The Softies Then and Now: Jen Sbragia on 30 Years Together

Happy 30th anniversary, Rose and Jen! Photo: Alicia J. Rose

Earlier this year, The Softies (two California girls / singer-songwriter-guitarists Rose Melberg + Jen Sbragia) celebrated 30 years as a band and as BFFs. They are not a band that just reformed after not doing anything since the 1990s! They have been playing shows here and there over the years (including chickfactor 20 and 25 shows in New York, London, SF and Portland), even as they lived in different PacNW towns, had kids, jobs, played music with others and so on. Still, as they just announced their brand-new album, The Bed I Made (on Father/Daughter Records and Lost Sound Tapes), upcoming tour and new single, we wanted to check in about how things were then versus how they are now! Read our post from yesterday about the new album, the vinyl reissues of their previous work and more, and then read on to hear from Jen about how things have changed. Interview by Gail

Jen in Portland, 2023. Photo: Gail O’Hara

CF: What are you up to today?
Jen Sbragia: Working on some freelance design stuff, making dinner, hopefully practicing guitar later
What would you have been up to on a day like this in 1994?
Very similar except I didn’t have Adobe Creative Suite!
Tell us about how your songwriting process worked in 1994 vs. 2024.
In the past, I would write and present a whole song of mine to Rose, she would then write a lead guitar part and a vocal harmony. For the new album, I had song ideas but also a few half-baked ideas and riffs, which we worked on together to make whole songs. It was pretty fun to do that, because Rose has studied the art of songwriting so much more than me. She inspires me to do better, all the time.
Both of you have been undergoing major life shifts in recent years; how did grief, loss, change play into the songs? How is that different from your trials and tribulations of 30 years ago?
I always used to write songs about unrequited love back in the day. This is still true for me! At this point in my life I have experienced more loss, so that is tied in too. But crushes not working out is my favorite songwriting topic, apparently.

Cover of The Bed I Made by Fumi Yanagimoto

What was a typical day in the studio like making The Bed I Made? And how does that differ from the 1990s sessions?
Analog is lovely and all, but recording digitally is fantastic. Rose and I used Garage Band to make demos for each other we could email back and forth. When it came time to record in the studio, we felt so lucky to work with Nich (Nicholas Wilbur). He has an amazing ear, is endlessly chill and patient, makes the perfect cappuccino, and belongs to the funniest and best dog, Cathy. I heard my first ever ghostly footsteps in the (haunted) studio! Rose and I slept there at night – it was a little spooky, which I loved.

Softies’ studio still-life, courtesy of Rose

What are some of your most important studio accoutrements? Snacks, tea, special instruments or accessories?
Lots of Juanita’s tortilla chips, peanut butter, strong coffee, maybe a touch of psilocybin. Anacortes Unknown has a vibraphone… it may make an appearance.
How long have you been working on this one?
I took a trip to Vancouver in January of 2023 and we ended up with the beginnings of 8 songs, and just excitedly continued from there, meeting every month or so. Sometimes we would meet in Seattle, sometimes I would make the full trek to Vancouver. I love long drives so it really didn’t seem too difficult.
How has the touring and show playing ecosystem changed from then to now?
Well, it is much better now that we don’t have to have an Atlas and a Thomas Guide! One time on tour we caravanned with walkie talkies.
We prefer that more days off need to be built in. We need ease and calm. The less stress, the better. There is a low key goal of being able to stay somewhere with a hot tub. Can we always have a hot tub? A girl can dream.

Jen in Portland. Photo: Gail O’Hara

What can fans to do help musicians have better lives?
Vote. Buy merch. Come to live shows.
Do you have a sense of how big your audience is now vs 1994? Do you hear from fans?
We used to get fan letters back in the day. I have a box of them. These days, it’s much quicker and easier with social media. But also it can feel overwhelming because everything is so immediate.
What about the vinyl reissues on K: are those all out now or coming soon?
Out now: Holiday in Rhode Island [KLP119]
Out July 26: Winter Pageant [KLP061]
Out Sept. 6: It’s Love [KLP043]

Where all will you be touring?
Glas Goes Pop festival on Friday, July 26.
Two record release shows at the end of August in Vancouver and Portland, followed by two more shows in early September in Anacortes and Seattle

East coast shows in late Sept/early October

California shows in late October

What else are you up to apart from the Softies?
Always trying to balance freelance design work, hoping for more hours but grateful when I have free time for music. I have some new song ideas for All Girl Summer Fun Band but we haven’t had time to work on them yet. I would like to get back into drawing comics and/or making prints of some kind.

What are you eating, cooking, watching, reading lately?
FOOD: I’m on a mission to sample every single non-dairy cream cheese on the market. I could eat the Moderno Bowl at Tacovore every day. Peanut butter filled chocolate covered pretzels from Trader Joe’s are my favorite food group.

COOKING: Lately I have been avoiding cooking as much as possible! I’m giving in to convenience whenever possible, although throwing a sweet potato in the oven is very easy and I love the edible sugar goo that comes out of them.

WATCHING: I’m re-watching Killing Eve because Jodie Comer is a goddess. Also watching the new season of Bridgerton. I will re-watch Broad City for the rest of my life. Listening to Rebel Girl by Kathleen Hanna. Reading Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. Books do tend to stack up and collect dust. I’m trying!

The cassette tape is on Lost Sound Tapes

Records Jen Cannot Live Without:

Tiger Trap – S/T & Sour Grass
Lightheaded – Good Good Great
Henry’s Dress – Bust ‘em Green
Girl Ray – Prestige
Pretenders – S/T
Fastbacks – Very, Very Powerful Motor
Young Guv – I, II, III, IIII (basically anything he does)
Dolly Mixture – Demonstration Tapes
Kids on a Crime Spree – Fall in Love Not in Line
Of Montreal – Cherry Peel
Best of 1994: Boyracer – More Songs About Frustration & Self Hate
Best of 2024: Lightheaded – Combustible Gems

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on vinyl/etc.

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on cassette tape.

Order/preorder all the vinyl reissues on K Records here

Check out All Girl Summer Fun Band here

Listen to other Rose Melberg music here

Listen to Knife Pleats here

The Softies. Photo: C. Doughty
Set list from the Softies’ June 2023 show at Polaris Hall.
Vinyl reissue out now on K Records
Vinyl reissue out July 26 on K Records
Vinyl reissue out Sept. 6 on K Records
Grab a ticket ASAP, Glasgow!

 

The Aislers Set Talk About Their Peel Session, Out in June

The Aislers Set Peel Session Is Out June 8 on Precious Recordings of London. Order yours here now. 

We caught up with Alicia Vanden Heuvel and Linton from the Aislers Set and Nick from Precious Recordings of London (the label putting out the EP) to find out more about their 2001 Peel Session! Images courtesy of the band

How did the Peel Session come about?
Linton: Sean Price of Fortuna Pop arranged it. I’m pretty certain of that.

How did it feel to record a session?
Linton: Was wild. I’d never recorded Aislers out of the garage before—given up studio control, mixing, etc. The engineers were kind and very attentive. They even tuned Yoshi’s drums and let us do some forbidden overdubs when the singing was terrible. It was amazing to be in that studio, with its history, obviously, and it was interesting to just play and not be at the helm using the studio tools creatively. cool experience and a complete honor, of course. I still feel incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity.

What do you remember about the man himself?
Linton: I only met him once and many years before. He wasn’t there for the session, which I think is typical? I met him in a bar in Leeds around ’94 and we talked about our shared experience of living in the desert. I recall him talking about having lived in Texas as an insurance salesman and travelling the southwest in the ’60s.  I wrote a few lines about that on the back of the record sleeve.

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

What was the studio like?
Alicia: The fact that we would be in a studio where all of these legendary, great bands had recorded was mind blowing. Arriving in London and taking the Tube to the studio that morning, we were all full of nerves and excitement. We had been rehearsing intensely and Linton had written a new song just for the session, “Mission Bells.”  We get there, coffees in hand, and enter the studio. Linton, Wyatt, and I had recording equipment at home and we couldn’t wait to see the studio and gear… the Aislers Set had never recorded in a studio, before or since…. were just in awe at the mixing console, the beautiful room. The real jaw-dropping moment was when the engineers showed us the Microphone Closet, showing us various ones that were literally invented and built by engineers at the BBC. And WE got to have them mic’d on our drums, on our equipment. It was literally one of the best days of our lives as a band. BBC engineers, a huge Hammond organ for Jen to play, the welcome from John Peel. In this magic and sacred musical space. The day spent laying down those songs was joyful, the engineers were so kind, we just felt on top of the world.

Linton: Equipped!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

What are you guys up to these days, music or otherwise?
Alicia: I’m still recording bands and playing in bands. I have a record label/ recording studio called Speakeasy Studios SF. It’s still the same Otari 8 track and Soundcraft board that we used for The Red Door and a few other songs back in the day, and both Poundsign records. Now I can mix into digital though, which saves a lot of sleepless nights. I’m currently recording the new Telephone Numbers record and working with my husband Tony Molina on his next record. I still work my day job (that I’ve had since 1997) at La Med restaurant in SF, because life as a musician just doesn’t pay the bills, ha ha. But I love my work, feeding people and being around people is my jam. My daughter is graduating from high school now and life goes on!

Linton: I’m not playing music. very rarely, anyway, but i do think about it. I do make some noise now and again but I wouldn’t call it music—more collage/feedback/harmonic control and texture experiments with zero melody. Mostly I’m making visual art and furniture as well as teaching sculpture and “sonic” arts at CalArts in southern california. Pretty nourishing gig.

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

Will the Aislers Set play at CF35 (should it happen)?
Alicia: I would like to very much, yes!

Linton: Only if an entirely new batch of songs is written. I can’t physically sing most of the old ones anymore and I’m not writing music at the moment… so… I am hoping to write performable music sometime, eventually. dunno if it would be Aislers music or in time for CF35 but keep you posted!

Linton from the Aislers Set on CF13, Y2K (lower right). Photo: Gail O’Hara with design help from LD Beghtol
The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

How did this come together? Any particular challenges or hurdles? 

Nick from Precious Recordings of London: The Aislers Set were one of the artists I thought of when I started Precious Recordings of London a few years ago during COVID. As I hunkered down in Putney, West London, I looked through an old box of cassettes I’d retrieved when my mum died a couple of years earlier and found all these bootlegs and sessions I had taped from BBC Radio 1‑John Peel and Janice Long, none of them ever released.

So I just asked the few friends I knew if they’d be willing to let me loose releasing their sessions on vinyl. You can get them on YouTube but, well, I wanted it to be special.

Somehow I found the right person to pay for a licence from the BBC and off we went. But as I say, these were old friends like Jim from the Jasmine Minks, Duglas from BMX Bandits and Amelia from Heavenly–from the late 1980s, the C86-era, when I was more active!

Of course, I did not know anybody from The Aislers Set, added to which they were on the other side of the Atlantic. And they did not hail from the late ’80s music scene. So why would they want me to release a prized session?

But I am a big fan, which is the ultimate criteria when I want to release a record, and this particular session has legendary status among The Aislers Set cognoscenti. Moreover, the esteemed editor of this august organ put me in touch with Alicia. (You’re welcome! –Editor)

But the thing is that was maybe three or four years ago, and The Aislers Set were originally down with a catalogue number PRE 008. Through nobody’s fault, really, it is finally seeing the light of day as PRE 038–and even that is a little misleading, as we’re up to PRE 042!

Precious started out releasing gatefold 7-inch singles of BBC sessions on vinyl with a set of postcards included in the package. Now we’re doing ten-inchers–a 60% rise in manufacturing costs during COVID forced that change, but I love the tens anyway–and even the postcards have been replaced by printed inners!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

Frankly, I don’t know why it has been so long. Getting pictures and sleeve notes always takes a while–and everybody is so busy. But we kept in touch via email … things kept bobbling along quietly until I heard from Linton, and they were happy with the idea.

Sean Price of their UK LP Fortuna Pop! is a good friend of mine, and Mike at Slumberland also gave his blessing–and I had both scurrying about looking for images. Plus, Alicia had some great pics of the day of recording itself at the famed BBC Studios – Sean was there, it turned out.

So slowly, slowly, we got there, and I am so excited about this session. It’s everything I wanted when I started this project–not only do I love the band, of course, and this is a FAB session–but also the holy grail of a previously unreleased session with a totally song on there–the cover of Joy Division’s ‘Walked in Line’, and Linton actually wrote ‘Mission Bells’ specifically for the session recording.

I always hoped to release sessions that had never been out before in any form, or at least not on vinyl … as it happens, both these ideals have, er, been compromised, but at least I hope I am keeping up the standard of releasing records that I would want to buy myself as a fan, with all the extras, unseen pics etc.

The cherry on the cake with The Aislers Set came when I found out how much the session meant to them. Of course, John Peel is a legendary figure over here and I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me they prefer the session version of various songs, often because they feel ‘fresher’ than overproduced later versions. Not that that was a problem with The Aislers Set, of course, but Alicia told me the session was “literally the highlight of our career as a band”.

Linton has also supplied some wonderful sleeve notes–the band heard the first broadcast in a Glasgow pub on a tinny transistor radio alongside their friends from Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura! What a great story.

I’m so happy–can I say ‘privileged’ without sounding too ‘gushy’?–to be able to release this session. It means a lot. I also think it means a lot to The Aislers Set, so I’m so grateful they’ve trusted me not to mess things up. Let’s hope I haven’t!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel