In just a few short years, 20-year-old Nashville native Sophie Allison’s catalogue of heart-wrenching bedroom-pop, released under the name Soccer Mommy, has earned her recognition as a songwriter whose resonant lyrics and elegant melodies belie her relative youth. With her new LP Clean, Soccer Mommy fully transitions from the bedroom to the studio, and in many ways, from adolescence to adulthood. In advance of Clean’s release, Xavier Rubetzki Noonan spoke with Sophie Allison about her songwriting origins, the growth of the project, and the path to the new record.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT HOW YOU FIRST STARTED PLAYING MUSIC. WERE YOU A MUSICAL KID?
Yes! I first started taking guitar lessons when I was five or six years old, and I took lessons from then until I went to college.
AND WHAT WERE YOU LISTENING TO, LIKE IN HIGH SCHOOL, THAT MADE YOU WANT TO START WRITING YOUR OWN SONGS?
I started writing when I was like six, too, so I was writing like the whole time, but the stuff I was listening to when I was really young… a lot of pop music, like I loved Avril Lavigne, who was one of my first favourite artists. Hilary Duff, Kelly Clarkson, all that sort of stuff, and then in middle school I started getting into more bands. In high school I got into things like The Cars, The Ramones, and started getting interested in local music, as well as people like Liz Phair and Mitski, and Hole. Stuff like that.
I’M VERY CURIOUS – YOU SAID YOU STARTED WRITING AT SIX OR SEVEN YEARS OLD. WHAT KIND OF THING DO YOU WRITE MUSIC ABOUT WHEN YOU’RE THAT AGE?
Um, y’know, nonsense, mostly… at that age. (laughs) But y’know, sometimes it’d be like, a crush, or like… having braces, or stupid stuff like that. Or like a lot of the time it was not even stuff that was happening to me, it was just based off the stuff I had listened to. I had the idea of romance and all that kind of stuff. And being sad, I guess.
YOUR EARLIEST RELEASES WERE SELF-RECORDED AND DISTRIBUTED ONLINE. WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU’D ALWAYS WANTED TO DO, OR JUST A PRODUCT OF CIRCUMSTANCE?
I guess I had always wanted to put out an album or something, but I didn’t really know you could just do it on your own. I had made CDs of recordings when I was a child, and I was in a band with my neighbour – just drums and guitar, and it wasn’t like an actual album or anything… But yeah, I didn’t really realise, until I had people in the local music scene around me who were releasing albums, that I could just do it on my own and release it on the internet. I bought a 4-track recorder and made some demo-type things, just for fun, and to get into making something sound like a full, finished song, and learning how to produce out of my bedroom.
Yeah, and then at the end of – when I was about to go to college, I was like ‘this could be fun to do, I’ve always wanted to do this’ and I could just kind of throw stuff out, and it’d be very low pressure.
I THINK PEOPLE CAN BE REALLY DISMISSIVE OF HOME RECORDINGS, AND I CAN’T IMAGINE BEING AS YOUNG AS YOU ARE AND ALSO BEING FEMALE WOULD’VE HELPED WITH THAT. DID YOU FEEL PRESSURED TO RE-RECORD THE SONGS YOU ENDED UP RE-RELEASING ON COLLECTION?
I think I wanted to do them differently, ‘cause I was playing live with a band, and maybe the original recordings weren’t too good, like the mixes were off, or I felt like I could make them sound better before I put them out for real. The one I put out with Orchid Tapes [2016’s For Young Hearts] I felt like that was fine to be out in that capacity, cos I worked a little harder when I did those, and I’d learnt a little more by that point. I also just wanted to ‘cause I was playing with the band, and we had cool arrangements that were different from the demos, which had kind of become what I thought of the song as, at that point.
YOU’VE BEEN WORKING WITH THE BAND FOR A WHILE NOW, PLAYING AND RECORDING TOGETHER. HAS COLLABORATING WITH THEM CHANGED YOUR APPROACH TO SONGWRITING? DID YOU WRITE THIS ALBUM WITH THEM IN MIND?
Um, no, not really! Well – I think playing with a band and having that experience has definitely changed the way I go about writing songs, but it’s not like I think about the other parts all of the time. I maybe even think less about making what I’m doing work with a specific part, like a drum part or something, and more about production aspects after I’m done creating the song.
Before, it was kind of like I was making the song as I was working on it in my room. It was kind of like, I don’t really have it fully done, and all the production is what’s making the song come together – like playing drums, then putting the bass line in, then a guitar part, I was still writing it as I was recording it.
Whereas now, I just sit down and write something that sounds like… y’know, something I like, chord-wise, and I have an idea for how I want it to sound, but it’s kinda nice to just get the song down, then work with someone else who will help you get where the song needs to be, but already having the song pretty much there in my mind.
DO YOU FIND IT WEIRD TO GET UP ON STAGE AND PLAY SONGS THAT YOU WROTE AS A TEENAGER?
Oh yeah, definitely.
ARE THERE NEW MEANINGS AND CONNECTIONS TO THESE SONGS NOW THAT YOU’RE A LITTLE OLDER?
Yeah, I think so. When I would write songs when I was like, seventeen, eighteen, or even younger, they were less about, like – this song’s about a specific person, an experience I had with this person. It was always much more like – this song is about a feeling that I’ve gotten multiple times from different people, you know: liking a person and not knowing if they like you back, feeling heartbroken… Different feelings that I’ve come across so many times in my life, and I just try to capture that feeling – rather than like, this song is about this dude who was shitting me.
And certain lyrics might be about a specific moment that happened, but even still, it’s more about how that memory holds that emotion for me. So yeah, I do find that there are new meanings at every point in my life with these songs, but it’s really more about the feeling rather than the subject matter.
SO THE NEW RECORD, CLEAN, IS I GUESS WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL YOUR PROPER FULL-LENGTH DEBUT ALBUM. WERE THESE SONGS WRITTEN WITH THAT IN MIND? DO YOU THINK THERE’S A THROUGH-LINE TO THE ALBUM?
Definitely. When I was writing it, it was going in a particular direction, and before I’d even finished it – once I wrote [opening track] ‘Still Clean’, it was all – I had like a thematic story from there on out, that was all tying into everything. For me, it’s about… denying your feelings, and not wanting to be the type of person you are.
It’s kind of a coming-of-age, in a way – going through a reflective period of growing up and not being a teenager anymore, and realising that you can’t really ignore your emotions and make them go away.
You can’t really change who you are, you’re just kind of the person you are, and you can’t escape it – you’re bound to repeat yourself, and repeat your actions and your mistakes, but you can also learn from them and grow from them.
I WAS REALLY EXCITED WHEN ‘YOUR DOG’ CAME OUT, BECAUSE IT FELT LIKE SUCH A FUCK YOU – IT’S A LOT MORE CONFRONTATIONAL THAN THE MORE INTROSPECTIVE STUFF ON COLLECTION. DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE STILL FIGHTING OFF BEING CATEGORISED AS ‘SAD GIRL MUSIC’?
I don’t think it’s that – and also like… I don’t have a problem with making “sad girl music”, I more have a problem with the label being sexist, and being degrading towards people who are making music that’s emotional, and sensitive, and who are women. That’s always been more my issue with the title, rather than the actual… making music that’s sad.
But with ‘Your Dog’ – it is definitely more confrontational, but it’s also kind of pathetic to me. When I wrote it, it definitely felt really sad and pathetic, rather than mad, it felt like, “I don’t wanna be this”, but I feel like I am, and I’ve always felt like I am, and I don’t know if I can escape it. I don’t know if I’ll ever not feel this way. That’s definitely where the emotion came from, and that’s why it’s like, angry, but it’s a real sort of monotone anger, because really I’m just exhausted from feeling like this. But it is expressed in a much more confrontational way than I used to be. It has a little more depth to it than some of my stuff did before.
I WAS INTERESTED TO HEAR YOU’D BEEN RECORDING WITH GABE WAX [SPEEDY ORTIZ, PALEHOUND, BEIRUT] FOR THIS ALBUM, AND THERE’S A LOT OF REALLY INTERESTING SORT OF AMBIENT-SOUNDING STUDIO STUFF ON THE RECORD. HOW DID THAT PARTNERSHIP COME ABOUT?
I got connected with him through my label – I think he reached out through his manager ‘cause he was interested in working with me. I got coffee with him one day in New York, way before recording the album, and kind of told him what I wanted – cause I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to work with a producer, really. But we talked about my ideas for it, and where I wanted to go with it, and he had all these great ideas that totally fit with what I wanted the record to sound like, despite me giving him no, like… actual tangible direction. (laughs)
I was so vague, and so – “I know I want it to sound like… summer, in the South, on a night, looking up at the stars…” and he’d go “Okay! I’m just gonna throw out some ideas!” and they’d always sound really cool, like stuff I would want to experiment with, and I would not have had the means to do so otherwise. So, yeah – then when it came time to record the album, I decided to try doing some demos with Gabe, and see if it worked.
We did two songs and they sounded great, so I was like – there’s no way I’m going to go off and record it myself now, and make it sound nowhere near as good as this. I’m gonna spend all of my money (laughs)… on the record, making the record sound as good as possible, and it definitely was the right decision, cause it sounds so much better than anything I’ve ever done. It sounds like, I don’t know, a record! It almost sounds like I didn’t even make it – it sounds so distant from the process, you know, it’s this total intricate piece of work.