“It makes me chuckle when people call me Harmony, that’s always kinda funny to me,”
Sofia Verbilla sits across from me in a café on Drexel’s campus, where she goes to school. Harmony Woods is the name of her indie emo project, for which she sings, writes songs, and plays rhythm guitar. Their first album, Nothing Special, was released last year on Bandcamp.
“Nothing Special is the story of a relationship between these two people, and ‘nothing special’ is meant to be their initial attitude towards the relationship,” Verbilla says, “Like, ‘Oh yeah, this is nothing special,’ but as the record goes on they realize that they mean more to each other than they initially thought.”
At the moment, Verbilla has bright pink hair, but it’s switched the past year through reds and blues. It’s constantly changing between the concerts she performs around Philadelphia, from small venues like the Greenhaus to local festivals like XPoNential Fest. She speaks a little uncertainly, like she’s just realizing everything she’s saying. Her music is the opposite; she describes scenes that are at once inconsequential but damning, with the consideration of every side of the story.
She brings this out on “Parking Lot,” which begins, “You drove me to the cemetery to watch the punk kids smoke cigarettes and trample over graves they have no right to be visiting, taking pictures and laughing.” The whole album follows a couple as they fall in and out of love, with similar vignettes, some jarring in their weight, and others seemingly conventional. In “Jenkintown-Wyncote,” the narrator describes taking Philadelphia’s regional rail line to see her other. On “Negro y Azul” Verbilla sings of watching Breaking Bad’s infamous head-on-a-tortoise scene, the narrator staring at her paramour through the reflection of the screen. “I think I might need you” the narrator decides, a sentiment which is echoed throughout the album.
“I’m really into story-based lyrics. I really like having a setting, and characters both in terms of my songs and full releases. I try my hardest to explore emotional vulnerability, like, it’s okay to write about your feelings.”
Verbilla grew up in South Philly until she was sixteen, then moved to the suburbs, and later moved on campus at Drexel. She began guitar at ten years old, taking lessons for six years, along with learning piano and trumpet.
“I was a really big Justin Bieber fan, and it was this Justin Bieber ‘fun fact’ that he could also play trumpet, and that’s where I was at when I was ten,” Verbilla says, laughing.
She began writing music at around 14 years old, with the songs “Ghosts,” which she worked on for two years before deciding to record it, using her phone’s voice memo app and Audacity. “It’s like very, very minimal,” she says of working with the free audio workstation, “Like you can’t do much with it, but it worked for what I was trying to do at the time. And there’s also this really shitty reverb plug-in that actually worked really well for the lo-fi-ness of it all.”
“Ghosts” is set to appear on her upcoming second album, which is yet unnamed. “For the longest time, I wanted to start writing songs, when I was fourteen, but I didn’t believe in myself at all. I felt really self-conscious in my ability to write, lyrics and music put together. I thought of the lyrics in the chorus: ‘Death is not a stranger/ Every life will have an end/ One day you will die/ and only ghosts will be your friend’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that could be something!’”
“You’re never really alone,” she says, on writing the song’s chorus, “At that point, that was the only thing I’d ever written and I’d never thought I’d ever be releasing it, so it was pretty much for myself”
She started performing her songs around the time of recording Nothing Special, working with Jake Ewald of Modern Baseball. “Our first ever full band show was the day that we started recording Nothing Special, and he played drums for us for that show,” she recalls, “It’s wild, he’s so good at everything. It’s so annoying!”
Verbilla had always been a fan of Modern Baseball, and her first ever show happened to be at a house venue called Michael Jordan, now called JJ’s Diner, which was known for housing most of the members of Modern Baseball throughout the years. Being a big fan of the band, only to be playing with one of its member’s at such a pivotal house was a strange experience for her.
“It was very surreal, but also kind of affirming,” she says, “It took me a while to start taking myself seriously as a songwriter and musician only because I didn’t believe in myself. At that point I was like, ‘Alright these people seem to believe in me maybe I can believe in me too.’ It was very validating in that sense.”
At this point, Verbilla feels that she’s pretty comfortable within the Philadelphia music scene. The day we spoke, she had just finished a concert at Everybody Hits, a local batting cages retrofitted for concerts at night, known for hosting All-Ages DIY bands. She was also gearing up for a performance opening for Soccer Mommy the following month at First Unitarian Church.
“There is just so much culture,” Verbilla says of the Philadelphia music community, “and it’s so full of life, and there’s just so much going on all the time, and so many people who are so dedicated and passionate and so into everything. I love how active it is, and how’s there’s something going on all the time.”
Verbilla has a lot of bands she looks up to from Philadelphia, including Hop Along, the four-piece fronted by Frances Quinlan, “Frances Quinlan’s lyrics,” she emphasizes, “I feel like they’re very story-based as well. She just writes these metaphors that I could never think of in a million years, and I’m just like, ‘how did you do that?’ Like, I’m really into listening to music that is just impossible to me, and so much of that band is so impossible to me, both lyrically and musically. It just boggles my mind.”
Another band Verbilla counts as an inspiration is The National, the indie-rock band from Cincinnati. “They’re very emotional, and very dynamic, and minimal in some ways, but their songs build, and that’s very influential for me I would say. I feel like Harmony Woods, especially with LP2, we’re a lot more loud, but I have a lot of respect for their ‘less is more’ attitude, and I can see us going in that sort of direction in the future.” She’s hoping Harmony Woods will explore a wider instrumentation in the future, and she’s hoping to incorporate strings into their music, although at the moment LP2 is centered around the four-person band sound that can be found in Nothing Special.
Having the experience of playing the songs live and living with them for a while, she looks out further in the process, and works on the song thinking of a finished product, rather than beginning with a rough outline formed by her written lyrics. “I feel like when I was writing for LP2 I was more focused on melody first lyrics second,” she says, “whereas for LP2 I kind of based the melodies on the lyrics I had written. So I’ll listen back and find it kind of interesting how my songwriting techniques have changed and developed.”
When Sofia talks about her dad, Keith, she refers to him as “roadie-adjacent.” She discusses how he used to roadie for metal bands back in the day, and how he helps out with transportation for shows, as well as load-in and load-out. She’s glad to have him there, and to have his help.
“I worked mainly as a guitar tech in the 90s,” says Keith, on his time as a roadie, “I worked Overkill, the thrash metal band from NYC. I did a lot of work for local bands. I also worked production for Electric Factory Concerts. Live production experience would be what I gained from that time. Definitely something I pass on to Fi [short for Sofia] when needed.”
The way he speaks about Sofia’s songs, you can tell he’s incredibly proud, and has gotten very involved with Philadelphia’s music scene. “Sofia has grown so much since she started writing,” he says, “She’s become more proactive and take[n] charge in her life. Her writing has become more personal and therapeutic if you will. Her writing has always seemed to me beyond her years.”
In terms of the maturity of her music, Verbilla’s music is intensely personal, confessional at times, and nuanced in its emotional clarity. Though many of the arrangements could be more expansive, as she herself admits, the lyrics are the kind that seem like they’d be beyond even the most decorated of indie-rockers. She also admits that her voice has changed a lot over that time.
“I definitely feel like my vocal technique over the years just by singing more and playing more shows and stuff,” Sofia says, “But I feel like the intensity, the emotional intensity I’ve tried to convey has stayed consistent. […] I did choir stuff when I was in elementary school, and I’ve always really liked singing. I’ve never taken voice lessons, I just did whatever felt right. As I got into emo and pop-punk I tried singing along to that and then I would bend my voice so it would sound less traditional, in that choir way. It’s just what comes out (laughs).”
Harmony Woods is working on their second full-length album, which Verbilla refers to as “HamWoo LP2” on social media. For this album, Verbilla and the band took a trip out to Connecticut to work with Chris Teti from indie band The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die (TWIABP for short). The studio had a “sort-of horror movie themed kind of deal,” complete with masks, posters, and life-size figures of horror movie creatures.
“We would take breaks,” says Verbilla, “We spent a lot of time watching DeGrassi on the TV, because every episode of DeGrassi is on Youtube, y’know? […] We ate a lot of Taco Bell, which my body started to get mad at me for. We mostly hung out in the studio and created all day, aside from taking food breaks.”
Verbilla is tightlipped with details on the new album. The band has been performing two tracks off the album at shows over the last year, called “Best Laid Plans Pt. I & II.” I asked her about the name and how she felt the phrase “best laid plans” was used in the album.
“That’s kind of a recurring theme on the record, that stuff happens when you don’t expect it to. Like, you can meet someone and be completely enamored by them, and you’re not planning on any sort of relationship forming, but then it does. But on the other hand, you can be in this relationship with someone, and think ‘Oh my gosh! This is really great!’ and then over the passage of time, things start to fall apart, and you can’t necessarily plan for that either.”
As for the album’s release, Verbilla hasn’t said anything yet, but discussed a little of what themes she’ll be bringing out on this one. She spoke a good deal on interpersonal relationships as an idea she wants to explore further on LP2. “They’re very mysterious in a way, because you know what you’re thinking, but you can never really tell what the other person is thinking. Also, very small but impactful moments, I really like to elaborate on those small moments in time with my lyrics.
Nothing Special is peppered with these moments, in vignettes numbered 1 through 4, with snippets of scenes and musical themes that tie to other parts of the album, blending tracks together and marking transitions in the tonality of the 30-minute work. “So the Vignettes, in LP1, are meant to describe very short moments the two characters have with one another,” Verbilla says, “Each Vignette is a different moment. I was definitely trying to communicate an equal balance of what the narrator was thinking and feeling and what was actually happening in the moments.
“I feel like on Nothing Special, a lot of the lyrics were very specific, but with the next one I tried to have it be more of the audience’s decision what it’s about.”
Aside from preparing for her next album, Verbilla also has to contend with a full-time schedule as a student. She’s taking classes in Drexel’s Music Industry major. She’s hoping to get out on a full US tour soon, but has to balance that with Drexel’s summer requirements. “It’s kind of a pain to manage touring while you’re a full-time student, because you take advantage of what you got,” she says, “If you really wanna do the whole band thing, you gotta use every break you have to tour, which means you don’t get a break? But you’re still doing something that you love and you’re passionate about. It’s still really rewarding, it’s definitely tiring but it’s rewarding.
Despite the commitment classes require, she’s still found time for shows around Philadelphia. Her passion shows through in her effort, given her limited time to perform, but continuing to do so while working to make songs people can enjoy. I wanted to know what gives her that drive, and what she hopes to bring to each song she writes.
“I try to be emotionally vulnerable both in my music and my lyrics,” she responded, “‘This story, this is something that I’ve been through before, but I’ve never heard it put into words that descriptively.’ I feel like there are a lot of feelings and situations that most people go through that they don’t know how to put into words, or that they’ve felt that people don’t really talk about.” Verbilla tries to be the one to express that in her songs. Nothing Special takes every opportunity to put the listener in a place, and guides one through Verbilla’s view of the world. While it may be early for Verbilla, she writes like one who’s seen it all.
Photos by Elizabeth Goran.