Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison and I begin our conversation, naturally, talking about dry shampoo. Just a few moments prior I’d watched her open up the main stage at Sasquatch! Music Festival where she remarked about waiting in line for the showers at the Gorge campgrounds. Having spent many a Memorial Day weekend fighting the festival “funk,” I could relate and mentioned a need for investing in dry shampoo.
“That doesn’t work,” she says quickly. “It makes your hair feel like you have a bunch of shit in it…it’s disgusting. So tangly and shit. God no, just wash your hair.”
I laugh out loud and die inside, knowing full well that I’d just sprayed my hair down that morning – secretly wondering if she could tell (she probably could, my hair was pretty tangled that day. Oops). But instantly, I’m given a feel for Allison’s sharp-wit and no bullshit approach that is totally enamoring. It’s similar to the feeling you get listening to her latest, sensational new album, Clean, out now on Fat Possum Records. A master of pop melody and instantly quotable, clever lyricism, Clean is a breakthrough moment for Allison. She sings about self-worth with a sneer on the endlessly repeatable chorus of “Your Dog” (“'Cause I don't wanna be your fucking dog/That you drag around a collar on my neck tied to a pole/Leave me in the freezing cold”) and offers tenacious character portraits on “Cool” (“She’ll break you down and eat you whole/I saw her do it after school, she’s an animal”).
But more than that, Allison exudes an empathetic tenderness in her music that’s undeniable. The way her voice reverberates over sparse chords on “Still Clean” and even the exasperation in her words on “Your Dog” are completely engrossing, consuming the room and everyone within earshot. Even when she’s covering a song like on her recently released rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” she completely transforms the song into this same enveloping, sonic realm. It’s a fearlessness that can’t be imitated. Throughout out brief conversation at Sasquatch!, Allison tells me about the not-so-difficult choice to drop out of New York University to pursue music, home recording, and the process of writing a remarkable song like “Your Dog.”
KEXP: You started putting out music Bandcamp in 2015. What was your musical background like before that? Were you making music?
Sophie Allison: I had been writing songs and playing guitar since I was five. So I did that pretty much my whole life, but yeah, I did that, and then in high school I went to an arts school for guitar. I played in a swing band and the guitar quartet, and I was still writing stuff too. So I got a lot of experience performing with those because we'd do gigs outside of school, too, since it was an art school. We just did stuff outside of the program. I kind of got experience playing live and playing on stage from that and just kind of was around a lot of people who were making music and actually recording it and stuff and got into doing that.
So you started putting out your recordings and went to New York University (NYU) for two years before dropping out to pursue music. Was that an intense or difficult choice to make?
It was easy, actually. It was super simple. I mean, it was like a slow build towards doing that. I started off my freshman year undecided in an arts and sciences major, and in my second year I transferred to music business 'cause the music stuff was doing pretty well, and I was kind of like, “I don't really want to do school that much, and I'd rather have a degree in something where I can spend my time working on new music and have that be a part of school.” So, since I had the opportunity to go tour and stuff, I just dropped out. No regrets there.
What has life been like since that? It feels like things have really taken off for you.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think it's going well. We've just been touring a lot, and, you know, we put out an album. We've just been doing it all the time.
This is your first studio album whereas you were doing home recording before? What was that experience like? Is home recording still a part of your artistic process?
Kind of. I start with demos home recording. But, yeah, when we recorded Clean we did the basic tracking of guitar, drums and scratch vocals in a studio. Then the rest of it, like most of the production stuff, went on at the producer's home studio. So most of it was still done in someone's house with just the stuff they had there and definitely a little more DIY style than a nice studio. I don't think it felt very different. It was just having access to all the stuff I wanted to be able to do that I didn't have access to before because I didn't own the stuff I wanted to use or everything like that.
Your Bandcamp description says, "chill but kinda sad," which is a great descriptor, but it's also kind of a fun self-awareness that is reflected in your lyrics as well. You talk about hard topics from kind of a place of self-awareness. Is that something that you strive to weave into your music?
I don't know if I necessarily try to do it. I think I just reflect on myself a lot, and that's kind of where my writing ends up coming out of is – what I find through self-reflection. Yeah. I don't think I ever really try to do anything when writing except to get it to be what I'm thinking and feeling.
You write a lot about love and heartbreak. Do you find that it's cathartic at all? Do you find, sort of, a revelation through your music?
Yeah, I think it's definitely cathartic for me. I don't really express that stuff very much, and I think it kind of ties to my anxiety and issues with myself that I kind of also weave in there. So yeah, I think it definitely helps me get that expression out.
I love the art work as well. Can you talk a little about the thinking behind it?
We did, like, ten photo shoots for the album cover, and that was obviously the last one. I just wanted it to feel really simple and homey and just, warm. It's actually under the deck of my house in Nashville. I just feel like the graffiti... it's still there. It just made it feel really homey and it put the album title in there without editing. I don't really like when there's a ton of editing and photoshopping and stuff. That just didn't feel right. I just wanted to kind of get it all naturally.
We kind of talked about how your writing comes through a lot of reflection. Do you feel like you're a very impulsive writer, like stream of conscious, or do you spend a lot of time really digging into each line and how you want to present it?
I think I'm very impulsive, but then I do edit afterwards. I think being impulsive works, but not, like, every line is going to be right. You have to do an impulsive rough draft and then re-work the rest of the stuff that isn't great.
Is it hard at all putting your emotions transparently on a record like this and putting it out there into the world?
Um, no. I think it's a lot easier than if you didn't have people listening because then to every person listening it feels pretty intimate. Whereas when it's more people, and it's a formal release it's just not as intimate of a situation.
The single "Your Dog" has garnered a lot of traction. I'm curious about how that song came about.
That one came from a feeling of not knowing your self-worth, I guess. It's not even necessarily about dating a certain person or anything. It's about not wanting to feel anymore, like when you had this feeling of how I spend so much of my time thinking about other people and caring about other people and hoping other people will care about me in that way. It's just trying to push other people and give them the opportunity to return these favors, and I'm not getting it, and I just feel pathetic. It's asking yourself to break out of that.
You mentioned that you now have access to do more of what you want to do in the studio. What would you like to do next? What would be your big dream?
I don't know. I haven't really... I think it's just whatever the music calls for, I guess. There's a lot of stuff that I like and would eventually want to try when a song calls for it, like, you know, noisier stuff or more ambient stuff or different instruments like organs or something like that. I think it really just depends what the music ends up needing.
Were there any records were really pivotal for you growing up?
I don't know. It's hard for me. Like, I'll love albums, and I love music, but rarely do I think about other people's music in a way of influencing me to write something similar. Like, obviously I loved artists like Sonic Youth when I was in high school. I was really into that, and Hole, too, is really great. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Albums wise Blue by Joni Mitchell was a good one. Mitski, Bury Me at Makeout Creek. I'm trying to think of more. It's so hard to think of them off the top of my head. Wilco, that's kind of a more recent thing that I've gotten into, but before I had really delved into them. I had loved Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for a long time, and I just didn't really dive into much more than that until recently.
I know the album just came out a few months ago, but are you working on new material?
Yeah, yeah, I am. I've already started writing some stuff for the next record. I don't really know what it will end up being or if the songs I've written right now will even end up being on it, but it does seem like I'm on track to have a new album coming up in a little bit.
As you play the songs from Clean on the road live every night, has your relationship to the songs changed at all?
I don't think so, really. I think some of them I've grown to like more. Sometimes, you know, ones that I love on the record never sound quite right or quite as good when we play it live, but other ones sound even better than on the record. So I don't think it's changed too much, but every once in while there will be a song that I like more live or less live.
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