Sofia Verbilla of Harmony Woods | photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN
The High Key Portrait Series: Sofia Verbilla of Harmony Woods
“High Key” is a series of profiles conceived with the intent to tell the story of Philly’s diverse musical legacy by spotlighting individual artists in portrait photography, as well as with an interview focusing on the artist’s experience living, creating, and performing in this city. “High Key” will be featured in recurring installments, as the series seeks to spotlight artists both individually and within the context of his or her respective group or artistic collective.
Candid and genuine, Harmony Woods’ singer and songwriter Sofia Verbilla will openly cop to how much time she’s spent reflecting on her own talents, impugning her own songwriting skills, wondering if she’s got what it takes to overcome at turns significant self-doubt and claim confidence in her own creations.
It’s a tenuous tightrope she seems to have found some familiar comfort in walking, as the Philly rocker capably straddles the stark contrasts of both her self-effacing and introspective and hot-pink-haired ass-kicking-frontwoman personas, at once conflicting and complementary, while she negotiates an earned place for herself and the HamWoo crew to stand out among Philly’s basement DIY rock-and-rollers.
They’ll be back onstage in Philly on May 30th, opening for Slingshot Dakota at Everybody Hits.
THE KEY: When did you come to Philly, or are you from here?
SOFIA VERBILLA: I was born in South Philly, yeah, and then I moved to the suburbs with my dad when I was like 16, so now I’m kind of based there, when I’m not in school. But I’ve lived in Philly most of my life.
TK: Cool, what part of South Philly?
SV: Whitman. I grew up at 3rd and Wolf.
TK: Where’d you go to high school?
SV: So, first two years of high school, I went to this performing arts high school called GAMP – Girard Academic Music Program – it’s at like 22nd and Ritner. And then after I moved to the suburbs, I graduated from Abington Senior High School, which is near my dad’s house.
TK: What do you remember high school being like?
SV: It was a public school, but it was very well-funded, and the admission process was definitely a little sketch. Like, you kind of had to know someone in order to get in. It was weird.
TK: Was it like a magnet school kind of thing?
SV: Yeah. But I remember it was audition day — it was a music performance school — and they auditioned so many kids, but they only let in like 50 for each grade. So hundreds and hundreds of kids audition, but the only let in 50. So it was a smaller school and up until I started going to Abington, I’d only been to smaller schools in Philly. So it was kind of hard to find people to really click with, because there’s just such a small selection of people. So I’d made a few really great friends when I was a kid, and early on in high school, but I didn’t really make friends who were interested in a lot of the same music and stuff, until I went to Abington, which is huge.
TK: So the kids in the Philly school were, what, more insular, in a certain way?
SV: Yeah . . . [laughs] Not to sound like, too self-indulgent, I feel like I was an “alt” kid, you know? Like I was like way into emo, and indie rock, and I didn’t really meet a lot of kids there who were in that same stuff. Which is like totally chill. I did end up making friends.
TK: What were they into, in terms of culture?
SV: They were a lot of classical musicians. My friend Hannah, that I met at GAMP — we still keep in touch and she actually goes to Peabody now for flute, so. But I feel like becoming friends with people at that school taught me that you don’t need those surface-level interests to become friends with people. Like, making friends, you just need to have a connection, whether it’s a similar sense of humor, or similar morals, and you can have a super-strong friendship, even if you don’t have many actual interests in common, if that makes sense?
TK: Yeah, it’s kind of an important lesson and I feel like I didn’t learn until like, last year! I remember when I was a kid, I didn’t know what an “alt” kid was. I just knew I didn’t like Bon Jovi and I didn’t know why I didn’t fit in . . .
SV: [laughs] Yeah . . .
TK: So what was your first introduction to the Philly music scene, and what do you remember from your first time playing out in terms of the crowd or how it felt to be onstage?
SV: Word. I got into Philly DIY, I started listening to the music on my own time when I was like 14, 15, so early on in high school. And I didn’t start listening to more Philly artists until I got into Modern Baseball; they were like the first Philly band I ever got into, and they were like my favorite band growing up. They were kind of like, “the gateway” into the Philly scene. And then, I started going to shows, I would bring the friends that I had at that point — like the non-“alt” friends — to shows, and they’d be like, “yeah, this is cool!”
TK: So these are classical-artist friends?
SV: Yeah yeah yeah! It was funny, I saw some Modern Baseball at — I think it was Union Transfer, I’m not sure — in like 2015? Or, was either that or it was the Fillmore, I’ve seen Modern Baseball so many times. But it was one of the shows that I went to when I was in high school. I brought my friend Hannah, who I met at GAMP, who wasn’t really into like alternative music and it was her very first “pit” show — there was craziness in the crowd — and she was like, “this is awesome! I’m having so much fun!” So that was really cool, to be able to introduce her to that.
But in terms of like, songwriting and performance and stuff, I tried writing my first song when I was like 15 and I wrote my first couplet of lyrics. And then I didn’t finish it. I didn’t finish the song until like two years later, just because I really didn’t believe in myself.
I was one of those kids, I was in the gifted program when I was a kid, and, something teachers told my mom a lot growing up was like, “she needs to be challenged!” And I was just like no! I don’t want to be challenged! I like being good at things! So I kind of grew up feeling like, if I wasn’t automatically good at something — like [snaps] right there and then — that it wasn’t worth doing, and that I couldn’t do it, and I just had to try something else. So it was hard for me to start writing songs because I couldn’t immediately think of like every little thing and I didn’t think that what I was doing was immediately perfect. So I thought that it wasn’t worth doing, which is such a messed up way of thinking! [laughs] So I didn’t end up finishing my first song until I was like, 16.
TK: Now, did that couplet survive, is it part of a song now?
SV: Yeah, the song is on our three-song demo EP on Bandcamp, but we ended up re-recording it for our next record. It’s a song called “Ghosts,” and the couplet is:
Death is not a stranger, every life will have an end.
One day you will die, and only ghosts will be your friend.
And, at that point that’s like all I could think of, so I was like, I’m bad at this! [laughs] And I didn’t come back to it for another two years.
TK: So whether or not that’s a good way of thinking, it turned out that you were good at this, right? I mean the song survived and it’s on your record!
SV: [laughs] Perhaps. It’s up for discussion. [laughs]
TK: So, were you recording or writing or doing anything musically when you start seeing Modern Baseball, were they kind of the ones that got you into doing music?
SV: They were definitely a really big inspiration. Through MoBo, and through that vein of alternative music — like the indie / DIY scene — I started getting into like music created by women. And I feel like those artists — like Mitski and Julien Baker — those influences combined with Modern Baseball-esque influences definitely helped make me believe in myself more. I was like, oh my god, I don’t need to be a dude!
TK: That’s awesome. So when you started playing out, where did you first play, and was it as Harmony Woods?
SV: It was a house show in West Philly, this house called Michael Jordan and I played solo — the first few times I played were solo, I didn’t start playing full-band until like a year after I started playing shows. I didn’t start playing full-band shows consistently until a year after. But yeah, that was like that shows with The Obsessives, I think it was their EP-release show for My Pale Red Dot. I don’t remember very well, but, I was really nervous. Yeah, I don’t know if you can tell but I am a very anxious person. [laughs] And, into the second song, my hands were so sweaty that I ended up like dropping my pick and then like my dad bought me this like, specially special kind of guitar picks that like are like, easier to hold onto, so I wouldn’t drop it again. [laughs]
TK: Was your dad there?
SV: Yeah, my dad’s at a lot of our shows. He’s very supportive. I think I was using a glossier kind of pick that night, which is easier to drop, and then I think he just bought me those standard, I think they’re called Tortex, like the ones with the turtles on them. He bought me those, then we ended up having like some of those gray ones around the house with the grip. That was my first show, I had a lot of fun though.
TK: Were a lot of your friends there?
SV: Yeah! A lot of my friends were there! My friend Hannah, who I talked about before, was there. It was really nice.
TK: What’s your your favorite venue in Philly to play at?
SV: I’d say Everybody Hits? It’s classic, I love that place, it’s so nice. [Owner] Dave [Gavigan is] the best. Bruno’s the best, Dave’s dog. I don’t know if you know. [laughs]
It’s just such a nice venue, it’s got like a good vibe, it’s so welcoming. I feel like there aren’t a ton of like DIY venues in Philly, and it’s just like such a great thing to have, at an all-ages venue. Like anyone can have like any show there, like it’s such an open-minded, welcoming space. It’s great.
TK: In terms of like the Philly arts scene, and the interactions you’ve had – how would you describe it, and what about it would you say is an advantage in terms of being an artist here?
SV: It’s such a thriving, and large community. I remember a few weeks ago, we played at The Cages, with Weakened Friends and Nervous Dater, and that same night there were like a million other shows happening. [laughs] DIY shows especially. So like, we were all like, oh my god, like how’s the show going to do? Is anyone gonna to show up? There are like so many sick shows happening. And I feel like every show that night had a decent turnout! Philly’s just this huge, thriving community, you know? And like situations like that just proved that. There’s just so many people and so many different kinds of artists. There’s gonna be a good group of people at every show, you know? Because there’s just like — in the words of Smash Mouth — [speaking ironically] so much to do, so much to see! [laughs] I’m sorry. [laughs]
TK: No, that’s cool. We can quote Smash Mouth. So what about any frustrations you’ve had in Philly, in terms of making music as an artist here?
SV: I guess, a really dumb anxiety thing I do, is comparing myself to others. There’s just so many amazing and talented people! Obviously that’s like a wonderful thing. When you’re feeling down in the dumps., it can be easy to be like, “I’m not good enough! I’m a fraud!” You know? Like, I don’t belong here! There’s so many people who are so amazing, how did I get here? I successfully tricked everyone into thinking I’m cool when I’m not! So that, that can be kind of a bummer. But, like, it’s not a bummer. It’s great that there’s so many amazing, talented people here, you know? So just like that classic “impostor syndrome” is kind of a letdown. You just gotta try not to think that way! But, easier said than done obviously.
TK: Do you have a favorite, or most-influential of those artists, that you look up to?
SV: I feel like, Slaughter Beach, Dog, for sure — which is like Jake [Ewald of Modern Baseball]’s solo thing. I feel like — no shade to Bren [Lukens] or anything. But when I was like a MoBo fan, I connected more with Jake songs. And then when he started doing Slaughter Beach, Dog, I was like, oh my god! This is it! And like I remember being at their first few shows, and this is when I was like, 15, 16.
And like, okay — I’m dorky now, as I’m sure you could already tell, but I was like a thousand times more dorky back then, if you can’t even picture it. This is a funny story — they played a show and they debuted this their song “Monsters.” They were on this weekender, and they had been playing that song live. And a few days before then, Jake had done an acoustic session of that song, and I had watched the video so much that I remembered the words. Like in the three days it was out, between it being out and then going to that show. So I was at that show, and I was singing along to this song that like pretty much wasn’t even out. And my friend-slash-our-manager, Jeremy [Berkin] — it was before we were friends, he was at that show too — and he saw me singing along to that song, and he was like, how the fuck does she know the words to that song?! [laughs]
TK: You obviously love Jake’s music — have you met him, or played with him?
SV: Yeah! We’re really good friends, he actually recorded our first record! He’s an engineer, producer, [at his studio] The Metal Shop, in Fishtown.
TK: How did that out of that come about?
SV: Honestly, just from like going to shows, and like talking to them, and then having my dad around, and we kind of like formed a friendship with MoBo. And I think there was like this release party for Holy Ghost that my dad and I had been invited to. And I had this record of songs written, and I didn’t know the first thing about music production, and I didn’t know anyone who was an engineer. Except for Jake. And my dad was like, ask him! I was like, no! [laughs] But then, I don’t know, I was just like eff-it! So I asked him, like hey, like do you want to record my band? He was like, yeah! He was like super nice about it!