like now; it bases itself off of taro and stuff like that.

I saw that it’s about a high school girl who has an affinity for tarot reading, and it takes her on this journey.

I’d forgotten that that was even a part of it. But I’m sure that maybe played into some because I had a little bit of interest in that, which faded rather quickly, but I do enjoy it still.

Astrology

You’ve talked about what the title means for you, but I’m curious when you started thinking about the concept of Cazimi in the context of your life and how it took on that resonance, because the aspect of astrology that I’m interested in is more in the way that it provides a language for expression.

Yes, which is what I’ve tried to explain to a lot of people too, so I’m glad that’s something that you already have in your wheelhouse. I remember there were several cazimis that would happen over the course of this record and moments that actually were milestones. Let me see if I can find them… So, transit Sun conjunct Mercury, 11th of January, Saturn 14th of January 26, 26th of February – these were literally all the times we were recording. I remember one in November or October where I’d sent it to a publicist, who I told I wanted to call it CAZIMI, and she said that’s a great idea.

It’s funny, there’s a lot of them, especially the fact that the starting date of the session was the date of the Mercury cazimi. I was probably looking at the astrology for the day or something and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” I really liked that concept and I’d write about it, and it was a word that started popping up in pop astrology. Every year there’s kind of a new introduction to the lexicon for people who don’t really read astrology so that they have a new fun thing to write about every month to get the clicks, but it works in that way.

There’s a part of me that was more afraid of using a buzzword, instead of thinking I was going to be embarrassed if somebody asked me about astrology. At that point, it was more like I was scared I was going to be passé or something in the pop astrology world, which is ridiculous. [laughs] But no, it just was a word – there’s a few words and concepts, like the concept of Vesta. Vesta became, you know, what is the missing fire – looking at my chart, there’s so little fire, what do I do with that? And it was more of just a way to push the narrative. Interestingly, kind of like that anime, where taro is a way to push the narrative. It doesn’t really make sense, the idea is that she does a tarot reading and she’s transported to another world. It’s ridiculous. But it’s how you can kind of timeline it. It’s a way to contextualize feelings and times and frames without having to be so scientific about it. I think that that’s poetic contextualization.

By it, you mean astrology in general?

I think it’s a good thing for that, yeah. There’s a lot of reasons I love it, but that is a big part of it, and that’s probably the big draw. That’s probably what brought me to it was, there’s so many artists who have used that in kind of a poetic manner. I mean, Françoise Hardy is an astrologer. I’m sure that the concept of it can open minds, but also, like you said, just the language of it can open a creative world that you didn’t have before, if it pleases. It’s just one more piece of symbolism in a collective unconscious that already has thousands of years of that built up already. I don’t see it as any different than mythology or anything else that people use for artistic inspiration.

Kids in the Hall

I grew up watching that show at like 10 o’clock at night when I was nine. [laughs] I kind of grew up on Boomer humour, and Canadian shows like that were popping up on Comedy Central late at night anyways. The theme song [by the band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet], from the first time you hear this guitar riff, it’s like a surf kind of vibe but kind of gnarly, and it just gives me this instant hit of youthful dopamine, or “up at night watching TV when I shouldn’t be” dopamine. [laughs] For me and Jordan, I think I told him, “I want to make something that sounds like Kids in the Hall.” Sometimes that’s the way I explain things to him, it’s just a thread to follow, not like, “Let’s write a Kids in the Hall song. Let’s write Shadowy Men song. Let’s write a surf record.” That’s not what we did. But just for the weird energy of it, bringing that in, and bringing in some of that guitar tone in such a way where it’s almost kind of homage-y. I think ‘Vesta’ carries a lot of that, ‘Holdin’’ carries some of that. It’s not a major inspiration – it’s just one more thing I told Jordan that I liked.

I have a video of somebody recording a guitar track in the other room, and we had a Kids in the Hall video going on the big screen, and it’s just me and Jordan cackling in the control room, not really being able to be adults. [laughs] It’s silly ‘90s Canadian humour. It’s immature, it’s fun, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. And I think that was maybe an attitude as well that I was bringing into this kind of situation: irreverent, just having fun, nothing is really serious – you’re just doing it.

A Little Nun Figurine Given by Nicole Atkins at a Mercy Lounge Show

“Lil’ Vesta”, photo courtesy of Caitlin Rose

The Mercy Lounge is a venue here that has been around for forever. It’s this place where I musically grew up, it’s where a lot of the shows that me and all my friends played. It’s where I had shows that sort of shifted trajectories, like I think I won Road to Bonnaroo thing. It’s a place where we all grew up, and it’s also just a great venue. So, a) we were there, which heightens the experience of just being in a place where you all came up. And then at some point, it was so weird – Nicole Atkins is awesome, but she’s sort of this mythical character, she has this very strange magic to her. So when something happens around Nicole that’s different or interesting, it sticks with you.

She came up to me – and I don’t remember what was going on, it might have been right before we recorded or right before we planned the session – but she goes, “I just have this feeling, I think you need this.” And she handed me this little wooden Russian nun figurine. I don’t know when it was made. I don’t know, man, I just looked at her and tears came into my eyes, and I was like, “You don’t understand how important this is to me.” And it was, in a way, but obviously, explain that to someone in a bar that’s loud in a moment where she literally rushed back into the room and grabbed something out of her purse to hand to me – it wasn’t like an intimate, quiet hang moment it. It was literally in the madness of the show moving through.

‘Lil Vesta’ was one of the last songs for this record, but in exploring the Vesta imagery, it represents that inner fire. The Vestal Virgins, they kept the fires going. You know, what is the thing that drives you in the purest of heart way? And Vesta was just another, kind of like cazimi, like a glyph. Astrology has glyphs for everything – if it was a video game, it would be the thing you’re looking for. So, the missing fire line in little Vesta is a line I had in multiple songs in different ways, because it’s something that, astrology or not, if you spend a long time just feeling burn out or whatever, it’s hard to figure out what’s going to motivate you, what is it actually – why are you even here?

Vesta was sort of that, and it was just bizarre. [laughs] It was one of those weird Nicole Atkins moments, I don’t know how to explain it. But we brought her into the studio, she was there for every process. She was there for tracking, overdubbing, mixing, mastering. I have pictures of everyone holding it in their car when it’s moving from one place to the other. And now I feel like I should give her back, but part of me doesn’t, I don’t know. She’s literally little Vesta.

Guinness

I mean, it’s Guinness. [laughs] I feel like everybody had their coping mechs for 2020 and COVID and everything, but Guinness just became the staple of the studio. I just love Guinness, it’s an easy thing to drink. You’re not trying to get screwed up on Guinness, you know. But in general, it just was sort of the vibe in there, was proper pints and civilised conversations, I guess. My favourite part, though, is that at some point during overdubs, Jordan decided he was going to get his own keg of Guinness, because he was like, “If we’re spending so much money on Guinness, I think we should just do it ourselves. I think we should get a keg and get the whole setup so we can just pour our own Guinness like we’re in a bar.” He didn’t know how involved that was –  you can’t just get a keg of Guinness, you have to get basically this entire setup. He might have spent like $1,000 trying to set up a Guinness keg.

It’s almost this record where it was much more of a journey than I think he was prepared for. [laughs] By the end of it, honestly, the last day of overdubs when we actually wrapped, it was sort of the tail end of the tank. And it’s just this poor keg of Guinness sitting on the porch, in the cold, in its own filthy, stagnant beer water, and it was just this really sad thing. [laughs] But it was a really funny part of the process. That’s one of the fun things about making a record, having some bizarre, stupid tale to tell. If you don’t want to talk about the music, you can talk about how fun it was to make it, you know?

Black Dragons

It’s so silly, but it’s reflective of the way I strive to explain my visual equivalent to a sound. It’s the way I learned how to talk hearing music; I didn’t read music, I speak in the way that some people find really obnoxious. And Jordan understands it, and can speak that way too, but plus a history in music composition and classical. He’s very skilled, he can compose music in a way that I will never be able to. But he can also hear me say something like, “I don’t know what this guitar is. I think it needs to be like a… like a black dragon?” and run with it. And it sounds so stupid, but I’m not afraid to sound stupid in front of the person I’m most comfortable working with, especially if I know that person is going to get it. And obviously, there were probably a lot of references – I think I like played him ‘Black Diamond’ by Kiss. His MO is not so much in that vein playing guitar, and it’s not mine either, but it’s kind of what certain songs I really wanted to feel. And so, yeah, black dragons.

I thought it would be more like one of those symbolic things.

That’s the other thing, it’s so vague and so dumb that it honestly doesn’t matter what it means. It’s a mood, maybe. He’s also a really big Lord of the Rings fan, so you know, Smaug, he could garner something from that. And literally, I described the scene where I’m like, “The black dragon is in the sky, and it’s coming down and it’s coming at you.” And it’s sort of dumb, but it makes it fun for me, it makes it easier to explain. And then he can tell somebody else what that actually means.

He can translate.

Yeah. [laughs] He speaks Caitlin, so.

Do you remember what song that was for?

It was ‘Gemini Moon’.

Non-Commissioned Officers

What’s fun is, he was in a band called Non-Commissioned Officers, which, that sound was very prevalent in those recordings. They did a soundtrack for a movie they all made in 2002 called Make-out With Violence. It’s a zombie movie, it went to South by Southwest when it premiered. It was really fun. You would actually hear a lot of this record in those records  – I remember at some point I said, “I’d really love for you to bring some of that Non-Com vibe into this record, because it’s one of the things I always loved that you guys made.”

Joe Costa’s Novelty Captain’s Hat

Joe Costa in his captain’s hat, photo courtesy of Caitlin Rose

I bought a novelty captain’s hat for fun. I don’t even remember why, I think I bought like three of them. It was a weird COVID purchase. I gave it to Joe Costa, who engineered and mixed this record, who I’ve known for probably 15 years. And it really did become kind of like the Robin Williams – we would all “Oh Captain, My Captain” him a lot. I just haven’t gotten to talk about Joe enough. He’s an amazing engineer. If you look at his AllMusic, he’s done so much. And he’s also just one of the best captains anyone could have. He’s very calm. If the ship was sinking, he wouldn’t be freaking out.

Jordan Lehning

You’ve obviously talked quite a bit about him, but can you share one thing that inspires you about Jordan, not just as a collaborator, but as a friend?

I just think that Jordan is one of the few people who really gets that vibe of – you know, some people are kind of annoying, but there’s so much behind an annoying person that it’s more fun to love an annoying person than it is to be annoyed at them. [laughs] It’s always been like that since I’ve known him, and it’s always been a very safe friendship in that way, where he’s not a resentful person. He doesn’t hold grudges. Things don’t really bug him very much. And if they bug him, they bug him in this very sort of logistical way. He loves weirdos, and I’m a weirdo, and I think that he helps me bring more weirdos around. It’s a fun vibe.

My friend Tristen, who’s another artist that I hope you do something with soon [Note: we have], she’s amazing. Her husband [Buddy Hughen] was one of the Non-Coms. She described it as the fact that I can really only be friends with whomp-whomps, which I honestly still don’t understand what she meant. But I know I’m a whomp-whomp, I know Jordan’s a whomp-whomp, I know a lot of people that worked on this record are total whomp-whomps. Part of me thinks it’s like a muppet, but mixed with – I don’t know what it is, but it’s big muppet energy.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Caitlin Rose’s CAZIMI is out now via Names.