Photo by LINDSEY GRACE WHIDDON
BY SOPHIE BURKHOLDER Sophie Allison, who makes music under the name Soccer Mommy, describes her sound on her Bandcamp page as “chill but kinda sad.” Her debut album Clean (Fat Possum), which came out earlier this year, has already started topping lists for the best albums of 2018. She got her start by posting self-produced tracks online, following the increasingly popular trend of bedroom pop music. After moving to New York for college, she decided to pursue music full-time, adding a full band and advanced production to make Clean, a soft rock record that follows Allison’s reflections on breakups, growing up, and realizing that some parts of yourself will never change (and that’s okay). In advance of her sold out show at First Unitarian Church on Saturday, we got her on the phone to talk about her first attempts at songwriting, her thoughts on astrology, and what comes next.
PHAWKER: When did you write your first song? I know you’ve said that you started writing music when you were about six years old, but when did you write your first official, sort-of-polished song? And what was it about?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I mean the first song I wrote that was basically a refrain played over and over again was called “What the Heck Is A Cowgirl?” And that was when I was like, five. But when I was six, seven, eight, that whole time range, I was writing full songs with verses and choruses. They were usually about stupid stuff like having braces or doing homework. I was writing songs pretty much at that age. They just weren’t, you know, good [laughing]. But I was definitely writing a structured song.
PHAWKER: So when did you start writing songs that were more in the style of the first stuff that you put up on Bandcamp?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I feel like that kind of happened in high school, when I was sixteen or seventeen. I think I wrote “Switzerland,” which is one of the ones that I first put out, when I was sixteen. I think that was probably the earliest one that was ever put on any Soccer Mommy thing. And before that I was just kind of writing like singer-songwritery stuff with jazz chords, because I was learning a lot of jazz music. But it wasn’t very stylized to me. I was just kind of doing what I knew, and writing catchy stuff, and doing verse-chorus, verse-chorus. I didn’t really have a style in mind. But I kind of developed that around sixteen or seventeen, and started diving into it.
PHAWKER: Why were you learning jazz then? Were you taking some lessons in that?
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah. I started taking jazz lessons when I was twelve, and I took lessons before that just kind of learning chords on the guitar. And then I went to an arts school in high school, and it was mostly jazz guitar that we were learning.
PHAWKER: I’m also curious about the name Soccer Mommy. Where did that come from?
SOPHIE ALLISON: It was actually my Twitter name as a joke when I was in high school. And then I started putting stuff on Bandcamp and thought it was a funny name. So yeah, it was my Twitter handle first, and then I would post my Bandcamp stuff to Twitter, so it kind of became the name of the project.
PHAWKER: So I know you grew up in Nashville, and then moved to New York for college, and seemed to have a bunch of big life changes at once – which I can relate to because I’m also currently in college, and dealing with all of the existential angst that comes with that.
SOPHIE ALLISON: [laughing] Mhmmmm.
PHAWKER: How did all of those changes show up on your debut record Clean? Because it does deal with similar romantic vibes to your earlier stuff, but there’s almost more of a bite to it, if that makes sense.
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah, I definitely agree. I really think it just came from growing up a little bit. I was kind of reflecting on this experience of the first year I spent in New York, and how that changed me. I wrote kind of about the things that came after that, and about starting my life in a different way and trying to heal from the process of moving that far and having my first real break-up and being totally alone in a huge city. It was about learning a lot from that and feeling like a different person a little bit, feeling more true to myself, and finding ways to take on life from there a little bit.
PHAWKER: Music from Clean has been showing up a lot on these “Bedroom Pop” playlists on streaming services, which is kind of where you started out when you were literally making music in your bedroom. But with Clean, it makes a little less sense, because with all of the production, there’s so much going on with it that you could never do in a bedroom by yourself. Tell me a little bit about the evolution of your sound on that record, and especially about the production on songs like “Still Clean” or “Cool.”
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah, it definitely isn’t bedroom pop anymore. I understand why people still lump it into that, because that’s where I started. And it’s evolved, but it hasn’t completely strayed from the intimacy. I’m not recording in some huge studio that is millions of dollars to rent out or anything. A lot of my record was done in my producer’s house, in his living room basically. So it does still have that intimate vibe that kind of connects with my earlier work, but it’s definitely a studio record at this point. When I first started, I was straight-up just making stuff in my room and recording it on a little Tascam, or later on a Scarlett USB import thing. I would just kinda do it in a really cheap way. I didn’t have a lot of mics or equipment. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, I was just learning as I went. You can definitely tell when you listen to the older stuff that it’s a beginning. I think you can hear my influence of my ideas, I think I get them across. But on a record like Clean, I had so much more opportunity to get my full ideas across, and to fully flush out ideas. Whereas before, I just tried to make things sound as good as possible, because I was just doing it out of my room. With Clean, there’s just a bunch of cool production tricks that were thanks to my awesome producer, Gabe Wax. He just had so many good ideas that were exactly what I wanted the record to sound like. I barely gave him any idea of what I wanted. I just told him that I wanted it to sound like sitting in a field in the summer in Tennessee in the middle of the night. And that’s all I had to say [laughing]. And he totally got it for me. I was able to bounce all of my ideas off of him, and he would kind of take it to the next level, and help me build upon my ideas.
PHAWKER: I remember reading about that visual idea of a field that you mentioned. In the song “Scorpio Rising,” especially with the music video, it feels like there’s a pretty strong tie between the music and that visual side of it you described. Do you often make that connection with your songs and some kind of visual representation or general vibe?
SOPHIE ALLISON: Completely. Definitely. I always feel like when I’m writing something, I’m also seeing it like a film. I’m seeing the scenes, and that’s kind of what I’m getting the lyrics from, in trying to depict that scene. I think that kind of imagery, if it doesn’t evoke some kind of visual, then it’s probably not good enough yet [laughing]. So I like to use a lot of imagery and make it connect to things that I’ve seen before that are really nostalgic for me. I like to describe settings that really have a place in my heart.
PHAWKER: So then are you pretty involved with curating how the music videos look? Or have you ever tried your hand at the visual art side of things?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I haven’t. I’m not very good at visual art. I’m not a great drawer, or anything. But every single music video I’ve done has been my idea. Directors will give ideas, but every single time, I’ve had such a clear vision in my head of what I wanted that I kind of more pitched it to them to see who could make it what I wanted. I definitely love imagery, but I’m not a painter or drawer at all. I’ve never really done anything involving film or any of that, but I like it a lot, so it really matters to me what the visuals look like.
PHAWKER: In the “Scorpio Rising” video, was that increasing glow more of an aesthetic thing or was there more of a meaning behind that to go with the song as well?
SOPHIE ALLISON: That was pretty much aesthetic. It was also matching the idea that it got gradually brighter throughout the video, and how it ended on the big moon thing. Like the moon power affecting me was kind of the idea of it, which I guess goes along with this idea of feeling like your fate is in the hands of the rest of the world a little bit, and that you’re not really controlling it yourself. But yeah, it was also pretty aesthetic. It wasn’t a super deep meaning or anything.
PHAWKER: Yeah, so speaking of that moon thing, how do you feel about astrology? And tell me what a rising sign is.
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yes, I am a fan of astrology. I’m not a master of it, at all. I’m still fairly new to it, but I really like reading about my stuff and reading about my friends’ stuff. Your rising sign is the sign that depicts your outward personality that you show people when they first meet you. So it more affects how you appear to other people, or how you come across as. Like when someone first meets you or talks to you for a minute at a store or something – it’s just like your public persona can be affected by that.
PHAWKER: What has it been like to have your music, which can be extremely personal and introspective at times, so fully on display? You’ve gotten a lot of attention in the media over these past few months – does it ever bother you to have so many people dissecting those emotions without knowing you?
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah, it can definitely be weird. I don’t usually have as much of an issue with people talking about the songs themselves, because I love doing that with artists that I love. I love hearing the lyrics and realizing what it’s about, and dissecting it myself a little bit. It’s more when people think they know you because of the songs, or feel so comfortable that they’ll ask you about people in the songs, the more personal parts of it. Then I’m like, “That is too intimate. That is not something you get to know.” You know everyone’s welcome to take these songs and connect to them in whatever way they want or need, but it gets a little, not offensive, but a little awkward for me as someone who’s introverted and closed off about their feelings to strangers. It can definitely be weird to have people come up to you asking you about your ex or something. It’s a strange vibe when people think they know all about you, or have some kind of claim to you as a person, because they’re a fan. It can be weird.
PHAWKER: I really like the two covers that you’ve put out recently – Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces.” Why did you choose to record those two?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I don’t do a lot of covers, but I have played “I’m On Fire” at a lot of my shows over the past two years. That song, I’ve always loved it. I loved it a lot in high school. And one day I just started randomly playing it on guitar, without even knowing the chords, and just kind of figured out an arrangement. And I liked it, so I started playing it a lot. I wasn’t really planning on recording it, but we had an opportunity to do this 7-inch, and I figured it’d be a cool thing to do. I didn’t really have any other new songs that I wanted to put on a 7-inch. And then the Dixie Chicks song, we also got an opportunity to do a cover, and I’m super into Dixie Chicks. I’d kind of been joking about doing a Dixie Chicks cover for a while because I thought it’d be fun, so we just kind of worked it up and I really liked it. We’ve only played that one live once, because we haven’t really practiced it as a band, but I’m sure at some point, it’ll make its way into the round. But yeah, I don’t do a ton of covers. I’m not usually the type to seek out a chance to do a cover.
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah, I have. I actually have quite a few songs, almost seven probably, that are ready. I write a lot. I’m never really taking a break from writing. You never know if all of them will end up on the record, but I do write pretty quickly, I think. I think that’s pretty quick. I don’t really know how to gauge it, because that’s always the speed that I’ve written at. But I’ve never really found it hard to finish an album. Sometimes I stress about it when I’m still seven months away or something from when an album needs to come out, and I’m like “I don’t have a whole album yet, what if I can’t finish all the songs?!” But it’s never become a problem [laughing].
PHAWKER: Do you think your sound will continue with the more flushed out rock that we were talking about earlier?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I actually think the sound may change. Not in an extreme way. I just think it might get a little bit more interesting. I don’t know. I love how the last record sounded. I think it was done really well. But I think these new songs are more complex, and have room for more unique production stuff. So I’m hoping to get to experiment with that a lot more.
PHAWKER: What is the last album, old or new, that blew your mind?
SOPHIE ALLISON: Hmm, I’m trying to think if there’s any I freaked out about super, super recently. I feel like the last one that really blew me away was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. I feel like I talk about this in every interview [laughing], but that is definitely my favorite album of the year I think. It’s been on repeat all year, so far.
PHAWKER: I actually haven’t listened to that one all the way through yet.
SOPHIE ALLISON: You should. It’s amazing.
PHAWKER: What advice would you give to people who are now in the position that you were in two years ago, as someone trying to take their self-produced music to the next level?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I would say just go for it, and take every opportunity you can. That’s kind of how I got to where I was. It’s not really luck that gets you somewhere. It’s taking every opportunity. Because one day there might be a show where someone is at, who might help you book a bigger show, and then you go to an even bigger show from there. It’s never really one moment. Well, sometimes it is if people go viral or something. But most times, it’s a lot of little mini steps that get you bigger and bigger. So if you just take every opportunity you can, and put in the work, and don’t complain about it [laughing], I think you can get somewhere with it.