Photo: Sam Baker
In the world of charming DIY indie pop, few people have left as lasting an impression as Rose Melberg, the Vancouver-based Bay Area expat. Since appearing on K Records’ International Pop Underground Convention compilation, she’s played in a number of bands up and down the west coast, and been a driving force in scrappy, twee-leaning pop music.
She’s so versatile, in fact, that it’s hard to pin down exactly everything she’s accomplished. From her early genre-defining work in Tiger Trap to her current place as a Vancouver music scene fixture (she plays in five or six bands at any given time), there’s a lot of material to cover. “I love them all equally for different reasons,” she explains.
Over the years, Melberg wagers she’s written somewhere between 120 and 140 songs in her time as a musician. Through that time, however, the method has changed ever so slightly. “I feel like there was a solid 10 or 15 years of my life where I wrote unbelievably confessional songs, and that’s sort of what resonated with people the most,” she admits. “It’s so easy to write those songs, as kind of a tender person, but I put a little bit more armour on sometimes these days. I have a kid, I went through a divorce. All of these things that make me feel like I want to be a little bit more protective of the people in my life.”
Though she admits that “the songs come a little slower now,” she’s showing no signs of slowing down. “Sometimes I worry that I will run out of ideas, but Calvin Johnson [of K Records and Beat Happening] once told me some great advice,” she says. “He said ‘Rose, it’s not a well. It’s a river. It doesn’t run dry, it just is always moving.’ I’ll never forget that. It’s always in the air, you just have to know when to put your antenna up. There’s always a song, anywhere and everywhere.”
In Sacramento, California, Melberg formed Tiger Trap with Angela Loy, Heather Dunn and Jen Braun in 1992. Just one year later, in December of 1993, the group broke up. In that short span, they managed to become one of the most influential twee pop acts of all time. The group released music on K Records, Kill Rock Stars and Slumberland, among others.
“Tiger Trap was my first band, so it was so special. It took so much courage and we were so young,” says Melberg. “It was at a time when being in an all-female band was not the easiest thing to do…. [it’s] the first time you put a song together an hear yourself. For the first six months, it was just the most exciting time of my life. I couldn’t believe I was doing the thing that I had always wanted to do since I became obsessed with music when I was 12.
“That’s why I love Tiger Trap. It was a very hard band to be in, because we were so young. There was a lot of drama, and it couldn’t have lasted. It just sort of exploded. It was very short. We were together for less than two years. So it was really exciting, and it was one of the greatest and worst things of my life. And it happened really fast.
“The thing I really appreciate about Tiger Trap is that it allowed me to know what I didn’t want to do. You know, when you get a taste of the possibility or what it would be like to be a rock star, and I wanted no part in it. I’m glad I had that experience at 20 rather than aiming toward some unattainable goal that would have probably never made me happy. To become so successful so quickly was a really good lesson. And also to see how harmful and destructive it was to all of our personal relationships, because we just weren’t old enough to understand what was happening.”
Following the disbandment of Tiger Trap, Melberg was approached by Jen Sbraglia (now of the Portland twee supergroup the All Girl Summer Fun Band). The two instantly hit it off, and while their initial time together was frequently interrupted by moves to new cities, they managed to accomplish a lot together, releasing their uniquely stripped down music (just the two women with vocals and guitars) on K and Slumberland. The band still plays shows on occasion. Melberg suggests that a complete Softies box set may surface one day, and would include five or six LPs worth of material.
“She was a Tiger Trap fan, that’s how I met her,” Melberg says, of Sbraglia. “She used to come to shows in the Bay Area. She lived in Santa Rosa, which was north of San Francisco. I lived in Sacramento, which was east of San Francisco. But she would always come to our shows in San Francisco. She was a huge fan, and had a fanzine.
“After Tiger Trap broke up, she got in touch with me. She had heard the band broke up, and she wanted to see how I was. I was like ‘Come visit me in Sacramento.’ She came, and we wrote a song the first time we hung out together. That sort of saved my life…. I was so sad after Tiger Trap broke up. I put so much into that band, and it fell apart so quickly. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could play music again. And then Jen just sort of fell into my life and we immediately started playing music together.
“The sad thing was, it was so great, but she had already made this plan to move to Portland. So she was going to be leaving Santa Rosa within two months or so of the time we first started hanging out. So I was so bummed, because we were writing and recording songs, and it was so exciting, and travelling to visit each other in different cities….”
“With Jen, it was amazing because we were creating something totally new. There was no blueprint for what we were doing, we just had this idea like let’s just let it be the two of us and see what happens.
“We continued to do the Softies for quite a few years when I was in Vancouver, and even beyond that when I moved to the Okanagan. We did a lot of travelling, or even just sending things through the mail. I had a cassette four-track and I would send her tapes of my songs and she would write parts. It was pretty hard but totally worth it.”
Melberg says she started Go Sailor “sort of concurrently” with the Softies. The group was based in Berkeley, and say her working with Crimpshrine’s Paul Curran and Amy Linton of Henry’s Dress and The Aislers Set. The group released music on Slumberland and the beloved pop-punk imprint Lookout! Records before disbanding when members moved to different cities.
Rose Melberg says: “When [Jen of the Softies] moved to Portland, that’s when I started Go Sailor, because I wanted a band that was in town. Even though they actually weren’t in town. Linton and Paul both lived in San Francisco. So I’d take the Greyhound bus to San Francisco every weekend for months on end, and then we’d practice there. But we only ended up doing that for about nine months, because then I ended up moving to Portland to be with Jen. So Go Sailor was really short-lived, but very, very productive.”
“When I moved to Portland, we did do some more Go Sailor stuff with travelling. We would all meet up throughout the next year or two. Then I lived in Portland for a year, and that’s when Jen and I were so productive. We basically wrote almost three albums worth of music in the year that I lived there, because we were living together in the same house and that’s what I did all the time. But then I got married and moved to Vancouver a year after I moved to Portland.”
“I definitely knew I only wanted to be in bands with people that I could really trust and that I really, really loved. It was never about just the music, it was about the group of people. I just wanted to have fun and be around people that were equally as invested in the emotional aspect of it. With Jen and the Softies, and also with Linton and Paul.”
“I’ve rarely been in bands that broke up. It’s usually like somebody moved, and then you go on hiatus and see what happens. Go Sailor was just kind of always on hiatus, we never broke up. It was just that Linton moved to New York, and Paul was in the Bay Area, and I was in Vancouver. For 12 years there was still just not a lot of possibility to play together with some of the distance.”
In the late ‘90s, Melberg got married and moved from Portland to Vancouver, BC. She joined the band Gaze, in which she played drums. It was her first time behind a drumkit, and the band released two 7-inches and two LPs. All but their first 7-inch came out on K Records.
“While I was in Vancouver, which was from ’95 to ’98, some friends asked me if I wanted to play drums in their band,” she says. “I was pretty bored, so I said yes. I said I don’t know how to play drums and they said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ So I did. We did two albums, both of them came out on K. And it was really fun. I wasn’t involved in the songwriting in that band, I was just the drummer.”
After her first time in Vancouver, Melberg moved to the Okanagan, the fertile valley in southern BC. Feeling isolated and separate from any sort of musical community, she reluctantly started writing music under her own name. She’s released plenty of singles as Rose Melberg, as well as two stripped-down LPs—2006’s fantastic Cast Away the Clouds and 2009’s Homemade Ship.
“I never wanted to be a solo artist, but I had these songs and I really just needed a creative outlet,” she says. “I had a very small child, and I kind of felt like I was losing touch with my creativity and needed to do something. So that’s where both of those records came from. One was written while I was still living in the Okanagan, and the other was written in the first year or two while I was living [in Vancouver again], before I knew people in the community who I could play with.”
“I don’t feel the need to do that anymore, recording alone. There are things about it that I like—sometimes a song doesn’t feel like it needs much more than what I wrote. But I’ve always felt uncomfortable just putting my name on something. You can’t put your name on a t-shirt. I do music because it’s fun to be part of the larger experience of doing music, and being in a band, and involving people. But I also just love writing songs. I still play solo shows, because people ask.”
After seven years in the Okanagan, Melberg moved back to Vancouver and felt like the city had changed entirely. Through friends like Nick Krgovich (of No Kids, Gigi, and P:ano), she made some new connections, but it took a while for her to connect with the city’s music scene. When she finally did, she formed the five-piece pop group Brave Irene with Caitlin Gilroy, Amanda Pezzutto, Jessica Wilkin and Laura Hatfield. The band released a fantastic EP on Slumberland in 2011 before disbanding when members moved away.
“That, I have to say, musically was one of my favourite things I ever did. I really like those songs, and I really like that record and that group of people was so amazing,” Melberg shares.
“We did it for such a short amount of time, because two of the members moved away at the same time and that’s why we stopped playing. The record only has eight songs because we only managed to write and record eight songs. Laura our drummer moved to Sweden and Jessica moved to India for a while. So it just stopped so abruptly. It was so heartbreaking.”
“I was just loving finally getting that sound that I just always wanted to get. Adding in the keyboard, and having five people, and the drums were exactly how I wanted them to be, and the harmonies that Caitlin and I were doing were so fun. So that was a hard one to let go, but I’m really glad we managed to record what we had and I miss that band a lot.
“I say this often, but I truly mean it, so I don’t mind saying it again. A band to me is not a group of songs, it’s a group of people. You can write more songs. And as long as you get songs recorded, then they exist forever and you can let them go. I don’t need to keep playing the same songs over and over again. There’s nothing in me that feels the need for that constant validation, that I’d need to keep a band alive by just continuing to replace people. The songs were recorded, and that’s what mattered to me. The art was made. We did it together.
“Last week Laura Hatfield, the drummer in Brave Irene, came back to Vancouver for a quick visit for the first time in four years. She moved to Sweden four years ago. It was so amazing to see her and it is such a rare thing to have her here that we quickly went in to my practice space and recorded her playing drums for two possible new Brave Irene songs. The recording is pretty lo-fi, but we figured it would be totally worth it since it could be years until she comes back again. The hope is to eventually have everyone else add their parts and to end up with two new finished songs and put out a 7-inch. Such a dream! I love and miss that band so much.
“A band with five ladies is just a rare and beautiful thing.”
Shawn Mrazek Lives!
When she’s not playing her own material, Melberg happily lends her skills to other peoples’ live bands. She was Jay Arner’s original drummer, and has performed in Bleating Hearts and Gigi, while filling in roles for Seattle’s Seapony and Nick Krgovich’s No Kids on occasion.
She currently sings back up vocals for the band Cool, and acts as the live drummer for Shawn Mrazek Lives!
“Shawn Mrazek is a Vancouver guy, who’s actually an amazing drummer. He plays drums in the Evaporators, and he used to be in a band called the Doers,” he says. “He’s just this amazing drummer. He made a record last year where he played all of the instruments on the record and made this really great, super positive, fun rock ‘n’ roll record. When he put together a band to play the songs live, he asked me to play drums for him.”
“I love playing drums. I used to play drums in a band in the ’90s, but I wasn’t very good and I only did it for like two years. I was just self-taught. A couple of years ago, maybe three years ago, my friend Jay [Arner] encouraged me to start playing again. I was the original drummer in his live band when he put out his new record. But I had to leave the band because he wanted to do epic touring, and I have a 12-year-old son.”
“I love playing drums. I love the physicality. I love the challenge. I love how much better I’ve gotten over the years. I never stop learning. It’s so satisfying. It was like learning how to drive a stick-shift. It was like that thing you look at [that] looks so complicated, and you try to understand it. It makes no sense, and you can’t imagine ever being able to do it, then something clicks and you figure it out and go, ‘Oh my god I can actually be really good at this.’
So… the satisfaction is what I love. And the act of drumming is so joyful and so fun. But playing guitar, I love songwriting, so that’s what I can do with my guitar. That’s my tool.”
Following Brave Irene, Melberg’s next big project was the pop trio PUPS. The group features our heroine on drums alongside collaborators Caitlin Livingston and Katie Gravestock. All three women share vocal duties. They released six songs on a split cassette with Movieland last spring. Unfortunately, the project is currently on a hiatus.
“That is myself and two lady friends, my friend Caitlinn and my friend Katie. Caitlin had never been in a band before ever,” says Melberg. “She really wanted to start a band, so I offered to be the drummer because I find that’s often the hardest thing to get when you want to start a band. I offered up my services, but then I ended up being more involved in the songwriting than I thought I would.
“It was a fun band, because they would kind of write the music, and I would write the music and vocal melodies. I had never really done that before, where someone handed me an instrumental song and said, ‘Write the vocals.’ I was singing and playing drums. I sang lead on some songs and Caitlin and Katie sang on other songs.
“We haven’t played in a while. We’re kind of on hold because our guitar player is in school and she’s really busy. But we play shows every once in a while and we’ve put out a record and a tape.”
Tally Ho! is an infrequent cover band, though in classic Melberg style, they’ve managed to play a decent amount of shows together and release some material. It’s a duo comprised of Melberg and Larissa Loyva (P:ano, Kellarissa).
“It’s just really fun,” she says. “We did Tally Ho-Ho-Ho! this year, where we played Christmas songs.”
KMVP is a DIY punk project from a Vancouver songwriter named Kristjanne. Melberg plays drums, while her boyfriend Jon Manning plays bass.
“It’s kind of like a feminist, anti-pipeline pop-punk band,” he says. “[Kristjanne] played with a lot of different people with the same set of songs…. That’s a really fun band to play in, because I get to play really fast drums which is fun.”
“It sounds pretty different now that Jon and I are in the band…. Kristjanne has been away tree planting all summer so we haven’t done the band in a few months. It’s nice to remember that it’s another band in my repertoire these days!”
In addition to KMVP, Rose and Jon play together in Imaginary Pants. The group have just released their Kites at Night EP.
Rose Melberg says: “We just sort of do it for fun whenever we can.”
Rose Melberg’s next big project is Knife Pleats, a quartet she formed with Tracey Vath and Kaity McWhinney, of likeminded Vancouver twee act Love Cuts, as well as drummer Gregor Phillips. The group haven’t played any shows yet, but they’ve been practicing regularly, with plans to debut this month. “Distant Ships,” a demo Melberg released under her own name on Kingfisher Bluez, is the first song the band learned together.
“It’s a sewing term. It’s a type of skirt pleat. The ones that all go in the same direction is a knife pleat,” Melberg says, of the band’s name. “We were supposed to play a show in July, but Kaity has to go to Korea to teach for the summer. I love those ladies so much, and we’re having so much fun…. We practice at their house and we’re hoping to play our first show in August.”
“This solo demo is kind of the starting point for the band. I played all of the instruments on this recording but it sounds really cool with a real band playing it.”