For Roselit Bone, genre is more of an approximation. The Portland band, fronted by singer Charlotte McCaslin, plays a unique type of gothic country rock that borrows heavily from Mexican ranchera music, rockabilly and the same lonely and wide-open spaces that inspired the classic Spaghetti Western scores of composer Ennio Morricone. But on the group's new album, "Crisis Actor," the storied and eclectic sounds of the Los Angeles punk scene play a pivotal role.
Despite this sonic departure, the lyrics on “Crisis Actor” are still firmly rooted in the tradition of classic country. Many of the songs are based on true, often humorous stories like “Laughlin, NV” which recounts a depressing leg of a Southwest tour. But the album also takes highly personal and deadly serious turns. On the title track, a blistering 3-minute-long song inspired by tales of violence against transgender women, McCaslin’s performance was so visceral and emotional that it led to a life-changing event.
In the months following the recording, the singer grappled with complex feelings of depression and guilt that resulted in the realization that she was experiencing gender dysphoria, a conflict between a person's assigned gender and the gender they identify with. Shortly thereafter, McCaslin came out as transgender and began a gender transition.
Roselit Bone performed songs from “Crisis Actor” at Type Foundry Studio in Portland, and Charlotte McCaslin chatted with OPB about her lyrical inspirations, growing up in the L.A. punk scene, and why she didn’t come out as a trans woman for the Instagram likes. Listen to an excerpt and read the interview in its entirety below.
A Q&A With Charlotte McCaslin of Roselit Bone
Jerad Walker: Tell me a little bit about the origins of the band. How did you end up in Oregon?
Charlotte McCaslin: When I was around 21, late 2007, I left Orange County [California] and I moved to Portland kind of blindly with a couple of friends and my girlfriend at the time — my current wife. I think the only idea I had was that it was cheaper up here and that I could strike out on my own without having to struggle too much.
Walker: What was it like growing up in Orange County?
McCaslin: At the time it was pretty bad, culturally. I found it to be sort of a violent place. I was always, as a young punk, getting harassed and things thrown at me on the street. And I didn't have a car, so I wasn't able to really get out of there very much.
Walker: I read an old Willamette Week article where you cited what seems like a formative period. You ended up in southwest Oregon in kind of the Coast Range area. Is that essentially where the band and the music that you would start making started to formulate?
McCaslin: Yeah, so I moved to Portland and our living situation fell through pretty much immediately so we fled out to where my partner’s family live out on the coast, near the Coos Bay area about 40 miles inland from there. There wasn't much work out there, so we'd have to drive around to farms and collect scrap metal to pay for gas.
I had a lot of time on my hands, so I would spend about 12 hours a day playing guitar and learning jazz guitar and kind of the basics of country guitar playing. And I would go to the local library because there wasn't anything to do and I would rent or check out as many CDs as I could of every jazz musician and country musician I could and then rip them to my computer. These were the days before Spotify, so it was the only way to collect music at the time for me.
Walker: What drew you to country and jazz, because you said you'd been a punk?
McCaslin: I just wanted to learn the language of music and I wasn't able to do that from a classical background. I think that's something you kind of have to be born into or have lessons growing up to do. But jazz really spoke to me because it was a very good working language for music. And I think it translates over to country well and there's a lot of crossover with Western swing and stuff like that.
Walker: Your sound has transformed pretty wildly over the years and it now includes a big ensemble. You've got horns and you've had flutes …
McCaslin: We’ve had flutes, pedal steel, two trumpets, accordion, keyboards.
Walker: How big is the current lineup?
McCaslin: It's usually seven. We just added a member to double on acoustic guitar so we can go for more of a classic ranchera mariachi sound with multiple guitars.
Walker: So how would you describe the sound of Roselit Bone now?
McCaslin: It varies song to song. It can be huge, lush orchestrated torch songs or really violent, stripped-down, fast-paced punk with Western leanings. I don't think too much about combining genres. I think it just happens. Every song starts as what I would consider a folk song or a very straight-ahead country song or something that you can play just on acoustic guitar. And then as I hear instruments, I bring them into the mix … I try not to clutter things too much. I know that does happen sometimes, especially in a recording situation, but I’ll add things to get the biggest emotional effect that I can or as much power as I can in certain parts.
Walker: I want to talk about some of the songs you played in the session with opbmusic. One track, "Laughlin NV," sounds like you're actually in a honky-tonk. How do you get that rollicking sound in the studio? It sounds like the rhythm is like maybe an eighth of a beat ahead of the band and you're just chasing it the entire time.
McCaslin: Well, we definitely can go in [to the studio] a little raw sometimes and most of the instruments were recorded live. That one was not recorded to a click track or anything. I think the appeal of that song is that it feels like it's going to go off the rails at any moment. It's kind of like “Highway 61” by Bob Dylan because it just feels like it's going to fall apart because it probably did many times in the practice session. And it's a little faster than most of us can ever really play it.
Walker: In that song, you run through a list of places where you don't fit in like Arizona and Las Vegas. What's happening there vocally?
McCaslin: I'm kind of sarcastic, and I don't I don't have much of a filter. And I think that sound kind of reflects that. I take a lot of liberties with it. I think that the heart of the best country music to me has that sense of humor. A lot of people see it is a very simplistic genre, lyrically … But there's a lot in the subtext of good country songs and lyrics that can seem simple on the surface. There's always double meanings. There's always a hidden joke behind them or something like that. And so with that song, I was just kind of trying to write a real raw country song.
Walker: You end up in a bar called the Loser's Lounge in this song.
McCaslin: Yeah, I hate to admit this, but every song on this record has a true story behind it.
Walker: So what's the true story behind this?
McCaslin: Well, there are some parts of it that I think I could get in trouble if I talk about, but we did a tour where we wound up in Laughlin. We played Vegas at this tiki bar. It was the day before Fourth of July, and it was also apparently some Sicilian bookie’s birthday party.
So we're in a tiki bar in Vegas, and there are a bunch of Sicilian old ladies partying there with this guy with an open collar and a gold chain and bald head. His name was Joey. And this tiki bar presents a shrunken head trophy to very special members of the bar community. They usually reserve it for celebrities. But they were giving this guy a shrunken head because he drinks there so much and spent so much money there.
So in between our sets, he went up and did a speech as he accepted this award and he said “Some people say I drink too much. And some people say I gamble too much. And some people say I fornicate too much. But this proves them all wrong.” And then he held the head up and everyone kind of went wild in the bar. That stuck with me.
And then that night, we drove to Laughlin because we couldn't get a hotel room near Vegas … We pulled in about 5 in the morning. We were touring in a short school bus at the time and didn't have AC and were all pretty miserable and ready to kill each other. As we were walking to our room in the hotel, we passed this empty dance floor with stage lights and music blasting and two people just drunk out of their minds and sad looking dancing together in this empty, empty dance floor in a casino. And it was called the “Loser's Lounge.”
I mean, it's pretty much all there in the song.
Walker: It is a literal transcription. Wow. Yeah. I'm so glad you wrote that down.
Another song you played in the session was “Surgeon's Saw.” One aspect I really love about your band’s sound is the sort of theatrical Western — and I mean Western film — sounds. It's probably the thing that listeners walk away with the most after hearing you play. Where do you pull that from? Are you a big fan of Ennio Morricone and Hugo Montenegro scores from old Spaghetti Westerns?
McCaslin: I do like Ennio Morricone … [but] I do feel like he's definitely not a primary influence. I draw from the same influences that Morricone did and probably present them in a different way. He was obviously taking Mexican ranchera horns and trio music and cowboy melodies … But I don't think about Morricone when I'm composing.
A lot of it comes from more stripped-down songwriting stuff like Odetta. [She] was a huge influence on me early on in my writing because she would play these folk songs where it’s just her and a guitar, and she could convey the same expansive kind of loneliness that you would hear in a Morricone composition. And that always struck me.
I think that's a big thing with some of the old cowboy music that I love. It could be one person with an acoustic guitar conveying the hugeness of the desert and the loneliness. They can create the same scene as a full orchestra.
Walker: And that's a recurring theme in a lot of your songs — loneliness and darkness and expanses. Where does that fascination come from?
McCaslin: I mean, I have been through some stuff [laughter]. It's not all fantasy in my mind, but I think if I didn't have intense things to write about, I probably wouldn't be driven to make music at all. For me, the best music dives deep into some of the darkest corners of life and shines light on them.
Walker: The song "Crisis Actor" has a real psychobilly sound. It's got this almost Reverend Horton Heat, Flat Duo Jets kind of rocket-fuel-feel to it. You said punk was a big influence growing up. What about it resonates?
McCaslin: I was a punk in Orange County. It's much different now, but at the time, it was very homogeneous. And the class divisions are pretty stark there. And if you're on the wrong side of certain cultural barriers, you're just sort of an outcast and that has very violent implications in that area.
The punk scene at the time, or what I was able to experience of it, was sort of a safe haven from that or at least a way to signal to other people that you would get along with them. Back when I was growing up, if someone was wearing a Black Flag shirt or like a Gun Club shirt or something you’d get excited because you see so few people that you can even have a conversation with without it turning sour.
Walker: There's also always been a propensity to kind of genre bend in L.A. I know that the punk band X would play double bills with country singer Dwight Yoakam in the '80s. And [X singer and guitarist] John Doe was very much into rockabilly. Did that somehow sort of bleed into your consciousness later as well, because a song like "Crisis Actor" has a lot of those elements in my mind?
McCaslin: Yeah, of course. I think after a certain point in the early '80s, there were all these L.A. punk bands that from the beginning were influenced by country music. And I just sort of felt this kinship with all of that … It's all part of the same tradition in my eyes.
Walker: Lyrically, what is "Crisis Actor" about?
McCaslin: I'm hesitant to really talk about that song as far as the lyrical inspiration. It definitely was inspired by sex worker friends of mine and trans friends of mine at the time and just seeing and hearing things about their clients and how people who would probably violently beat a trans women are also seeking sexual services from them at times. It kind of touches on the violence towards queer people coming from a place of frustration and mental sickness.
Walker: I wanted to ask you about gender. We alluded to some of that with "Crisis Actor," and you had your own personal transition. Did you begin your gender transition after the recording of the record?
McCaslin: Yeah. I kind of had no idea I was a lady until about a month after I recorded this record. Me and Faith, the violinist [in Roselit Bone], went and did a month in Edinburgh, Scotland, playing on the street every day and [we] had a stage show every night.
There are there definitely echoes of gender dysphoria in this record and in a lot of the self-loathing lyrics. I never really understood where that came from until I started to transition and recognized certain dysphoric feelings.
When I was recording the vocals on “Crisis Actor” it took quite a while. It was like an hour or two of me getting into the headspace of the character in that song. And I was sort of taking on a very masculine persona in that performance, on the record at least.
Once it was all done and recorded, I felt very intensely bad and I couldn't figure out why for a while. I think it just amplified a lot of feelings, a lot of gender dysphoria feelings. Even though I knew I was playing a character, it just didn't feel good. And I mean, that was what I was going for. It's definitely a song meant to terrify in a sense. And so, after hours of repeating that, I definitely felt it.
Walker: In the months after that recording, was this a gradual realization or did you have an "aha! moment?"
McCaslin: I had kind of an "aha! moment." When I was in Scotland, it was a lot like joining the circus. I was on the street for 10 hours a day performing. I was very visible, and I had to think a lot about how I was presenting myself to the public and how I wanted to do that.
Even just walking around, all eyes were on me as an artist in the U.K. And I just started thinking about parts of myself that I wasn't very authentic about and things like that. I just kind of fell into a little bit of a depression one day because it's very intense over there when you're performing every single day. And it's this big arts festival and all these performers were kind of competing with each other. Up near the castle in Edinburgh, there's this backstage area where all the performers would kind of hang out. It's like jugglers and magicians and street comedians and stuff like that.
Walker: I've been there. I know exactly what you're talking about.
McCaslin: Oh good! Yeah. So you know …
Walker: It is kind of a circus. There's people milling about. Tourists …
McCaslin: It’s just like the circus, and I was one of the clowns, you know. There were a few things that happened, but one of them was I was just sitting backstage and feeling terrible about myself, and I saw one of the street performers, one of the female street performers, changing and thought ‘Oh, I would love to wear a dress today or something.’ Then I just started thinking, ‘Why did that thought pop in my head?’
Then, it all just clicked. I was like, "Oh, OK." There was no moment, there was no period of me being in the closet about it or anything. I feel like as an artist, the backlash to any of that shouldn't be a concern of mine. The threat of violence shouldn't be a concern of mine. It's my job as an artist to at least be as true to myself as possible.
Walker: Looking back, did past events or past feelings start to make sense once you had that realization?
McCaslin: Yeah. I think every trans person goes back and reevaluates things about their life where they’re like, oh yeah, I've always been like this.
Walker: Is it even possible to explain to someone what gender dysphoria feels like?
McCaslin: Yeah, I think so. I think everyone has things about their bodies or their life that give them anxieties, and it's similar to that. When you're presenting in a way that isn’t authentic to yourself or that you don't see yourself as just because of outside pressures, that's a kind of a universal feeling. And I think the reaction from the public to this, especially when you're like me and you don't really pass, I think that a lot of punks can probably understand that — just like walking around and getting stared at or ...
Walker: And by "pass" you mean?
McCaslin: Like passing as a woman, as a [cisgender] woman. People when they see you and know you’re trans that means you don’t pass. I think growing up as a punk kind of girded me to that. You get used to sort of being on guard all the time. And I tour now through a lot of spots where trans people just aren't visible because of the threat of violence. It can get tough after we've played our show and I just want to go to a Waffle House and relax and be invisible and not be on stage and not feel powerful. I just want to eat my eggs and not be accosted. It's usually fine. It's just sometimes it can be pretty exhausting.
Walker: Did you look up to any other artists that have come out as transgender? For me, reading about Laura Jane Grace from the band Against Me!, who came out very publicly almost a decade ago, seemed like a pretty important moment in rock music.
McCaslin: Yeah, Against Me! were a huge influence on me as a teenager … I read Laura's book “Tranny” on a plane a couple months ago, and there were a lot of parallels with my own life and her’s growing up. I think that she struggled a lot more in dealing with doctors in Florida and dealing with transition stuff.
Just getting hormones is a bigger struggle in places like that. I’m lucky enough to live in Portland where that system’s readily available. It is good to see a blueprint for what a trans musician can be. With her, I think one of the things that amazed me was that she lived in the closet for 10 years. I can't imagine doing that.
Walker: I read a Rolling Stone interview that she gave in 2012 where she basically said she had subconsciously been lacing songs with lyrics referencing her gender.
McCaslin: I think that every artist does that. There are things in your work that you don't understand that predict the future of your life in some ways or speak to things going on inside of you that you have no idea are going on.
But she actually knew she was transgender for quite a while and was rightly afraid of the backlash if she came out because there was no blueprint for her. There was no plan or openness. Even now, trans people don't really have a celebrity other than Caitlyn Jenner who is kind of a terrible rich person.
Walker: Your transition is relatively recent. So, the album was written before the transition. In your press material, you were adamant that you didn't want the album to be viewed through that lens.
McCaslin: Yeah. I think that I want people to listen to my music because they think it's good. I don't want them to think too much about stereotypes I’m disrupting because I don't see country music as a particularly regressive genre, but some people do. I don't think it's very shocking to be a queer person making country music. I just wanted to be very careful not to exploit my minority status for Instagram likes or whatever.
Walker: That being said, are you looking forward to writing about it or from that perspective in the future?
McCaslin: Yeah, I have a whole album's worth material written. It's a lot more personal than previous albums, and I feel more in touch with myself when I'm writing songs. But I don't actively try to write about the trans experience. I'm fairly new to it, and I don't think about it very much in my day to day life. So yeah, it will factor into my future work, but it's not a centerpiece. And I try to write songs that can resonate with a lot of people.
Walker: Charlotte, thank you so much for chatting with me today. And best of luck in the next year. I'm really looking forward to hearing that new record.
McCaslin: Yeah. Thank you.