Album Review: claire rousay – a softer focus

[American Dreams; 2021]

In the last year or so, Texas-based sound artist claire rousay has put out more albums, EPs and singles than one would care to count. Suffice it to say, she’s always creating, but a softer focus seems like a landmark in her ever-expanding discography. Guests including Lia Kohl, Macie Stewart, and Alex Cunningham add cello and violin, which sew together rousay’s carefully-selected field recordings. There’s also a concept being explored on a softer focus: the process of creation. For someone like rousay, who doesn’t stop working, it seems like an obvious choice – but turning the spotlight onto something that comes so naturally isn’t necessarily the easiest task, and as it turns out, it turns into an emotional journey for the creator.

a softer focus begins with “Preston Ave”, an innocuous title to place us in just any home studio or bedroom, where the process of creation begins. Tactile sounds of shuffling implements, clicking computer keys, and clacking typewriters put us in a workspace, in the concentrated mindset. There’s plenty of empty space all around, reminding us that creation is often a solitary experience. Before long, a silent frustration arises and rousay moves up and out of this lonesome realm and into “Discrete (The Market)”, which fuses her recordings of a trip to a San Antionio farmers market with Kohl’s exquisitely mournful cello.

Even for those of us who aren’t full-time creators, there’s something deeply resonant about this introduction to rousay’s world. Over the last year, we’ve all had to spend plenty of time working at home, often alone. When periods of freedom do arise, we’ve looked for ways to distract ourselves in a closed-off world – often doing things like walking to the local market, even if you don’t have any intention of buying anything. While we may not all have been as pensive or insular as rousay, the foreboding air in the atmosphere of “Discrete (The Market)” also feels familiar, like becoming aware of the multiple inchoate threats and stresses that remain in the air. rousay captures the beginning of a thunderstorm in her recording from the farmers market, but it’s hushed, and on top of it she perfectly places some silvery windchimes alongside the cello, which turn this instance into one of revelation and catharsis – perhaps the germination of a new idea, or simply a moment where you shake yourself out of your funk and focus on getting back to work.

The following 8+ minute tracks “Peak Chroma” and “Diluted Dreams” form the emotional core of a softer focus. Music as immersive as rousay’s invites us to form a narrative, and given that one of her most recent releases, it was always worth it, meditated on the dissolution of a long-term relationship, it’s possible to detect hints of continued heartbreak and regret amidst the other mingled emotions of stress and pressure on a softer focus.

On “Peak Chroma”, her carefully-placed samples and synths tuck us into her cortex and move us with her. Again the feeling of loneliness is present, as we walk amidst echoing corridors and beeping cash registers, overhearing snippets of conversations. At the cluttered apex of the track, she delivers a surprise moment of pure candidness when her heavily vocoded voice arises with the admission “I try not to miss you.” The rest of her sighs are indecipherable, but more than enough to let us envision what’s replaying through her mind. She concludes “Peak Chroma” with warped snippets of interviews she’s given, almost as if she’s reliving these conversations in her head, picking over everything she decided to say. As listeners, we might not have given interviews, but undoubtedly we’ve all had these moments of reflection where we wish we could’ve expressed ourselves more clearly.

After the emotional exertion of “Peak Chroma”, “Diluted Dreams” feels more dissociative. It begins aqueously, as if rousay is in the bath, washing away the grit and regret from another day of working, living, and feeling. Even as she steps out into the world, where the sounds of buses and car horns interfere, her healing synths and piano chords maintain a restorative mood. It feels less industrious than what’s come before, as if it’s a day where rousay has decided to step away from her studio and go for a wander in search of inspiration or to clear her mind. 

For the final segment of a softer focus we return home again. “Stoned Gesture” begins with far off trains, before rousay’s indecipherably warped – yet affecting – singing floats in again, undercut by a rustling foil and lighter clicks. Fireworks in the distance only add to the forlornness, suggesting the creator alone on a night of celebration, possibly New Year’s Eve. Again, this is potentially circumstantial, but it strikes a chord with those of us who didn’t get to spend the 2020 holidays with our usual cohort. The NYE theme also makes sense moving into the final track, “A Kind of Promise”, which seems like a song of resolution. It’s by far the most instrumental track, with rousay playing bleary-eyed chords on the piano, dueting with Lia Kohl’s cello. It’s neither overtly uplifting or downcast, but serene and pensive, like waking up on a new day and realising its potential.

a softer focus plays like a film where rousay and her guests’ acoustic and synth work acts like the score to her vividly captured and arranged field recordings. In combination, they trace an outline of an emotional journey, with enough definition to dictate an atmosphere, but not so much as to prescribe an exact story; there’s plenty of room to project. It is the soundtrack to rousay’s year of insularity, isolation, and adaptation, and harmonises beautifully with anyone who’s undergone similar feelings of repression and growth during this period.