Text & Interview: Jillian Billard
Photo: Kat Slootsky
I meet Caleb Eberhardt at his apartment in Brooklyn. It’s snowing heavily outside and the streets are empty, which feels fitting for our meeting. He and his roommates have just finished a big breakfast, and are luxuriating in the respite of inclement weather. (Caleb is also an actor, and his audition scheduled for that morning had been cancelled). He leads me into his studio where we sit and talk about his debut solo record as Rosehardt, Songs in the Key of Solitude, set to release April 6. There are a number of keyboards, an array of recording equipment, and shelves of books scattered about the room. I ask if he’s excited or anxious for the record to come out, and he laughs, saying “let’s just say it’s a jacket I’m ready to take off.”
It’s a response that describes so succinctly the feeling of this record. As though shedding a second skin, the artist, “newly christened as Rosehardt” opens himself up to us, bravely and earnestly exposing a deep vulnerability from which he emerges anew and unattached to former burdens. Each track stands alone as its own entity, not just in terms of style but in energy; and together they create a poetic narrative that feels at once calculated and inquisitive. As listeners, we witness the artist working something out for himself through writing; trying desperately to conjure an expression that is genuine and real. In “Bad Song,” Rosehardt expresses feelings of hopelessness, and at the peak of the track he cuts to silence, his voice re-emerging after some time with a low-sung mantra “just write a song, write a song, write a song.” There are multiple moments like this, in which we are witness to the process as art in itself. The album’s progression appears as an arc of emotional processing in real time, and has an immediacy that can only be attributed to the artist’s valiant efforts to write what is real and true to his experience.
Going solo is a new endeavor for Caleb, who is one of the founding vocalists of underground hip hop group Quincy Vidal (adding yet another layer to the title Songs in the Key of Solitude). He speaks with ease about his process; his background; and the experiences that led him to write this record; and with each of his answers, I discover a new facet of the record, which continues to unfurl for me with every listen.
A first listen to the full LP Songs in the Key of Solitude is now available to stream below.
I’m always interested to learn about people’s origin and early life, and how they first became interested in their creative field. Do you want to talk a bit about your life growing up?
I’m from San Francisco. Both of my parents were preachers when I was growing up. My dad was a pastor at a church in San Francisco, so as far as music goes, that’s really where I got my start. My mom was a dance professor as well, so I was immersed in the arts from a young age. I got the acting bug really early on.
For high school I went to a boarding school in Southern California called Idyllwild Arts Academy, and that’s where I really started acting seriously. After I graduated I went to SUNY Purchase to continue studying theater, which is how I ended up in New York City. I graduated four years ago, and after that I did a lot of shit with Quincy Vidal, a hip-hop group I started with my friend in college. Right now we’re both doing our own thing and exploring our own solo music, so this record is really my first big foray into making my own stuff. It’s so exciting to see it grow; a lot of that is thanks to Gabe, because he’s just a really good manager.
I first went to a recording studio in eighth grade and was like “this is fun, I want to do this.” I wrote music before that, like I would screw around on the piano and write silly songs here and there, but I really became interested in making music after learning about the recording process.
Was your early music the same type of music that you’re making now?
When I first started making music it was all hip hop. I could sing––I wasn’t the best singer and had a lot of growing to do––but ultimately I really wanted to rap. I got into rap in 2003-2004, when I was like 13 or 14, and I was listening to a lot of 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Eminem. When I got to high school I got really into Trevor Hall, a reggae folk guitarist. We went to the same school––he was a senior when I was a freshman. I really liked his music, and it inspired me to learn to play the guitar. I started writing a lot of folk songs, and was listening to a lot of Ben Harper and Bon Iver, all of that hippie dippie shit (laughs). I started writing that kind of music all while doing some hip hop here and there. When I got to college and met Le’Asha (the other half of Quincy Vidal), it became all about hip hop. The music I’m making now sort of just came together organically––there was never a specific moment where I was like “I’m making this type of music now.” I was starting to listen to more and more styles of music and wanted to try everything. I’m always influenced by whatever’s going on around me, and wanted to make music that was inspired by all of these different sounds I was hearing.
Listening to the record from start to finish, it’s clear that you are inspired by a number of disparate styles, and yet they bleed into each other so seamlessly, likely because of the strong narrative thread throughout. Is narrative a primary consideration in creating your work?
Hell yeah. All of the albums that I’ve worked on, even Quincy Vidal stuff, I’ve always been obsessed with there being some sort of through-line that you can follow. I just like that. I think that every album should be a concept album. I mean, why not? But yes, this LP is definitely a narrative that is fairly true to the last two and a half years of my life.
When I started writing this record I had just broken up with a girlfriend that I had dated for a while, and these songs came together as I was going on that journey. And like you said, it has a lot of different modalities. You can’t really pigeonhole this record. I love that there’s a song that sounds like something that Bon Iver could have written, and then right after it is a Wu-Tang inspired song.
There’s also a strong monologue throughout, which I’d imagine is informed by your sensibilities as an actor. Are you influenced by literature, particularly plays and poetry?
Yeah for sure. I just love to tell stories and I think I’ve learned to do that fairly well because of my acting. I just think it’s important to be clear and tell a story that people might be interested in.
So you mentioned that you began writing this record after a breakup. Did it come together in a linear fashion, as you were experiencing these various stages of emotional processing? Namely did you write the songs while you were experiencing these things, or did you go back afterwards and address them out in retrospect?
Yes and no. The only reason I say no is because there’s one song on the album that I wrote before I even started dating this girl, but it ended up fitting in. The song is “Come Away Death” this guitar piece. It’s the one that sounds like a Bon Iver song. I wrote that in college, while acting in Twelfth Night. I played the Fool. I got to write the music for the whole play, and that was the melody I wrote. So that was written way before I started working on this record. I went back and forth on including it, but ultimately I I wanted it to be on here.
I was going through a difficult time last summer, and the song came back to me and resonated in this new way. At first I had wanted to make it really beautiful and John Legend-y, but then I re-evaluated and decided to make it about how I felt right then, which was super dissonant and detached and scratchy. I played the new version for Gabe and he was like “yes, this is what the record was missing.” The rest of the record I did write as I was going through this emotional journey.
How did you meet Gabe and when did you start working together?
We met at SUNY Purchase. He was a freshman when I was a sophomore. He only stayed for a semester, because he already knew what he wanted to do. So he left school and started a fucking production company. He was a big supporter of Quincy Vidal early on and did a lot of music videos for us. I’m really glad that he’s my manager.
The music I'm making now sort of just came together organically––there was never a specific moment where I was like I'm making this type of music now.
Can you talk a bit about your experience of writing, in this moment when you were suddenly forced to wrestle with solitude?
So I wrote the first song in winter 2015, like a week after me and this girl broke up. Because I had been in a relationship for so long, I decided that I wanted to learn to be able to be happy by myself. I think what kept me, and what keeps a lot of people weird about relationships is they feel dependent on a person. After we broke up I realized I didn’t like being by myself. Maybe it was not what I needed and couldn’t see it at the time, but I basically isolated myself and just wrote. I’m still working on learning to like being by myself.
Do you think that the writing has been cathartic or healing?
Writing is always cathartic. There are some moments where I can think of the actual writing of the music helped, but mostly it was the finishing of each track and having it come together that was healing.
The title Songs in the Key of Solitude is a nod to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” I’m interested to hear your thoughts on choosing this song and how your work incites a dialogue with Wonder’s.
When I first started writing this music, and started seeing a theme taking place, I had originally thought of the title “Songs in the Key of Death.” Then I thought that might be too harsh, and I didn’t want people to think that this was intended as the antithesis to what Stevie did. Then I thought of “Songs in the Key of Loneliness,” but then I had to figure out for myself what the difference between loneliness and solitude was, and during that thought process I was like, “well, the alliteration is better if I go with solitude” (laughs), and it just felt more accurate in terms of what I was going through. As far as its relation to Stevie, it’s more of a title nod to his work. Musically, I wouldn’t tell people to expect anything like what that record is. It’s more of just that theme, “Songs in the Key of (a sentiment).” I mean obviously I’m a huge fucking fan of Stevie Wonder but this album isn’t really anything like his music.
Sitting in your studio right now, I’m curious to learn about how a song comes together for you, specifically in terms of the relationship between the lyrics and the music. Could you talk a bit about your practice of writing a song?
The music almost always comes first. I can think of a few instances where the lyrics came first, but mostly I will sit and make a beat and depending on how I feel about it, I’ll expound upon it. Most of the time I’ll sit down and make something and then I’ll write lyrics to that. In the rare times that I write lyrics first, I usually go back and adapt to a melody I’d made already that didn’t have lyrics yet.
Does most of your writing and recording take place in this room, or does it happen all over the place?
I wish it was more all over the place. I actually moved to this apartment halfway through making the record, so I actually made the first 2/3 of the album at my old apartment. I refined it a lot here. But yeah, most of my writing takes place in the studio. I wish it didn’t sometimes, because sometimes I feel like I’ve developed a Pavlovian response to being in here; to the negative aspects of it. Sometimes I’ll come in here wanting to make something and it’s just not hitting that day, and then I get stuck surfing the internet. Sometimes I walk in here and feel this weight or this dread, and I hate that I feel like that in here. Hopefully soon I will just start using this place for demos, and then going to actual recording studios to make the actual cuts. That would be fun. I do well with what I have in here though, I think I’ve recorded some good stuff in here.
So you record all of your stuff yourself?
The whole thing was recorded in here and in my other apartment. Then it was mixed by someone who’s a lot better at it than I am––Rachel Alina––she’s amazing.
How long have you been doing your own recording? Are you self-taught? What program do you use?
In eighth grade I started learning how to make beats on Reason, and how to record on ProTools. When I was growing up I had a bootleg version of Reason and made most of my shit on there. I still make most of my stuff on Reason because I’m the most used to it. It’s not the best, but I make it work. I’m also not the best mixing engineer, I just kind of turn knobs until it sounds right and then someone says “what did you turn that knob for?”
That’s why i just want to start doing demos in here, because I know I’m not doing the songs justice. I think it’ll happen soon. All of the Quincy Vidal stuff is home-recorded as well, except for the first one because we were still at school and had access to recording equipment.
What was it like shifting from performing with Quincy Vidal towards performing solo?
I’ve been performing solo since 2016, and it’s something that I’m still working on sanding down. I think I put on a good show and that people enjoy it, but I’m really hard on myself. When I’m up there I have to make sure that I’m having a good time, even though there are kinks that piss me off. I have to remember that they’re not going to be as scrutinizing as I am. Right now I’m still just working on being content with my own work. I want to add other elements and other people. But my brain sometimes chews itself up and I don’t know how to compartmentalize. Come on Everybody is home court for me. I can always workshop there and feel no pressure there. It’s all love whenever I go there.
I’m going to ask the dreaded question that most musicians really hate but I’m curious to know: where did your name come from?
It’s actually kind of a trip. I’ll give you the short version. So my last name is Eberhardt, obviously from my dad. My mom’s first husband, with whom she had a boy had the last name Rose. When my mom got married to my dad she already had a kid and my dad had a few kids. Professionally, my mom went by Dr. Rose, and at church and in social contexts she went by Eberhardt. Then she started hyphenating it, so now her name is Alberta Rose-Eberhardt. Around 1990, she came up with the name Rosehardt, as a way to combine the two. It was her email for a while and as I started growing up I started hearing it more and more. It was just always right there. When I created my own publishing thing on ASCAP, I just called it Rosehardt Publishing. Gabe saw that and was like “that’s a really cool name.” At that point I had been going by C.E., and one time when I was performing at Williamsburg Music Hall underneath Gabe Garzón-Montano’s and I was like “that’s terrible, if I didn’t know what to look for I’d think they just forgot to take some letters down.” So I decided to change my name to Rosehardt. It felt right and allows me to pay homage to my family. It has history for me, and the symbolism is dope, you’ve got a rose emoji, you’ve got a heart emoji.
Do you think of Rosehardt as an alter-ego, or another facet of yourself?
For a while I would go on stage and feel as though I have to put something on in order for me to feel confident about it. Early on I would wear the same outfit at every show, which was blue shirt and blue pants, these really nice shoes and a maroon skully. I was thinking about it as a brand and wanted people to associate this outfit with my music. After a while and through the name change, I started wearing my rose pocket tee and I felt like I had to get the brand going because that’s all people talk about nowadays, but then one night I had a show where I just decided to wear whatever the fuck I wanted. I decided that I wasn’t going to care if I look okay, and that I would perform my songs the way I felt like performing them. I was like “I’m not gonna beat myself up about it and I’m gonna sound good doing it.” I wasn’t worried about whether I was going to sound good, I just knew that I was going to sound good doing it. Nobody ever forced me to go up there looking any kind of way, but I had this idea in my head that this is what I was supposed to do in order for people to be engaged. Then I realized that I was the one who needed to be engaged before anybody else. So at this show I went up on stage and sat down, I was like I didn’t even want to stand up, and that was probably the best show I’ve had to date. It just felt good. I don’t want to dread doing live shows. It was like people were seeing Rosehardt, but they were really seeing Caleb, which is in turn Rosehardt. Sometimes I feel like I have to live up to this persona, when all I really have to do is what makes me comfortable.
What is the role of faith on this record, not just in terms of faith in something exterior but in finding faith within yourself?
When I started the record I was beginning to step away from what I had known my whole life, and a step towards where I am now. I reference the God that I grew up understanding and knowing, and allude to what I think that is now.
Sometimes I feel like I have to live up to this persona, when all I really have to do is what makes me comfortable
Songs in the Key of Solitude comes out April 6.