ROSE MELBERG: SOFTEN YOUR OWN HEART
Rose Melberg found fierceness in Tiger Trap and even more fierceness in softness with the Softies before beginning a solo career early in this millennium. Her new album Homemade Ship is out now on K and she speaks on Sunday morning from her mother’s house. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
When was the last time you stepped off a stage here in L.A.? Was it Jabberjaw?
Rose Melberg: Oh my God. I don’t know if it was Jabberjaw. I remember the last time I played at Jabberjaw because Melissa Auf Der Maur came to the show—not to see us but she was with someone, and I remember being like, ‘Shit—there’s a rock star at the show!’ But I don’t think she actually saw us play. The Softies did a tour with the All Girl Summer Fun Band… I’m trying to think of anything that would spark in my mind when that was. I wonder if it was when our last record came out? I just don’t remember. Some time no later than 2000. It’s been at least ten years.
Do you still get stage fright?
Rose Melberg: I kind of do but there’s some things I do to help. Maybe this should be off the record but I take a beta-blocker before I play. It just lowers your blood pressure.
Maybe that should be on the record because it could be helpful to people.
Rose Melberg: I guess so. A lot of people take it for giving speeches. It’s specifically for people with performance anxiety. It doesn’t affect your mind at all—you don’t get high. It just inhibits some of those chemical reactions that make your heart beat really fast. It just keeps away that rush that gets my heart pounding so fast that I can’t sing. Even though my mind always told me relax, my body would have this crazy reaction.
What’s your opposite of stage fright? What’s something you’re too confident about?
Rose Melberg: I talk too much in social situations. I talk and I talk and I talk. Even to strangers—I’ll tell my life’s story to a perfect stranger. When I used to work in retail I got comfortable talking to customers that I didn’t know about the most personal things. I couldn’t believe the things I said. Now I talk about parenting with people I don’t even know because I’m a mom. I will talk to other parents at the park about the most brutally personal things about our children.
This might actually be a gift.
Rose Melberg: I don’t have that filter. I’m not particularly suspicious of anyone. I go into most social situations giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. I think I came to it late in life. When I was younger I was a typical cynical punk bohemian human being where I didn’t trust anyone. Everyone was against me and nobody understood me. When I grew up I was like, ‘Oh my God, you don’t have to scratch the surface very far—everybody is kind of amazing in some way.’
So what concerns the modern stranger most these days?
Rose Melberg: Everybody is concerned about where the world is going. How everything is changing. They really want to make a connection with you because they want to be like, ‘We are on the other side of it.’ They want to make connections with people who still feel removed. They want to see that you have the same perspective—that we’re on the outside looking in. Like, ‘What’s happened to the world? Right? Right?’ The world is changing so much and we don’t know anything and they want to feel like they are still a part of something that isn’t moving quite so fast. They’re trying to seek that out in other people. ‘Have you seen these new-fangled blah-blah-blah? I don’t understand any of it!’ Everybody wants to hear someone say, ‘I know! Me too!’ I think it’s comforting to realize that the majority of people aren’t moving as quickly as the world seems to be moving. People feel like technology is taking over the world.
I’m told technology ate one of your old records. Is that true?
Rose Melberg: It wasn’t a computer that ate the album. There was a Softies record—the 10”. We recorded that entire record with Pat Maley at Yo Yo Studios and we had the whole thing mixed and done and we loved it. When we sent the master in, they said there’s this weird sound. This little buzzing sound that would come and go. We tried to isolate them and erase them and we realized they were all over the place. What it was—we recorded this backstage at the Capitol Theater, which is a really old building with old electricity, and every time somebody would use the elevator next door there was a surge. It was slight and subtle but it was all over the place and we realized, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think we can fix this.’ So we went in a few months later and in two days we re-recorded the entire record. So it’s an entirely different album than it was.
So there’s a lost elevator mix?
Rose Melberg: There’s a completely different version of that record—all eight of those songs. Far superior in my mind because the second one was rushed. We played them much faster and we settled for less good performances because we just needed to get it done.
Is that the most tension that’s ever been caused in your life by an inanimate object?
Rose Melberg: No, I’m a mom. That’s nothing.
When was the last time you broke a piece of glass?
Rose Melberg: I come from a long line of dish throwers in my family. You know—ladies that get mad and throw things when they get mad.
Does Tupperware take the thrill out of that?
Rose Melberg: I still have lots of glass. I have thrown a glass out of frustration within the last year. I will admit to that.
What’s the most unsatisfying thing you ever threw?
Rose Melberg: It’s always unsatisfying when you try to throw a piece of paper. There’s no velocity. You go, ‘Aaaah!’ and throw it and it just goes gently to the floor and you go, ‘That was not gratifying at all!’
You’ve recorded music almost your entire adult life—is there anything in the old songs you can’t recognize in yourself anymore?
Rose Melberg: I look back at the music that I made when I was really young—I was writing that music because it was all I knew how to do at the time. I didn’t know how to play an instrument, I didn’t know how to write a song—everything that I did came from that place of learning and trying. So I never look back and think, ‘I could have done that better’ or ‘Why did I write that song? It’s so stupid!’ I was just trying things out. And as much as I wouldn’t write that music today, I totally remember who I was when I wrote it. And I still feel really connected to it. It’s so fresh in my mind and it meant so much to me at the time.
How has it affected your later life to have that kind of a document of who you were?
Rose Melberg: It’s a pretty great diary. Especially because I don’t write anything down. I don’t even write lyrics down. Only before I go to the studio—I’ll write them down for reference. It’s all in my mind. I’ll record demos now that I have a computer but in the old days I didn’t, so it’s all from my mind. So it’s a great way to remember those times. What’s funny is trying not to get it mixed up. I try to be very clear about not mixing up my memories with other peoples’ memories of those experiences because I shared so many of them with a lot of people—the people that came to the shows and the people that I played music with. As much as it’s a really great document of a huge chunk of my life, it’s also a huge chunk of a lot of other people’s lives. I have to keep a clear image in my mind of what my experience actually was.
Is it true Tiger Trap broke up because you were getting too much attention from major labels? And you wanted to remove yourself from that situation?
Rose Melberg: That was a lot of what was happening. There were a lot of reasons why we broke up but there was some major label attention. We were so young, and in my mind I was really steeped in my beliefs about how music should be made. There was no way in a million years I would ever sign to a major label. I thought that it had nothing to do with why I was making music. There isn’t a doubt in my mind.
Why did you feel that way?
Rose Melberg: It’s still bullshit. Pardon my French—but it’s just silly. I’m not even going to go too much into it but it’s a very silly way to put art out into the world—to involve that many people and to spend that much money. It’s a phenomenal waste of resources and it’s not the most moral profession. It wasn’t my world. I didn’t buy records of the artists that were on those labels. It wasn’t my community. All I ever wanted going into playing music was to feel a sense of community—to play with the bands that I loved and to have recognition with my peers and to do business with people who I believed in how they did business and to support something and to have it reciprocated. That I would be giving and they would be giving—that’s all I ever wanted out of it. I was a young punk and still am in my heart, and it was all very clear to me. It never even occurred to me to even consider the option. When all these things started to happen, it was funny—guys with cologne are trying to give you money.
Shiny suits, too?
Rose Melberg: They looked like rock ‘n’ roll people but there’s just those things that give them away. There were a lot of personal issues within the band as well—we didn’t have the same ideas about what was important and there was quite a lot of conflict and I just didn’t want that life. Our last tour we were playing with bigger bands and we had a booking agent and it felt kind of yucky to me. It felt like I was straying from where my heart really was.
How much of that spirit do you think exists now?
Rose Melberg: I think it’s very much the same. The internet has changed everything. It’s made the community that was small and not spread out very big and very spread out. It’s changed the nature of independent music which is okay, and it’s changed local scenes. I think that people are more into the idea of developing a sense of community and supporting other bands within their community and creating their own local scene. People want to feel connected to something. Now that the outside world is so huge, it means that much more to create something at home that is special and unique. Everybody wants that set of conspiratorial feeling of ‘Us against the world! We are doing something special! We are subverting the mainstream!’ You want to have that feeling. I think it makes people want to build a more solid foundation within their own community. We are doing something special—we as a team are doing something special.
You said once that the Softies were deliberately trying to be kind of inaccessible—where ‘only the people who wanted to hear it would hear it.’ Is that part of what we’re talking about?
Rose Melberg: This is obviously very pre-Internet! But it just got to the point where you’re playing big rock shows and you’re the flavor of the month and you don’t really know if people really care about what you’re doing—or truly love what you’re doing. I needed to reclaim some of that sense of specialness. I don’t want some random guy wandering into the shows and saying, ‘Well, that’s a cool rock band.’ I wanted it to be something that was very special and personal and that was difficult for people to like—so they would either have to really like it or not listen to it. I didn’t want to do something that people would be offended by—I don’t think the Softies were particularly offensive—but I wanted something that people would have to really love.
No chance to be casual?
Rose Melberg: Yeah. You either love it or you just ignore it.
Do you think it worked?
Rose Melberg: Absolutely. I loved Tiger Trap—it was one of the funnest things I ever did and I’m so glad I had that experience and had we not had some of the issues it could have gone on longer. Musically it was a wonderful group. But the Softies resonated more with me as an experience because of the kinds of shows we were playing and the people we were traveling with. It was much more true to what my heart was crying out for as an artist. Once we started doing the record and touring it was like, ‘Ah, this is home! This is what I always wanted!’ Like when I was in high school and all I ever wanted to be in a band—I had found my place.
What is that feeling of ‘home’? Is that something you’ve always been after?
Rose Melberg: It’s when you walk into a place that you’ve never been and you feel a sense of familiarity. You feel a safety in the people around you. You look in their faces and you know there’s reverence and there’s respect and there’s familiarity. We’ve never met but there’s a sameness just because of what brought us together. It’s just that element of safety. It’s like being home everywhere you go no matter where you are in the world. You know these people understand.
Is this like how Kurt Vonnegut says part of life is the search for surrogate families?
Rose Melberg:Yeah—can you quote that and say that I said it?
You also said that it’s important that an artist be sincere because the fakers will be found out—does that connect here?
Rose Melberg: I think that was a joke! But once it’s printed it looks like I actually meant it.
Sounded OK to me!
Rose Melberg: It’s a bit confrontational, which it’s not in my nature to be. I meant that as far as the art that I connect to—I connect to all kinds of art. I love art in general and it doesn’t have to be sincere because I like the element of that completely created false approach. But I find that I personally connect to stuff that feels honest or real. It opens up that place in my heart. When somebody else opens up their heart, it’s like that invisible string that connects you—it’s permission to soften your own heart. And so I tend to seek that out in art that I enjoy. I see other people making music or visual art or anything and it inspires me to do the same and it inspires me to seek it out. It’s this wonderful cycle of how honesty and sincerity gives everyone permission to be honest.
Jen from the Softies said someone has to really hurt her before she’ll write about it. Are you the same way?
Rose Melberg: In the old days I was like that. A lot of the songs were coming from that place. My song writing has evolved a bit in that I don’t only write from pain or anger. But it does quite a bit come from… not necessarily sadness but those parts of you that don’t feel complete. Whether it’s confusion or a sadness or concern—those things that feel undone or unresolved. That’s why you write the song—you put it into place and you make sense of it. I also feel a need for a little bit more privacy when I write now. I have a family—I have a child that when he’s grown-up, I don’t want him to see our whole life spelled out for everyone to see. And yet these are still the things that I want to be writing about because it’s my sadnesses and my concerns. These things are still what make me sit down and write a song against my better judgement.
It’s that powerful?
Rose Melberg: Usually! It’s this one singular feeling and I just want to make a song out of that feeling. I’m going to sit down and do what comes out and I’ve been trying to wrap it up a bit more in pictures and images but buried in it is every bit of the story. I can pick it apart and sometimes I do that with my friends. ‘What is this song about?’ ‘Well, this is this and that line has to do with that thing that happened…’ It’s a little bit more shrouded now—a little bit more mysterious—but it’s basically the same. It’s just emotions. It’s not always anger or hurt—it’s just emotion.
Have you ever written a song that changed the relationship you had with someone?
Rose Melberg: I feel like sometimes it can create clarity. There are situations where I’ve been able to put something in a song that can simplify and clarify something so that it can be let go. If I can stop explaining and just go, ‘Here, this is how I feel.’ I think it’s happened a few times. Or sometimes it’s just for me so I can make sense of something and just let it go. I’ll put it in a really concise format where beginning to end I can understand a situation, and this little ball—this orb of a song!—contains all the emotions of that issue. And I can now get it out of my heart and my mind. It’s like my back-up hard drive. My back-up emotional hard drive. It helps me in that it creates that clarity in my mind so that it’s not so jumbled.
Does it work that way for your fans?
Rose Melberg: They sure tell me that it does. My fans are very vocal about the effects my songs had on them—which I don’t take that lightly. I ask them questions like, ‘In what way?’ And I try to help them understand and say, ‘What did you see in that song?’ As an artist, it’s the greatest thing you can expect from art—for people to respond in that way. Every show practically—someone has a story about a song helping them. A song that they fell in love to or ‘I sat and listened to that song twenty times and then cried my eyes out and then I felt better.’ Sometimes it’s really big and sometimes it’s a little story. From day one of making music, that was never my intent—I just want to make songs and sing them, and those are just the songs that came out. But this whole other thing happened where people connected really personally to songs that to me were just the words and music that came out of me. I didn’t expect that to happen. It’s been a very interesting career.
Have you ever told someone else that about one of their songs?
Rose Melberg: I actually did when I saw Vashti Bunyan a couple years ago. I went back and told her how when my son was a baby I would listen to Another Diamond Day. I would sing those songs to him. That was the soundtrack to his babyhood and those songs to me will forever be that—the most amazing thing that will ever happen to me in my life was the birth of my child and the early days of learning how to be a mom and loving my baby. And that these songs became such a big part of that and I was able to tell her that. After a show I went backstage and I was crying—‘I just wanted to tell you this—what that record means to me! I rocked my baby to these songs for the first year of his life!’ She was so sweet. And I was so glad I got to tell her that because of all the people who have told their stories to me.
ROSE MELBERG ON TUE., OCT. 27, AT VACATION VINYL, 4679 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., LOS FELIZ. 5:30 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. VACATIONVINYL.COM. AND WITH THE FINCHES, KELLARISSA AND ANNA OXYGEN ON TUE., OCT. 27, AT ECHO CURIO, 1519 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $5 / ALL AGES. ECHOCURIO.COM. ROSE MELBERG’S HOMEMADE SHIP IS OUT NOW ON K. VISIT ROSE MELBERG AT MYSPACE.COM/ROSEMELBERG.