(This was originally published in WE, a weekly Vancouver newspaper, in 2008, and the London-based fanzine Twee as Fuck, in January 2009.)
Rose Melberg is 36. But when she sits down to be interviewed in a Vancouver restaurant, she looks as though she might have just come from one of the city’s college campuses after finishing the first semester of her freshman year. So youthful and unassuming is her appearance, in fact, that nothing betrays her actual history: more than 15 years of music-making that, despite several extended gaps of inactivity, is renowned in indie-pop circles around the world for its bounty of bravery, beauty, and considerable influence.
Yet here Melberg sits, in the neighbourhood she has called home for over two years, in a city where she remains all but anonymous. Not that she seems to mind — after all, this is an artist who has seemingly fashioned an anti-career, intended to defy expectations and short-circuit forward momentum. The truth, of course, is somewhat more complicated.
The California native became known in 1992 with her first band, Tiger Trap. The all-female quartet, formed when she was barely out of her teens, rode the crest of the then-nascent Riot Grrrl movement of feminist-minded pop-punk bands. But unlike peers such as Bikini Kill or Huggy Bear, Tiger Trap’s sound was principally shaped by Melberg’s love of melodic British indie-pop and the girl groups of the ’60s, strained through a decidedly punk-like filter of amateurism. Their most obvious influence would seem to have been Talulah Gosh, but Melberg swears none of the band had heard them yet.
“It was really important to me, at 20, to feel like I was a part of something bigger, and I really drew from other women musicians,” Melberg says. “And yet I never saw what we were doing as political. I just wanted to be in a noisy pop band. I thought just by virtue of being women in a band — that, in itself, was political, just enough for me. The sound we ended up with… it really came together in a pretty organic way; there wasn’t a lot of specific intention to the sound we were making because we just weren’t skilled enough for that.”
Tiger Trap’s self-titled debut album was hugely acclaimed, but when major labels began courting the band in the midst of the post-grunge-era gold rush (a development that thrilled Melberg’s bandmates), she elected to break the group up rather than become subject to corporate grooming.
Remaining with Tiger Trap’s label, Olympia, Washington’s K Records, Melberg moved to nearby Portland in ’94 and effected the sonic equivalent of a 180-degree turn: a duo called the Softies. Formed with friend Jen Sbragia, the Softies featured only the two women’s voices and their electric guitars. Their songs, while not all having to do with heartbreak or despair (although most of them do), sound inconsolably sad; their debut album, It’s Love, has become a generational touchstone of sorts, the soundtrack to an underground culture’s post-adolescent malaise. (Go Sailor, a trio closer in spirit to Tiger Trap, ran concurrently, but lasted little more than a year.)
“The Softies forced the music into a situation where only people who wanted to hear it were hearing it,” says Melberg. “I set out to do something that was inaccessible, that was slightly more difficult on the ear and required slightly more effort. And yet, because of that, I felt the safety to really pour my heart out.
“I think one thing that kind of upset people was that it wasn’t acoustic — they expected it to be. But I didn’t want to be the Indigo Girls. Not to bash the Indigo Girls, but I didn’t want to be an acoustic duo. I wanted to be a pop band with no drums. And I knew that would definitely be something no major label was going to come looking for, which was awesome. I could fall in love with music again.”
Yet while the Softies became no more than the cult success Melberg had envisioned, the devotion of that cult was more personal and of a far greater intensity than Tiger Trap’s. To this day, Melberg says, when fans approach her to compliment her music, the Softies usually claims the lion’s share of praise. “It’s difficult for me sometimes to properly express my gratitude; not ‘Thank you for being affected by my music,’ but ‘Thank you for telling me that,’ because I’ve been affected by music so much and have tried to express that to other artists, and I never know if I’m being weird or creepy.”
Geography and increasingly complicated lives brought an end to the Softies in 2001. Melberg had become a Canadian, moving to Summerland, British Columbia, in ’98 to marry and start a family. Before the duo made their final album in 2000, she played drums in short-lived Vancouver band Gaze, and released a collection of solo material called Portola.
Motherhood took precedence in Melberg’s life during the next several years, so when she finally began writing again in 2004, setting aside a block of time each Sunday, she was concerned about what her efforts would produce — if anything at all. “It was difficult, and I was really afraid of what I would find,” she says, “and I remember one thing that [K Records founder and Beat Happening frontman] Calvin Johnson said to me when I was having difficulty writing. He said, ‘Rose, it’s a river; it’s not a well. It’s not going to run dry. It’s always there.’”
Recorded in Vancouver in 2005 with members of local band p:ano, Cast Away the Clouds was Melberg’s first full-fledged solo album. Autumnal, reflective, and containing what may be lyrical hints of her failing marriage, it evidences an inevitably matured worldview, but retains the charm and youthful wonder of her earlier work. It also contains the instrument Melberg had so successfully resisted in the Softies: the acoustic guitar. “That was a big deal,” she acknowledges. “It was time to do that, because when I play by myself I usually play on my acoustic. Therefore, this was a record of just me and how I play when it’s just me.”
A return to single life, ongoing motherhood, and the necessity of making a livelihood for both herself and her son again brought Melberg’s musical activities to a standstill, as did a computer full of works in progress, lost for a time to a dead hard drive. But she happily reveals that she’s begun work on her next album. (Note: Melberg announced, shortly before this went to press, that the album has been completed. A release date hasn’t been determined.) She also reveals, happier still, that a new love has done as much for her productivity as terminal melancholy did for her in the Softies.
“Right now, for whatever reason — I guess maybe it’s because I’m happy — I’m writing like crazy,” she enthuses. “At first I thought that I could only write when I was sad, but I finally realized: No! I can write about anything!”