If you watch a lot of interviews, you’ll notice that some musicians act the way that their music sounds. Jay-Z always sounds stately and contained; Future sounds croaky, mysterious, a little tired. Other artists are the opposite. When I sit down with Chicago noir-R&B singer Via Rosa, any preconceived ideas I have about her evaporate. She’s all smiles and warm looks, wearing a casual camo jacket still emblazoned with a sticker from a concert. “ZEDD 2015,” it says, advertising the EDM DJ presidential campaign-style. When I ask her about it, she says “Oh yeah, Na’el [Shehade, local house producer and Rosa’s collaborator on a new musical project Drama Duo] and I wanted to see the lights.” Her bubbly attitude and apparent willingness to go to a ravey EDM show aren’t exactly what you’d expect from someone who titled her 2014 project for THEMpeople DeathViaLove, and all of whose songs, by her own admission, are “hopeless love stories.”
That’s not to say Via Rosa’s music is too dark, inaccessible, or unfriendly—even her non-Drama Duo cuts, which don’t have the upbeat production that Shehade brings to the table, have a melodic energy to them, a pulse of romanticism that lasts past any heartbreak. And although much has been made about Via Rosa’s yearning voice, just as worth talking about is her pragmatic approach to production. New York boom-bap and downturned piano riffs tumble over each other unhurriedly, keeping everything from becoming too funereal while making sure you pay attention to the showstopper in charge. She layers on reverb and a “telephone effect” in her vocals, prioritizing sound over lyric except when she suddenly lands on one of her simple observations: “I love you but it’s not enough,” for example, or, “I need you to save me.” She’s full of these lines, and when she records, they tumble out like confessionals.
Via Rosa, though, isn’t carried away with her own talents.
“I’ve been told [by my supporters] that I’m gonna create a new form of gospel music, that isn’t talking about God or Jesus, it’s just going to be gospel music, and I’m just like, ‘Okay…’” She says this matter-of-factly. “I’m just really honest—honest love songs are my go-to, not by choice—it just happens,” she says. She doesn’t even really listen to gospel music. It just wasn’t how she was raised.
Her relationship with religion is unorthodox in general, but simple enough: “My parents sat me down and said, ‘This is what we believe, this is what the world believes, this is what some other people in the world believe. Let your imagination run wild.’” So while she feels closest with Buddhism, that faith takes a backseat to her personal ventures into spirituality. Via Rosa dabbles in, among other things, alternative medicines, herbs, and something she calls “manifestation.” On manifestation, Via Rosa says, “Well basically, it’s mostly that I don’t wake up thinking ‘Oh, I need to go make some money.’ What I do wake up thinking is ‘Oh, I need to get some food.’ And then I’ll find a way to make that happen.”
When her self-made spirituality isn’t carrying her forward, the other driving forces in Via Rosa’s life come from her friends and family. She moved to Chicago to spend time with her ailing grandmother, and also for other career-related reasons. The guidance of her parents influences much of what she thinks, even to this day. More influential than those family members, though, might be the artists and friends she’s met in Chicago, all of whom seem to know each other. “It’s great for recording,” Via Rosa says, “because you get in there and there’s already a vibe or a connection or whatever.” She talks about Chicago’s developing network of musicians in awed tones.
“It’s like, everybody’s doing something,” she says. “This is the place to be right now, it’s very inspirational.” More than anyone, Via Rosa would know: she’s great friends with Jean Deaux, who works with Mick Jenkins; she knows Dally Auston of Savemoney; she works with both THEMpeople and OnGaud Productions on a regular basis. When asked if this network of Chicago artists is a collective, a “scene,” or something different entirely, Via Rosa says “You know, I’d call it a family. ’Cause when you get in trouble, you know the family will all show up to help.”
So much the better for Via Rosa, as she’s been dealing with her own troubles over the past few months: the apartment building she and her mother inherited from her grandmother is in danger of being taken from them, either by squatters or by companies who want to purchase and remodel the space. She and her mother have their own plans to make the building into a healing center for women and families, and a safe space in her neighborhood, but various impediments, like renters who don’t want to pay and building code violations they’re only just discovering, have kept this project from becoming a reality. In order to get the taxes on the building paid on time, they have started a GoFundMe, simply titled “Save Via’s Home.”
Every once in a while Via Rosa bemoans the fact that all of this is necessary at all: “There’s no compassion from the government, you know?” she says. “Nothing about how ‘Oh, maybe you lost a family member, or your personal life got heavy.’ It’s just, ‘you better pay your taxes or you’re gonna lose your home.’”
The mix of realism and idealism so powerful in Via Rosa’s music pops up again when she talks about the government and the way it behaves toward its citizens. A fundraiser she organized recently, heavily attended by her friends and family, was titled “Death and Taxes”—“because that’s all that’s really guaranteed in this world, you know?” But when I ask her where she’ll get the money to run her planned healing center, she just laughs. “I hadn’t really thought of that! My attitude is always, if it’s meant to stay open, it’ll stay open,” she says. Then, she repeats, a little more strongly, “It’s gonna stay open because we’re gonna keep it open.”