“I went through a period of time during middle school where I was ostracised because of the way I talk,” Baby Rose reflects, her distinctively husky drawl humming through the computer speakers as she chats to NME over Zoom. “I started to feel like my voice was a curse, but at the same time I really leaned into playing piano and putting every bit of my emotion and everything I was seeing around me – like my mom’s story, my cousin’s story, my friends’ stories – into music.”
Baby Rose’s voice is something that’s always made her stand out. Take her recent album, ‘To Myself’ as an example, the stunning smokiness to her tone earmarks it as one of the most impressive vocal performances in recent memory. The Atlanta-based 26 year-old expressed an interest in music from a young age, she even painted her piano red like Elton John’s and performed her first original song at just 13 for a school talent show. However, it was later in life that she realised this form of artistic expression could be harnessed to channel her deeper insecurities into something uplifting.
“I realised that I was a pariah and I was different from the rest of the pack, but that was OK because eventually it would be something that I could make my thing. There’s just something inside of me that really leaned into that part, so I decided that was going to be where my world was, then it was reaffirmed for me later on in life.”
It’s this sense of vulnerability that makes Rose’s brand of neo-soul so unique, combining modern fuzzy production with an old school jazz vibe reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan and Amy Winehouse. The introspective lyricism taps into her first love of poetry, and she admits that emotions act as the driver while its form stems from whomever she’s read recently. At present, it is “laureate of American lowlife”, Charles Bukowski. “That shit’s really good,” she says. “Reading other people, seeing their perspectives, it makes me more keen when I’m writing my own music. I like to pace it out, take my time, make it simpler, or just embellish it like the people I’m inspired by.”
In 2017, Rose released her first EP, ‘From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’, exploring the theme of love through the perspectives of people she saw around her. It created an instant buzz in Atlanta, where she moved to from North Carolina, aged 18. Soon after, she was asked by J.Cole to perform on his ‘Revenge of the Dreamers III’ project alongside Ari Lennox and Bas on the chilled-out R&B track, ‘Self-Love’. The song is an affirmation of one’s own worth, which she (somewhat ironically) recorded after an unexpected breakup; “Self-love is the best love / But your love was the worst drug” she sings.
Nevertheless, it was this same heartache that helped to make her debut album ‘To Myself’ so captivating. Within the collection, ‘Mortal’ cuts through for its dissection of lost love over woozy, gentle percussion and mellow guitars. “And your waves pull me deep underwater / I’m getting weak at the thought / Fall to my knees here’s my offer / You know I am just a mortal,” Rose sings. As she reflects on the process of writing the song, she shrugs it off. “I was singing the melodies, wrote the verse out of the hook, then put it into Logic in my room. I was just drinking a lot of wine and coffee… it was a mess, but it was a vibe.”
“I realised that I was a pariah and I was different from the rest of the pack”
This nonchalance certainly adds to Rose’s cool-factor. The distinctive smokiness to her vocal tone has become a signature that’s drawn parallels to Nina Simone, a major influence. “It’s humbling because this woman was truly incredible, not just as a vocalist but for what she did for the culture” she says. “When I get those comparisons it’s awesome for me because she’s a vocal anomaly, I know that I’m a vocal anomaly too and I love that. But the message has always been at the forefront for me, the music is just a conduit to get the point across of who I am.”
The recently-released deluxe version of ‘To Myself’ beckons more to this approach, featuring the freestyle, ‘Damn’. The gentle pacing, hazy production and emotive lyricism evokes a sense of newfound self-assurance.“That song is just very direct. I love it for its brashness and being straight to the point,” she says. Indeed, the track contrasts the melancholy of ‘Mortal’, with lines like, “Why you gonna want me back? Damn / Thought I was what you lacked, damn / Now my new negus here, damn”
Over the last few months, Rose has been getting back into the writing process, lockdown hasn’t really changed anything, because most of her music is conceived at home. However, given the current political climate in the US, she’s also seen it as an opportunity to reflect and look after her mental wellbeing. “I know this is a time for me, especially as a black woman, where I’m oscillating between different things going on in the world,” she explains.
“Fear, sadness and all of those things can overwhelm someone, so that’s been the biggest challenge throughout this pandemic, being able to separate everything,” she says. “I can still be painfully aware of what’s going on but also understand when to take a break and pull myself away from that, whether I use it and put all of that weight into music or just take a moment.”
“I’m working on another album that’s a whole different world,” Baby Rose says, looking forward to the future with her newfound confidence. “It’s analogue and elevated, and is really just the record of my dreams. This is what I’d always wanted to do when I was privy to the artists that shaped me, like Nina, Carole King and Elton, and just cutting on analogue gear thrusts you into a different world.” Wherever she goes, it’ll surely be something special.
Baby Rose’s deluxe edition of ‘To Myself’ is out now