By Daniel Garrett
A Place Where Love Can Grow
Producer: Brian C. Dozoretz
Additional Engineering: Matt Saccuccimorano
Cool Baby Music, 2007
“I run away from category, towards a space where I can simply be, and I believe in my being.” —Felice Rosser
1. A Place Where Love Can Grow
What is music for? That is a question one rarely asks out loud and yet it is a question that every piece of music must answer. After first hearing the album A Place Where Love Can Grow, I thought of it as creative, intelligent, consistent, and interesting: and while that might not be the expected response (“it rocks”) to a recording of contemporary independent music, those words embody values, and realities, I appreciate and enjoy. The collection of twelve songs, A Place Where Love Can Grow, by the band Faith, which consists of Felice Rosser, the band’s singer and bassist, and guitarist Naotaka Hakamada and drummer Scott Hartley, is one I am glad to know, happy to hear. Felice Rosser’s voice is an androgynous sound, with distinctive personality—female and male, forceful and sensitive, suggesting a creator-destroyer figure, artist and muse at once, thinker and object of thought. What is music for? Music can touch our curious minds, our tormented hearts, and our sensuous bodies. It can attend our morning and evening rituals, our work and our play, our celebrations and our griefs. It is not as necessary as air or water and yet how dismal life would be without it.
In the song “Delicate,” on A Place Where Love Can Grow, a restaurant visitor tells the narrator, a waitress, something she appreciates hearing: that he recognizes her fragility (“he’s the only one who ever called me delicate”). He is someone who is sensitive to the point of disturbance, the kind of luckless loner who nurses a cup of coffee for hours, perpetually asking for refills, and sometimes causes scenes, ranting about Dostoevsky and broken dreams. In a time when much music from men and about men is a celebration of aggression, it is good to have a picture, especially a true though sad picture, of a complex and vulnerable man. The restaurant patron, who pays and tips in small coins, is not intimidated by the waitress, who is unhappy at work (she frowns and scowls), and he gives her an empty journal, recommending she write down what she feels, saying that writing will make her feel stronger. It is the miracle of insight and generosity from a wounded man.
The compassion and cruelty of intimate relationships, with pain recalled and forgiven over a period of years, is the subject of “Loving and Forgiving,” which has interesting rhythms and is sung, as all the songs are, in Felice Rosser’s unique voice. “If I call you, do you hear me?” she asks. In this conspiracy of friendship, a conspiracy sometimes against the world, sometimes in league with the world, someone who seems to have been living fast is “gone,” and his habits are blamed, a judgment the narrator does not share, although she does not articulate her dissenting view to others, as “you can’t change people’s mind[s].” (It is an awful admission really, one I feel compelled, as a result of experience, to believe, though I fear the belief, and am angered by it; and I wonder, if you cannot change the minds of others, why is that? Why does fact and logic have so little sway against opinion, against sentiment?)
With a lyric that contrasts a grand sky with a feeling of personal smallness (“today it feels good to be small”), the song “Never Leave Me Alone,” with an expressive vocal and a repetitive beat, has a ska rhythm. “Why can’t I find a place to be?” the narrator asks, and the song builds to a crescendo. A raving, thrashing guitar, is followed by a mellow chorus. With lines such as “I’m hoping that I won’t shut down” and “Why can’t I find a place to be? I thought you said the magic was free” the song suggests the kind of existential concern that is certainly modern and may be eternal. What is the price of individuality? What are its rewards? The price might be loneliness, misunderstanding, and slander. The price might be poverty and starvation. The reward might be confidence, discipline, and serenity. The reward might be creativity, even genius. The reward might be fame and fortune. “Why can’t I find a place to be?” Some people want us to respect the conformity and mediocrity of the world rather than individuality and excellence. Refer to a great work or a distinguished figure and they are skeptical—but they become excited and pleased by local gossip, common cynicism, and the rites of mass stupidity.
“As I lay by your side, I finally feel like I’m really alive” and “My love seems to grow as I give it away,” sings Rosser in “Like A Child,” one of those songs in which all seems possible, a belief of great innocence, and an inevitable—and ever failing?—human hope. (The song’s conviction parallels modern beliefs in self-actualization and progress, despite doubt.) “I feel like a child next to you,” the narrator sings. Teacher-student relationships can take place in adult relationships, between two people who might otherwise look like equals. Teacher-student relationships—which may not be exactly what the song implies—are valuable: the sharing of knowledge, the nurturing of a vulnerable self. If two people agree that is what they have, that kind of balance then can be healthy: though if the teaching is good, it must end at some point. If one person thinks the other needs mentoring and the other does not agree, there is trouble—misunderstanding, resentment. The problem is that sometimes there is an unadmitted, unacknowledged need for nurturing—and there may be frustration and shame. Love is humbling. An interesting chanting takes place in the song “Like A Child.” It is matched with (Nora Balaban’s) mbira or thumb-piano playing, which lends something innocent, and something old, to the music.
“I took all my sorrow and I slipped away,” sings Felice Rosser in “Everlasting,” a song with a clear, sultry sound, with a rich, nearly blues-tinged bass, and a solid beat. Can love be everlasting? “Who will drive these demons from my mind?” she sings. Felice Rosser’s voice sounds weeping and wise. Sometimes, as in the song “Everlasting,” I thought Felice Rosser’s voice reminded me of someone else’s but I could not recall whose. She sings “I left the city so I could be free” and “We live how we have to live, we forgive just what we have to forgive.” Listening to A Place Where Love Can Grow again and again, the resemblances to other voices became clearer: Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading, and Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals. There is authority in Felice Rosser’s voice; and authority can come from experience, from the range of one’s ideas and perceptions, from the depth of one’s passion, from the consistency of one’s eloquence. However, not all authority is acknowledged or respected. That may be especially true when it comes to women performers. I recall many years ago being enthusiastic with someone about Joan Armatrading, and the person I was talking to laughed, dismissed my comment, and said, “She sounds like a man.” I was shocked, but not surprised. He expected everyone—every man, every woman—to fit into an established paradigm, and when someone did not fit, the accuracy or relevance of the paradigm was not called into question, but, rather, the individual was questioned, and rejected. (The irony of that conversation is that, as I learned later, he was himself a Haitian homosexual, a reality I imagine some of his own personal acquaintances find paradoxical.) Sometimes, it seems as if the same struggles must be fought in each generation—and is that because the victory was incomplete, or news of the victory was not widely shared? That fact, of perpetual struggle, is a discouraging and exhausting fact. I think Felice Rosser’s voice has its own appeal, its own power, but, for me, it is not a sensuous voice, and I imagine that for many men that is, or will be, a problem. Most men see women as sensual and sexual presences first of all.
The guitar’s notes are plum-like (full, rounded, tasty) on “Lay Me Down,” and the singer says, “Here I am, face to face with myself.” There is a somewhat skittish rhythm, punctuated by whole, slowly articulated instrumental notes. (The drumming here—and in “Loving and Forgiving” and “Like a Child” and a couple of other songs—is by James Morris.) “Lay me down, back in your arms again,” sings Rosser, fervently. Cello, and a reggae rhythm, and a thoughtful vocal interpretation, mark “Give Thee Peace,” the kind of song that requires several listenings before my atheist mind realizes it is a contemporary prayer. The instrumentation has a particular clarity, and there’s something mellow about the song. “Slowly” is about fluctuating feelings and loneliness, and has an interesting arrangement, one even featuring a spoken interlude or rap, in which the narrator recalls her mother’s warning that “one day soon you’re gonna get what you ask for.” (The song “Slowly” contains a brief, incidental, and poetic description of disappearing smoke: to hear it, and all else I mention, get the album.) “I gotta be careful” and “we’re not just friends anymore” are some of the song’s lines. The sound of Rosser’s voice here is very distinct, and I listened trying to decide if she is simply singing in the highest part of her range, or if there was some electronic effect at work, or both: it is an engaging and memorable expression.
There is yearning in the singer’s voice in “Daybreak,” a song with somewhat irregular rhythms. In “Alexandria,” a song that articulates the lyric idea that changes can be small but significant, a song in which Rosser sings that she has a “sugar rush for the daily bread,” and “I don’t even know what I am feeling” is also a song with a significant quantity and quality of musical detail, impressive and intriguing. (I sometimes wonder if musicians are experimenting with sound out of creativity or if they are simply making music in tune with the attention deficit disorder of the general public in mind.) “I celebrate compassion,” sings Rosser in “Ya Ya Go.” There is a chant of foreign (African?) words amid English lyrics in “Ya Ya Go,” and a point at which the squall of the guitar and the drumbeats have no accompaniment and need none: they seem complete, satisfying. In an elemental affirmation, Felice Rosser sings, “I run away from category, towards a space where I can simply be, and I believe in my being.”
Sometimes sound alone is sense, is enough. That is especially true with music, which can not only describe happiness or sadness but embody it—be it. Accurate description in lyrics often means that the writer sees clearly, thinks clearly, speaks clearly, but the sound of happiness or sadness is less about thought than feeling and a mastery of an instrument, a mastery so sure that expression seems natural.
“Let’s make a place where love can grow,” says Felice Rosser, a singer of significant originality, in the collection’s last song, its title song, “A Place Where Love Can Grow.” As with many artists, the place Rosser seeks may be a place she has to make, and, now, the place she has made: the world of her own art, the world she has made with guitarist Naotaka Hakamada and drummer Scott Hartley. In a note to friends and acquaintances announcing the appearance of the album A Place Where Love Can Grow, Felice Rosser wrote, “There’s a lot of love on this record, and listening the songs again takes me back to their inspirations: the trip to Martha’s Vineyard in ‘Everlasting,’ being so in love that I just wanted to sit quietly in ‘Like a Child,’ the crazy restaurant customer who was ultimately so kind in ‘Delicate,’ the never ending night sky off Long Island Sound in ‘Lay Me Down’ the street vendors of 2nd Avenue in ‘Daybreak,’ the man that I still love in ‘Slowly.’ ” We have something to thank Felice Rosser for: Faith; and we have something to thank Faith for: A Place Where Love Can Grow.
2. An Internet Interview with Faith’s Felice Rosser
Upon receiving A Place Where Love Can Grow in mid-April 2007, I listened to it, and immediately sent via electronic mail to Felice Rosser, its lead singer and bassist, a list of questions I hoped she would answer and she was gracious enough to do so, e-mailing the answers back to me within a few days; and below is our exchange.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: On the Faith album A Place Where Love Can Grow, the first song “Delicate” describes someone who welcomes the surprise and sensitivity of being described as delicate. That suggests to me how easily we are misread by most people and how it is a rare person who reads beyond the surface, beyond our cover. It’s interesting that the song’s sensitive person, that sensitive reader, who sees another person’s depth and delicacy, is actually disturbed, somewhat crazy. That, for me, makes the song one with a complex subject. What were your intentions in that song?
Felice, Faith: I wanted to paint a picture of the afternoons in a restaurant I used to work in. The customer himself was a very brilliant black man, super well-read and articulate. I knew he was bordering on some kind of breakdown, he’d wear winter clothes in the summertime, and I knew when I left that place that I’d probably never see him again. So “Delicate” is kind of an apology song. I’d been so snappy with him over the months and he just wanted and needed a little attention. “Delicate” also deals with the whole “strong black woman” thing.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: The musical arrangement and texture seem to change within songs—such as in “Loving and Forgiving” and “Never Leave Me Alone.” I think I hear psychedelia, blues-rock, ska. (I don’t know what to call the music that attends the “la-la-la” part in “Like A Child.”) How does the music tend to evolve when the band creates songs?
Felice, Faith: Well, we listen to lots of different kinds of music. There are some major loves—reggae, psychedelia. Scott our drummer once said that Nao’s guitar playing sounded like the end of the world. We certainly love the blues. Nao loves Indian music and I love African music, especially music from Mali. We jam on stylistic ideas and see which ones we like best.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What’s the working process of the band? (How does the band create songs, rehearse, identify performing and other opportunities, and plan for the future?)
Felice, Faith: I try to stay open and get things I like down on tape. We rehearse a couple of times a week. When Nao or I have something we like we bring it in. We enjoy playing live so we look for opportunities. I’m a “go to the end of the light you see” kind of person. I just do what’s in front of me to do and usually something good comes up. We also have a great friend named Emily who helps us make plans.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Could you describe your own personal and musical history and the development of the band?
Felice, Faith: I played piano and clarinet as a kid. I hated to practice piano, so I gave it up. I was in a little chamber group with the clarinet, and that was more fun. There were boys in it, and we used go to different schools and play—“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and stuff like that. I learned some songs on folk guitar—“Matty Groves” and “the House Carpenter.” Then, I gave up playing for the luxurious pleasure of hanging around various concert halls in Detroit, trying to meet bands. It’s funny—my friend Rob Ritter, who played bass in the Gun Club, is from Detroit too, and during the same time that he stayed in his room practicing, I was out seeing Led Zeppelin and Howlin Wolf, and trying to meet Humble Pie, Mahogany Rush, and Jethro Tull. I came to New York to go to college, and went to some big shows in New York, and then I started going downtown and seeing bands at CBGB and Max’s, and realizing that music could be immediate, that you could have great ecstatic musical experiences in an arena with twenty-thousand people or in a Bowery Bar with twenty people. I saw Television, Patti Smith, Public Image Ltd., and the Clash, and fell in love with reggae—Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Marley. I started playing with a friend of mine who played guitar, and she said I should play bass because we didn’t need two guitars. I played with friends, a group called Pleasure, a group called the Blue Picts. I was really influenced by Public Image Ltd., particularly the band’s record “Metal Box” and a live show I saw at Great Gildersleeves. And I was also very influenced by a band from England called Basement 5. I got turned on to improvised music—Peter Koward, William Parker, Don Cherry. I started Faith in the early nineties. We were in the Black Rock Coalition, and got loads of press and attention. Some record deals that didn’t work out. The first edition of Faith fell apart, and I had my son, and the band got some new members and kept going. Currently Faith is me, and guitarist Nao who joined in the mid-nineties, and drummer Scott Hartley, a friend of mine from the band Liquid Liquid.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Could you describe the development of your voice and vocal style?
Felice, Faith: I’m someone who was told I was a bad singer for many years. I just kept going because I like to sing. It’s like anything, the more you do it, I hope, the better you get. I love singing that sounds ancient, or timeless. Central African Pygmy music, Gnawa music, Howlin Wolf, Aretha Franklin, Rev. C.L. Franklin, Leon Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, and singers from Mali, such as Boubacar Traore, Oumou Sangare, and Coumba Sidibe, are singers I like a lot. Recently I’ve begun singing in church and I really enjoy it.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Regarding human identity, do you think that we are born with character or that we create it as we think, feel, make decisions, act, and move through the world? Does essence precede existence, or does existence precede essence?
Felice, Faith: I think it’s a bit of both. I’m sure everyone has their own answer to that one.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Do you think artists are very different from other people?
Felice, Faith: Not really.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Do you think artists have any responsibility to bring forms of knowledge to the world that can have a practical effect, or is their responsibility—if they have any but making art—to illuminate more personal and/or philosophical matters?
Felice, Faith: When I hear “One Thing” by Amerie, I start bopping and I feel happy and my vibe goes up and it’s a good thing. When I hear “Real Life” by Living Colour I get pensive and soulful, and when I hear “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley I feel like praying. When I read “The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor I get the sense of how much we are all more alike than different. All of these things serve to make me more human and take me away from a corporate, cardboard, non-feeling existence that I fall into sometimes. I can’t ever know what the intention of an artist was, but this is its practical result. There’s a phrase in the song “Lay Me Down” where I talk about “Billie Holiday shoes.” A girl came up to me after a show once and said she’d worn those Billie Holiday shoes too. That made me feel good.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I’d like to identify a couple of names, of music figures, and have you tell me what kinds of qualities or issues you associate with each, if any: Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Nona Hendryx, Joan Armatrading, Tina Turner, Living Colour, Eye and I, Tasmin Archer, Skunk Anansie, The Dears, Bloc Party.
Felice, Faith: Sister Rosetta Thorpe—great singer, great guitar player and doing it in the 1940s. Amazing.
Chuck Berry—funny guy, good songwriter. Little Richard—great musician, great look. Jimi Hendrix—a man who would be easy to love. Nona Hendryx—innovator. Joan Armatrading—Favorite song: “Never is Too Late.” Tina Turner—very very interesting woman. I liked her book when she talked about changing her life. Living Colour—great band. Eye and I—we played with them once and they were so great. Tasmin Archer—not that familiar with her music. Skunk Anansie—we played with them once and they were good. The Dears—I like them. I like their orchestrations. Bloc Party—I like them. Happy, upbeat.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Why do you think more African-Americans are not interested in rock music?
Felice, Faith: Maybe because it’s not marketed to them as an option.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is your understanding of the rock music tradition? (Do you relate to figures such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Chrissie Hynde, the Clash, U2, R.E.M, Nirvana, Hole, etc.?)
Felice, Faith: I’m from Detroit so I grew up with all kinds of music. I had a great group of friends and we’d go see Funkadelic and the Stooges, or see the MC5 do Sun Ra covers or go see Howlin Wolf or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, or see Rufus open for the Rolling Stones. I like rock music and I like most of the artists you mention.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is the root of female authority in music? Is it talent, mind, sensitivity, sex appeal, something else? Are women allowed to age in rock and popular music?
Felice, Faith: There are many female artists out there and people like different things about different ones. As far as being allowed to age, I think you just do the best you can. I have a Lotte Lenya album at home and her face on the cover is amazing. Not young, but interesting and stimulating.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Do you ever feel as if your mind is a weapon you have to keep sharp?
Felice, Faith: Yes.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I think of music as part of a continuum of cultural practices and works—along with books, films, dance, and theater. Are there other art forms, beside music, that you find particularly interesting or useful?
Felice, Faith: I have always loved painting.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Who are the musicians and other artists band members are inclined to see as inspirations, and as peers?
Felice, Faith: I am inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Habib Koite, Jah Wobble, tons of people. Our peers include Muthawit, and the Burnt Sugar crew, Apollo Heights, Tinsaedu, and Tenderhead.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: The band Faith has received good notices from the New York Times, Newsday, The Village Voice, Time Out, Newsday, and CMJ New Music Report, among other publications. That seems quite a welcome—and yet, while the band is respected and has its audience, it is not as established in the awareness of the general public as it could be. What have been some of the obstacles to greater success?
Felice, Faith: I don’t know really. I went through a period of feeling really sad about it. But then I figured, maybe I just needed some time to really get my music together. I had a child and was forced to stay home a lot and I began practicing more. I took a class in music theory at the New School in Manhattan and took some bass and voice lessons. And a lot of it is luck, isn’t it? We were very lucky to get all that attention before. Maybe we’ll get lucky again. I still like playing.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: What is the ideal place for the band?
Felice, Faith: I have a feeling we will do well in England or France because a lot of the music I like is from there.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Does American culture have a center, and if it does, what is it?
Felice, Faith: I don’t really feel a part of American culture.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Are there any thoughts that you would like to share about the current political situation in America, regarding individual freedom, social problems, political parties, presidential politics, or anything else?
Felice, Faith: I like Barack Obama. I believe that American industry needs to do more to create jobs in cities like Detroit. I believe the American government needs to do more to help the people affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: How do you relate to—or what do you think of—these terms: cosmopolitan, provincial, universal, relativistic?
Felice, Faith: Cosmopolitan—I love the international feel of big cities. Provincial—I feel there are many simple things to learn about life in smaller places. Universal—God almighty. Relativistic—it is true.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: Do you relate to continental African culture? If yes, in what way(s)?
Felice, Faith: I am very interested in continental African culture. I have a friend named Fred Doumbe, a great bassist from Cameroon, and he says “When those Mandeng guys start to play guitar, forget about it.” Now I am totally nuts about Malian guitar music, people like Habib Koite. And when Fred implies that there’s some kind of tribal or cultural identity that goes along with this beautiful playing, I’m very interested. I was getting my hair braided in an African shop in Harlem. The lady doing my hair had a baby on her back who was just screaming, then he went to sleep. And at 5 o’clock, three of the women brought out prayer rugs and went to the back and prayed, then they came back out and continued braiding. I thought it was pretty amazing.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: I love the sound of Hank Roberts’s cello in “Give Thee Peace.” It seems that more and more classical music instruments are being used in rock and other contemporary music. How do you see (or hear) music categories, and the separation between musical styles, and greater integration among them?
Felice, Faith: My mother often took us to the symphony when we were small, so I developed a love for classical music early on. We were finishing up “Give Thee Peace” upstate and Nao wasn’t around so we asked Hank to sit in. I don’t really hear separation between musical styles. I love all forms.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: “Slowly,” the eighth song on the Faith album A Place Where Love Can Grow, has an intimate rap—the subject is love and vulnerability—within it. That is very different from most, though not all, of the rap many of us have heard. What do you think of rap as a genre?
Felice, Faith: I like a lot of rap music.
Daniel, Compulsive Reader: How do you define love?
Felice, Faith: To me love is feeling close to, and caring about, the welfare of another person. And some kind of magic.
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Faith’s official website:
For acquiring Faith’s CD, see CD Baby: