Prior to now, all of the interactions Nina Grollman and I have had were on Instagram. While I wait for her to call me to talk about her debut album “Keep On,” I am still tethered to the feed. I scroll past pictures of friends I haven’t seen in months, and flowers, and a meme of perennially grim-faced post-punk vocalist Nick Cave longingly stroking a swooning woman’s face (he’s labeled “self-destruction.” She’s labeled “me.”) Then I got caught in the web – in photos of 80s interior décor – which would captivate me, until Nina, aka Softee, called.
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Some photos are sparse; there might be a mint-green mattress on the ground, with a radio on a white table and a decorative indoor tree. Others are what we call, in architectural terms, garish and excessive. I can’t tell if the dirt-toned platform is a covered-up bathtub or a dining room table. There are too many tiles in contrasting patterns to see past and an overwhelming number of plants, some of which are inexplicably statues made of neon. Listening to Softee’s music feels how ’80s home architecture looks: Sometimes it’s open, pared-down, even vulnerable. Other times, it is, in Nina’s own words, a “sensory overload.”
When they finally call me — Nina uses both she/her and they/them pronouns — they are pacing back and forth outside their New York apartment. “I am so so sorry,” she says. “My cat got attacked by a dog two weeks ago, and I just got back from a check-up at the vet then started manically cleaning.” You can hear the energy in her voice across the interference and wind. When she sings, it often pitches up into bubbly and exhilarating heights and just as quickly turns to declivitous growls.
But talking about their cat Obie, Nina sounds nervous; there is a quivering inbetweenness. He is okay now, Nina tells me. He is recovering from some wounds that got infected but is otherwise safe. “Keep On” is an album full of songs about affection, different formations of relationships, and longing in a digital age. Affection for a cat does not appear on the album, but they feel it keenly.
When we spoke, it had only been a few hours since she released “Crush,” the final single before her debut album “Keep On” comes out October 2nd. “I just posted ‘Crush’ on Instagram,” they said. “Anytime a new release comes out, I’m hyper-scared that people are just being nice online and secretly hate it. I hope people like it, but I’m kind of nervous. But it came from the heart, so if people don’t like it, it’s whatever.” Her sentences roll one to the next and then sometimes end with a protracted but active silence.
“I think people do like it,” I say. Three days later, “Rolling Stone” will call it, “a song you need to know,” but right now, we’re in the moment between reception and response where Nina seems the most interested and where Softee begins.
“I knew I didn’t want to go by my name because it was too vulnerable, and I also really wanted to do a pop project,” they say. “It’s freeing, because having a moniker is … being one side of me. It isn’t necessarily defining me as an artist. It’s a fun little,” they say “fun little,” three times, trying to find the right word — emphasizing the scale and the quality, “game I like to play.”
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They aren’t unfamiliar to this kind of acting or persona, and there is nothing so precious about it as calling it a “fun little game” might suggest. She made her Broadway debut in “The Iceman Cometh” alongside Denzel Washington and played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The persona of Softee isn’t completely unlike Scout. Both characters allow for an exploration of a genderqueer childishness and the realities of fraught social dynamics. Both are compelled by their imagination. “On Broadway,” Nina says, “I’m there to help the vision of the story come to life. With Softee, it’s all my vision.”
Nina’s music — and her videos too — often take up the narrative technique of theatre to tell stories of queer longing and imagine how relationships play out. In “Oh No,” Softee takes the character of a nervous and excitable teen girl with her friends at a slumber party, then the prom. Hormones are flowing and the camera wanders between close-ups of the girl’s hands and faces and chests as they finger for popcorn, kiss stuffed animals, and emerge from a curtain of purple metallic ribbons at an ’80s themed prom. “Oh no, you’ve opened the door!” she exclaims. “You might have opened it wide with the way that you say my name on a Saturday night.” The longing is consistent, but in the eyes of the camera, the object of affection keeps changing.
“I was thinking about that feeling … of being an excited teen and so overwhelmed that your attention is split like a hundred different ways,” they say. “The desire is so strong to kiss somebody, make some type of move. I had plenty of times where you’re dancing with a guy and you’re not really that interested.” As we talk, I can’t help but note this persona shift. “You’re looking at the person across the room who you actually want to dance with, but for some reason, you can’t. You can’t ’cause you’re too scared or you’re gay and don’t know it yet. ‘Oh No’ is a tortured love song.”
And then there is the moment where all the ’80s kitsch and the synth and the drum machine stops. What’s left is only a quiet beat, a twinkle, and the questions: “What if I did? What if I kissed you right here? What if you felt the way I felt about you?” Every time Nina asks a question, I can feel them anticipating both answers: ecstasy and dread. If we do love her, we get the joy of affirmation and the fear of a future without precedent; if we don’t, we’re left with the joy of stability and the dread of rejection.
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In “Keep On,” the album’s eponymous track, Softee confronts the pressure of performance again. Its music video begins as the camera moves slowly toward a small teal stage. Softee lays on the ground in front of it, head bleeding, and croons, “I am barely holding on now. My head just won’t let me move on. Is this going to be forever? My heart is trapped inside my lungs.” Quickly though, they stand up and get back on stage. “And I keep on, keep on changing when I’m not looking.” It’s a song of too much: too much change, too much stress, too much compulsion to keep moving — no matter the injury and no matter the cost. “It’s performing robotically,” they tell me. “[I’m] going through a performative routine and then falling apart a little bit and emerging as something more organic.”
“Keep On” is not the album Nina intended to make. They were caught, like most of us were, off guard by the pandemic. “The world has changed, so there is a tonal shift,” they tell me. “There’s hazardous, dance-house, fun club music. I was envisioning it in a club. You know? The other half is like a little bit of heartbreak. … [It] is about friendship during tough times. All you can do is love your people.”
In “Cut Out,” Nina wonders about the opposite: not love for your people, but obsession for a stranger. In that track, Softee is the spectator. Scrolling the feed, they sing, “The way you’re looking makes me jealous/All your pictures make me jealous/I need your love and I need your like/I want your kind of attention.” When they do finally meet their crush, things don’t go the way they planned. “I played it out, over and over — your lips, your eyes, your mouth,” she sings. “Can’t you see we’d be perfect?” Then, in another quiet subdued moment, Softee ditches the performance and plainly says, “That day I saw you on the street, I could barely move/I recognized you from another dimension, but you didn’t look the same.” When the dream breaks, she slips back into song. “You pretended I didn’t exist,” she cries. “All my friends, they warned me about this.” It crescendos and repeats. “You pretended I didn’t exist/All my friends, they warned me about this.” It is all too much. But that’s what makes the music fun, makes it thrilling. The low-stakes, the high drama, the ability to approach too-much and know that, no matter what happens, it’s a play — a role.
“Keep On” is the album we need right now. It offers a queer escapism and thoughtful vulnerability in equal measure. You can dance with purple neon trees, on shag carpeting, and across atrocious tiles and not live in that house. “Keep On” is all the imaginative capacity of the internet and all the solitude of airplane mode.
Walking in from the yard, Nina says, “If I was Softee all the time, I think it would really stress me out.”