You might not have heard of Rosie Thomas, but the Seattle folk-pop artist is garnering strong reviews from the likes of Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and NPR. With obvious comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, Sarah Masen, and Sara Groves, her strong 2002 debut When We Were Small was followed up by the equally engaging Only With Laughter Can You Win in 2003, both on Sub Pop Records. Additionally, Thomas moonlights as a comedian, closing her shows as the accident-prone pizza delivery girl, Sheila. It all adds up to a delightfully exuberant personality—and a burgeoning songwriter who was happy to share her journey with us.
How did you begin playing music professionally?
Rosie ThomasBoth my parents performed professionally around Michigan, and they inspired me to know how valuable music is—how it can change a moment or a heart. I started playing publicly with my Dad around Detroit. I'd walk down the street with my guitar all day and go into every coffee shop asking if I could play, demonstrating on the spot. We'd usually do it for nothing and put out a tip jar.
When I moved to Seattle, things were a bit more competitive. Getting into bars or the bigger coffee shops, you definitely had to be somebody. Thank God for my friend [Sub Pop recording artist] Damien Jurado, because he shared his performance opportunities with me, which allowed me to play some of the better venues.
Were you always a Christian?
ThomasI did come from a Christian background. My mother was very much a stronghold in that, and my father as well. But I didn't fully understand God and have that friendship until I was 20 or so. I was at a time in my life where I didn't know what to do with myself, so I accompanied a friend on her drive to school at Calvary Chapel Bible College [in Murrieta, California]. I was such a lost case at the time, and she began to share with me her faith in the Lord. She kept insisting I go to school with her, and I kept saying "No way!" But I had nowhere else to go and the school let me stay in one of the dorms for free. They'd gently invite me to church services and classes without having to pay.
One thing led to another, and I ended up accidentally staying for a year or so. It just really changed everything for me in the end—a pivotal point in my life where everything became clear for me. That was my turning point to accepting [Christianity] on my own.
Your story's not all that different from other Christian artists whose faith became real in college, when they were first experiencing independence.
ThomasIt's a very important point, isn't it? I learned that faith is so much more than going through the motions. I learned that God has so much more there that I wasn't getting. I was so broken, so bummed, and so confused. It's that point of desperation where you kind of come to it.
I remember talking to my friend from Bible College during the drive, "You know, maybe this will be good! I mean, I'm falling apart here, so if this God is who he says he is and he can put my life in order, that'd be cool! I can hang out with him a bit, and then he can solve all my problems and I'll go back to doing whatever I want." I didn't realize at the time that it's a lifelong process and that I can't do anything without him.
What sparked the move to Seattle?
ThomasAfter a lot of soul searching and traveling, I found out about Cornish College of the Arts, a private performing arts conservatory in Seattle. At that point, I had been a Christian for a couple years, and I felt strongly that God would want to put me in a community of people outside the church because I thought I would be most effective there. I thought, Theater! There's broken people everywhere in entertainment, so that could be my field. So that's what got me there initially.
But you never finished?
ThomasNo! I was still playing music locally. After the first year of school, it was hard for me to go back, but I thought I really needed to finish, so God had to give me the discipline to keep at it. I'd pray, "If you could give me a way out, that'd be really awesome!"
Well, shortly after [my second year started], Sub Pop Records got a hold of my songs. They came to a show and wanted to sign me to a contract. So that's what's kept me in Seattle, but I wasn't able to juggle school with the music career and touring. It's been such a blessing—exciting, scary, and intimidating—but I do feel certain that this is what God wants me to do. To me it's my way of counseling people, by admitting my fears and confusion, being vulnerable and using music as a tool to reach people.
So, how does your comedic alter ego Sheila fit into all this?
ThomasShe's been a part of me all along, I guess. I've always goofed around as a kid and found an outlet through laughter. During indoor recess in 2nd grade, I did standup comedy in front of the class. It was really bad, but at 7 years old, everything's kinda funny.
I used to wonder, Why can't I be like the pretty girl that all the boys like! Why am I so weird? But now I've embraced it and realize that it's who I am, it's how God made me.
You cultivated both interests simultaneously?
ThomasAbsolutely. I always battled with how to do everything I love. Is it possible? Is that greedy? I don't know. The Bible says "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart" [Psalm 37:4]. Well, these are my desires. If I give them to God and ask him what he wants me to do with them, could I possibly do them all?
For a while, I told myself I couldn't do comedy anymore because of music and touring. But after [a lot of time and prayer], I began to think, Why not? Why not use all the gifts God has given me? So that's when I started incorporating Sheila in with the music.
What's great is that I get the opportunity to reach people on a sincere level with the music and then make them laugh with the comedy. I usually close with comedy because at that point, I'm laughing too much to go into the sincere stuff.
How would you describe the role of faith in your songwriting?
ThomasIt's the foundation of it all, really. When I write, the most important thing to me is to leave hope in it. God puts it on my heart to use sorrow to find the bright side. I've gotta go through the depths to reach the sincerity. Run the race and finish it—everything will be fine. [When talking to a friend], you wouldn't leave saying, "Well I don't know what to tell you about that problem." You leave it with comfort like "I'll pray for you" or "Don't worry, God's got it!"
I try to express the stuff that's hard to say. If I can be vulnerable for people and tell them "I'm a mess" and connect with them because of that, that's what I'm looking for.
So your testimony fuels how you write and interact with audiences.
ThomasAbsolutely. I look back on that time of uncertainty and thank God it's over.
My older brother just turned 30 and told me it's great because for the first time, you finally get to live your life and know who you are. You get to the point where you want to give back, tired of being self-consumed with who you are.
The 20s are crazy, trying to let go of high school while trying to piece yourself together. Sometimes I pray, "God, you can make me 40 tomorrow. That'd be fine with me! I'll tell people what I've learned!" But as confusing as your 20s can be, it's still a beautiful time of self-discovery.
Do you struggle with expressing subjects of faith to secular audiences?
ThomasThis job is so hard, especially as a Christian. The weirdest part is that a lot of this business tries to make it all about you. But I'm like, "I'm nobody. I'm not cool. I don't listen to cool music." It's a strange position to be in. I struggle with balancing that out [with my faith.]
When you put your first record out, it's a breeze because you have nothing to prove at that point—there's no fear. I did the best I could, and if that's all God asks of us, then I did my part. And I know my future is in his hands, so I don't feel I need to beg people to like what I do. All I can do is offer something written out of sincerity with the best of my ability.
It's an uncomfortable balance to be a Christian and an artist. Am I being too prideful or greedy? Am I expecting too much? Am I not asserting myself enough? That's just life in general, I guess. If I were a librarian, it'd probably be the same way.
Rosie Thomas's latest release,Only With Laughter Can You Win, was featured in our Glimpses of God coverage. For more information and tour dates, go to www.rosiethomas.com. Visit Amazon.com to listen to sound clips and buy her music