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Steven van Betten works into a lather while “Selling Soap”

18 January 2023, 11:00 | Written by Steve Forstneger

Sympathy and frustration collide on “Selling Soap,” where Los Angeles’ Steven van Betten ponders mind-numbing work.

For as fertile of a motif as it is in movies and television, pop songs about retail jobs come in surprisingly short supply. Released in 1990, Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” remains this tiny genre’s apogee: going nuclear, as it did, on a lazy coworker. For “Selling Soap" Steven van Betten channels frustration inward.

According to van Betten, the 84-second song was inspired by a friend who was losing their mind whilst working a soul-sucking job. "A couple of years ago,” he explains, “my best friend was working at Aesop. Whenever I saw him after work he would be visibly drained and beat down – venting about how rough it was to put on a smile and try to sell soap to strangers all day.” The Fell Runner frontman arranged the song so that his spoken monologue never breaks its matter-of-fact tone, whilst the musical backdrop rumbles like a loose lid on a pot that’s starting to boil. The core, chord pattern – like “U-Mass” meets “Jimmy the Exploder” – has a coarse distortion and is mixed as if a second mic were placed by the guitar pickups in order to capture the pick attacking the strings.

After 20 seconds, a customer enters the store and the rhythm falters with an errant cymbal crash. The narrator’s humiliation begins because Aesop – purveyors of 500 mL pump-bottle liquids that sell for about £33 ($40 USD) – requires he serve mint tea to prospective soap connoisseurs. “Smile hard,” he sings, as the first shriek of feedback blows through his mind. Next, a piercing piano note initially mimics Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score and then patterns itself after van Betten’s fraying sales pitch. Says the singer, “[My friend’s] pain felt so relatable and something about the setting of a fancy soap store felt like the perfect juxtaposition to complement this sense of deep anger and frustration. I wrote this song out of compassion for my friend, hoping he wouldn’t feel alone in his suffering."

Sonically, “Selling Soap” is a departure from van Betten’s previous solo work, which would likely appeal to fans of Father John Misty and Andrew Bird. Its pounding abrasiveness might be a preview for the recently announced Friends & Family, which will be his full-length debut on its release in April this year. Moreover, far from the mundanity of selling soap as van Betten sings about on this track, he has also been keeping busy co-founding and teaching at the School of Song alongside a plethora of other musical contemporaries. Emerging from the L.A. music scene, this is a band of artists and instrumentalists who are committed to sharing their love of music through online education, hosting songwriting workshops and inspiring the next generation.

“Selling Soap” is out now, with his debut album Friends & Family set for released in April 2023 (by Future Gods). Find Steven van Betten on Instagram.

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