A Glance Into Softee’s Pop Kaleidoscope

The Brooklyn pop singer/songwriter talks her local scene in NYC, the influence of Broadway and her new LP Natural

Music Features Softee
A Glance Into Softee’s Pop Kaleidoscope

Nina Grollman—who performs under the moniker Softee—originally hails from the Midwest. Born in Moorhead, Minnesota, she migrated to Brooklyn with the hope of becoming an actor. After slowly becoming exposed to music made by the likes of Janet Jackson, Robyn and Little Dragon, Softee found herself pivoting towards pop music. Her debut album, Keep On, came out in 2020 and quickly established her as an electronic force.

A bilingual multi-hyphenate, Softee oftens croons through an emotional spectrum with grace and humor. Her latest album, Natural, is a narrative powerhouse written during lockdown. Through the ashes of a breakup came a new flame, as did a next chapter for the singer/songwriter. Natural is a symbiotic, personal awakening from an artist knee-deep in her most-transformative era. In turn, every song on Natural, from “Come Home” to “Molly” to “Isn’t Enough,” is a burgeoning touchstone in synth-pop. With her spiritual and musical soulmate Jeremy Chinn by her side, Softee continues to harness a broad range of influences—both locally and heroically—and forge tunes that strike up a special alchemy of sensuality, grief and reflection.

With Natural out today, Softee sat down with us to talk about the process behind the album, how some of its visuals were born, what the DIY scene in Brooklyn looks like right now and how she continues to explore the elitism that haunts the industry she’s in.

Paste: What motivated you to move to New York City from the Midwest and pursue making electronica?

Softee: I initially moved to New York for school, to pursue acting. I found my way into electronic/pop music six years later, after feeling unsatisfied in my creative life. I was acting in some cool plays, but I found I was not fully exercising my creative self. When you’re acting in a play, you’re playing a part and you don’t get as much say in the overall storytelling. I yearned to write and build my own world, and felt most at home doing so with music. I started playing a lot of DIY shows in Brunswick and met community who taught me how to produce and gave me confidence to keep going.

Is there much of an appetite in Minnesota for, or a consumption of, tunes from Janet Jackson and Robyn?

I can’t say there is. I think I actually had [a] pretty basic music taste in high school. I’d listen to Top-40 on the radio a lot. I discovered Robyn because I was on YouTube and stumbled on one of her music videos. I became obsessed with her aesthetics and sound. Janet Jackson happened in college, when I started developing more of a sophisticated musical palette. She changed my perspective on pop storytelling. I couldn’t believe the risks she took.

After recording and releasing Keep On in 2020, what did the space between that and Natural look like for you?

Oof, well, lots of stuff happened. My relationship fell apart, and I fell in love with someone new in rapid succession, so there were lots of feelings to sort through there. I also had lots of time to reflect and hone my skills, because it was still the pandemic and there wasn’t much to do. I was sending lots of demos back and forth with my friend Jeremy [Chinn], who is co-producer on this album, and eventually we decided that I’d go to Berlin (where he’s based) to complete the record.

Natural is your brightest project yet. What was it about this new LP that allowed you to really tap into this dynamic, rich landscape of dance-pop like you never had before?

I think being in a new environment and collaborating more fully than I ever had before allowed me to let go. I trust Jeremy so fully, and we each have our own skill sets that play well with each other. I could focus on the things that bring me the most joy and so could he. I wasn’t white-knuckling as much as on Keep On. On that project, I was trying to do almost everything myself, and that wasn’t working in my favor.

I was immediately drawn into the visuals for the video that accompanied “Come Home.” When you’re envisioning the aesthetic layout of an album, does the imagery become conceptualized during the songwriting process, after or both?

The visuals for “Come Home” came long after the album was finished. My fiancé Machel Ross is my creative director and came up with the concept for the video. I am the sonic half of Softee, and she is very much the visual half. She always surprises me with her ideas. She is constantly thinking about how to make the visuals unexpected but still aligned with the core of the song itself.

What went into the decision to pair horror with the themes of longing and romance on that track?

It very much came from Machel. From the very beginning she was fixated on the idea of God Complex starring in the video, which I found thrilling. The concept went through many iterations, eventually landing on demonic summoning. Somehow it made perfect sense, but I couldn’t have thought of it on my own.

Was there a visible shift, from your perspective, in potential for your next set of creations after Queer as Folk used “Crush” in its reboot, or were you already deep in the process of making Natural?

I was already pretty deep into the process of the Natural album. But of course I was thrilled that my music was connecting to people, and it makes me excited for the future.

How does performing on Broadway influence the process of building a pop record?

It definitely helps with storytelling. I think my theatricality naturally infuses in my writing and producing process. Also, as a performer, I’m recording the songs as I’m going to perform them. It’s not a huge challenge to bring the songs from studio to stage, if that makes sense. It’s sort of inherent in my process to think about how the songs will sound live. I know there are some artists who struggle with that.

What does the pop scene in Brooklyn look like these days? Is there a DIY community there that you’ve been able to feed off of, siphon influences from and plug them into your own work?

I started off—and am still very involved—in the DIY scene in Brooklyn! It’s so inspiring, and no one is in it for money because there’s no money in it. Everyone is super creative and hungry to be in artistic community with each other. I wouldn’t say there’s an exclusive “pop scene.” I think pop acts play all kinds of different shows with all kinds of different lineups. I just played a show with Dominic Sen, GRBGE_GRL and Big Dumb Baby. That was such a fun show because it was a true hybrid of styles. I think the scene fosters collaboration very naturally. There’s no LA-type industry networking, it all feels very communal and fun.

Was there a particular moment, or a song from this record, where, once you laid it down in the studio, it unlocked a new kaleidoscope of possibilities for where you could take Softee?

I think making the title track was very pivotal for me. It was where I started to see the collection of demos we had thus far as a potential album. Jeremy and I were on a certain psychedelic fungus when we laid down the instrumental. Playing it back when we were no longer tripping was horrible. We were like, “Wow, we thought this was so good at the time but it sounds like ass.” Afterward, though, I wrote a melody over the top that we became obsessed with, and I realized that the chemistry Jeremy and I had developed writing together was special.

What drives the part of your creativity that opts to chronicle your joys, romances and headspace through disco-influenced, synth- and drum machine-heavy textures?

I think that’s the music I love the most. A hypnotic beat is emotionally centering for me. Maybe it’s because I live in New York and I need the armor of heavy percussion to walk through the city. If I lived in the country, maybe I’d feel differently. I also love to make people dance before anything else. I think a song can have more of an emotional impact if it hits your pleasure center first. That’s what good pop music is to me, anyway.

“Red Light Green Light” plays off of Squid Game and its critique of contemporary capitalism, and you take direct aim at nepo babies on the song. As you’ve been clawing your way further and further into the industry, how has elitism and wealth affected the opportunities that you, as an artist who’s been carving out your own name from scratch, have been able to secure?

It literally makes me more jaded every day. I try to accept it as an inevitable part of the music industry, but it’s hard sometimes, knowing how many people have a huge head start. I try to remember how many people are helping and supporting Softee, though, and it makes me very grateful and proud.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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