In Conversation: Soccer Mommy Confronts the Dark Side of Existence
Sophie Allison on how she’s handling being stuck inside and her post-release reflections on Color Theory.
A lot of people are currently in the throes of cabin fever. Restlessness, depression, lethargy, horrible attention spans…the coronavirus pandemic has forced us into self-isolation, a period during which we might confront the most unknown corners of our brains. While Sophie Allison, a.k.a. Soccer Mommy, might not have been in lockdown when penning her sophomore album Color Theory, its ten lilting tracks do grapple with the darkness of her psyche.
When Allison answers the phone, I ask how she’s doing. “Good. You know, I’m just like, out doing a bunch of stuff and partying,” she says ironically. Her dry wit is comforting, especially considering how difficult it is to find things to chuckle about right now. In music, she has a skill for transforming dire situations into relatable moments of reflection. Sometimes these moments feel like tearing open a flesh wound with Operation tongs; at other times, Allison is morbidly playful, injecting her misery with fairytale imagery like on “Royal Screw Up,” where she depicts two relationships: one with herself and one with someone who gives her sweet venom to drink.
Soccer Mommy’s work is forward without being overbearing, which is perhaps why some people misunderstand or undercut its gravity. “It also feels uncomfortable, you know, telling someone these nitty gritty details of an experience that I’m talking about,” she tells me. “Honestly, I feel like sometimes I say something and these interviewers will just assume I’m joking, and I’m like, that’s easier, that they clearly don’t really believe what I’m talking about or fully connect to it, and that’s fine. I’m good with it being a joke, I guess.”
I reach Allison at home in Nashville, where she lives with her sister and her guitar player and boyfriend Julian Powell. The first few days of quarantine have become a blur, and we speak a lot about how the coronavirus is changing the music industry, and what’s next for her album now that she can’t perform it live.
What have you been up to since quarantine began?
I’ve been doing a lot of video gaming. I started a new Stardew Valley file not too long ago. I’ve been really grinding on my farm. And I also have this Pokémon DS game—I have almost every Pokémon Game Boy or Game Boy Advance game now. I’m recording a bit too, just like demos. I have a lot of new songs and am just trying to get them recorded at least in some format.
Are they pretty adjacent to what you’re doing with Color Theory or closer to Clean?
Not really either. I mean some of them are…I think it’s weirdly rotating through a lot of different styles. Some stuff sounds kind of similar, but some of it feels really poppy, and then some of it is kind of evil pop. It’s definitely not as depressing.
What would be an example of “evil pop”?
I don’t even know how I could describe it. Basically, I feel like the main song, the home version that I’ve made, has a sampler. It’s kind of a fat beat. I think actually the samples that we were using are from a floppy disc with Timbaland stuff on it. But then it’s about like, burning yourself alive to unleash all the demons in your body. It’s still kind of evil. It’s a really tight, fat beat, but spooky. It’s hard to describe. It’s like Beak> or Portishead meets Timbaland.
Was that where your songs were headed after writing Color Theory?
For that one, I started writing it last October, so obviously it was very Halloween-inspired. I was just excited about it. It got me thinking about demon evil. I don’t think it’s [quarantine] really affecting the music that I’m making or the production. It doesn’t feel that crazy, yet… Because this is what I literally do normally. I sit at home and all of my friends are busy with their jobs. I have no job, I just sit at home and record music and play video games and do nothing. The only different thing is that I’m eating at home more. But obviously I feel like that’s gonna start to kick in a little bit more soon.
What’s the state of things in Tennessee?
I feel like it has hit less hard here. Actually, Nashville was trending yesterday because people were still partying. A lot of bars downtown were still open. People were like, “We can still party!” and were going crazy and everyone was like, “Y’all are stupid.” It was very stupid. A lot of food is still open, a lot of them do to-go. It doesn’t seem quite as crazy. I did just get an email that my nail salon is going to close for a couple weeks starting tomorrow. I was just like, “Fuck. My nails are going to look like shit.” But it’s fine.
Artists make so much of their money from live events and touring. Do you think the system is going to change after things eventually pick back up?
I don’t know. I mean, honestly, probably not. Because where else are you going to redistribute that? It used to not be that touring was the main moneymaker. It used to be music. And then, obviously, Napster happened, and that’s not a thing anymore. We can’t just cycle back to that. With that not making any money, there has to be somewhere the label can make money. If it’s not gonna be your live shows, if you don’t have a 360 deal and the music isn’t really doing much, you can’t really switch it up. The economy just crashes a little bit in an upsetting way. I don’t think that streaming services are going to say, “Oh, we feel bad now,” and want to give artists more money from this.
“We need to make money off of merch, but people can only buy merch once really, like one shirt. It’s a less refillable demand than live music is. You can see the same band over and over again and it’s going to be different every time … There’s not much you can do when the shows just can’t happen.”
There’s nowhere else to go from here. We need to make money off of merch, but people can only buy merch once really, like one shirt. It’s a less refillable demand than live music is. You can see the same band over and over again and it’s going to be different every time. But you’re not going to buy the same t-shirt from them, and you’re not going to buy every t-shirt from them either. Obviously no one needs five of the same band shirts. I feel like fans are aware of the situation and want to help when it comes to buying merch or buying the actual physical album. There’s not much you can do when the shows just can’t happen.
Do you think this is going to encourage artists to put out more songs on platforms like Bandcamp?
The idea of just putting out more stuff for streaming, especially if you’re a signed artist, is going to be a problem because it’s still just such a small percentage of what you’re actually going to see. If you have a record recently out and you’re still recouping, you’re not gonna see any of it for a while. I don’t think that’s going to be used to solve the problem. Even for signed artists I think in a lot of situations, some labels are flexible, but most probably won’t let their artists release something that isn’t partially going to them. They usually have a contractual obligation until they’re not on this label anymore to not release stuff without them under that project’s name. I think a lot of labels will allow a loophole for the situation if people try to do that. People are not really drowning right now, and most labels that are bigger can survive a couple months of not having huge income or can sacrifice a little bit of that income.
I really don’t know what musicians are gonna do, honestly. Obviously, people are trying to do livestreaming concerts, and it’s not a bad idea playing for people—but there’s no way that’s going to make up for a serious amount of income. I just don’t think it’s possible. I mean, what can you do? It’s hard. It’s a little bit scary. It’s the same thing for restaurant workers right now. Service industry people—what are they gonna do until restaurants open back up? Because they can’t get another job. I don’t know, I think people are gonna be scrambling. Hopefully the government helps at least a little bit. I feel they’re going to have to, at least on a small level, because otherwise it’s just gonna be everyone under thirty is homeless. I don’t think they’re prepared for that kind of destruction.
How does that feel for you personally, that your songs can’t be performed live right now?
It’s just waiting. They will be performed eventually. I know they will. It will give us more time to make them perfect. It does suck, and I was excited for it. Especially with this album, it has been really stressful with press and having to talk—not even playing the songs as much, but having to talk about them. In some ways it’s a breath of relief for a minute. The thing is I do want to play them, but it is a bummer.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you don’t want to talk to your family about the album, or that it’s difficult for you to break into an emotional conversation if you’re being interviewed by a stranger.
Yeah, I think I can find a way of being comfortable revealing the stuff that is obviously there that anyone could figure out if they take a look at the lyrics, while sometimes keeping the details and the more difficult parts of it to myself. I also think that I’m a lot better now than I was when I wrote this album—kind of night and day. It’s a little bit easier to talk about it because I’m not there anymore. I’ve gotten out of it, which it took a while to do because I was on tour all the time. I was trying to get mental health care, and it was so broken up. My lifestyle was exacerbating a lot of my problems. I tried a lot of medications that didn’t work and it was a long time coming to get to a more stable place.
Did it feel different releasing Color Theory than it did Clean?
Definitely. I just think when Clean was happening, I was so excited for it to come out but I didn’t expect anything. It was crazy when it did come out and it got a lot of support. With this album I was really excited for the music, but once I started press, and the closer I got to it actually coming out, I was nervous and a little bit regretful for being honest about stuff and writing just how I was feeling.
I had to go through all this press that was honestly worsening my mindset, just having to be forced to open up about things and be uncomfortable. Also, how people misunderstand something that is personal. I was definitely worried that it was a mistake a little bit to go there with people.
“I have horrible problems with paranoia, as you can probably tell from the album. I couldn’t keep myself from searching for mean things. Almost looking for something that’s going to pop out and scare me. It was so stupid and useless and masochistic.”
I honestly did a good job of not really paying attention to what people have said about it, which makes it a lot easier. It’s almost underwhelming in comparison, but not in a bad way. I just know what to expect now. Knowing that means I am handling the ups and downs with it a lot better than I did the last time. I think before it would spiral me because I had never experienced that. It was suddenly like, “Oh some people don’t like me. Some people like me and are a little bit too intense about it.” It was very confusing and unknown. I’ve felt the pain from it and have grown and cut that part off.
You’re aware that people are paying attention to you now.
Yeah, exactly. I have horrible problems with paranoia, as you can probably tell from the album. That kind of stuff was not easy because I couldn’t keep myself from searching for mean things. Almost looking for something that’s going to pop out and scare me, just looking for it. It was so stupid and useless and masochistic. Now at least I feel I can step back, which is partially growth and having learned how it works and partially personal stuff.
Was there anything you regretted putting on the album?
I don’t regret a single song, actually. I wouldn’t change them at all. Just talking about depression, it’s in almost every song, stuff that’s on “Gray Light.” Even “Royal Screw Up,” too. But I wouldn’t release the album without those songs. Maybe I wish that I could release it to only my friends. To have it exist, but not have it be seen. It’s a weird thought to have. Obviously that’s why I did end up doing it, because I felt it needed to go out.
I was struck by “Lucy” because it’s thematically different from the record’s other songs. Where did that come from?
Honestly, that’s something I think about a lot and it causes a lot of anxiety, OCD, and cycling. It can make everything in the world seem worthless. When you’re just like, “Why do I even bother trying to be good and spend all this time stressing over trying to be perfect and trying to be this flawless person when everything is awful everywhere?” I can’t look to anything to be good. Obviously “Lucy” makes it goofy and light by having that way of describing it.
That section of the album is really existential. It’s very much a crisis of, “I don’t know what’s good in the world. I don’t know how to be good. I don’t know if I’m right when I’m trying to be.” There’s this anxiety, and I feel like I’m being tricked all the time by evil and drawn into it when I don’t even realize. Then on a song like “Stain,” which, without going into too much detail, is about feeling taken advantage of by someone and wanting that power back…but it’s something you can never get back. It’s so frustrating to me, and it could be something small, but it’s just these true things about life that are hard. When you mess them up you can’t really fix them, and it makes you feel like everything is pointless. It’s the same thing with “Gray Light,” which is about being scared of death, but also wanting it because you want to get it over with. That whole section, I feel like everyone always shortens it—because it would take a lot to describe what it’s fully about—to “death” or “mortality.” I feel like it’s really more about existence and the dark side of that and the darkness of being unable to cope with just normal things in life.
What are your thoughts on the afterlife? Are you religious or spiritual?
I wouldn’t fully call myself religious. I guess I could be spiritual if I devote more time to it. I believe in some kind of higher being that can’t give you things or change your life in these dramatic ways, but can help you find knowledge, help you find things that you’re looking for in yourself. I don’t know how I feel about the afterlife; I’m pretty 50/50 on it. It’s obviously unprovable and unknowable what exists. I live more in the world of “could be” or “could not be,” and I’m gonna go with the flow of whatever that is. FL