Sophia Kennedy Walks Us Through Her Experimental Pop LP “Monsters” Track by Track
Her sophomore album is out today via City Slang.
Sophia Kennedy makes cinematic pop music. Baltimore-born and raised in Germany, Kennedy studied film and theater production in Hamburg. From there, she found a community in the local dance music scene, releasing her eponymous debut album in 2017. But whether it’s the jazzy flare in her vocals or the extravagant, unexpected production, Kennedy’s latest album Monsters is much more personal. For her single “Seventeen,” Kennedy challenged herself by going in a simpler direction, capturing the wistfulness of youth in doing so. Rather than grandiose, the song feels more documentary-based, including the accompanying video that’s made from old camcorder footage.
“I was given a camcorder for my fifteenth birthday and carried it around me wherever I went—documenting everything around me. Growing up as a teenager and facing crises I assume most teens go through, I was often terrified and overwhelmed by life itself,” she shared when the video was released. “The video to ‘Seventeen’ shows excerpts taken from the material I filmed with my camcorder while growing up: Baltimore, New York, Bielefeld… Being born in the U.S., but raised in Germany, I always felt I had this secret ‘other’ life that I wanted to get a hold of and knew so little about. I wanted to capture as much as possible to somehow keep and feel close to this part of my life.”
On Monsters, Kennedy pushes herself to go further with her alt-pop Frankensteins; there are moments when she channels Leonard Cohen, other times where she transports herself back to when girl groups were running the charts, and even balances the weight of grief with the acceptance that follows death in order to move forward with one’s own life. Although some tracks are more labyrinthine than others, the moments that are the most poignant are those where Kennedy lets us into her unique reality. On the closer “Dragged Myself Into the Sun” she samples recordings of her grandparents that she made when she was a teenager. Monsters is instilled with an awareness that Kennedy has always had: Nothing is permanent. And like her kaleidoscopic compositions—sometimes unnerving, like a bad quaalude trip—Sophia Kennedy’s music is sprawling, aware, and resolute.
Today, with the release of Monsters, she lets us into her process and inspiration behind each track. Listen to the album (and buy it—it’s Bandcamp Friday!) and read her thoughts below.
1. “Animals Will Come”
This song came about quite spontaneously and organically. It started with an eight-bar piano loop, over which Mense [Reents] improvised guitars. The vocals and lyrics came to me very naturally—I hardly changed the lyrics afterward. Also, we didn’t edit the live takes later on to keep the natural flow. It’s about atmosphere and psychedelia—the song is written from the perspective of a deceased person who doesn’t necessarily fear his passing, but tries to find peace and acceptance in it. It’s also about decay—not in a morbid sense, but more in a way of “letting go.” I lost my father to cancer in the summer of 2019. That was the hardest experience of my life. Of course, this fate has greatly shaped and influenced the record—it would have been unthinkable not to write about it. Nevertheless, it was important to me that the album is not mono-thematically determined by grief and death.
2. “Orange Tic Tac”
I found the original beat to “Orange Tic Tac” on an old home organ when I was 18. I recorded it with my laptop and saved it as “Sophie’s Kitchen Blues” in my sound files. It has been with me ever since. Over a decade later, I made a vocal loop and remembered my Kitchen Blues Beat—then, I put those two together and immediately had an atmospheric two-chord sketch of music. It was incredibly slow, so I gave it to my co-producer and legendary electronic maestro Mense Reents who increased the loop by about 20 BPM, and then he came up with the guitar hook and distorted sub-bass. I sang over his doubled guitar hook and we pitched my vocals to make them work together in this hauntingly weird way. It turned out to be the most concise feature of the song.
We wanted the chorus vocals to be tight and rhythmic, and that the song then would switch into this bright crooning style for the verse—like two worlds colliding. The heavy contrasts within the music perfectly fit the content of the song.
3. “I Can See You”
I wrote the chorus for “I Can See You” in 2018 because at the time I was really into melody lines that jumped from one octave to the next. I had so much fun doing it, I only did that all day long. Then I left it alone for a while, worked on something else, and came back to it a year later since the melody was still stuck inside my head. Mense and I were certain that there might be a hidden potential for a real pop song in there, so we tried out many versions of writing the verses, but weren’t quite satisfied at first.
We then came to the point that we wanted the verses to be deeper and more mysterious, so we arranged the instrumentation more minimally and abstract and only used a high-energy bass line as a musical element. For me, it always felt a little too pleasing, so I struggled with this song for a long time—until now. I now take great pleasure in rediscovering the song and interpreting it in different ways.
To me, this song feels a bit like a dark Leonard Cohen song, describing the downfall of a narcissistic person who is privileged and feels sorry for himself. I wanted the lyrics to be vicious, but in that kind of way I associate viciousness with Leonard Cohen: dark and humorous.
I originally composed the song on the piano, but it was clear to us from the beginning that we didn’t want to use acoustic instruments. So I recorded the song on eight different string synths, all a little out of tune. We found that very exciting. Mense added a tremolo to them, which made the pads more rhythmic and made the song work without a beat. It was important to me that monkey screams were added to the song at the end—in fact, the screams are me trying to imitate monkeys.
In between the making of the album, I often had the desire to compose something simple and easy, as we often got caught up in very complicated and elaborate production processes during the course of the record. I was rather unambitious with the song and just wanted to play and sing a bit to myself. By adding a percussive beat and an electronic bass, it became clear that the song didn’t need to be arranged in a conventional way. It then became an electronic repetitive track that requires only a few elements in which my vocals are used like samples. I often questioned whether the lyrics had any relevance or were just another clichéd take on youth. But it’s an autobiographical song that also reflects upon the melancholy of adolescence rather than glorifying youth.
With this song, the work on the second album truly began. Before that, I was often annoyed and aggressive because I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how I was going to follow up on the first album—I was just exhausted and in a creative hole. Then came‚ “Loop.” The most groundbreaking thing was when Mense made a loop out of a piano improvisation of mine and suddenly everything felt easy and liberating. That simple piano loop triggered a lot in me and I felt like it could be a new, interesting way to move forward. It’s also inspired by Jessica Pratt‘s wonderful “Opening Night,” which we both listened to a lot at the time.
7. “I’m Looking Up”
I met up with a very close friend and her mother for a quick coffee at the train station in Hamburg in the fall of 2019. They were in the city for a couple of hours, before heading on to Berlin. Because we rarely see each other and we didn’t have much time to talk, we skipped the small talk and had a deep conversation about almost everything. I was very down at the time but that short conversation somehow struck me with a sense of hopefulness, so I went home and started working on this song. It is an attempt to somehow describe the loss of my father. The lo-fi looped piano sample has this childlike melody—actually very contrary to such a heavy matter. But to me, there’s also something calming about it and that is what I think I was looking for. The heaviness lies in the lyrics and the noisy and distorted beats. It’s an extreme piece of music because it is an extreme experience to lose someone you love.
8. “Chestnut Avenue”
There are about 57 versions of this song. In the end, we decided to strip everything down to the essentials and that’s when it suddenly felt modern and right. The only guest on the whole album is Stefan Rath from Die Goldene Zitronen, who played the drums on this one. I’ve been carrying the lyrics around with me for many years. I think it takes place at a hotel, before or after a concert, and that feeling of emptiness and confusion after a show.
9. “DO THEY KNOW”
I remember exactly when I made this song. It was a tough moment in my life. I came home after a long trip to Berlin and as soon as I got off the train I was overcome by this incredible urge to sing. I ran into a music store all sweaty to buy a new mic because mine was broken and I wanted to record something that day. Then I went to the supermarket, bought three large Weizenbier and recorded it in two hours. I forgot that I had dental surgery the next day and I showed up hungover, but I knew I had a new great song.
10. “Cat on My Tongue”
The song was supposed to be like a modern Wall of Sound production: overloaded, noisy, melodramatic, and poignant. We had fun totally overdoing it. I suddenly had the idea that we really needed thunder sounds to emphasize the Shangri-Las effect. We spent hours trying to find the perfect thunder sound. When the track was finished and we walked out of the studio, it all of the sudden started to rain and thunder heavily. That was definitely a sign.
Working on “Up” began with me programming a four-bar hypnotic loop. Mense then suggested trying out a slightly longer, sprawling, more psychedelic approach to the song. I thought that was a brilliant idea and we then began to improvise freely over the motorik beat, using different sounds and instruments. It takes time for the vocals to set in which I find refreshing, especially in the context of the album, as it perhaps gives the listener time to breathe.
12. “Dragged Myself Into the Sun”
The special thing for me about this song is that it seems fast and very slow at the same time. The feeling of hyper nervousness and extreme lethargy describes the album quite well for me in general. Mense made this hard, industrial-beat on his MPC, which I distorted afterward. We then put a metal drone over the beat. Actually, there’s this ghostly vocal jazz track hidden beneath the noisy instrumentation, but I don’t think anyone has ever noticed that before. I love the song a lot.
It ends in an ambient-like atmosphere that also features my grandmother. It’s an excerpt from a phone call I recorded when I was 19 and had just moved to Hamburg. In my youth, I used a DV camera to document everything that was important to me. I was already aware at that time that everything is finite. Having the voices of my grandparents means a lot to me, so I weave excerpts of conversations or phone calls into my music.