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Roselit Bone finds healing with ‘Ofrenda’

Danny Dodge

Roselit Bone's new record was inspired by a series of losses that the band's frontwoman, Charlotte McCaslin, experienced over the last few years.

“Ofrenda” is the latest release from Portland, Oregon’s, Roselit Bone.

The record chronicles a series of changes for the band’s frontwoman, Charlotte McCaslin, a period marked by the deaths of several people close to her, her gender transition and a divorce.

The darkness that inspired the material on the album, however, translates into a sense of resolve as McCaslin leads the group through numbers such as “Your Gun,” “The Tower” and “Crying in the USA.”

With a style that might be described as Western Gothic, Roselit Bone often recalls the work of acts such as Suicide and The Gun Club, and yet is uniquely the Portland outfit’s own.

Roselit Bone performs at Kirby’s Beer Store on Wednesday, Oct. 4.

McCaslin spoke with KMUW from a recent stop on the group’s current tour.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
 
I had to look up the word ofrenda, and I learned that it’s an altar built to honor lost loved ones. How does that fit with the thematic elements of the album? Who or what was lost? 

As I was writing the album, I lost a few family members and a few friends, and there were a lot of deaths affecting my friend group at the time. Overdoses and suicides, in particular. It was a kind of a heavy time. I also went through [a divorce after an 18-year relationship]. So there was that loss happening as well. I think the title “Ofrenda” encapsulated that cycle of loss that was happening and just the earnest attempt to find some beauty in it.

I don’t know if you’ve ever celebrated Day of the Dead but it’s a much more somber holiday than Halloween. But it’s still very beautiful and colorful. You make beautiful altars for the people that have passed and put their photos up. I felt that the term was good for the album title because of that.

You were going through all of this while the world was also seeming to fall apart. 

Yeah.

Was it ever frustrating or frightening to see both happening? Sometimes the world holds together while your personal life is falling apart, but in this case, both were happening.  

The subject matter [in our music] has always been really heavy. But when the pandemic hit, there wasn’t as much novelty in the more morbid side of my songwriting and the darker elements I think. I think a switch flipped and everybody was kind of on the same page. Most people that I know, unless they were delusional, became … a little less secure that their government and that the people around them would take care of them in the event of some great catastrophe. A catastrophe was happening and while there were a lot of great moments of humanity in the pandemic, there was also just a great failure of all the systems around us. I think that all that came to light at once. I felt that to make a completely dark album would have been a little bit overdoing it and sort of rubbing peoples’ faces in it. So I tried to make something that was a bit of salve.

There’s a very cathartic element to the album. 

The reason that I play music is that I have something kind of inexplicable that I have to get out -- and I think that with this album in particular because it took so long to put out -- and because there was so much catastrophe that happened, it was sort of how I got the pressure out, the pain that I was going through and the societal [pain] that was happening around me. I wasn’t really trying to do much but I think in the end [I] condensed it down to something that was a positive force.

“Crying in the USA” is very anthemic in its way but it’s about this dark stuff and yet there’s this sense of humor that seems to go along with it. 

I’ve always had a very gallows humor kind of thing going on. During the pandemic, I lived in Portland and there were protests that lasted about 120 days or something, where, every night, cops were beating all my friends and neighbors up. Pepper spraying and tear gassing everybody. It was a little bit of an unhinged [thing]. I’m not trying to make a political statement with it. I’m sort of burned out on politics after the last few years. It was more of just a pressure release of the bitterness. It was a not a very veiled attempt at making light of a particularly dark situation that Portland in particular was in. I don’t think that a lot of people outside of Portland understand how violent how things got. I had coworkers who were being [followed] by unmarked Border Patrol agents. To anyone living through that the idea of patriotism was just such so far beyond even a joke at that point. I think that’s what made it into the song.

Was there ever a time during all of this when you questioned whether there would be a band at the end of this? 

I feel like I asked myself that every week! [Laughs.] We live in a time when music has no monetary value. It costs money to be a musician. We all have to work a lot to support our band and it all kind of seems like a vanity project at times. During the pandemic, it definitely felt a little grotesque to be promoting anything. I think there’s a Leonard Cohen line that I thought a lot about during the time: “I must admit I don’t feel very much like singing as they carry the bodies away.” That was just something that rang in my head the entire time I was making this album. There was so much going on and people were going through something that looked a lot like a war and just trying their best to survive. A lot of musicians, including myself at points, were trying to promote things and failing at it and trying to find their place going forward as a musician, and at certain points, it just felt totally hopeless and like nobody was listening. Everybody was in a flight or fight mode and not really looking for new emotional experiences.

I don’t think we’ll really know the impact of everything that happened between 2020 and 2022 for another decade. 

Yeah, and I think that that’s just been my take the entire time. We’re through it but we haven’t seen the last effects yet. We’re starting to. In traveling the country, things look different. Every city’s a little different. Every city’s a little depressed. Nothing’s opened past a certain time anywhere. Things are just shut down. I think that people are optimistic as things begin to open up, but I don’t think it will get back to the way it was. I think things will stay a little subdued for a while.

The album has been really well received. When you see positive things coming back about it, does it bring some sense of reward or do you say, “Well, that’s nice but I really made this for myself in the first place”? 

I don’t think I made it for myself. There are so many different people involved in the record. There’s like 15 different band members, and we do have existing fans. It’s a relief that the album is having its intended effect. I think people are listening to the lyrics more on this record and that there’s just more attention being paid, which takes a lot of pressure off of me doing these live shows. The pressure to sell it when we play it live is a little less. I can just play the songs the way that I’d like them to be played. I’m not as concerned with getting peoples’ attention at this point. I think that now the attention is on us a little bit, I can be a little more genuine in the performance.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.