Features | Interviews

Rose Melberg

By David Greenwald | 5 May 2006

After a five-year absence from the music world, former indie-pop icon Rose Melberg is back in a big way. Her beautiful new solo album Cast Away the Clouds is due this week, and the bashful singer/songwriter just opened for Belle and Sebastian in Vancouver to a packed house. Melberg is also the proud mother to a young, preschool-attending son, and while he was away at school, she found time for a half-hour phone call with CMG’s David Greenwald. The two discussed how she started writing music again, motherhood, and her friendship and career with Jen Sbragia in The Softies.


CMG’s David Greenwald (CMG): So the first question I have to ask is, how have you spent the last few years?

Rose Melberg (RM): You mean the last five years?

CMG: Yeah, yeah.

RM: Well I had a son, who is now four, and that’s pretty much it. That kind of takes all your time. Just after the last Softies tour, about six months later I got pregnant, and that was five years ago. I lived in the country, out in the interior of British Columbia for about seven years and we’ve just moved back to Vancouver. I thought it would be a lot easier to do music and be a mom at the same time, and it turns out that it took a little longer than I expected, but I’m glad I waited.

CMG: During that time, were you working on any music at all or was it just being a mom full time?

RM: Well, I tried a few times over the years. Mainly I would just need the time and the space and the quiet, and it was really hard to consistently have that enough to maintain any kind of momentum as far as completing a project, so it never really followed through. It took my son being older and not needing me quite as much to set up a time, a regular time, because it does take consistent work in order to not forget things or lose my inspiration. Some of the songs on the record were songs I started writing almost five years ago and I just kept having to put them away and try again. It didn’t really work out, I just had to put that part of my brain to rest for a while because it was just too frustrating to have the desire to do it so strongly and there being no possibility in the world of finding the time to do it.

CMG: Now that you’ve returned to touring and recording, how has that been?

RM: It’s been an entirely different experience. I’m an entirely different person than I was five years ago. I’m older and I appreciate it in different ways so it’s been really fabulous, but…touring will be very different because I can’t be away from my son for very long. So it’s going to be in little chunks here and there. And also, you know I did it for a long, long time, and I want to keep it special, I don’t want to do it for weeks and months at a time. I had the time in my life where that was really important to me and now I just want it to be fun and lovely all the time. I don’t want it to become boring or depressing.

CMG: How was the show with Belle and Sebastian the other night?

RM: I actually had a really great time. I expected that everything but the performance would be the fun part because I figured I would be so nervous and it turned out performing was really the most fun part of the whole experience. I felt comfortable and confident and I don’t quite know why because I am plagued with horrible, horrible stage fright and thought that I would fail miserably. But I felt totally at home, something just clicked in my brain. It was really, really loud, because it was mostly a room full of people who mostly came to hear a crazy loud band, but there were the people that came up and really listened. It was really so loud it was almost difficult to hear myself on stage sometimes. I think maybe that’s what made me so relaxed, I just didn’t feel the pressure of a thousand ears on me. I had a good time and played really well and it really reminded me why I’m excited about all the upcoming shows.

CMG: Well, that’s great. I want to ask you a few questions about the new album. How was the writing and recording process for this one different than working with The Softies or with Go Sailor?

RM: Well, it was definitely different to do it alone. It was hard to not have a sort of filter to run it through before it was done. It’s really hard to not censor myself and to decide when something is finished, to not have someone say, “yeah that sounds great” or “how about this” or whatever, so that was kind of the hard part. I would write a song and I would think, like, is that ridiculously stupid or is that really great, I have no idea because I can’t listen objectively. I found it very frustrating to just be relaxed and have confidence in what I was doing and just listen with open ears. And my time management, because normally, it used to be that I could just get up at three in the morning if I felt the desire to go in and write, but this record, it was every Sunday between 11 and four. It was my music time, it was scheduled and that was my only time, whether I felt like it or not. That was the only time I had for the whole week to work.

It felt a little bit more like a job but I found it good because if one song wasn’t inspiring me, I knew I only had three hours to work and I would write a new song. I knew I couldn’t just give up and think “oh, I’ll do it another time.” It was definitely more project oriented because I knew I had this finite amount of time, I felt like, I would like to finish this many songs by this time. I used to just be open-ended like, I’ll write until I have enough for a record and then I’ll keep writing, it was just sort of ongoing, but a little bit of that momentum has come back to me. I’m already writing more songs right now. I didn’t expect this to be a particularly creative time as I’m immersed in this sort of work ethic, at the beginning of promoting the record and playing shows and stuff, and yet in the midst of it all I feel incredibly inspired to be writing again. So it’s nice to have a little bit of that old momentum back.

CMG: One of the things that really stands out to me on the album is that there’s so much attention to the harmonies. Like on “Spin,” the high voice sounds a lot happier than the lower pitch so you’re getting different emotional perspectives.

RM: Right.

CMG: Is that something you really wanted to go in and work on?

RM: Well, it was just really hard to not have another voice to sing with. That’s one of the most important things that I do. I didn’t want that to be missing and I didn’t shy away from singing with myself. I really wanted to embrace that idea on this record because I knew it would be too hard to try to ride that line really carefully, of not having too much of me or sounding like too much of one emotion or whatever. I just wanted to jump in and write the parts as if I was writing them for another person, and then just sing them myself. I also had this great comfort level of how natural it feels to harmonize with myself because I already hear it as happening, so I just jumped in completely to the idea of there being as many vocals as I wanted. I really enjoyed that process because I didn’t feel limited by another person’s voice or trying to write for someone else’s voice or their range, and I just very, very comfortably wrote within my own range. That was also a very different way to write, and it was really fun. But I am missing singing with other people and I feel like on my next record I want to bring other singers in.

CMG: One of the things that really surprised me was the inclusion of the flute and the violin and instruments that you haven’t really used in your music before. Did you get to try everything you wanted to do on this album?

RM: Oh God, no, there’s a million things I’d like to do. I was just sort of dipping my toe into these ideas because I am not a proficient musician at all. I play very little of each instrument that I own. I take the three notes that know or the three chords that I know and use that to the fullest that I can. I played flute for three months in grade six and I have a flute, so I brought the flute and I used it. The same thing with the piano, I don’t actually know how to play the piano at all, I just sat down and found the notes and figured something out, because it’s like, why not? I know if I would’ve brought better people into the project more, I could’ve had really competent musicians but that wasn’t what I wanted on this record. This record was so significant to me as far as being really personal and…I knew I had to be kind of careful as I reemerged into how it all worked because my confidence wasn’t entirely there. It still isn’t. I mean, it’s been a long time. Anyway, the record is mainly just limited to what I knew how to play and who I felt comfortable bringing into it, which was my friend Nick, who plays a little bit of piano and Saundrah plays the violin.

CMG: It’s funny that you say you haven’t played a lot of piano because “Irene” (on which Melberg plays) is actually my favorite song on the album. But one thing I wanted to ask you about, especially on that song, a lot of the songs seem like they’re more reflective and looking backward. Is that the product of having a more mature perspective and being a little distant from writing songs?

RM: I think so. I also think that some of the songs were written at a time when my life was pretty settled, and there wasn’t a lot going on that I felt comfortable writing about. As far as reaching things that felt lyrical or poetic, I had to kind of go back because I felt really protective about my life at the time, not wanting that to be something that I put out there for others to have. So I thought, “well, I’m willing to give away my past but not my present.” And yet when looking back, I wasn’t just telling the story. As I explored that style of writing I realized like, “wow, I do have a totally different perspective on these things that happened a long time ago, I’m not 20 anymore.” This is an interesting thing to do, not just as a songwriter but just as a person, to look back but in this sort of lyrical way to see the mundane things from my past as something to make into something beautiful.

CMG: I took a history of rock and roll class last year, and one of things we had to do was write a paper about Led Zeppelin and gender roles. We got to talk about a couple of other songs, so I talked about your song “I Love You More” and what I wrote about was that I thought the narrator was very ambiguous in whether it’s even a female narrator or whether it’s about romance or friendship. My TA didn’t agree with my interpretation of that. You mention that the songs are about your life, so I was wondering what that’s about.

RM: I don’t often like to spoil the mystery of my songs…

CMG: Well, that’s ok.

RM: It can be whatever you want it to be, but it’s really a song about friendship. It’s really a song about loving someone so deeply and not wanting to share them. It’s about not being able to compete with a romantic rival when your relationship with someone isn’t romantic. But you can’t compete with that. That’s something you can’t give someone, only a romantic partner can do that and it’s frustrating and maddening and also relationship destroying. It’s about how close I am with my women friends and I see it as something beyond romance and yet equally as profound. It really at the time was about something very specific, it wasn’t as general, but I’m generalizing as far as the people behind it.

CMG: Going back to that era, your work with The Softies. What was your best experience from doing that?

RM: Well, back to the whole theme of friendship, the greatest thing about The Softies was my relationship with Jen. Our friendship evolved as our music evolved. We played music together basically the first or second time we ever hung out together. And that was how our friendship began. As our music evolved, our friendship evolved and the band became something that we couldn’t live without. We became that to each other and it was really one of the greatest, most positive experiences of my life coming out of the Tiger Trap experience, which was a lot of stress and a lot of difficult relationships. Then jumping into this and realizing that I could have these kinds of friendships and musical partnerships, that it didn’t have to be so difficult. We were so prolific because we just enjoyed each other so much and we enjoyed the process so much and there was this wonderful sort of symbiotic relationship between the two of us creatively. Jen had the skill and I had the desire to be writing, and so we gave each other this wonderful balance. It was totally creatively fulfilling, and such an amazing learning experience for me just as a musician because she just allowed me such freedom. That’s how I learned to play guitar and how I learned to write harmonies, just by doing. For the year that I lived in Portland, we lived in the same house and we would just write and practice all the time. It was just some of the most fun I’ve ever had it. It was like being in high school but great.

CMG: Who are some of your favorite musicians or lyricists?

RM: Right now?

CMG: Sure.

RM: In general?

CMG: Yeah, or of all time, whatever you’ve got.

RM: You know, I always have a difficult time answering that question, it’s really, really odd. There’re sort of songwriter-y people and then there’re people that write the great pop songs, and then there’s the lyricists that I really love, and there’s records that make me cry and records that make me mad, so it’s really really difficult to nail down. I don’t want to say even one name because it excludes so many others. It’s also based on what I listened to in the last year, the last five years. I’m a 34-year old lady and I’ve been obsessed with music since I was kid, so it’s a lot of people. I love songwriter-y people, people who can fashion unbelievably great pop songs. The first two Laura Nyro records are fabulous. As far as songwriting goes, just insane ideas, just taking it one step further. It’s like Burt Bacharach but better. But then, that first Tracy Thorn record is so simple and yet every time I listen to it I cry actual tears. The lyrics are so simple and yet they’re the most honest heartbreaking lyrics I’ve ever heard on any record. I tend to relate more to female musicians and songwriters and it’s not in any conscious way. I think it’s just in general what I gravitate towards.

CMG: So how did you get started playing music in the first place?

RM: I was just so into music as a teen. Just obsessed with records and going to shows and sneaking in and y’know, having the faking ID not even to drink but to get into bars to go see bands. I really didn’t have much of a desire to be a musician, I just wanted to be in a band. So it was really more of this idea of my friend Angela and I, it was like, “we have to be in a band.” We didn’t really have idea of what we would actually do or what we would actually play or what we were able to play, it was just the idea of something we had to do. My parents were professional musicians and that was always actually quite discouraging to me growing up because I’m not a natural musician, really. I don’t understand theory, anytime I try to understand or learn properly or learn to read music, I just get frustrated. That’s not the way my brain works. And that was always the way my step-dad would want to teach me guitar because he’s this virtuoso guitar player and so it just didn’t work. My mom is this unbelievable singer, she was a vocal teacher and her voice was so wonderful I would never even sing at home because I thought I could never be as good. So I really waited until I left home to even try. I learned those first three chords and then wrote a whole album’s worth of music from it. I just wanted to be a part of the thing I loved so much, it wasn’t so much about the craft of songwriting or anything like that. That really evolved over time, my whole approach to that and being more thoughtful about how I wrote songs. In the beginning, it was just like, we had to have something to play, so I guess I better write some songs. And that’s why a lot of the early songs are just really really dumb because we had no idea what we were doing. It’s a great way to learn, it’s a great motivator.

CMG: Do you have a favorite song, out of the stuff you’ve written?

RM: My own favorite song? Golly gosh. I don’t know, each record I have my favorite. On this record, I really like “The Orchard” for a lot of reasons. On previous records, gosh, they’re all so different, they’re like – I mean it sounds kind of dumb and cliché and heavy but it’s almost like children, you love them all for different reasons. So it’s hard to say. I have ones that I love to perform and ones that I love to listen to. “Each New Day” is really one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever done. I feel like it was really collaborative because I wrote it on the guitar and Nick changed it to piano, and even though it’s just the same chords, I felt like his interpretation of the chords on the piano completely changed the song. Even though he just took my chords and played them, somehow to me it changed the song so much and I loved that, it just brought so much to the song. I like the songs that have very little harmony, but when the harmony shows up, it just surprises you and catches you off guard and is really natural.

CMG: I thought the lyrics were very clever because it’s a traditional theme to have the dream lover, but then to make yourself an insomniac, I thought was really brilliant.

RM: Well yeah, exactly. That’s my mind.

CMG: Are you planning on coming down to Los Angeles or southern California anytime soon?
RM: I was going to in May but then I had to shorten my trip a bit so I think what I’m going to do is aim for doing that in the summer sometime. It’s really hard with having a child this age. It’s a funny in-between age; I can travel, and it’s really up to me to decide what’s appropriate, so sometimes the trips start to feel too long and I have to pull back. So I’m spacing it out throughout the whole summer. I’m doing some northern California shows in May and then I’m going to take some time off and hope to come down to L.A. later in the summer. In the fall is when I’m going to do like a proper tour, east coast west coast again.

I just really wanted to give the album time. I’ve been out of everything for so long, I didn’t want to come out with this record and try to cram it down everybody’s throat really quickly. I wanted to put it out there and give it life and let people find it and give it time to live for a while before I go out there and try to promote it. I’m so not self-promotional, I don’t have the energy nor the inclination nor the ego to go out there and say “this is really great, you should listen to this” or “it’s all about me!” I really just want it to quietly begin its life and let it happen on its own, and let everybody have a chance to find it that wants it, then start playing shows.

CMG: Do you think you’ll ever write a song about being a mom?

RM: Well, it’s pretty personal. I think it’s funny the things I will and won’t write about. I’ll write the most sort of gut-wrenchingly honest, intimate things about certain people or certain aspects of my life and yet there are certain things that I absolutely will not write about, and I kind of feel like that is one. That is mine, I don’t think I could give that up to the world or to the hundred people that would buy my record (laughs). I can live in my head and pretend a lot of things and let my imagination run wild with all kinds of stuff but that’s about as grounded in reality as it really is.