ROSIE THOMAS with Damien Jurado at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (November 14). $8. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
the coolest thing about rosie Thomas is how uncool she is. All sweet, lilting melodies, simple guitar strumming (with a string section here and there) and wide-eyed lyrics about love, family and faith, the songs on the Detroit-bred singer/songwriter's recent Only With Laughter Can You Win (Sub Pop) disc can be hard for your average hipster to stomach.
Maybe I should rephrase that. Hard for your average North American hipster to stomach. While irony-loving trend rags like Entertainment Weekly and Time Out NY warmed to the gentleness of When We Were Small, Thomas's 2002 debut, these days audiences on this side of the pond seem only to want to bitch-slap the sincere smile off her face.
Meanwhile, muses Thomas, she's never been bigger in Europe.
"There's never a problem there," she states. "Maybe European audiences are more in tune with themselves, or they've got a different appreciation as opposed to a lot of Americans, who'll say, 'That's not cool. We don't want to listen to that shit.'
"But what do they want to listen to? Britney Spears? That shit's not cool either. Hit Me Baby One More Time? I can fuckin' write 20 of those songs a day."
She tries to ignore the haters and flash-in-the-pan trends in favour of making the only kind of music she can - simple and so bluntly emotional it sometimes makes you cringe.
Although pals like her tourmate and headliner at Friday night's El Mo show Damien Jurado win indie rock raves by spinning their old-timey tunes into anachronistic pastiches (Jurado's 2003 Where Shall You Take Me?, on Secretly, is a stunning Appalachian-tinged gem that sounds like a historical document), Thomas refuses to mask her flatly autobiographical indie folk with a clever gimmick.
This causes problems when the unabashedly spiritual singer grapples with her own faith. In a contemporary context of secular PC anxiety, it's only cool to give props to Jesus when you're imitating Civil War-era gospel tunes.
So Thomas discovered when she referenced the big JC in her recent Tell Me How.
"One guy told me once he heard the word 'Christ' in it he decided it wasn't even worth listening to. But all I'm doing in that song is taking stock of everything I'm afraid of. I remember going to Sunday school and the teacher saying, 'If you don't accept Jesus, you're gonna go to hell.' How am I to tell people that if they don't follow that, heaven doesn't hold a place for them, when I'm no better? Tell Me How is admitting I don't get it, working through that struggle with my faith.
"But these people just jump to conclusions. They think I'm proselytizing! But I never in my life want to go to someone and say, 'Hey, man. Just so you know, if you don't accept the things I believe, then too bad for you! You're gonna die, in hell!' That shit is so completely far from anything I'd believe or say to someone."
To balance the intense emotional catharsis of her tunes, she spins a secondary, more comic, performance persona that draws from her theatre school background.
Dorky alter-ego Sheila is a hapless pizza delivery woman with a neck brace and a penchant for really, really bad 80s tunes who makes regular appearances during Thomas's sets. The singer-comedian traces the character's birth to her fourth-grade Halloween costume - she was a buck-toothed, bespectacled nerd - but says it goes deeper than that.
"There are all these great people who, despite their appearance, despite their tragedy, don't realize just how bad they have it. That's what I love about Sheila - she really thinks she's cool, she thinks she fits in, when she really doesn't."
Of course, with the current 80s revival, Sheila's suddenly hipper than Thomas ever anticipated.
"I walked into Urban Outfitters the other day and they were playing totally bad 80s music. Sheila's been talking about that stuff, like Vanilla Ice, for years. But now that it's come full circle, maybe she'll have to pick a new era."