How well do you know yourself at 22? If you're Sophie Allison, who records music as Soccer Mommy, you know yourself pretty fucking well. And you know your craft even better.
Allison is releasing her second album, Color Theory, after a successful first album and touring with Vampire Weekend, Paramore, and Kacey Musgraves — to name only a few. It's a project she's been working on while she was on the road and she calls it "an expression of all the things that have slowly degraded me personally."
Grouped into color themes, the songs deal with her mother's terminal illness (yellow), her own brushes with mental illness and self-harm (shades of blue), and the fear of loss that all these dark thoughts bring her (grey).
If it sounds traumatic, it is. But what Allison forged in the fire of those thoughts is self-possession and self-actualization normally found in someone much older. It shows when she talks about her ideas of authenticity and what she won't compromise to make music.
Refinery29 caught up with Allison to discuss her songwriting process, how she expresses herself in her lyrics, and why hiring the right people is everything.
Refinery29: Most people have a hard time writing their sophomore albums, especially doing it while they're on the road, but it seems like Color Theory came fairly easily to you.
Sophie Allison: "I think the reason it wasn't a challenge for me is because I didn't spend my whole life putting together [my first album] Clean. I spent the same amount of time, which, honestly, for me feels long. When I started releasing music as Soccer Mommy, I was putting stuff on Bandcamp and I would put eight songs online in a month, which is almost a record. They would be something I was working on for a month, not stuff that was ruminating for a long time. I got used to churning stuff out and knowing when it's good and whether or not to finish it or move on and start something new. I can pick that out quickly. There are times when I doubt it, but there are also times when I'm starting something and I'm like, 'No, this isn't going where I want so I'm going to try to not get caught up on this chord progression for the next two weeks.'
"The writing on Color Theory came just as easily as Clean did and I feel better about it, which I think is because I'm experienced. I'm getting better at writing the longer I do it. And I'm getting better at creating guitar parts the more I do it. It's only getting easier. The only thing that can stop me is feeling like I'm stuck on something — like feeling like there's a topic I keep going back to. That's the only thing that ever bothers me, that's when I start to feel like, What is going on inside of me that is making me feel like I'm not expressing this with writing and not moving on to new thoughts?"
Do you not want to repeat yourself in lyrics and only explore new ideas in every song?
"I'm fine exploring similar ideas, but I don't want to write the same song over and over again. I don't want to say the same thing. When writing an album, I want it to feel like I'm getting all my thoughts out on a problem that is happening to me. It doesn't have to fix my life, but I want to write it all out in a way that is concise and expresses all I needed to say without leaving room for me needing to explain myself. I feel that's what the writing is on an album: having all these thoughts and getting them into concise points. The songs are the points, you know what I mean? They are the parts of this problem I want to address. While those things may come up in other songs, too, I don't want to dwell on the same issue for ten songs and still come out feeling like I haven't said anything that finishes this for me."
Was that thought process around songwriting influenced by the music you like?
"The melodies and chords are more like that. Occasionally I'll be listening to a song and a lyric will hit me — like, the metaphor that the lyric is stating will bring a new idea into my mind or reframe how I see something. Usually, I'm just getting inspired. I love the lyrics of songs, obviously, but the thing that is going to be reflected in my music is more like guitar chords or melodies — similar melodies, I'm never going to rip one off. The way I write lyrically, for my type of personality, I feel like I need to be concrete with communication. I get frustrated when I feel like there's still an argument against what I have to say, like I haven't answered all the questions here. It's like doing this interview. I'll answer the questions and then when I see it later, it pisses me off when I feel like I didn't express my opinion and feelings enough that it's undeniably what I said. I think that's what the struggle of writing is: I want to only say things that are important."
You organized this album by colors and moods, which isn't a concept I've heard anyone discuss in pop music before. It feels more like the movements in classical music.
"The idea of movements in classical music did come into my brain [laughs]. It is very much like movement or acts, and that's how I decided the sequence of the parts. I started with a lighter and soft, but still sad, movement. Then the second one is a higher tension, faster, kind of anxious section. Then I end up in a section that brings it back. There's a wave of rising action, a climax, and falling action into the end. I can't say exactly what made this all come to my brain. I was just writing and I started to see these three main themes and ideas that I was centering around. For me, that's how I realize what is on my mind. So I kept writing and let it separate into three groups. I saw the yellow one first — an aged yellow is a color I've always associated with sickness, anxiety, paranoia, and high tension. Once I saw that connection to the color, I saw there are colors going through the other songs, too. The ones talking about sadness or depression have this imagery of water running through them, which is obviously blue. The last one was emptiness — grey, a lack of color. That's how I decided to set it up with colors in mind...It's a metaphorical attaching of color to imagery.
"I often imagine scenes to my songs, [and] I will start seeing the music video as scenes to my lyrics. It's always got a color to it, in the sense of a hue, like a colder, wintery blue and green or a more yellow-y spring and summer. I've always done that, especially with album art. There's a color that's more of a fit for the mood and the sound of the music that has helped me pick album art."
What was something, going into recording Color Theory, that you didn't know on your first album that has influenced your sound?
"I learned a lot about production. I didn't know anything about what I would do when we recorded Clean. We got into the studio and I asked where we would start — with me playing guitar [and] adding instruments on top of it? Or would it be better to start with a band recording, which I like the sound of much more? On top of that, I've learned how to hear sounds that need to be there. I hear when something sounds better when you throw bass in, even if when you're adding bass it doesn't sound like you're building as much. There are ways to build dynamics in a song that aren't always with drums and bass. A lot of times, they need to be there the whole time and you want to add the dynamics of everything else to build on top of that."
Has it been difficult to get people to trust your creative vision?
"All the people I work with do, otherwise I wouldn't be working with them. If my manager were telling me, 'I don't know if your ideas are going to work out for you,' about my creative ideas, they wouldn't be getting it and I don't know if the relationship would work. I hired people who are interested in my creative ideas. With that at the forefront, as long as I trust myself to be my biggest critic — a lot [of the] time people you work with will say it's great. They're not going to trash it. Pushing myself to always be more inventive and creative, and also not stray from myself? I'm the only one who can do that because no one else is me and knows what is off-limits. I haven't found it hard, but it is something you have to put in effort to do.
"You also have to be honest with your team on the business side of things and say, there are certain things I don't want to compromise one and I don't want you to try to convince me to. That's the best way to stay true to yourself, but that doesn't mean you can't have ambitions to the pop world. Pop can still be extremely experimental and interesting. There's a lot of room to create there. It can randomly let weird things in. It's not something I want to close myself off from. It would be cool if, one day, I could bring something I made into the pop world. At the same time, I'm not going to do it if it means I have to compromise who I want to be as an artist."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.