The notion of making your masterpiece while sequestered deep in the woods has been seducing artists since Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s, if not long before. Daniel Rossen, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with lauded indie band Grizzly Bear, wasn’t immune to it. When he and his wife had tired of Brooklyn a decade ago, they moved upstate in New York, and he hoped to capture in his nascent solo music the “impactful, unforgettable” connection to the land that he experienced there. He released the lovely, haunted Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP in 2012. Then, nothing. The longer he stayed there, the more distanced from his work he became.
“I got sort of lost up there, in my own head, in an almost depressive rumination about my life,” says Rossen, 39, Zooming from his home – now in Santa Fe, New Mexico – in late March. “I ended up feeling like there was some connection between a longing for a sense of place and the way that ruminating, depressive mind states can chisel you into place.” He lost touch with his motivation to pursue music publicly, struggled with alcohol and dark winters, and battled self-criticism when he did try to write. He paraphrases something he read the late David Berman saying once: “‘As you get older, fighting the onslaught of terrible ideas becomes even more challenging’. I don’t know if that’s exactly true but sometimes I felt that way – it’s a lot more confusing to navigate what’s valid and what isn’t.”
Rossen, speaking early in his time zone, is a little grey around the edges, and apologises for being dog-tired after his poorly toddler gave everyone a sleepless night. It was her impending birth, a move south, the pandemic and his looming 40th birthday that kicked him back into gear musically. “I needed to complete some kind of statement that I could feel proud of because it’s been a really long time,” he says. Finally released this month, his debut solo album, You Belong There, is a beautiful thicket of woodwind and fingerpicked guitar, and the sort of conflicted crescendos and forceful tides that gave Grizzly Bear their power.
Getting back to tactile instrumentation and connecting with music from the pre-rock’n’roll era – the things he had loved as a teenager – was another spur to finish it. Rossen played almost everything on the record, teaching himself new instruments such as clarinet and upright bass. “It’s an extension of your body in a way that is so different from working on synthesisers,” he says. He knew that if he tried to revisit his past, he faced the danger that those old loves might not be there any more. “But actually, I felt like I picked up some threads that were waiting for a really long time,” he says happily. “That’s very comforting to me – as I get older, I don’t know how much I have left to give in terms of music, and it was nice to discover: no, there’s this whole lost approach that is still there. I think there’s still something to be explored there. It’s not just nostalgia for me.”
Much of You Belong There deals with an imbalance of harmony, whether in families (different parts of Rossen’s, whose grandfather was blacklisted Hollywood director Robert Rossen, have “this absolute inability to get over and distance from one another”, he says), nature or habitat. Life is easier in Santa Fe, where his wife Amelia Bauer grew up, says Rossen: brighter, more expansive, open. “I was actually able to work here in a way that I couldn’t find the focus when I was [upstate].” He certainly hasn’t been to Williamsburg, the Brooklyn neighbourhood that became synonymous with Grizzly Bear and their refined indie kin at the turn of the early 2010s, in years, he says. “I don’t even know what happens there any more.”
After this strange, quiet band went overground in 2009 when Beyoncé and Jay-Z were pictured at one of their concerts, they pushed against the grain and made “intentionally anti-pop music” with their 2012 album Shields. Its ornery origins didn’t stop them from becoming even bigger and gaining a reputation that intruded on Rossen’s conception of the band. “We were kids living in Williamsburg in 2009, 2010,” he says. “We had a successful time – of course we came to represent a certain kind of millennial, naive, hipster culture. What am I going to do about that? It was tricky, I feel funny about it because I really don’t identify with that and I fell into it. Everybody was just trying to have a nice time.”
He backed off from bringing emotionally transparent songs to what became their last album to date, 2017’s Painted Ruins (“it wasn’t the right venue for that kind of expression”). The band prioritised diplomacy during its creation. “Shields was more like everybody pushing at each other and trying to make something good and important,” he says. “By the time we got to the last record, it was more like: let’s try to enjoy this, go easy on each other and make sure everybody’s feeling good.” Tellingly, few bands from that era have stayed together – Dirty Projectors and Fleet Foxes are essentially one-man bands now. Rossen says Grizzly Bear are all still friends and they haven’t split up – “you never know when that chemistry is gonna come back” – and laments the irrelevance of “boring gossip” about the band to his new record.
He perks up when I mention how much of my life I can remember through those albums, like a first kiss to a song on their 2009 masterpiece Veckatimest. When we speak, Rossen is days from jumping in his car for a small-scale solo tour. “That’s a really nice part of doing shows like this,” he says. “I enjoy that there’s this whole back catalogue and this backlog of songs that were never released that are still very special and that I feel very close with.”
In one sense, he thinks “getting in my car and playing shows is absurd” – no born performer, he prefers to hide in the background, and he’s conscious of putting his family through something “that I should have gotten over when I was 25”. But he’s also trying to embrace the relative freedoms that come with pursuing music in midlife. “I am now at an age where I have nothing to lose,” he says, “so I might as well pursue my interests and not care about what anybody thinks.” His wife is also an artist. “All we’re trying to do is keep our modest existence we have and make space for ourselves to make work at whatever level of success that is, and try to make it sustainable for us. I don’t expect to have a good career any more. I expect to make music that feels honest, and the few people that care about it – that’s going to have to be enough.”
His own connection to music, though, has been restored. He thinks You Belong There feels stiff (it doesn’t) but hopes it might “get me to another phase where I can be a little bit easier on myself, a little bit more light on my feet, and try new ideas faster”, he says. And he’s prepared for the tour to expose some raw nerves. “I’m a kind of weepy guy these days,” he laughs softly. “But if that happens on stage, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What’s the point of doing a solo show alone if you’re not going to do that?”