salvia palth’s melanchole at 10: How Tumblr’s Bedroom Pop Titan Still Endures
A conversation with Daniel Johann Lines, the once-unassuming teenager who uploaded an album to Bandcamp that would become a defining project for moody, terminally online adolescentsPhotos courtesy of Jono Verrall Music Features salvia palth
To call Tumblr a relic of the past will resonate with many, even if it’s not quite true. Tumblr is a relic of my past and the pasts of many of my friends; it served as a testing ground for media-hungry youth trying to find something “different.” For many of us, that’s what we found. But, looking back, the microblogging platform also helped cement the zeitgeist with every Marvel GIF montage. Changes in ownership, content moderation and platform experience inspired what some would call a “mass exodus” to Twitter. While today I’m absent from the platform, from what I can tell, Tumblr is still vibrantand maybe—with Twitter worsening under new leadership—the platform will see some renewed engagement. With more options for sharing media, less drama associated with its ownership, and no need to send invite codes, Tumblr could be the preferable platform for sharing new art once again.
For Daniel Johann Lines, the New Zealand-based creator behind the quietly famous project salvia palth, the Tumblr of ten years ago was an ideal platform for sharing new music. “People listened to something new in good faith,” he says. Unlike other social platforms, Tumblr let users like Lines upload high-quality audio files directly onto the platform. Casual distribution extended beyond just sharing a Bandcamp or Spotify link. As crucial as that was for melanchole—presently his only release as salvia palth—it was that ease, plus a general receptiveness across Lines’ corner of the blogging platform, that let the album be ensconced in listeners’ heads.
Ten years later, melanchole still holds up and is, arguably, more popular than ever. “i was all over her” alone boasts nearly a quarter of a billion streams on Spotify. What made Lines’ mumbled utterances and fuzzy arrangements appealing then has only grown with young audiences—who Lines believes “are looking for something totally different from big indie, let alone the radio”—since.
melanchole is not a typical coming-of-age record. Recorded during the winter of 2012, when Lines was 15 years old, the homespun album darts between gloomy dream pop, gentle ambient, abrasive noise and immersive shoegaze with outstanding comfort. Contemplative, genre-expansive albums of this era that found dedicated audiences online are hallmarks of a stylistic micro-movement: “lo-fi bedroom pop,” a phrase often uttered today with reticence or derision. Its supposed ease of creation, plus the dramatic overuse of the term for any DIY project, watered it down. The album’s big hit, the hushed “i was all over her,” is the closest it flies to being an alt-pop project. “i don’t want to ask your father or anything” oscillates between gentle bedroom rock and anxiety-inducing noise. The title track sounds like a Grouper outtake. “madison,” a composition borrowed from fellow New Zealand musician Madison.v’s song “Mary Mandull,” is even more ethereal.
Lines touches on familiar themes like adolescent awkwardness and existential anxiety with the kind of curiosity and intensity someone exhibits when they’re presently in the throes of them. “When I was making melanchole, my life was very hard,” Lines explains. “I grew up in deep poverty in rural New Zealand. Plus, between 10 and 22, I had these periods every six months where I’d have ten to twenty epileptic fits,” Lines says. “My family lived in a shed. I come from a very small school in Collingwood and everyone knew everyone; the people were awful.” By the time he wrote melanchole, his class consisted of five people. It was a thoroughly lonely adolescence, one with a handful of close acquaintances and a looming adversity that comes from poverty and isolation.
His late father helped nurture his musical curiosity; by the time he’d reached musical spaces on the internet like Bandcamp and Tumblr, he was primed to listen and create with an open mind. Many of his musical idols and other cult favorites recorded directly to vinyl or tape using found equipment, which inspired his frugal production practices.
For melanchole, he used a panoply of found and borrowed instruments: an electrified acoustic Fender he bought with money earned working at a local festival, a Casio MT-45 salvaged from the dump, a borrowed bass with three strings, a borrowed drum kit, melodica and, notably, no pedals. Lines recorded his guitar directly into the audio interface. The rough-hewn recording feels like sandpaper, but given the numbness of middle-of-the-road studio recordings, the coarseness proved a welcomed departure. He burned melanchole onto CDs using resources at school and distributed copies among friends. On May 6th, 2013, he uploaded the album to Bandcamp.
Lines doesn’t pay that close of attention to the specifics of his own streaming metrics, but in the years since melanchole’s release he’s maintained awareness of how he and the album are talked about. is well aware that the album is a cult favorite. And, ten years later, he can’t pretend that he hasn’t moved on from melanchole, both sonically and subjectively: “It’s very awkward to have this kind of music out there, everywhere. I maintain as little relationship with the songs’ content as possible, but I try to be a steward of it.” When Lines released melanchole as a teenager, it resonated with audiences his own age. In 2023, the bulk of its listeners are very young, something Lines understands and takes seriously.
The exploitation of underage fans in the music industry is something he is passionate about stopping, stating point blank: “The music industry is full of pedophiles.” In DIY spaces, that dynamic can get especially tricky, and, as someone with a large, younger fanbase, Lines remains preoccupied with the presence of adults who prey on fans who want to be close to their favorite artists. He’s witnessed local promoters engage in predatory patterns too much to feel confident in local music, and his social media presence is limited because, while he believes in some value to being accessible to fans and collaborators, he wants to stay safe. Since many of his fans are so young, he’s setting an effective example of how a DIY musician should maintain boundaries between himself and fans.
Lines has never been one for public life. He released melanchole independently, striking at a pivotal moment where Tumblr users shared new music with earnest appreciation and could add new favorites to personal playlists on streaming platforms that were just getting popular. He’s plugged into Twitter and maintains a consistent presence, but he doesn’t share his likeness much. His presence is almost the polar opposite of most indie stars of his stature: He doesn’t have a cache of press photos or a curated narrative image that helps explain his art. He doesn’t tour, nor has he ever enjoyed playing live—although playing with Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie and the Microphones in 2013 remains a standout memory for him.
His low-key profile adds to the mystique around his cult presence; anyone who isn’t savvy enough to search “@salviapalth” on Twitter might gather from Spotify or Instagram that Lines is a long-lost figure. One intrepid British YouTuber posed the question: “Who is Salvia Palth?” They didn’t get terribly far, demonstrating how specificity can render you functionally absent across much of public life. We spoke over Zoom, cameras off for most of the conversation. Lines enjoys the best of both worlds; bantering on Twitter with many fans, but his absence from other apps and a low creative output means he flies under the radar to many of his listeners.
Lines isn’t shy about what melanchole’s popularity has offered: his streaming income alone permits him to live a modest, comfortable life in the city in a home equipped with a small—but mighty—studio full of quality Facebook Marketplace finds. That reality hasn’t stopped Lines from vocally criticizing the streaming model: “I dislike Spotify as much as the next person, but I also made it work for me. I want to share that everywhere because I think it’s still possible,” He says, reflecting on musicians he admired in the bedroom pop world who struggled and continue to, like the inimitable bulldog eyes. He also mourns the death of the late outsider cloud rapper $ludgehammer. His death deeply disturbed Lines: “I didn’t find out until a year after, and it messes with me to this day,” he says.
While Lines isn’t making music that sounds like melanchole anymore, he maintains awareness of how musicians rekindle interest in bedroom pop and collect streams and online notoriety in ways that resemble salvia palth. These musicians, like fairies in our house, mage tears and cottonwood firing squad, are harnessing the power of social media and streaming services to share deeply personal, unsettling and emotive music that harkens back to the ascendant era of bedroom pop. Many bring with them a penchant for slowcore and heavier rock in the style of early Duster or Have A Nice Life. For Lines, what’s important about these artists isn’t who they know or what they’re trying to sound like, but their abundant talent. “fairies in our house is a young person on their own, trying to make the music that matters to them, and they have extraordinary skill. It can get lost in the lo-fi recording, but they’re an incredible guitarist,” Lines says.
To him, many of these young—sometimes anonymous—musicians represent a stronger future than what can be found on the radio, or even in contemporary indie rock. “I’ll admit it: I hate the sound of recording studios. Everything sounds the same. It’s all downstrummed guitar,” Lines adds. This homespun, fuzzy emo-inflected pop resembles nothing on the radio at the moment; for young people looking for something different, much like they did on Tumblr around melanchole’s release, finding an album like sign crushes motorist’s i’ll be okay flips a switch; finding the global tape labels who’ve pressed the record into the archive like Semi Collective, Hunk of Plastic and Gizzmoix adds another layer to the experience.
It’s this general dissatisfaction with today’s alternative rock and singer/songwriter material that motivates Lines to think more and more about the radio rock bands that first got him into songwriting in the first place. “Most of the songs are shit, but Red Hot Chili Peppers got me into making music. With the guitar, they’re at least doing something interesting. They’re writing real songs,” he explains. Lines is taking that ethos back to salvia palth as he gears up to release his first new project under the moniker in ten years. “I have a new salvia palth album, it’s done. I really wanted to bring it back to songwriting,” he adds.
Lines found inspiration in Beach Boys’ 1968 brief, lo-fi charmer Friends and Roger Troutman’s 1987 gently influential crossover Unlimited!. What really keeps him entwined in music is hip-hop. “It’s the kind of music I’m the most passionate about. But I’m just a guy in New Zealand; I don’t have skin in the game. It’s just something I get to appreciate and learn from.” These disparate influences dart through Lines’ head in what will be another home-produced album. “I want this record to prove to people that you don’t have to spend money on a studio,” he says. Lines’ DIY ethos isn’t anything he over-intellectualizes; it’s simply what makes sense to him. When he made melanchole, doing it any way but DIY was impossible and out of reach. Now, knowing what he can accomplish by sticking to the formula, he sees no other appealing option.
To fans of melanchole, Lines urges: “Listen to the new stuff.” As pleased as he is that this homemade record continues drawing people in and has paved the way for remasters through different labels, Lines is a new person—and the next salvia palth record is more reflective of what he hopes to accomplish as a songwriter. “I want my new album to serve as an instruction manual for anyone else trying to make music. That’s what drew me to musicians like Beck. His early, more experimental work was weird and complex, but you could still pull it apart and figure out how to make it yourself. I want people to be able to do that with mine,” he says. In the meantime, Danger Collective Records continues reissuing melanchole with fresh remasters and physicals; the label will serve as the home of Lines’ next record.
In the decade since Lines dropped melanchole, nothing’s quite the same: “lo-fi bedroom pop” got a makeover when musicians like Clairo and Alex G hit paydirt and practitioners like Elvis Depressedly concurred with critics that the bedroom pop moment is over. Tumblr’s growing pains have rendered it a less reliable platform for musical exchange (unless you’re Ethel Cain), and streaming has endured as a hellscape of low pay rates and fake music infiltration. The prognosis for DIY amidst these developments is murky, but concentrated communities of intentional listeners are out there; they possess the capability to take an independent singer/songwriter and magnify their impact well beyond what’s conceivable. melanchole is a shining example of what can happen, and it’s just the beginning for the individual behind it.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.