The songs of Rose Melberg, from the world to Vancouver

Photo of Rose Melberg by Sam Baker.

Rose is a very inspiring singer-songwriter. In a just world, she'd be as big as Dolly Parton by now.

 -- Gail O'Hara, chickfactor magazine  

In early 1994, I was tour-managing cub's first-ever US tour, a west coast jaunt down to San Francisco and back. One of the shows was in a little town called Santa Rosa. We arrived late, and the opening band was already playing. As we walked in - I stopped in my tracks, awestruck at what I was hearing. The absolute voice of an angel wafted over the pin-drop silent, cross-legged crowd ... a perfect rendition of the classic Sam Cooke song "Cupid". As Sam Cooke is the greatest singer who ever lived, who ever dares cover him better be good. Yup, the singer was Rose Melberg, in her new band the Softies, and she delivered a performance I've obviously never forgotten.

 -- Grant Lawrence, CBC Radio 3/The Smugglers

A month ago I went to see Brave Irene, the five-piece Vancouver indie pop band featuring Rose Melberg. If Melberg's name doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. The cozy audience of 60, mostly musicians, attested to Melberg's near-invisibility in all but a small enclave of the Vancouver music community. And even in that scene, Melberg seems quite content to play the support as much as she plays the lead--as drummer in Gaze, when she first moved up the coast to Vancouver in the latter 1990s, as current bass player in Bleating Hearts, and as guest vocalist for all manner of projects in between.

But Google "Rose Melberg" or the names of any of the bands for which she's best known--Tiger Trap, The Softies, Go Sailor--and you enter the world of an internationally beloved singer and songwriter.

I decided to try to take advantage of this. Rather than write yet another local article about the quiet influence of Rose Melberg in our fair city, I decided to let some of the people who really know and love her music tell the story. I wrote to her fellow musicians, local and international. I wrote to the music columnists and music bloggers who passionately write about every Melberg project. And I wrote to the owners of the independent record labels who have put out her music over the past 19 years.

I wrote to them, asking: "What is your favourite Rose Melberg, or Tiger Trap or Softies or Go Sailor or Brave Irene song, and why?"

The founders of two of most influential independent music labels on the West Coast got back to me about the first single by Melberg's first band Tiger Trap, which featured Melberg's high school friend, Angela Loy, and Jenn Braun and Heather Dunn.

Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records wrote: 

Tiger Trap "Words and Smiles"  (Four Letter Words split 7"). This was the first Rose song I ever heard. When it came out in '92, I was running a small mail order distro through Slumberland for like-minded indie labels, so we always brought in Four Letter Words releases. I'd heard a few things about Tiger Trap since they were sort-of local for me, but I wasn't at all prepared for the amazing lo-fi blast of "Words And Smiles." To hear a young American band playing music that slotted right in next to favorites like The Rosehips and The Flatmates was kind of shocking. It might be hard to have that perspective now, since there are TONS of groups mining similar territory, but in 1992 this flavor of pop was NOT happening at all in the US. "Words And Smiles" didn't sound like any other group in particular (always a good sign), but you could tell that the influences and impulses behind it were totally in line with a whole strain of pop music that I adored and almost seemed like a secret, hidden away from mainstream indie tastes.

Calvin Johnson of Olympia's K Records, and too many seminal bands to name only Beat Happening, went right for the poetic heart of this epic gem, the uncanny way Rose Melberg channels her life into her songs:

There are so many wonderful Rose Melberg moments on the first Tiger Trap album! Classic songs every; "Words and Smiles" was an immediate fave, but when Rose explained the circumstances that surround it, how she visited Olympia the summer of 1991 for the International Pop Underground Convention and saw Alan Larsen singing and playing guitar in his white jeans with Some Velvet Sidewalk, then going to the top of Mt. Rainier the snow was so white just like Alan's jeans, she wrote a song about it. Perfect. When I first started playing solo shows I asked Rose to write down the words and chords to this song so I could cover it.

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