DL Rossi is no stranger to picking up the pieces and starting anew. Growing up in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Southeast Michigan, he became deeply engaged in a religious upbringing in which he first began to pursue his passion for music. By the time he reached his twenties, the city was calling, Music City to be exact, and his first venture into the unknown unfolded quickly before him. Drawn to Nashville for its standing as an epicenter of talented creatives and songwriters, Rossi recorded his first project there in pursuit of the self-expression that eluded him in his church years. For the first time in his life, he was making music on his own terms and beginning to realize his own dreams.
Shortly into his brief career, Rossi encountered adversity of the most unexpected and critical kind. At 27, he received a diagnosis for testicular cancer – a life-altering event for anyone, regardless of age. In subsequent years, after battling cancer, he also went through a divorce, and amid all the hardship, suffered a nervous breakdown. Under the weight of these traumatic events, Rossi’s music took a backseat to dealing with things in his day-to-day life. Only in time did he recognize the vitality of his art and how his relationship with songwriting was a crucial component of putting himself back together and moving forward with his life.
As he refocused on his music career, Rossi continued to frequent Nashville for inspiration and to record new material, even settling down there at one point, further immersing himself in the town and its many bustling scenes. It’s a period he looks back on fondly, noting time spent on the road as a guitar tech and his tenure at Rolf & Daughters as favorite experiences. After a few years of living the Music City grind, he again felt the push to venture out and start somewhere new, specifically, away from the bright lights and back in a familiar setting. Early last year, when he was making frequent trips back home to visit his uncle, who was suffering from a sudden and intense battle with brain cancer, Rossi began to entertain the idea of coming back to Michigan, where he was not only born and raised, but comfortable. When the pandemic kicked into full effect last spring and everyone was forced into lockdown, the writing was on the wall.
Ultimately, Rossi’s family circumstances and the hectic global climate made returning to Michigan’s familiar confines an easy decision. He wound up in Grand Rapids, a city he describes with heartfelt affection, ready to begin a new chapter in his life and in his songwriting. After stockpiling scraps of new song ideas, he rounded up his brother and longtime producer, Nolan, along with fellow collaborators Ross McReynolds and Tyler Chester, and set out to make LP number three. Tracking remotely over Zoom and through sharing live Pro Tools sessions, the group took a crafty approach to each recording session, pounding out a song a day over a period of a few weeks in mid 2020. The resulting album, Lonesome Kind, Rossi’s first in two years, is undoubtedly his best and most impressive body of work yet.
Spanning 10 tracks of meditative yet driving heartland rock, Lonesome Kind mulls over life’s trials and tribulations with a deep-felt appreciation for the preciousness of the present moment. From the rich and spacious atmospheres on “Don’t Wait Up” and the gentle melancholia of “Whiskey,” to the mid-tempo highway jam “Tumbling” and the pensive, celebratory closer “Oak Tree,” the album is full of tender moments that reflect Rossi’s hard-earned road to happiness and musical freedom. These sensitive songs embrace the fluidity of life’s most challenging and rewarding seasons all the same and are a testament to their author’s perseverance and authenticity.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with DL Rossi to chat about recording his new album remotely during the pandemic, leaving Nashville to grow as a songwriter, confronting past traumas, and more. Check out their conversation and stream DL Rossi’s new album Lonesome Kind, ahead of its Friday release, below.
You’ve been in bands your whole working life. How have you adjusted to the changes in the music industry over the past year?
DL: Man, it’s obviously been super difficult. Being an introvert has maybe helped me out a little. I’ve gotten some writing done and have been able to work on different projects, but I think the biggest thing is just the monotony of it. For me, I like going out and seeing other musicians play. I just enjoy the ritual of going to a show and just taking it in, having a few drinks, and going home. That’s what’s worn on me more than anything else, not being able to have the recharge of that experience socially. I’ve adjusted to it but it definitely feels like you’re walking around with a piece of you missing.
You recorded the bulk of your new album remotely. What was your experience like creating and collaborating over Zoom?
DL: When the pandemic hit, there was this big feeling of not wanting to sit on music for the next year and having to come up with a plan 12 months from now about what to do. Something I learned in Nashville was, there are people who have massive catalogs and are super prolific. That’s not me. I write about my life and I do it in chunks. My first thought was that we were going to send files back and forth, my brother and I, and just do a really lo-fi, DIY thing. We did that until my brother figured out a way for us to do the record. With setting up Zoom on people’s phones and laptops, we could have Ross in the drum room, isolated from me and my brother. Tyler was in L.A., working the session along with us. Basically, every day we would start with me playing a song and Nolan and Tyler would share notes as we worked out the base structure. Then, we would get a good live take. The album wasn’t done to clicks or anything. Our bed tracks were rough takes of me playing acoustic and singing and Ross playing drums. Tyler and Nolan would start tinkering and doing their stuff, adding bass and guitar and different synth stuff. After lunch, we’d talk through their ideas and Ross would do percussion over that. By the end of the day, outside of a few overdubs, we would have the base of a track. We did that for two weeks basically. We had a few days where the file-sharing really was a struggle but somehow we got a song done every day. There was a really great vibe that sprang forth from thankfulness to be able to do music. That was feeding some part of our souls that we hadn’t been able to partake in for a while. Hopefully, we don’t have to do more records like that, but as trying as the circumstances were, the experience was super fun.
What made you leave Nashville and move back home?
DL: Moving back was more of an internal thing that started within me. I was making a lot of trips back [to Michigan] because my uncle passed away last year. He had brain cancer, so I was coming back to see him whenever I could because it was a pretty aggressive and out-of-nowhere diagnosis. When I found myself back home, I thought ‘This feels kinda good.’ I just wanted to be somewhere new again and see what it did for my songwriting. I went on a huge road trip before deciding to move to Michigan. I started in Louisiana and went to Austin, Colorado, and was actually in Omaha watching basketball games in a hotel room when the pandemic really hit. I got in my car the next day and just drove home. I thought, ‘I’m gonna move back to Michigan because this is kinda crazy.’ I ended up in Grand Rapids — I love this town and there are so many great artists in Michigan that I love. As odd as it sounds, I like the cold and winter, so it was nice to have that.
It seems like it was a natural progression for your career.
DL: When I was in Nashville, I was really trying not to get into the comparison game. That can swallow you whole. There was a strong pull that started the third year I was there. I realized there are people who I know should be here. It wasn’t a feeling of inferiority, it was more just ‘I feel this pull and let’s see what happens.’ Down there, I was chasing down this idea of Americana and learning about country music and the songwriters in that area. I felt like that really became a part of me. When I started writing this record, I wondered what would happen if I got to a new place and started breathing in that experience. It just felt like the right next step.
“Americana” is a term that has become pretty synonymous with not only Nashville, but anything vaguely roots-related or country-adjacent. In your mind, is that a misleading or limiting genre label?
DL: For someone like me, who was more learning about it, it seems similar to saying “pop music.” It’s a broad label to slap on your music, but it encompasses singer-songwriters, roots rock, Southern rock – it’s an umbrella term. I understand the angst or frustration some people have with it but I think because I grew up on CCM and didn’t jump into this whole thing until my late 20s, I don’t have any feelings with it other than it’s just a broad way to describe your sound. That’s an interesting Nashville conversation if you’re at a bar. I got my first big show in Nashville through Americanafest, so I’m just thankful for that moniker to be able to be used to classify your music.
You went through a period of a few years where you were confronted with some pretty brutal hardships, including the cancer diagnosis and a divorce. How did those events impact your relationship with music?
DL: When I first started writing about those things, it was always like, ‘Wow, a lot has happened.’ You really try to live in the moment and take things one day at a time when you’re going through those experiences. At some point, you get far away enough that you gain some perspective and start to learn from them. For me, a lot of it is learning to be okay with myself. I don’t think this is exclusive to people who grow up in this environment but I came up in a very evangelical Christian world. My first big job was leading worship at a huge church. When I got diagnosed with cancer, it changed a lot for me. Doing my first record was really me saying ‘I want to do this for me because it sounds like fun and I want to learn how to express myself.’ I didn’t know that’s what was going on. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘I’m doing this record to help people who were raised in this environment deal with the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced.’ That was my justification to be a songwriter rather than just being okay with ‘This is what I do.’ It was very hard for me to do things for myself. That journey of going through first the cancer thing, then the divorce, and trying to put my life back together without music, the world was pulling me back and telling me it wanted me to be a songwriter. It took me a long time to feel that this was the right path.
Did those hardships shape the themes and mood of the new album?
DL: All of that went into this record. The one thing about this album and what makes it stand on its own to me, is that it was the first time I didn’t walk into the studio and have comps for people. I came to Nashville and tried to learn to write a song the way Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Jason Isbell write songs. With this record, I didn’t walk in saying I want this to sound like “Speed Trap Town.” There was a freedom in doing something that was solely coming from me and trusting the band to help figure out what it was going to be. All of those things have led to a freedom in my songwriting and a freedom to be able to enjoy the recording process in a different way.
There is a lot of hope and humor in these songs. They feel lived in and are really honest and open about showing the good and bad sides of the same coin. How important is transparency when writing lyrics?
DL: A big part of this personal journey I’ve gone through and where I’ve come from, is that I had to think very seriously about the consequences of the choices I’ve made in my life as an evangelical. What that first brought with it was this feeling of wanting to be “authentic” or “real” – those buzzwords we use for writing. I was very serious about it at first. I wanted to be brutally honest at all times. Through the period where I started observing guys like Petty, Springsteen, Isbell, and [David] Ramirez, there’s obviously this notion of complete authenticity, but there’s also the idea that you want to deliver things in a way that doesn’t knock people’s heads off every time. We fall in love with this idea of truth and honesty or being authentic, but the reality is who we are and the experiences we have change depending on how close we are to them in time. On this record, there was that feeling of ‘I’m going to be truthful but I’m also going to craft a story in each song that can change with time.’
This album illuminates the notion that it’s okay not to be okay. How does one arrive at that feeling of acceptance and having faith that tough times won’t last forever?
DL: I was lucky to find some good counselors who really helped me but also pushed me toward the idea that the thing that’s going to breed this idea of acceptance or peace, is changing your internal voice. I’m still on this journey. It’s an ebb and flow thing. Coming to grips with a couple things about life and that it’s going to have challenging times and peaceful times and seasons come and go is a big component of acceptance. Reminding yourself of the reality of what it means to be a human. Grounding yourself in that idea that the best things you’re going to do are going to come where, on some level, you’re accepting and loving yourself. The journey is exclusive to each person but it definitely starts with beginning to allow yourself to do what it is what you think you want and then forgiving yourself when you think you’ve messed up. That starts this really great internal conversation.
Images by Rachel Hurley and DL Rossi. DL Rossi’s new album ‘Lonesome Kind’ is out everywhere this Friday.