Comfort, Liberation, and Reflection: How Harmony Woods' Sofia Verbilla found strength in solitude on Graceful Rage - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

It feels a little less lonely talking to Harmony Woods frontperson Sofia Verbilla. It could be due to hearing the motivations for her new album Graceful Rage, ones that stem from using songwriting as her own catharsis while also maintaining a communal perspective on human experience, asking “if I put these songs into the world, would people be able to relate?” Or it could be from bonding over the difficulty of truly feeling things, and how it’s supposed to be easy, yet can often be the furthest from it. It’s these components that contribute to forming the foundation of Graceful Rage, Harmony Woods’ third record that landed this morning without any warning.

As a college student in her last semester at Drexel University, Verbilla falls into a demographic that has been said to behit the hardest by the element of isolation brought forth by the pandemic.

It’s something we discuss for a few minutes, coasting off our chat about the first warm, spring-like day being a mood-lifter for students nearly a full year into online learning. Staring at boxes on screens for hours at a time each day is, of course, a dominant cause of that loneliness, but also shows itself through other ways unpacked on the record as well.

“Throughout the pandemic, I was reading a lot of articles about how it was affecting people mentally and emotionally, especially young people, like people our age, and sort of reading about how most, not every, person is going through it and is feeling some kind of way,” explains Verbilla, musing about how much social media is a factor. “[It] has a way of tricking people into thinking that they are the only ones struggling, that they are the only ones going through a hard time.”

Verbilla says she’s definitely fallen into that trap, many many times. “There are a ton of people who are constantly spreading awareness and being vulnerable about their situations. But also, there is this expectation to keep up this facade of, ‘despite everything I’m doing great, things are good, I’m keeping it together even during a time where, for many people, that simply is almost impossible. It’s such an unrealistic expectation to start with, and then you throw a global crisis into the mix and it’s like, ‘Oh, this isn’t chill, like things really aren’t okay right now.”

To cope with the loneliness, Verbilla turned to music, as she often does. Graceful Rage became something for herself, an outlet, an attempt to connect with others during a time where it seems almost impossible to do so. That’s where her embrace of being a singer-songwriter comes into play, as “can this help people if they heard it?” was one of the few questions she had heading in to the project. 

Sofia Verbilla | photo credit Brooke Marsh | courtesy of the artist

While the words on Graceful Rage are Verbilla’s, ones that narrate her own experiences and emotions, letting the project out for others means it ends up being everyone’s story. We touched on Maggie Rogers and her view of being a singer-songwriter, saying that once she puts her music out into the world, it no longer belongs to her; her words and experiences transform into the meanings listeners assign to them.

When Rogers was interviewed for Q on CBC, she said “One of the biggest privileges of being a musician is getting the chance to be a part of people’s lives in this intimate way. I think one of the reasons I definitely make and play music is to connect to people and to bring people together, to create community.”

The idea for Graceful Rage was the first deviation from the low-energy state Verbilla was in for much of the pandemic, driven by a feeling of empowerment she had from sitting on personal songs that she thought others could cling to as well. 

“I don’t want people to hear the record and necessarily think I’m releasing it to put anyone on the spot or to, like, expose anyone in particular because that couldn’t be further from the truth.” she said. “This record isn’t about anyone else, it’s about me and my it’s about my experiences and I just hope that the things I speak on in the songs, I hope that people are able to find some sort of peace and catharsis of their own.” 

Being as vulnerable a record as it is, it’d certainly be a bridge to cross to release it to others. But before that could even happen, putting the nuts and bolts of the project in the hands of someone else to help make it a full record was needed — something that seems like it would come with apprehensions of its own. 

“Most of the record was just me, just out in the open. It’s really scary sharing that with anybody, like just wondering ‘oh god, is this person gonna judge me, are they just going to think I’m super whiny?’” 

Except working with the record’s producer Bartees Strange, any anxieties Verbilla had about letting someone else touch Graceful Rage were assuaged.

“Right after I sent him the demos, he sent me this really sweet message about how he had connected with the songs and was really excited to work together, and I was like ‘that’s so nice!’” she recalls. “And going to the studio, that was the first time I had ever met him in person, and I knew almost immediately, like ‘oh, I can trust this person, I’ll be able to put this in the hands of this person and things are gonna be okay.’”

Graceful Rage producer Bartees Strange | photo credit Julia Leiby | courtesy of the artist

Strange is coming off his recent record Live Forever, a project that shifts freely from genre to genre as sound stands as a representation of his life’s stories. While he may not be the first to come to mind as a producer for a band like Harmony Woods due to their difference in sound, the collaboration is a nod to the boundless artistry of Strange. The sometimes unexpected, seemingly natural fusion of two different musical minds manifests out of the connectedness of music. This connectedness, the same Verbilla spoke at length to in articulating her goal of allowing listeners to find commonality, also enabled Verbilla and Strange to envision Graceful Rage as a final product.

“Before we started recording, we had a phone call and I was like, ‘Okay, I want this record to sound like Disintegration by the Cure plus Melodrama by Lorde multiplied by The Cherry Tree EP by The National,’” she recalled. “He, somehow, by the grace of God, understood exactly what I was hearing in my brain and exactly what I wanted to do,” she joked warmly.

Verbilla recalled the quick process with Strange, one about nine or ten days long, being filled with laughs and bonding over things like Hayley Williams or The National, but also how she opened up, both personally and as an artist, in what was an emotional and flourishing experience.

“Honestly, working with Bartees opened me up creatively in a way that I’ve honestly never felt before. It was amazing: he’s so smart, and he knew exactly what I was going for and, not only that, he’s just such a kind and warm and lovely person to be around. Especially because, I feel like, audio engineering is a very male-dominated field and there’s a lot of…I’ve met some really lovely men in audio-engineering, don’t get me wrong, but it can be sort of a petty, passive-aggressive vibe sometimes, and that was just not the vibe with Bartees. Like I just felt so comfortable the entire time, and I felt like I was being heard, and listened to. It was amazing, honestly.”

For his part, Strange was equally pumped to work with Verbilla. “Harmony Woods is a sick band,” he says over email. “I really hope that people can hear how much they put into it. I like to think of this record as a mix between my favorite big Taylor Swift moments and my favorite emo and post-hardcore sonic situations. I hope everyone loves it. I loved working on it.”

The National offers a commonplace for where the two meet. Strange’s EP Say Goodbye to Prettyboy, released last year, features five National covers and inspired tracks. 

“So The National is definitely, like where we meet in the middle, they are both of our favorite band. We would just be tracking, and be singing National lyrics at each other,” Verbilla recalls. 

While those influences that make up the equation that Verbilla created for Graceful Rage vary greatly, their marks are poignant throughout the record. The woefully dark Disintegration — a return for The Cure away from pop and towards their original gloomy, introspective sound — notably carries a steady pulse of bass and guitar throughout, something Verbilla emphasized she values in music and manifests in Graceful Rage’s heavy bass and percussion. 

“Ever since I was young I’ve just really loved not only records that were loud, but records that you could feel, throughout your body,” she says. “That was like the most important thing to me. Like obviously, I wanted people to be able to like relate to the lyrics and feel something emotionally, but also like just feel it physically like in their body was just as important to me.”

That airy element to Disintegration, like there is room to feel all of its sounds, finds itself on tracks like “End,” with a liquid guitar inviting listeners to breathe in the spaces behind Verbilla’s sensual vocals. This is all before she lets loose at the track’s close, a transition from a restrained to an explosive performance, a type of emotional build heavily present in Robert Smith’s vocals on Disintegration. More than anything, Disintegration is found within Graceful Rage in their shared focus on the present, that notion of fully feeling that Verbilla and I discussed with slight frustration earlier. They share the ability to take whatever the present moment or feeling is and make you sit with it like it is crucial and meaningful no matter its context.

The theme of feeling that Harmony Woods evokes on Graceful Rage came as a result of isolation that Verbilla felt from being wronged by someone, a piece of an overarching and heavy theme of calling out and speaking to experiences with abusive and manipulative people, seemingly both in personal relationships and in the music industry at large.

“The feeling of having been wronged, not even in an abusive way, but just wronged and feeling hurt by a person who has a lot of power, a person who many of your peers view with such high regard is, in my opinion, one of the most isolating things that someone can experience,” she explained. “I felt very isolated for a very long time, and so isolated to the point where I felt like I couldn’t even talk about it to my loved ones, because I felt like what I was feeling was wrong, and that being angry and upset with this person / these people for having treated me a certain way, I felt like I was wrong for feeling that way and that I was overly sensitive and basically that I was wrong. And because of that, I was unable to feel the things that I was supposed to feel, because every time something would come up, I would just push it back down.”

Graceful Rage became that step for Verbilla in properly feeling and processing the most prominent challenges she had experienced, channeling inspiration in Melodrama, the 2016 sophomore album from Lorde. Melodrama builds itself around themes of heartbreak and solitude through a loose narrative of a party, each track representing a different part of the highs and lows. Through the simplicity of pop, it offers relatable lyrics for listeners, and also encapsulates Verbilla’s intentions of feeling in Lorde’s emotional songwriting that simultaneously offers comfort, liberation, and reflection, as well as through Jack Antonoff production elements that reach beyond the ears. Again, there exists a finding of comfort through deep, isolating emotions.

“It got to the point where, I was like ‘okay, not only do I have to feel these things and allow myself to feel these things, but I know there are people out there that have gone through similar things, and I want them to know that they are seen, and they are heard and they are not alone.’”

While Harmony Woods casts Graceful Rage as an intentional album in its influences and inspiration, it maintains a uniqueness of its own. Compared to older projects, Graceful Rage features captivating new elements, including ensembles of strings, horns, and dense percussion that sets a darker, powerful mood around Verbilla’s vocals. This new sound, one that still feels like a Harmony Woods record, is accentuated by its lyrics, as Verbilla took a different route in the writing process as well.

“Although our previous two records are very personal, and the themes stem from things I have experienced, the way that I wrote [their] lyrics, I sort of used the records as allegories for things that have happened,” Verbilla explains. “Like building stories inspired by things that have happened to me, opposed to just talking about them directly. Whereas with this record, although there are a few elements that were story-based — especially on the track ‘Rittenhouse’ — most of the record was just me, just out in the open.”

Tracks like “God’s Gift to Women” display the avant-garde writing of Graceful Rage, with Verbilla “out in the open” in an unapologetic manner that she jokes about being full rage and no grace. Its lyrics are candid, offering an almost sarcastic commentary on a style of music that is often attributed to a toxic scene of male-dominated music, “Keep writing those records / About how you know best / Like you’re a walking fucking copy / Of Infinite Jest / But I’m done playing along / Not singing along anymore / Cause you’re not the person / The world pretends you are.”

“It sort of plays into what I wanted to do with allowing yourself to feel,” she explained about “God’s Gift to Women.” “You’re gonna feel angry and you’re going to be absolutely livid and those feelings are okay and they’re necessary. I mean yeah, when I wrote that song I was pissed as hell. But it’s also very much the product of how I felt in that time. The way I think about it is that song is not about any person in particular, but rather the version of a person that existed inside of my head at that time, if that makes sense. With everything I knew about a certain situation in that moment, that’s how I felt and I was just so angry and needed to get it out of my system. I just needed to write a really bratty, ridiculous pop-punk song.”

“God’s Gift to Women” reclaims a sound that women in music are critiqued for attempting to join in on, met with double standards that demean their artistry. Phoebe Bridgers recently experienced backlash on social media about her Saturday Night Live performance where she smashed a guitar at the end of her performance. Many people emphasized that the criticisms Bridgers received were due to her being a woman in rock, that a man would not see the same backlash.

“On one hand, women are sort of told that we are not allowed to be angry, that we need to keep our shit inside and just stay pretty, stay quiet and stay smiling,” Verbilla explained. “On the other hand, there are so many amazing women present in alternative music, but their presence is often questioned and their validity as musicians is often questioned solely because they are women or because people are putting them into a certain folder in their brains, and it’s so fucked up! And it’s like fuck you, I’m angry, I’m gonna write this angry, loud song now and there is nothing you can do about it. It’s mine now!”

The music industry has long been a spectacle for misogyny and sexism, a small piece to a larger issue that still pervades social norms. “There are certain barriers that need to be broken down in order for there to be real, actual change, not only in this industry but the world at large,” she says.

An outpouring of frustration and grief has spread across social media after the disappearance of Sarah Everard, a woman who went missing on her walk home. Authorities recently stated that remains discovered were hers. It’s instances like these, where women cannot simply walk home safely, that are perpetrated by men’s silence and complacency around them.

“Men need to learn how to be vulnerable with each other and have these conversations in private without it being a public spectacle, without an audience that’s gonna clap and say ‘oh my gosh, you’re so brave thank you for saying this.’” Verbilla says, pausing to reflect on the perceived difficulty in what should be a simple action. “Everyone is affected by the patriarchy, and I guess that includes cis men who are raised into believing that they aren’t allowed to be vulnerable with other men, and they’re not allowed to have these emotional, serious conversations with other men.”

By calling the album Graceful Rage, Verbilla is making a tongue-in-cheek nod to how women’s anger is expected to be delicate or consumable; the music contained within is Verbilla’s resistance against that. It’s a project that is packed with authenticity, from its writing to its recording and a surprise release. Although it presents heavy themes that many can lean into, Verbilla maintains hope that the record will make people feel less alone, and will lead them to think positively about the future through this sense of connectedness that was a catalyst for the project.

“The way that my brain works, not like I’m the only one, I have to stay optimistic about these things,” she says. “I have no choice. Otherwise, I will collapse, entirely.”

Graceful Rage is out now via Skeletal Lightning Records; listen below and order a vinyl copy (and other merch) here.

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