I’ve been a fan of every incarnation of Heather Robb for the past 10 years. My freshman year in college, I had become obsessed with the Broadway musical, Spring Awakening, and in turn the original cast. When I discovered that one of the cast members, John Gallagher, Jr. had his own band, of course as an 18-year-old, I also became obsessed with that. This is when I discovered Heather Robb. Via super grainy YouTube videos, I watched my first Old Springs Pike video and saw four 20-somethings flailing about on stage, all while harmonizing. I was hooked and began diving into everything on their MySpace page. Yes, their MySpace page. Gallagher left the band a few months later leaving only three: Robb, James Cleare, and James Smith. I decided to stick around.
Even though John Gallagher, Jr. was my entry point, the dynamic between Robb, Cleare, and Smith was what held my attention. Smith is the personality. He elevated the stage banter and the subtle foundation for layered vocals that would become their signature. Cleare is easily the most understated member of the band. Too cool for school and the glue to how everything worked. And Heather Robb? Well, she is the dynamo. Her songs that were contributed to the group felt like an open heart, an invitation to every emotional state all delivered in a standard folk tune.
Since the band (now The Spring Standards) was based in New York, most of my interactions were through that MySpace page. Eventually they made their way to my hometown of Seattle, and we finally met face-to-face, and as they say, the rest is history.
The current trajectory I’m on can be traced back to that first discovery of The Spring Standards. They introduced me to the New York music scene. They were the first band that I did merch for. They were the first band that I wanted to share with people, bring them to shows, and promote them whenever I could. Everything started with them. The last full record they put out was yellow // gold back in 2012 and since then, Robb, Cleare, and Smith did pursue their own projects. Robb in particular moved from New York to Los Angeles to take a TV writing gig and also released her first solo EP, titled July.
When Heather initially reached out to me to talk about premiering her first solo music video for “It Isn’t Me,” it was more of a “duh” than a “yes.” That premiere also extended into collaborating on this profile. Not only was it Heather’s first as a solo artist but it was also with someone who has meant more to me than most. So we decided to just lay it all out there and go back to the beginning. This is the introduction to Heather Robb, fully on her own.
When did you know that music was something more than a hobby, that it was something you wanted to turn into your livelihood?
Music was always around me growing up. No one in my family was a “professional musician” but my mom and dad played guitar, my mom played piano, lots of singing in the car, around the piano. That just felt like the air we breathed. It felt incidental. My specific relationship with music was these, what felt to me, like torturous [piano] lessons and a very structured practice schedule that I resented so much.
Did you ever understand why your mom made you go through those lessons? To this day, I’m mad at my parents for not making me take lessons.
So many people say that! I think she saw that it came naturally to me so she kept pushing. I think she would’ve done that even if I didn’t have a musical gift [laughs] but she was one of those parents that would say, “You’ll thank me for this one day.” I quit piano lessons and then when I was like 14, a few months later, I discovered Joni Mitchell and all I wanted to do was learn all of these songs on piano immediately. I started learning by ear and then I wouldn’t leave the piano. Then James Cleare said, “Hey my friend and I play in this band, do you want to come see?”
How did you meet Cleare?
He transferred to my high school when I was in 10th grade. It was a small school and it had a very strong arts program — very strong music and theatre. And we were just in all of the things together and immediately became friends.
Which band was that?
This was just him and James Smith. This was their duo. It was called “J-squared.” I’m not kidding.
I’m not surprised by that at all. That is exactly was 15-year-old Cleare and Smith would call their band.
It didn’t become better when I joined the mix. We became the Urban Wombats. This whole time period was a huge transition from “music is a thing my mom makes me to do” to “music is a thing that I do with my best friends.” That is what music became for the rest of my high school [years]. It was my entire social life. This is what started defining me and I started writing music with the Urban Wombats.
Do you remember what your first song was?
Oh yes! It’s called “Dancing Magic Bubbles.” My dad still requests it.
Who was the first “modern” artist that you really latched onto that you felt started defining your own personal taste separate from your parents?
Mine was probably Ani DiFranco. Tori Amos, too. A lot of that came from my older sister, who had amazing taste. When I would buy a Dave Matthews Band CD, she would be like, “This is bullshit!”
Music became a thing that was so much about community for me, and always has been. From the early stages of connecting with James and James, it was always about friendship, community, what brought us together, and how we were influencing each other. I was never concerned about “Who am I as an individual, as an artist?” which is why these last few years of working on this thing by myself in a lot ways felt like a long time coming but also very unnatural.
It’s kind of interesting to me because all of the people you’ve mentioned are solo artists, from Joni Mitchell to Ani DiFranco but you never thought to do this by yourself. And also, these are strong female artists and you ended up in bands with a bunch of dudes.
I never thought of that! Very true. I know I’m not unique in this in experience but in this industry, I have found, you are often the only woman in the room.
Are you tired of the “women in music” question? Especially for you, I never saw you as filling the void of “look we’re a cool indie band with a girl in it.”
It’s because we [The Spring Standards] fought that. It wasn’t an accident that we made sure our identity was as a trio. It’s a natural inclination — you see this in a lot of our press shots — it’s for balance that I’m always in the middle. When I moved to the side [on stage], it was logistical because I had all this shit and it’s hard for people to move around me. When we did that, people kept telling me to move back to the middle, but why? I think the “women in music” conversation for me is something that I’ve had with other women off the record.
How did that experience of joining bands in high school start shaping you as a person?
I went to college for acting. When I was at Syracuse, the band wasn’t doing stuff during the year and I was starting to really miss music. There were these rooms in the drama building that were for the musical theatre students that had pianos in them. What I started doing that became part of my processing was that when I was full of stress, I would just play for hours. That was really when I started writing my own stuff but I wasn’t recording any of it. I was doing it as an outlet. When I graduated and moved to New York, I basically realized very quickly that if I didn’t have a creative outlet that I could control — acting as an art form is just waiting for other people’s approval — I’m going to lose my mind. My old bandmates also moved to New York to pursue their own things but when we connected again, I realized this was a thing so tied to my friendships but I’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been doing anything else. It never occurred to me to do this as a living but we were lucky in those early New York days. This was when John [Gallagher, Jr.] was in the band [Old Springs Pike] and we saw a really positive reaction really quickly. It was such a stroke of luck but next thing we knew we were playing shows, pulling in significant numbers, booking an agent, then we had managers and then we were on the road. It had been shaping me all along. We started touring 10 years ago.
I know! I first met you 10 years ago.
It’s our 10 year friend anniversary! Music is the starting point. Building those relationships and friends that then become life long is amazing. I think that’s what it’s done in my personal life. It’s what music, and any art form, is about — building communities and connecting with other people.
It was also building up but when did you start making things on your own?
I had a really pivotal experience in 2014. I went to my first artist colony, the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire. I was there for three weeks to work on a musical I was writing with my friend, Darcy. It was the first time I felt that degree of support as an artist. Of course, I felt that support by my community but this was an organization, an entity. I was there and was totally by myself and I thrived in that so much. When you cut out that noise — I feel like as an artist, we’re constantly trying to find the next thing, trying to write — but this is the first time I actually just listened. Once I started hearing these new sounds, I realized that this was me, these weren’t Spring Standards songs. That was the moment I realized I had something to say. Ironically only one of those songs I wrote in MacDowell ended up on the EP.
Would you say a lot of your songs are autobiographical, fictional, or a hybrid of stories and experiences you’ve heard from other people?
I think it’s very internal. It’s not always literal, it’s rarely literal. I think sometimes you don’t know where it’s coming from in your own life. I’ve had a number songs that were inspired by dreams and it’s the process of trying to explore or reconcile or interpret in real time, which can feel like fiction or someone else’s reality. It’s definitely autobiographical but through a skewed lens. Very skewed.
You dabble in many different forms of art. What do you think it is about music specifically as an art form that we, as listeners, want to know everything about the person behind it? Why do we latch onto musicians when ironically, they are the ones who probably don’t want to be looked at?
Music touches us so deeply, which isn’t to say other art forms don’t or can’t. We’re moved by music on so many levels — the lyrics touch us, the sounds touch us, the sound waves physically touch us. The art form is so effecting and so visceral but at the same time can be highly poetic and intellectual. There’s this feeling of “how did you know?”
You almost feel exposed.
Yeah, it’s powerful when someone puts a word or an essence to a feeling that is so deeply personal. And it helps us process our own lives and our own pain and experience. It’s that thrill of feeling not alone but then also exposure when someone else can speak to an experience you thought was only yours. It puts that person into a weird stratosphere of demi-god or psychic. I’m obviously not speaking of myself but answering as a listener. I’ve had a rare occasion where someone has said that about my music. I just put a thing out there. It’s chemistry — it’s not going to feel the same to everybody. That’s you as a listener bringing in yourself.
What do you think is the greatest written song?
That is the hardest question but I am going to give you an answer because I have one. But because I have an answer, I don’t stand by it because it can change. I think, empirically, one of the most perfectly written songs is “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It’s a hit song, it’s deeply vulnerable and revealing without sacrificing fun.
Since I started writing for TV, I found I really love the structure. I love working within boundaries and mashing up against them. That’s a really satisfying creative process for me. So looking at a song like “The Tracks of My Tears” from a set of rules — let’s say perfect and not greatest [laughs].
Do you think with how the climate is now (and you can interpret what you think the “climate” is), do you think the only way to survive it is to become a jack of all trades?
I do. I think a lot musicians have realized they have to diversify. For some people, the equation is I find a thing, I put my head down, and then I work at the thing and I work at the thing and I work at the thing. I don’t know what’s better or worse. Sometimes, I wonder if I just focused on one thing what would that look like but I’ve just never been that way — it fights my nature. I’ve been lucky to work in these various types of fields and find a deep love for that. Writing on TV doesn’t feel like a day job, it feels like a new art form I just discovered. And any time I get a chance to act in something, I’m delighted. It’s what my life as an artist looks like — it’s a tapestry.
Heather Robb is playing Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles on August 25. Get tickets here.