Within five minutes of sitting down at Pavement, it’s easy to tell that this coffeehouse is much different than Pamplona, Peet’s, or any other place in Harvard Square. While you might hear conversations about calculus or organic chemistry on the Northern side of the Charles, everything at Pavement centers around music. Only here, at the heart of the Berklee College of Music campus, will you find students singing lines from classical pieces in order to prove a point, arguing over guitar techniques, and expertly weaving through tables while wielding giant cello cases. It’s no wonder that R&B singer/rapper Shea Rose chose this location to be interviewed: it’s clear that here, musicians are in their element.
I had a lot of preconceptions of what Shea Rose would be like in real life before meeting her this past week. For instance, her website features a prominent naked photo of herself scowling at the camera with feathers attached to her head, so I imagined Rose having a confrontational attitude, and honestly was a little intimidated. How do you appropriately interview someone who Queen Latifah called “America’s next female rapper” without making a fool of yourself? However, when Rose sat down, my anxieties immediately dissolved. She was nothing like the bold character on her website; rather, Rose was warm, down-to-earth, and eager to share her thoughts on her music and past experiences.
Rose spent her childhood both in the urban Dorchester and the suburbs of Braintree, and her musical influences reflect this contrast. The Berklee ’11 graduate is inspired by Lauryn Hill and Tina Turner but also cites Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan as role models. Eventually, Rose says that “all that mess in my head was embraced” when she came to Berklee. Like Pavement Coffeehouse, Berklee allows musicians of all different backgrounds to be exposed to a wide array of music. However, Rose is primarily driven by R&B. When asked about the first album that truly inspired her, Rose answers almost instantaneously with Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book.” “He is just—free,” she gushes.
Hoping to achieve the freedom that she so admires, Rose approaches her craft with a determined purpose. “I don’t like being told what to do,” she states simply. This mindset is exemplified by her recent mixtape, “Little Warrior.” Recorded in her friends’ bedroom, “Little Warrior” gave Rose the opportunity to experiment with different genres of music on her own terms. In this makeshift studio, she was able to pursue themes most important and relevant to her: female empowerment and independence. She recalls an instance when a Berklee professor told her that people weren’t going to accept a black woman doing rock music, but later shattered the stereotype when her music appeared on a Boston rock radio station. In the studio, she hopes to further dismantle barriers. “I want to project myself as a strong woman,” she says.
While it’s clear that Rose is ambitious, she is also realistic. After revealing how she almost wanted to drop out of school after a subpar concert perforance in 2009, Rose credits “The Movement at Berklee,” a music for social change initiative as the key factor that gave her a renewed perspective on music. She wishes more people realized that there are many other career routes within the music industry besides aiming to be a superstar. “However,” she slyly concedes, in spite of her previous statements, “when you’re a performer and it burns in you, nothing can satisfy it.”
Still unable to accept her incredible leap in popularity, Rose blushes and speaks in a softer voice every time I ask her to talk about her successes during the past year and a half. When she was named R&B/Soul/Urban Contemporary Artist of the Year at the 2011 Boston Music Awards, Rose shares how it was “almost chilling that I was there but I don’t remember the night at all.”
The once “super, super shy” singer is equally wowed by the progress of the pop-duo Karmin, who were her peers at Berklee. After expressing her amazement of the group’s year-long meteoric rise to the top of the charts, Rose is unable to imagine herself in their shoes one year into the future. “If I’m on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ in a year...” she begins, but ultimately drops the thought and changes the subject.
There is something refreshing about the obvious contrast between the fierce personality Rose portrays on stage and the incredible humbleness she exuded in person. “You don’t know if things are going to work out, and it’s tormenting,” she says. “You just have to hope the next opportunity comes from the one you’re given at the moment.” After all, she is just a young adult working to achieve her dreams, just thousands of students on both sides of the Charles. The only difference is that Shea Rose is almost there.