Tuesday, 10 July 2012

YELLOW HAIR, FAR AWAY STARE: an interview with indie pop legend Rose Melberg

In the early Noughties, when I was a wide-eyed babydyke and falling in love with every girl I met, I discovered Jamie Babbit’s 1999 cult coming-out comedy But I’m A Cheerleader.  As well as introducing me to Clea DuVall and Natasha Lyonne (swooooon), it hipped me to the big-hearted jangle pop punk of Rose Melberg’s Go Sailor, a three-piece outfit featuring bassist Paul Curran and drummer Linton (of Henry’s Dress and The Aislers Set). As far as I'm aware, an official soundtrack for But I’m A Cheerleader never materialized, but an equally smitten friend of mine was dedicated enough to hunt down a cache of those pre-internet queercorish gems and put together a bootleg version that I treasured during those first few years of queerhood; Ray Of Sunshine in particular became my personal anthem for many a giddy girl crush. After a little digging, I found some of Merlberg’s earlier records, and discovered she was something of an underground icon, an influential figure on 90s US indy pop scenes, an International Pop Underground Convention star and a musician active peripherally during the riot grrrl era, releasing albums via hallowed labels such as K Records, Lookout! and Slumberland.  

Her first band, the all-girl twee punk quartet Tiger Trap spurned major label interest for indie autonomy, while The Softies, a duo formed with best friend Jen Sbragria (who went on to join All Girl Summer Fun Band) earned Melberg a kudos for turning out delicate, shivery guitar meditations on youthful girl-girl friendships, often dwelling in that space where platonic romance blurs into something devotedly fraught, and complicated, She also drummed in Vancouver-based K Records act Gaze, turned out a some very fine solo albums, and more recently, put together all-girl twee pop band Brave Irene, but it’s the sweet, breezy, sea n sun punk of Go Sailor that has my heart. I might also add that Go Sailor never released an album proper, but put out an LP that collected all three of their three 7” releases and a handful of compilation tracks.  The Softies recently reunited, and performed a show last month at Chickfactorzine’s 20th anniversary party at the Bell House, Brooklyn, a benchmark that precedes the release of Mark Baumgarten’s book, LoveRock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music (out July 10th). The Softies aren’t the only band of Melberg’s to have reformed in recent years, as news comes that a reunited Go Sailor now gear up to play another Chickfactor-related show, this time (much to the fangurl excitement of this writer) at London's The Lexington, a date that marks the band’s first ever performance in the Big Smoke. I caught up with Melberg to talk motherhood, the queer punk communities of her youth, her role in riot grrrl, why she’s always preferred making music with women and how, two decades on, she’s just as prolific as ever. 

CRA: How are you?

Rose: I’m well, thank you. It’s been cold and rainy for weeks here [in Vancouver], but its looking like a beautiful day.  

CRA: Go Sailor are playing their first ever London show this week. How long were Go Sailor officially together, back in the 90s?

Rose: We technically never broke up; we just stopped playing because we all moved quite far away from each other. We started playing just after Tiger Trap broke, in the winter of '93, so at the beginning of '94. We did a couple of shows here and there, just after I got married in '95. I lived in Sacramento, Paul and Linton lived in San Francisco, so I would take the Greyhound bus there for band practice. In the entire life of Go Sailor, we never lived in the same town. Then I moved to Portland, and for the year I lived there we played a few shows.  

CRA: So out of the many bands you’ve been in, Go Sailor had the shortest active time span?

Rose: Definitely.  

CRA: And yet it’s the band that I associate you with the most. 
Rose: It just goes to show, it’s not about longevity, its about the quality of what we did [laughs].   

CRA: How have you balanced motherhood (Melberg has a young, preschool-attending son) with music?

Rose: My son was born in 2002. We lived out in the country for a while, and for the first few years we were out there I continued to play music. The last Softies record was written while I was out there; we traveled a lot to make it happen. Once I got pregnant I stopped making music. There was a good 5 years where I didn’t write or play. It wasn’t until 2005 that I started writing again, for my first solo record (Pass Through The Clouds). I was completely isolated with my toddler, playing by myself. That record was released in 2006, the same year my husband (Mint Records co-founder, Bill Baker) and I split up, and I moved back to the city.  
CRA: There’s this long-held fallacy that motherhood saps women of their creativity, but many of the women artists I've spoken to say motherhood intensified their creativity. Was that the case for you?

Rose: Absolutely. There was certainly a new depth to my creative world that I wanted to write about, but just didn’t have the time. The first few years, you have no time. And taking that time off inspired me to create. After 4 or 5 years of not writing, it had built up in me, like an explosion, and I felt such a void in my heart where that used to be; that was what compelled me to create again. I’d saved it all up for so long! Taking a long break from something makes you realize whether it belongs in your life or not. I had to make that record. I was feeling so much emotion, and that’s always been my main source. I was rich with experience by that point.

CRA: Now you’re back out on the road in the US with The Softies. What’s it like to be reunited with band mate, Jen Sbragia?

Rose: It's wonderful. Jen has twin babies now, so she’s very busy. But she’s testament to what we were just talking about. She’s really felt that feeling of waking up from a fog  [since the band have reformed]. It’s made her so happy to be playing just a little bit of music. 
CRA: You’ve performed at Chickfactor zine’s 20th anniversary last month, with a host of fellow indy pop icons (Black Tambourine, Louis Maffeo, Small Factory). What was that like?

Rose: It was amazing. It was magical. So many of the bands that played were people that I knew from 20 years ago, people that I knew as a teenager, bands that I worshiped and loved and that inspired me when I was young, and first started playing music. To see us all as adults, and meet them again, feeling much more like a peer than I did when I was 19 was so validating to me as an artist. I felt a true sense of community that was 20 years in the making.

CRA: Was there anyone you were especially happy to be reunited with?

Rose: Pam (Berry, of Black Tambourine, and the co-founder of Chickfactor zine), Jeffrey from Honeybunch and the Small Factory people. The Aislers Set (Amy Linton’s other band) was a later part of my life, but even them. It was like the story of my life as an artist, all in one place. There were so many people from different stages of my life, in one place. It was one of the best parts of my life, when I was actively playing music, traveling and making these connections. It’s hard to articulate how special it was. Its what you wish your high school reunion would be. Because I felt so proud of everybody, and a sense of pride in my self too. My son, my story, my experiences.

CRA: You had a lot of major label attention during your time in Tiger Trap, and made a point of staying staunchly independent.  Do you still remain opposed to the idea of majorlabelsville?

Rose: There are no major labels knocking on the door of a 40-year-old single parent mom, but its nice to be in a place now where that’s not an issue anymore, especially in this climate. It’s a very different industry than it once was. I still stand behind all those convictions, but it’s a lot easier to stay indie now than it was back then; you didn’t have a lot of options 15 years ago. So it was a lot more tempting to buy into those ideas of what it meant to a successful musician or make your music accessible. Its still amazing to me that some of the clichés about what happens when you sign to a major still exist, so it hasn’t changed that much; I do still feel really sad when I see bands take that route, because its so unnecessary.

CRA: Thinking of anyone in particular?

Rose: I am, but I don’t wanna say who. I don’t want to say anything negative, because I respect everyone’s right to make their own choices and have their own experiences.

CRA: I discovered you and Go Sailor via But I’m A Cheerleader, so your voice and music took on a queer association and soundtracked my coming-out period during the early Noughties. Would you say you have the same queer fan base in the US as you do here in the UK?

Rose: I suppose we were part of the East Bay punk community that at that time was very integrated and tied in with queer and punk politics; we came from that community so it was always a part of our circle, our lives and our experiences.  Tiger Trap brought a much more direct queer attachment, for a number of reasons, but for me Go Sailor wasn’t just about politics, it was about us being a part of a political community. Its funny; I don’t often think about these things. I think we were all of an age – and I can only speak for myself – I felt I was coming into my politics in a more thoughtful way, and understanding my own place within the queer community a lot better than I did when I was 19, 20 years old and it was more reactionary.  As I matured, it was cool to have Go Sailor included in a scene I felt a connection and resonance with in a more welcoming way - it wasn’t as confrontational; it was inclusive.

CRA: A lot of your music, especially some of the more well-known Go Sailor tracks, focus on topics friendship and love, and a number of folk have commented on the ambiguity of some of those songs, about how they could be sapphic in nature. I notice that in previous interviews, you seem to prefer to keep circumspect about going into detail on that.

Rose: I feel like [in] any of my songs, I try to leave a lot of space for the listener. I don’t want it to be just my story; I want people to hear their own story and have it mean whatever they want it to mean. I don’t wanna spoil it for anybody. For whatever reasons, these songs mean a lot to people, and I don’t wanna take that away from them. I don’t want to take them out of that song. I love how included people feel in those songs. But I don’t mind telling the specific story of songs when people ask.

CRA: How about Ray Of Sunshine (which features on But I’m A Cheerleader)?

Rose: That song was about Jen, and The Softies. She was my best friend in the whole world. I wrote a lot of songs about Jenn at that time. We were never romantic partners, but we lived together and wrote music together. For a year in Portland we were like life partners, we did everything together. We grocery shopped together, cooked together. There are a lot of emotions around best friendships. Songs like The Softies’ I Love You More, which to a lot of people is a really obvious song about being in love with a straight girl or a gay boy, it’s about gender confusion and jealousy and not being able to give someone the type of love that they want, but really that song was about the fear of losing my best friend to her boyfriend. The kind of intimacy I have with my female friends is pretty deep, and it’s as intimate to me as male partners that I’ve had. That friendship was such a huge part of my daily experience. I was 23-years-old, my emotions were very much on the surface. It was all very lovely and dramatic.

CRA: You’ve said: “[My music] really grew up in the Northwest.  It was born in California, but it grew up in the Northwest.” Can you elaborate on that?

Rose: My musical world was so opened up by making these connections with K Records. It opened up a whole world of female driven music for me when I was 18.  Being pen pals with people helped too; that’s how I met Alison from Bratmobile. I was very drawn to that community and the freedom and openness of what was happening at the time around Olympia – riot grrrl and the international pop convention.  And then being on K Records, and to some extent feeling like a part of that community, and then moving to Portland when I was 23; that was when The Softies became most active. We made two records there. Then I moved to Vancouver. I was still playing with the Softies then, as well as playing drums in the band Gaze. Most of my active time as a musician happened in the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Vancouver. I felt a tremendous amount of support and acceptance, from those scene, which was lovely to feel. 

CRA: Go Sailor and riot grrrl are very much connected in my mind, but it’s a link that doesn’t seem to be made explicit in online music press...

Rose: It’s an interesting question that’s often asked of me. It’s whatever people perceive it to be. All I have is my own experiences. My own experience of riot grrrl was … I knew a lot of the people who were involved in making it become what it became. We hung out, played shows together, but I always felt peripherally involved. I was inspired by it, but I wasn’t part of the political movement of it. It was never part of our agenda; I just wanted to be in a band playing pop songs, punk songs. I was really young and insecure about my politics, I felt so unformed as an artist, and you can’t stand behind something unless you truly know it. I didn’t know who I was yet. It had a huge influence on me – not as an idea, but rather the women: Molly (Neuman, of Bratmobile) Alison (Wolfe, of Bratmobile), Kathleen (Hannah, of Bikini Kill), Tobi (Vail, of Bikini Kill). That’s what meant something to me – that they were encouraging and supportive and inspiring, so it was more specific. And we are often left out of that conversation a lot, which is fine by me. Tiger Trap is rarely brought up in all the recent books and documentaries about riot grrrl, even though we were an all female band playing shows with these bands.  Its neither good nor bad, its about how people wanna perceive it, because we weren’t trying to be a part of something, we just wanted to be in band. I know this is a bit general, maybe a bit cliché, but I think just by being a bunch of women in a band in 1993 was political. Maybe that’s a cop out, and maybe I should have been a little more vocal about my politics.    

CRA: Riot grrrl has become canonized as this golden-age utopia of punk feminism, but I’ve spoken to a number of female musicians who feel that riot grrrl inadvertently silenced other affiliated scenes and bands, and co-opted them, and I think its important to make space for dialogue about that, and to reintroduce those folk in to the conversation.

Rose: Exactly. It wasn’t the only thing going on at that time. There was a lot going on at that time.  It wasn’t just about female musicians. It was also about music. I was a nerd, and into so many scenes. I was in to [New Zealand-based label] Flying Nun, New Zealand pop music, Creation Records. It was just about music to me. It didn’t start out with my politics leading me to music, it was music that led me into a new world of politics.  I always wanted to be a part of what was happening musically, and I think there were a lot of people, who felt that way, men and women. 

CRA: What do you have planned for the rest of 2012? I hear your tinkering with a few new Softies songs. 

Rose: I’m in 7 bands here in Vancouver. Go Sailor, The Softies, I occasionally solo stuff, there's Brave Irene too. I also play bass in band here in Vancouver called Bleating Heart, and I play drums in two bands, which has been amazing after so many years [of principally playing guitar]. I’m exponentially better than I ever was, and honestly I’m enjoying playing drums more than anything. I’m also in a band called Puppies, with two other women. 

CRA: 7 bands and raising a child as a single parent. How do you manage it all?!  

Rose: I have my son half the week, so the 3 days he’s with his dad I practice a lot. I do 3 or 4 practices a week, sometimes two different bands in one day. Puppies are recording next week for the first time. One of them has never been in a band before; she’s a very dear friend, and I only set out to play drums to support her, but its turned in to something really fun and quite creative and we’re playing our first show in the  next month. Every band I’m in has women [in]. It’s always been a part of my life as a musician; I feel most creative and comfortable and inspired and excited [working with women].

CRA: Sounds like you’re a very busy lady.

Rose: I am, but I’d rather be busy doing this than anything else.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


On breasts, slut rock, Butcher Babies, Rockbitch and Tribe 8, for The Guardian. I was deep into a dedicated rnb phase when Rockbitch were a touring band, and consequently missed out on the wild spectacle of their debauched rock shows, but I'm enjoying the reminiscing that the publication of this piece has prompted - from friends, friends-of-friends, readers, my girlfriend (who managed to see them 3 times before they folded as a live act) and folk who enjoyed 'experiences' with the troupe.