Songwriter Roche Returns to Serenade Students at Cat
Oberlin students do not need to be told that they are following in the steps of many famous alumni. That much is evident. But perhaps the campus is not so well-versed in its rising stars. Singer/songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche, OC ’03, is one such graduate. After opening for Dar Williams Sept. 8, Roche will be returning to campus next Wednesday, Sept. 26, for a show of her own at the Cat in the Cream.
Recently, Roche has begun to tour, both on her own and with others such as Williams and her half-brother, Rufus Wainwright. Such tours have been something Roche has struggled against, not wanting to follow the family trend of musicians as daughter to Loudon Wainwright and Suzzy Roche, both songwriters in their own right.
“I think that family is our greatest gift,” said Roche in an interview with the Review, emphasizing her close ties to her family despite her struggle not to follow so directly in their footsteps. As a child, she used to tour with her mother in the summers, riding in the tour van with her extended family and a cute crush-worthy sound guy. She’s used to the mobile life despite her initial instincts to settle down.
“I always went to family band camp,” she said. “I think it was sort of weird, but I loved it.”
When she first arrived in Oberlin, Roche was considering a psychology major; however, she followed a friend into an entry-level creative writing class, and was hooked. But Roche said that while her time at Oberlin was spent writing, it was not usually spent writing songs.
“She showed a lot of compassion and empathy for her characters — the warmth in her stories is similar to the warmth in her songs,” said Creative Writing Professor Dan Chaon, Roche’s former advisor.
She did, however, enter a freshman talent show upon her arrival on campus. She played a little more freshman year, but stopped as she got more into the rhythm of Oberlin life.
“Lucy didn’t seem to enjoy performing very much as a student, though it was clear that she had amazing talent and a beautiful voice,” said Tom Reid, who worked with Lucy at the Cat. “I walked into the Cat one afternoon and stumbled upon Roche and another student singing a Beatles song together. Lucy’s harmony in that moment was some of the sweetest singing I’ve ever heard.”
Roche was an active member of the Oberlin community.
“She is self-deprecating and a little shy but once you get to know her she’s incredibly funny, and she tells amazing anecdotes,” said Chaon. “That’s one of the things that you probably wouldn’t guess from listening to her music: She’s hilarious.”
She worked at the Cat in the Cream and joined the Folk Music Club and the Concert Board, but she herself drifted away from performance after that first year.
“We had an easy time getting a lot of good folk performers in those days, because everyone seemed to know and love Lucy,” said Reid.
Roche also spent a lot of time exploring the region, leaving the Oberlin bubble to learn about her immediate surroundings.
“I have a total love for Ohio,” she said.
Having grown up in Greenwich Village in New York City, Roche had never even shopped at a Wal-Mart before she came to Oberlin. In fact, her first time at a Dairy Queen successfully supplied her with a rather idyllic view of small-town Ohio life.
“The sheriff came in with a lost kitten and gave it to someone in the Dairy Queen,” she said.
Roche’s desire to learn about her neighbors and be a part of the greater community of Oberlin comes through in the intimacy of her writing: “One of the things that impressed me was that she could write about a wide variety of people and experiences — from an airport worker de-icing a plane to a depressed assistant on a Hollywood film set.”
But after graduation, Roche earned a masters degree in education and later began to teach in a private school in NYC.
“In the process of leaving school, people often buckle down their lives to something that feels manageable,” said Roche, offering an explanation for her decision to pursue her degree in education. “There are things about a normal life that seem cool.”
But after a tour with her brother, Roche realized that she needed to give performing a shot. She has since begun to tour on her own. While Roche is not completely certain that songwriting is going to be her long-term career, she believes that she needs to try it in order to know whether or not she was actually satisfied working as a teacher.
“I don’t want to be a teacher who is in the classroom and wants to be somewhere else,” she said. “I’m starting to live with the confusion. The really big jump was getting up by myself [onstage].”
Roche plays a simple folk-style set in her tours, containing the music to just herself and her acoustic guitar.
“I’m glad that she’s feeling more willing to share her own beautiful voice with us these days,” said Reid.
She doesn’t wish to complicate her simple songs with more complex instrumentations, although she does believe that “some people manage to do that artfully,” and she would perhaps explore this option on future recordings.
Roche is already a rather experienced lyricist from her days as a writing major.
“If she ever decides that her singing career is not working out, I hope she’ll go back to working on those remarkable short stories, because she has a lot of talent as a fiction writer,” said Chaon.