May 12, 2023
Nina Grollman’s moniker, Softee, isn’t just a sardonic nod to the thrifty, soft-serve giant, it’s an earnest - sometimes painfully so - descriptor of the Brooklyn based artist’s approach to love and music. The pandemic found Softee in and out of love with a pace that could demolish the emotionally unprepared, but the artist found solace in her emotions, and soothed herself with influences of R&B, funk, hip hop, and the pure melodrama of 80s pop, not to mention her guides: Robyn, Little Dragon, and Janet Jackson. The result is found in her first formally-released album, Natural, a giddily contradictory, genre-bending, mercurial collection of subversive pop that takes us through her heartache and into a soaring love affair…a roller coaster of emotions that Softee’s never afraid to ride.
Natural represents the synthesis of emotional and professional growth she underwent during the anxious months of pandemic lockdown. Personally, she found herself in the ambivalent situation of ending a 6-year relationship whose flame had long gone out, while falling wildly in love nearly simultaneously. The long hours spent alone at home had the effect of an incubator on Softee’s musical skill set, her talents at engineering and producing reaching new heights. The transformative period introduced a rare openness to Softee’s music-making, “I literally couldn’t contain myself from being honest and vulnerable. At the time, there was just so much going on. I was too raw to have the energy to put on a facade for anyone.”
The album bloomed in Softee’s tender state in a studio in Berlin, a project co-produced by a kindred spirit and musician, Jeremy Chinn (aka sweetbbyj). Chinn’s personal life had brought him to Berlin, and the pair found themselves working through many of the same spiritual experiences as they crafted and refined the album’s 10 tracks. Softee’s mother is German, and she was raised bilingual: heading to Berlin felt written in the stars. As Softee puts it, “working on the album, we were both moving through different forms of new love and grieving our old life, and that cocktail created a creative chemistry even stronger than I realized.” Chinn credits a diversity of influences in the engineering of Natural including Lumidee, LION BABE, Raveena, and “of course,” Timbaland. Natural emerged as a magnetic amalgam of achey, sensual, and lust-filled anthems structured as seasons of a relationship.
“Molly,” which Softee describes as the ‘summer’ of her album, shines like a funky disco ball with smooth and sultry vocals, an enveloping percussive backbone, a supremely catchy chorus, 90s-era vocalizations, and a jazzy horn cameo. Her music video for “Molly” is gleefully gender expressive - a crowd revels in her swaying hips in a feminine outfit, the next minute she’s dropping jaws as Softee in a beard with a trumpet, all while prismatic lights flare sublimely in and out of a lust-fueled, dance party of pure queer joy.
The full, spatial arrangement of percussion and horns on “Grief” offers us space to reflect on wisdom suited for a pulpit - “grief ain’t a straight line/gotta leave a little wiggle room” - the sound reminiscent of a brainchild of Sade and King Princess. Her lyrics reflect post-relationship aftershocks, perhaps why Softee most associates the song with the “Spring” season of her journey: the surprise that an ex can still churn up painful memories is the season’s last frost.
In “Red Light Green Light,” an intoxicating electronic beat, shimmering with claps and eclectic adornments, accompanies strong vocals and a mysteriously demure mood, appropriate and symptomatic of a long cold winter. Only upon a close study of the lyrics - “Who’s to say I'm not like you/If I had that motherfuckin’ trust fund” - does the song’s true subversive nature reveal itself, much like Softee’s own well-guarded dark sense of humor.
While Softee has recently been festooned with praise, (her song “Crush,” featured on the 2022 Queer as Folk reboot, was described by Rolling Stone as “a swooning synth-pop gem that opens up at the bridge with a stream of strings that give the song a vintage disco feel, like glittery teardrops hitting the dance floor,”) things started off for her like any regular kid: sitting at home, trying to express herself in the ways she knew how.
The Moorhead, Minnesota born artist remembers Fargo-esque winters in which snowfall and freezing temperatures all but relegated her creative work to a computer screen in her makeshift bedroom studio. Hours were spent recording Katy Perry covers and uploading them to Youtube, writing songs, and unleashing the emotional rhythm that would eventually lead her to experiment with loop pedals across New York City DIY stages alongside Linda Diaz, Sir Babygirl, Blaketheman1000 and Francesca D’Uva. Needing more creative freedom than her own name could allow, she chose from a hand-scribbled list of a dozen potential pseudonyms, and Softee was born amidst the shimmering rays of a discoball’s glittery orb.
Beyond the DIY scene, Nina Grollman was a successful actress on Broadway, working alongside the likes of Denzel Washington, when she realized that her undeniable craving to express her own ideas, not the ideas of long-dead playwrights, was worth the risk of leaving her shiny new career. Her initial work as Softee include an EP entitled Slow Melt, and a self-released album entitled Keep On, whose title track and production spoke to her early-COVID-era frustrations and fears. Both projects were well received, with GOMAG succinctly capturing her essence, as encapsulated by her song Crush, “it’s queer escapism and thoughtful vulnerability in equal measure.” Similarly, the inaugural full-length project Keep On represents Softee’s endearing approach to music and life: “feeling the anxiety but sort of dancing wildly through it.”
For Softee, life’s lessons aren’t easily won, but she’s no stranger to the value of painful experiences and what they can teach you. “I learned that when I began inviting my grief to guide me instead of fearing it, it became much easier to navigate. The death and rebirth of love is natural, beautiful, heart-wrenching and celebratory.” And as her newest album testifies, Softee is just as soft as she needs to be.