The Rumpus Interview with Rose Melberg

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Throughout the ’90s, Rose Melberg was everywhere, releasing album after album as a member of Tiger Trap, Gaze, Go Sailor and The Softies. Following the 2000 release of The Softies’ indie pop classic, Holiday in Rhode Island, six years passed before Melberg released new material, her solo effort Cast Away the Clouds.
During a phone conversation from her home in Canada, Melberg discussed what she was doing between 2000 and 2006 (namely, raising a child), struggling against the instant success of Tiger Trap when she was just 20, and how she formed the gorgeous and difficult aesthetic of The Softies, who recently played reunion shows in Brooklyn and Portland as part of Chickfactor’s 20th Anniversary.

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The Rumpus: You’ve been quite prolific over your career. Was your first official band Tiger Trap?

Rose Melberg: Yes. That was my first band.

Rumpus:  How did that come together?

Melberg: Since I was a teenager, my best friend and I, Angela [Roy], who was in Tiger Trap, really all we wanted in the entire world was to be in a band. We had nothing to do at that time with even being musicians, it was just the idea of being in a band. We wanna just be in a band. That’s it. It was the coolest thing we could possibly think of. But, it took us until we were 19 or 20 to actually start playing our instruments in earnest and writing songs. It was just kind of this singular focus of this goal we’d had since high school.

When we started the band, really, I had never written a song. I wasn’t sitting around writing poetry my whole life—I never did that. We just needed something to play. We just started writing songs with what we knew and it kind of went from there. I knew the other girls from different avenues and we put it all together and we were playing shows pretty early on.

We raced through those first few songs with the goal in mind of just being in a band that plays shows. Plus, you’ve got these ideas when you’re young of what it means to be a successful human being and to me that was it. I collected records like crazy and went to every show I could go to and so that was my whole life and so the only thing I could possibly manage to be was that person with the guitar. That’s how it all started. That was my motivation in the beginning.

Rumpus: With all the different bands you’ve been in, has your role has been different depending on the line-up or have you done the same thing, as far as your function in the band?

Melberg: It’s always been similar. I’ve always been the principal songwriter, except in the band that I play drums with. And in all of the bands—I’m in a lot of bands now where I’m not the main person, which is awesome. But, yeah, for the first fifteen years or so. It was always pretty much the same. I would bring the song to the band and then the other people or person in the band would put their contribution on it. And we would kind of do that together.

I always completely trusted the other people in the band and they’d do whatever they wanted. We’d work together putting together parts, but it was always really easy. I always felt that I sort of started it. I would start the ball rolling: Here’s the song. You do your part now. I guess I have settled into that role in every band that I’ve been in where I was the songwriter.

But, I don’t hold too tightly to the songs. I come with this basic idea of what my part sounds like, but I don’t feel the need to control what everybody else does. I try to give everyone else a lot of freedom to do what they want to do. We work together writing parts, but I’ve never been collaborative about the actual writing of the actual song. I’ve never written lyrics with anyone. I’ve never arranged with anyone, anything like that.

Rumpus: Do you have a place you go to write lyrics or when it comes to you, do you just jot it down?

Melberg: One funny thing about is I never write anything down unless I have to share it with band members. It’s not my process. I hate that word, but I just keep everything in my brain. I feel like if I forget it the next day, then it wasn’t meant to be. So if I have a lyric that’s been running through my head for a couple of days at a time, then it’s going to stick. I’m always writing stuff in my head.

Often times, I just write in bed and at that point I write a lot of lyrics. Or when I ride my bicycle, or when I walk, or when I drive. It’s always been very organic, it just happens. I never try. I never sit down and think, “I’m going to write a song today.” It’s pretty informal. I just hate writing stuff down. I can’t stand looking at it written down before it is a full song. Something sung is very different than something read. To read lyrics is sometimes excruciating without a melody.

Rumpus: Do you have a home recording system?

Melberg: Yeah, once it’s all formulated in my head then I record a little demo of it on my computer, just to have or to share it with the band. That’s the way I write a lot of harmonies and stuff, doing it on my own on the computer.

Rumpus: A friend of mine introduced a song she’d written by saying, “This song is for my boyfriend,” then she said his first and last name and sang this really specific love song. Have you ever had any situations like that through your performances?

Melberg: I don’t usually like people to know who songs are about. I always try to keep some ambiguity in all of my songs. As I’ve gotten older, I’m a lot more mindful of the privacy of the other people in my life. My songs have gotten a lot more abstract or a little more ambiguous. Things are a little more wrapped up in metaphor these days because I try to be a little more precious with my own privacy and the people in my life. I’m still writing about the same things, I’m just writing about them in different ways. I also hate saying what songs are about before you play a song. It’s not up to me to decide how a listener hears the song. It’s about whatever you want it to be about.

Rumpus: There was a period in the ‘90s where it felt like anytime that a band you were in dissolved, you would just be in another band. You could not be stopped. In 2000, when the last Softies album came out, there was a period of six years before your next solo record. Were you writing songs that whole time?

Melberg: I had a child. I got pregnant and I stopped making music for five years. I didn’t start writing again until 2005 when my son was three and a half. My husband at the time would take him out for a set amount of time every Sunday. I would have four solid hours every Sunday to write and record.

I’d never gone such a long time without writing. I was sort of going crazy. That’s when I started writing the Cast Away the Clouds album. I’d never worked that way. Before I was always writing. But when you have a small child, you don’t have a free space in your brain, let alone your actual physical space. It was a new experience to say, “Well, today I have to write a song between noon and 4:20.” At that point after not playing for so long, I was so determined to make another record, or at least just begin writing, that I made it work.

Rumpus: Was there ever any worry of “Oh, if I can only dedicate this amount of time, my art might suffer?”

Melberg: No, because I wanted it to be something different. I was a very different person after being a mom and being older. I didn’t want to approach it the same way or for it to sound exactly the same. I wanted it to just be a representation of where I was in my life right now, so I look back at those records and the songs I was writing in 2005, it sounds very much what my life was like in 2005. I have no idea what it was going to end up being. I just did thinking, “Well, this might be total crap. Maybe I’ve totally lost my ability to write songs, I have no idea. We’ll just see what happens.”

I like that it ended up sounding pretty different than the other stuff. I didn’t intend to make an acoustic record. It just so happened that I was living out in the country where I didn’t know anyone who played music and I was pretty isolated so I made music by myself for the first time. It never concerned me much, I didn’t really think about it. It was just what I had to do. I didn’t even know whether it was going to be an album. There wasn’t a lot of intention at that time.

Rumpus: You’ve had a big influence on a lot of acts that have come since and some bands and artists have taken the wrong lessons from what you did.

Melberg: I think I know exactly what you mean.

Rumpus: There’s a lyric from your song ‘Golden Gate Bridge’, “I’m sorry that you didn’t love me  / Cross out that first time we kissed.” You sing it in this very beautiful, low-key way. If certain bands got their hands on that line, they’d feel a need to scream it. How did you come up with that aesthetic where you talk about painful things, but with such beautiful harmonies and without lashing out?

Melberg: It wasn’t really conscious. Those were the sounds of those feelings. To me, anger is powerful and intense, but sustained anger is really poisonous. Even if I was really angry about something, what I wanted to get through was the point past the anger, what’s left after the anger, which is a heavy heart. When the initial pain is gone, you’re left with feelings like frustration, regret, sadness, failure. And those don’t sound screaming and intense. Those are pensive.

The reality of those feelings is that they’re sustained over time and they’re kind of beautiful in their own way because they’re intertwined with the beauty of life. I think of harmonies as that, the way that your pain and your joy live symbiotically all the time. I think that a sad sentiment with a beautiful melody is a beautiful representation of life or living with pain.

Rumpus: Some critics suspected that you were deliberately making difficult music with The Softies. Were you specifically trying to make that band’s music inaccessible?

Melberg: With The Softies, I generally was because Tiger Trap was a very confusing experience. Tiger Trap was made out of this frenzy of needing to do this thing. We were so young. We were teenagers, practically. We wanted to have a really energetic, intense, all-female, pop and punk band. We got so popular, so fast and we weren’t really that capable of dealing with what we were going through. I came away from that experience thinking, “I do not want to experience commercial success ever again.” I always want to to the degree that it can pay for itself, and it’s great when you can write and play music, but my experience of what it meant to be a part of the music industry was really negative at such a young age.

Weeks after Tiger Trap broke up, was when Softies started. I had this idea: “Let’s do the opposite of Tiger Trap.” It was still within the way I write songs. I was still writing the same type of songs as far as the things I was writing about, but I wanted it to sound kind of hard to listen to in certain ways. I didn’t have the constitution to deal with that kind of attention anymore.

Rumpus: Do you have any specific Tiger Trap experiences where you said, “This is not for me”?

Melberg: Dealing with major labels trying to sign us, and playing in really good clubs, and when money gets involved, or when you have obligations to people you’ve never even met, and different ideas within the band of what’s appropriate. Then the conflicts within the band because there’s so much at stake when there’s money involved.

Also, meeting some of the people who said, “Oh, I love your band. You’re great.” I just thought, “I don’t know if you’re the person I’m writing music for.” Old guys, record company guys. I’m writing this music for that girl over there, that kid over there. At the time, I was so young, I just couldn’t deal with all that it was bringing into my life. All of these unfamiliar ideas. Things I was uncomfortable with or didn’t know how to deal with.

I’ve always been uncomfortable bringing a lot of money into music. My own music. Just because I know so many people who had really negative experiences with major labels in the 90’s. In the early 90’s, everyone just wanted to jump on ‘indie’ and sell it. And I just didn’t want to be sold. I was pretty down to my ethics at that time because I was 20 years old.

Rumpus: Do you think if you’d been a musician for ten years and nothing had been happening and then all of these—

Melberg: Yeah, it would have been really different. I would probably be pretty stoked. But all I wanted to be was cool. I was twenty. I didn’t care about being successful. I just wanted to be respected by my peers. And I wanted to be cool. And nothing seemed less cool to me than some of the things we were doing. Dealing with bouncers at big clubs and booking agents, although we had a very nice booking agent. But, it just was too much. I was like, “This is so not cool. This is not punk. This is not what I wanted to do. How did this happen?”

And it happened so quickly. We were a band for less than two years. Aesthetically with The Softies, we kind of had this idea of, “Let’s make it really beautiful because we love beautiful pop music. Let’s not use acoustic guitars, let’s use electric guitars. Let’s put so much reverb on it that it’s kind of hard to listen to.” We wanted it to only be found by the people that really wanted to find it.

Rumpus: Are there any plans for additional Softies music to be recorded?

Melberg: Jen [Sbragia] just had twins a year ago. Her hands are very full. I know what it’s like to have small children so if she wanted to do it, I’d be totally into it. We live pretty far away from each other. A six hour drive, at least.

Rumpus: Are there plans for any vinyl re-releases of any of your music?

Melberg: They’re usually only willing to do it if we’re going to go on tour. You have to be able to sell the actual physical product. I know there is some demand for it, but I don’t think it’s huge. I would love to do a limited run of some of The Softies vinyl because I know that it’s really hard to find.

Rumpus: I noticed that you’re not on Twitter. Do you value your privacy very much in that regard?

Melberg: Dude, I’m all over Facebook, though. I have a lot of friends, but I also get a lot of requests from people I don’t know. I tend to not accept most of them. Unless we have enough of certain friends in common. I make posts about my son a lot and my life. That’s as far as I go. I’m extremely not self-promotional, which is why I lack much success. I just can’t promote myself. I’ve never been comfortable with it. To a fault.


Ryan Sartor is a writer and host of The Difficult to Name Reading Series. More from this author →