Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Haroula Rose

Haroula Rose at Cafe Mimosa in Topanga Canyon



At Cafe Mimosa

309 S. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga Canyon

It's a gloriously sunny and clear morning, ideal for driving along the coast, and as I make the trek from Silver Lake to Topanga Canyon to meet up with singer-songwriter and filmmaker Haroula Rose at one of her favorite spots in Los Angeles, her latest effort, last summer's So Easy EP, serves as the soundtrack for my drive. When I turn off PCH and head into the rustic hills of Topanga, a line from one particular track, "Slow Dancing," sticks out from the rest: "My dreams, they still haunt me, like those sounds of the canyon." The lyric stays with me the rest of my trip, and I can't wait to ask the artist about its inspiration.

Once we find each other inside of Cafe Mimosa, a small, French-themed café and coffee shop, the tables are already full of customers who are reading or busy working on their laptops, so we decide to take a seat at an outdoor table beneath a canopy of tree branches. I don't blame those inside for staking claim to all the tables; it really is the perfect reading and writing nook. Haroula admits to spending lots of time doing just that when she lived just a mile away from Cafe Mimosa.

"It feels like you're in someone's house when you're here," she says, enjoying her usual order: a cup of coffee and bagel.

Even though she's moved inland to Koreatown/Mid-Wilshire, she still comes out to Topanga and Cafe Mimosa from time to time. I take a sip of a delicious strawberry-banana smoothie and ask her about that line from "Slow Dancing."

"I was totally talking about Topanga," she answers with a smile. "The house where I lived, it felt like you were in the wild. There were all these animal noises, it felt like you were in a tree house. Some nights, you would hear coyotes attack an animal. It was terrifying; it sounded like a witches' dance of some kind, and once that animal stops crying out, you know that they've eaten it. It was disturbing. One time there was a mountain lion outside the window trying to attack a family of raccoons. That stuff would freak me out because I'm from Chicago. But now, I don't even hear crickets in Koreatown because of Wilshire Boulevard. I just pretend that the traffic is waves – until I hear sirens blaring."

Although she misses having her own outdoor space and the rustic environment of Topanga Canyon, she's having quite the experience living in an old building in the city.

"It's been an intense week; I thought my place was possessed. The guy who used to live in my apartment, we were talking on the phone, and he brought it up on his own: 'You know your place is haunted, right? There's someone that lives there, but he's not going to hurt you. It's not a malicious spirit, but it's definitely his turf.' It's a little crazy sometimes guests will show up when I'm not there, try to get in and can't even though the key works fine. They have to be let in by the building manager. Stuff like that is a little weird. Maybe there is something to it, I just have to respect it and not be scared of it. Some friends say, 'Well, this is when you should be writing the most songs,'" she laughs. "Last night I had a couple friends come over and we moved all of my furniture around to change the energy of the room, and it felt a lot better. I slept peacefully for the first time in a long time."

Haroula grew up in Chicago and spent a lot of time traveling around the world before settling in Los Angeles five years ago. Her parents immigrated to the states from Greece (Her last name is Spyropoulos.), and she's visited Greece many times. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a degree in English, she lived in Spain on a Fulbright grant, teaching English and drama in Madrid. 

"I traveled a ton when I was there because it was so easy, all you have to do is hop on a train or a boat. I went to the Middle East for a month, which was an unforgettable trip. In fact, I keep reading about everything happening in Syria and commiserate with my friend who I traveled there with. A lot of the places we went were some of the most gorgeous ruins we've ever seen because it's not a touristy place, it's very untarnished. Sometimes you would show up and be the only ones at certain sites. You would see a little boy shepherd with his sheep walk across and feel like you're in another place and time. A lot of that stuff is destroyed, which is heartbreaking. Trips like that, you have to go when you can because you never know if you'll be able to see it again."

She has also traveled to Italy, Morocco, Scandinavia, Prague and attended a writing retreat in England. During her travels she began cultivating a love for photography and being able to capture all of the great landscapes and memories on film. All of this globe-trotting enables her to be very specific when focusing on why Los Angeles ended up being her new home base.

"I feel like this is a little microcosm here, with people from all over the world. I could use some more public transportation, but overall it's nice to come here to Topanga Canyon within half an hour and take a hike if you want or go Downtown and feel like you're in a real city," she shares. "I love that L.A. has everything you want, you just have to find it, which is the fun part. You have music and films from everywhere and people are generally more relaxed and open. All of these great musical acts travel through here. I just took a friend to the Disney Concert Hall to see the Kodo drummers. When she walked out, her mouth was dropped to the ground and she said, 'I've never seen anything like that.' It almost feels like they're from another planet. They don't even flinch, blink or smile the whole time, until the end. They do this one thing where they do these tiny, percussive hits that grow into the sound of the rain. You close your eyes, and it really sounds like rain."

Usually Haroula goes to shows at Bootleg Theater or Hotel Café. She says that the best shows she's seen in L.A. have been at the El Rey or Largo. Love for music is something that she definitely inherited from her parents.

"They both love music. My mom has a really pretty voice, and my dad remembers lyrics from his childhood. My mom had a Greek radio, so we would be listening to it 24/7. They came here so young and didn't even really speak English, so I think that music was a way to stay connected to [Greece] when they couldn't necessarily go back all the time," she reflects. "I would hear all kinds of stuff growing up; they had so many amazing records. I have an older brother and sister, and they were both big music fans, too."

The music Haroula heard whenever her family attended services at their Greek Orthodox church also impacted her musical upbringing. During high school that she began to explore her own niche of music, including artists such as Cat Stevens and the Byrds, and piqued her interest in learning how to play the guitar. She also loved performing in plays and musical theater, and spent a lot her time reading.

"I always was a reader. I don't play sports. I wanted to read and put on plays with friends, act or be in a musical," she recalls. "I loved and still love Roald Dahl and his stories. My favorite book was Danny, the Champion of the World. I also loved The BFG about a giant who comes and gives you dreams at night. He sucks away the nightmares and puts them in a bag. I had an active imagination and thought all of that stuff could totally be real. We weren't really censored as kids, we could watch whatever we wanted, and I remembering seeing Romeo and Juliet as a kid and thinking that I didn't know you could feel that from seeing something. All of that made me want to read more, to read the actual play."

Haroula is still an avid reader who favors novels by Ernest Hemingway, poems by Leonard Cohen and e.e. cummings, plays by Tennessee Williams, Sarah Ruhl ("The Clean House" in particular) and Anton Chekhov. She specifically quotes the opening lines of Chekhov's "The Seagull" when I ask her about her favorites: Medvedenko asks, "Why is it you always wear black," and Masha replies, "I'm in mourning for my life." She has a great story about her current literary obsession, a book she pulls from her purse to show me and recommend that I read soon.

"I did a show in Minnesota in December, which was a dream come true. I've loved Mason Jennings for the longest time. I think he has an incredible voice that just keeps getting better, and his songwriting is awesome. I cover one of his songs ["Duluth" on her debut album, These Open Roads], and I got to sing it with him in his home town," she tells. "I also got to check out all these frozen lakes, and there's a bookstore [Birchbark Books] in Minneapolis owned by this author, Louise Erdrich. Mason and his wife, who is also a writer, told me to check her and the bookstore out. I had been reading a lot of Native American mythology and folklore and wanting to learn more about the land where we live, and there was this book in the store that covered everything I wanted to know. I don't think I would have found it anywhere else. I bought Louise Erdrich's book, The Master Butchers SInging Club. It is so good that I don't want to finish reading it, and now I want to read every book that she's ever written. She's created this whole universe, where every detail feels so real and helps you get to know this character that feels like a real person."

Her favorite bookstore is actually the Seminary Co-op in Chicago, but as far as L.A. shops, she likes Book Soup and Skylight. For restaurants, she frequents Girasole and Café Gratitude in Larchmont Village, the Park in Echo Park for the roast chicken with fries and her favorite is Little Dom's in Los Feliz.

"My dad's a chef and my mom's an amazing cook, so I love to cook," she admits. "I get obsessed with one thing and make it all different kinds of ways. I love making a simple roast chicken with vegetables and potatoes, and I'll do it with different sauces – mustard, garlic. I also go to this butcher in Los Feliz [McCall's Meat & Fish Co.] and get some short ribs or brisket and make it in different ways. I like to make my own salad dressings and try all kinds of different salads, too."

Dreaming up new recipes is just another outlet for Haroula's innate creativity. She really has always had an active imagination, and luckily found a way to channel her ideas into stories from a young age.

"When you're a kid, you have English classes in school where they give you whatever parameters and tell you to share about your vacation. Sometimes I would elaborate on things. One time we were caught in a storm on a boat, which was pretty scary, but I remember writing a story about it that was even more elaborate than what had really happened," she remembers. "I had a surgery because my appendix burst and was in the hospital for eight days. A friend of my dad's brought me some Calvin and Hobbes comic books, and those ended up being a seminal work for me. Even now when I don't feel well, it makes me feel better to read them. He also gave me a blank notebook, some pens and crayons, so I started writing a story about my operation, how serious it all was. I remember sitting there, sad and bored, making stuff up."

Movies were also a big part of Haroula's life growing up, and it was through film that she eventually realized she wanted to become involved in some aspect of entertainment.

"I loved that version of Romeo and Juliet from 1968 – how it looked and how real it felt, the music in it. I remember seeing Days of Heaven when I was in high school and thinking that it was like poetry, but visual. I didn't know you could do film or music for real, that they weren't just hobbies, because everyone I knew was more practical. You could love theater and singing but they were for fun; you had to make sure you had a 'grown-up' gig. So in college I was an English major, and  you watch a lot of films in classes and write a lot – that ended up helping in the long run. I fell into a job at a music house after college, a recording studio in Chicago and that was totally unplanned. Someone heard me sing and asked me to sing in a commercial then asked me to work at the studio. I had taken my GRE and was going to go to grad school and teach abroad. I don't think I would have pursued music or film if I hadn't had that moment happen. It changed everything."

She encountered many musicians, composers, engineers and directors during her time at the recording studio and working at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. She realized that she loved the entire process of writing, casting and producing plays and films.

"All these filmmakers were like, 'If you like that stuff, why don't you think about film school? Being a filmmaker ties in all of these things you love; you should look into it,'" she recalls. "If I was going to do that, I realized that I should go to L.A. Someone introduced me to a producer who owned a big company in Los Angeles who said he would hire me if I moved, and that's when I came here."

She enrolled in USC's MFA film program, but only stayed there for two semesters.

"I think if I had I gone sooner I would have stuck around, but since I had already shot stuff on my own – in Spain I did a little movie with my students, and I shot footage on this pilgrimage with my friend and her dad who was this really amazing cinematographer – learning by doing it, I didn't feel like I wanted to be in school for three more years. I rather just be working and creating instead of paying so much money to go to school. So I saved all that money and am trying to do it my own way."

Besides releasing 2009's Someday EP, These Open Roads in 2011 and So Easy in the summer of last year, Haroula has continued to pursue a film career working on a few projects with friends she met in film school. One is a short called "No Love Song" that she wrote all the music for, stars in and co-wrote the screenplay for with Evan Endicott.

"It's about a couple who were together and break up. They were in a band together, too, and they have to write one last song together. Rosanna Arquette is in it, which is cool. She plays our manager and did an amazing job. It was fun seeing a pro act out the words we wrote," Haroula shares.

Haroula just attended the Sundance Film Festival for another project, a film called Fruitvale, about a 2009 shooting in Oakland, Calif. The film, starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Chad Michael Murray, and Octavia Spencer and produced by Forest Whitaker, was written and directed by Haroula's former classmate Ryan Coogler. Fruitvale was purchased by Harvey Weinstein for distribution and won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the festival.

"That was a totally surreal experience. On my very first day at USC, I met Ryan, and he's someone that you just know that people will write about one day. He's an amazing person and awesome talent. It was a real privilege to work on his first big movie. I [produced and] music supervised, which was a totally different experience with all of the contracts and logistics of what fits where. Luckily he had some very specific ideas of what he wanted because, what do I know about the Oakland hip-hop world of 2008," she laughs. "It's very exciting because it's an important movie in terms of what's going on politically and socially right now, so it's cool to think that a lot of people will get to see it, even in other countries."

The blending of Haroula cultural heritage with her American identity is a notion that she is attempting to explore in her next full-length album. She intends to tie together the feeling and instruments of those old Greek songs her family would listen to during her childhood with elements of folk and bluegrass.

"Greece is an east-meets-west kind of place, so you have regular rock, acoustic and Spanish guitars, but they also have the bouzouki, the oud and all of these instruments that have a bigger, barrel-y sound with a high stringed, almost like what I think of as a bell, an awake kind of sound that's super happy. Then, when you play it over sad, more somber songs, it sounds amazing too. They use clarinets and oboes in a way that's really interesting as well," she says. "I'm trying to figure out a way to work all of that in, a combination of all those things. We'll see how it turns out."

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