On a May morning, Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, the married core of The Rosebuds since 2001, were recording a new song in their modest home in Raleigh's historic Oakwood neighborhood. They sat in the front bedroom at a computer, piecing together "Nice Fox."
Howard had written the tune for an animal that used to wander into his and his neighbor's yards, as the song goes, teasing the neighbor's dog and scratching at Howard's old screen door. One afternoon, Howard found the fox dead in the woods behind his house. He built a crude cross, scrawled the words "Nice Fox" across the horizontal beam, and buried the animal in the yard.
As The Rosebuds sang that day, they and the neighbors had their bedroom windows open. One neighbor had been terminally ill for some time. While he listened to the 33-year-olds work on a song about a fox they'd shared, he died. Howard and Crisp found out an hour later, just as they put shape to the slow, gentle and most gorgeous number on their fourth album, Life Like, due Oct. 7.
"His son came over and knocked on the door ... while we were still playing music," says Crisp. "We'll play like one weird guitar track at a time or one vocal take at a time, so the neighbors hear us do all these different little weird things. He was listening to us track that song. We sort of sang him out."
Just a decade ago, moments like this would have been nearly impossible for a pop band like The Rosebuds. This isn't lo-fi indie rock suitable for one microphone and a garage. Their music sounds best big and clean, as when it's been captured and manipulated by capable, experienced and often expensive audio engineers. Instead of using their house as a recording studio and releasing the music that their neighbor heard as he died, Howard and Crisp likely would have been sequestered in a recording studio, a possibly uncomfortable space where every minute would have cost money and every move would have begged efficiency. Rather than nuance and feeling, they'd be concerned with budgets, schedules and deadlines, with making the record quickly enough to pay back their label, Merge Records.
But Life Like, recorded mostly in Howard and Crisp's little house, is a highly likeable declaration of independence. At last, The Rosebuds sound comfortable and ambitious, confident but conscientious, a grown-up band free to do what it wants. Driving, open-hearted pop mixes with billowing country tenderness and the occasional electronic texture. Instead of fitting a template or timetable, The Rosebuds of Life Like seem concerned with capturing 10 of their best songs in bright, full sound. Those sounds and songs owe plenty to their decision to make most of Life Like at home, on their own terms, and with their own equipment.
"Since you're recording it yourself, you have a way better chance of stumbling [upon it]," says Howard, talking specifically about the perfect guitar tone but generally about a better album. "With somebody else hitting stop and record, you really can't unless you're extremely well prepared or an extremely high-level musician. We're neither. We just wing it."
In the summer of 2006, The Rosebuds—more specifically, Ivan Howard—entered the studio of Brian Paulson, an acclaimed record producer who'd worked with Beck, Slint, Superchunk and Wilco. Crisp and Howard recorded their bustling debut, appropriately entitled Make Out, with Paulson in 2003, as well as 2005's subdued follow-up, Birds Make Good Neighbors.
Crisp couldn't attend the rehearsals or even the earliest sessions for Night of the Furies. Her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and Crisp had to drive her two hours from her rural home in Bladen County to appointments with doctors at Duke University. Howard began making the record himself, but he soon found he was missing his foil.
"The songs are so different, I was just like, 'I'll make a record myself' and couldn't ever do it without Kelly's help, basically," says Howard, often struggling to raise his diffident, friendly Southern speech over the late afternoon traffic on Hargett Street. "The ideas didn't really cement themselves. Maybe it was a confidence thing. ... You can't tell something's missing in a recipe until you have it, you know, and that's just kind of how it is."
Crisp finally returned to the band, and she too recognized that they needed to take a step back and start again: "We sorted through our tracks, and we started collaborating on ideas," she remembers, her methodical enunciation and tone sharp contrasts with Howard's. "From that point, it just seemed to make more sense that we do it ourselves because we seemed to be generating so much electricity."
So The Rosebuds went home, inviting local musicians to stop in and add parts like banjos and beats and sing-along choruses, bouncing their voices and instruments off the oak and pine floors and plaster walls. Other friends who'd recorded bands offered advice, expertise and equipment.
For a first experiment releasing homemade music, Night of the Furies did well by The Rosebuds, expanding their palette beyond the guitar-driven sounds of those first two records via dark-wave synthesizers and beats cadged from disco and Depeche Mode. The band was the toast of South by Southwest 2007 for many writers, and, even though music sales continued to slump industry-wide, Night of the Furies sold more in its first year out than the previous Rosebuds albums had.
The Rosebuds received further validation for the self-made approach from Justin Vernon, who toured as their lead guitarist for six months after helping finish Night of the Furies. Between making Night of the Furies and touring behind it, Vernon returned to Wisconsin, where he recorded the bulk of an album by himself with an old laptop, a few microphones and a few guitars. That album, called For Emma, Forever Ago and released under the name Bon Iver, has sold more than 64,000 copies in the U.S. That's three times as many as The Rosebuds catalog of three LPs and one EP—combined.
Vernon's success helped drive Howard and Crisp to do the next record at home. Vernon says they never had an option.
"I immediately saw how the 'normal' system of making records in big studios was not for them, and that they might have felt insecure, just even a little bit," he remembers, writing from a Bon Iver tour stop in Gothenburg, Sweden. "I saw how smart they were, with how perfect Ivan wanted everything and how stern and complete his vision was. It wasn't hard to be like, 'Dudes, you guys know what you want. Finish it right here.'"
Early this year, Howard took the band's recording advance from Merge Records and split it. Part would be used as a living budget, while the rest would be used for studio equipment. Howard purchased one vocal microphone, several speakers and an interface that fed the microphones into a used recording computer purchased from Mark Paulson, another local whiz who'd worked on Birds Make Good Neighbors. Nothing fancy, says Howard, just something sufficient: "It's more about the feeling than the equipment."
But while the band was consciously working to be independent of studio strictures, the writing itself was growing more interdependent than ever. At the start, The Rosebuds was Howard's songs, with Crisp singing backup and playing simple keyboard accompaniment. After all, the week Crisp and Howard got married in 2001, a Wilmington rock club called him, looking for an opening act for the night's show. Acting quickly, he said his old band was busy, but his new band could play. Howard spent the next five hours teaching Crisp five songs he'd kept to himself and inventing this new band they called The Rosebuds.
Now, though, it's a fully integrated project. They both offer new ideas and revise them together. Recording took months—workshopping songs, demoing them at home, asking friends to come over and add parts. But by working at home and not in a recording studio, they were able to give that relationship the time it needed.
"It gave us so much confidence to be more honest and creative," says Crisp, who splits her time between Raleigh and Brooklyn now as she develops a second reputation as a stand-up comic. "The benefits of putting yourself in a situation to be in control of your creative content—personally, for us—have made a world of difference."
"Cape Fear," for instance, was just a Crisp vocal idea, a fragment of the hook that was nothing more than a staggered "Hey, hey!" chant. She and Howard constructed a song from that phrase, recording every step. Howard says it's probably the most complete thing they've ever done.
"I remember sitting in front of the computer going, 'Shit!' I was like, 'Finally! I finally wrote that song.' Or we wrote it," says Howard. "The electric guitars and the build-ups and the leads, and it's short. It's just kind of rockin'."
And there's the title track, which Crisp says Howard wrote as a very personal reflection on being different in a small town. In his hometown of Fuquay-Varina, Howard—the son of his high school's head football coach—was a star athlete. After a collegiate basketball injury, though, he'd become serious about music and given up on his professional athlete thoughts. Only recently, says Crisp, has Howard finally been able to take himself seriously as an artist by realizing he's not disappointing anyone. When he sings "I need a clean way out" to begin the record, he's talking about saving everyone else's feelings, not his own.
But Howard hoped for a song that was less confessional. Crisp, his chief editor, suggested he rewrite it with the metaphor of a hunted deer, the nickname Howard earned while working as a screen-printer in Raleigh. Thanks to Crisp's suggestion, the lyrics now read just oblique enough to intrigue.
Such collaboration carries over to the performances: On Life Like, neither Howard nor Crisp comes off as the band's frontperson. They share choruses, or take the verse while the other takes the hook. The strategy lends a graceful motion to Life Like, allowing for different timbres and rhythms but never blindsiding the listener. It feels like a well-considered mixtape, shifting seamlessly between the band's best motifs. That wouldn't have been possible had the band been rushed or uncomfortable, says Howard. They labored away at the songs and simply let tape roll.
After several months, and after putting 10 other demos on hold, these 10 tracks fit one another the best. When Howard turned Life Like in to be mixed, he knew they'd nailed it.
"All of the last three records were learning-process records," says Howard. "I guess what happened with this one, we finally got what we were hearing in our heads with all the records, but either you didn't have the time or ability to play it."
Both Rosebuds agree that Life Like is their most personal record. It stretches beyond the normal bounds of relationship songs, asking more salient questions about family and religion, government and loyalty. Marked gently by nostalgia and a sort of bitter wistfulness for simpler things, the songs sound suited to home recording. Indeed, some of Life Like's riskiest choices are its most indulgent, most romantic and, ultimately, most rewarding.
During "Hello, Darlin'," the first instrumental in The Rosebuds' catalog, a 45 rpm record Howard's grandfather made for his wife during World War II spins beneath an acoustic guitar. A friend whistles a sweet little melody over the top of it all. Back on that May morning, when The Rosebuds heard that their neighbor had died, Howard knew the feeling a little too well. His grandfather, Bobby D. Howard, died in March 2007 while the band was touring through Texas, just before work on Life Like got under way.
Crisp says taking her grandmother to sterile hospitals and wheeling her into dangerous radiology rooms influenced the cold, electronic streak shot through the middle of Night of the Furies. But the couple watched Bobby's decline from a distance, and their reaction to it through Life Like sounds healthier and much more fond. When Howard found that little record of his grandfather's voice at his grandmother's house, he knew it was the perfect tribute. So he took his time to get it right.
"Supposedly, he was a really big, tough, wild guy. I found that [record], and I couldn't believe it," says Howard. "Hello, Darlin'" epitomizes Life Like, a record born by two artists working through daily exigencies—job and money troubles, sickness, death, separation—to hunker down in their house and make something that matters. As Howard reckons, what else can you do? "In everyday life, everybody has the same story they go through."
The Rosebuds decided to tell those stories like anyone else would—in the living room, sound echoing off plaster walls and through front bedroom windows, for the neighbors and all the world to hear.