Q&A: Soccer Mommy On Overcoming Labels, The Nashville Scene, And Her New Mini-Album Collection
It’s been less than two years since Sophie Allison started making songs as Soccer Mommy, but in that short period of time everything she’s put out has been consistently rewarding and uniformly excellent. It’s hard to write the kind of music that she does with such skill — her songs are unassuming and simple on the surface, but deceptively complex. Allison’s voice is muted and empathetic, living within the songs rather than overpowering them, and her guitar work is subtle but intoxicating. Everything she writes has the same gauzy sheen, and they could scan as boring if they weren’t held down by Allison’s arresting personal narratives and enough intricate sonic framework to support many repeated listens.
She arrived pretty fully-realized, with a series of EPs with charmingly plain-spoken titles like Songs For The Recently Sad and Songs From My Bedroom. They felt intimate and universal, like she was expressing a communal grief over adolescent lost loves, told from the perspective of someone who only has nostalgia for the recent past. Allison was 18 when she recorded those songs — putting them online as she made the transition from growing up in Nashville to moving to New York City for school — but they felt like they were written by someone far more worn-out by life, or rather they encapsulated the youthful sort of jadedness where it feels like you know everything but you really don’t.
From there, Allison has progressed in small but significant ways that only serve to demonstrate how potent and solid the foundation she started out with really is. Last year’s For Young Hearts played out the warm haze of love in slow-motion, chronicling its promising initial spark, the inevitable deadening, and all the wishy-ashy emotions in between. They were songs to wallow in, and For Young Hearts is Soccer Mommy at its most enchanting.
But she’s slowly started to move beyond the homespun lo-fi charms of her early releases. Earlier this year, she put out a 7″ with two excellent tracks, “Last Girl” and “Be Seeing You.” It was her first release that featured the full band she had put together to play her shows, and it became clear that Soccer Mommy songs could be much more muscular and peppy than they initially appeared. An upcoming mini-album, Collection, proves that point, as she reimagines songs from her past releases with the strength of a full band behind her. They feel vibrant in a way that her home-recorded material didn’t, while still retaining the singularly personal nature that made her songs so captivating in the first place.
Her new video for “Inside Out,” a song that originally appeared on For Young Hearts, shows Allison at the crossroads between her full band (presented here in monster masks) and the project’s solo beginnings. “I think there’s always going to be some sense of solitude in my videos because they’re always written that way,” she says. “These songs are in my head alone. They’re not usually things I express outside of just to myself, so there will always be a part to them where it’s just me singing alone to show that these are feelings that I’ve kept inside of me.”
Watch the video below and continue on for a chat with Allison about overcoming labels, the Nashville scene, and the full-length album that she’s currently working on.
STEREOGUM: When did you start making music?
SOPHIE ALLISON: I started playing when I was five, actually. I went to some benefit concert for my brother’s preschool. Some country band was playing… I forget what their name was, but there was a cheap signed guitar there that I made my parents get for me. I played that for a little while and wrote some really awful songs. I think the first song that I wrote was called “What The Heck Is A Cowgirl?” I think I have it on CD somewhere… it was pretty bad. But after a while, I got an actual guitar and took lessons up until high school. Then I went to an art school, so I was playing a lot there — I was in the guitar quartet, swing band, all that stuff. The summer after high school, I got a TASCAM because I had been writing a lot and thought it would be cool if I recorded stuff not just on my phone. I used to record demos into my phone mic and then send them into GarageBand and try to edit them to sound good — that’s actually how I did the first version of “Switzerland” — but once I got a TASCAM, I started recording stuff and putting it up on SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Everything started to pick up during my first year of college, and then I came back [to Nashville] and got a band together to play some shows.
STEREOGUM: What was the motivation behind starting to put your music online?
ALLISON: I was sort of in the local punk scene during my senior year of high school because I was dating a guy in a punk band, and everyone was doing it themselves. Well, there were a lot of dudes doing it themselves and I would hang around and not… I was making music and playing, but it wasn’t until I was about to go to college that I was like, You know what, I don’t really care if people think this sucks and they don’t like it. That was always the underlying feeling that I had — that people would think that if I started making music, they would think it wasn’t very good. So I decided to just do it — maybe people will like it or maybe they won’t listen to it at all, but it didn’t matter because I don’t have to see these people for a year. But it ended up going pretty well for me, which was a nice, empowering thing for me for sure.
STEREOGUM: What was your reaction when people outside of your high school or circle of friends started to pick up on it?
ALLISON: It took a little while… I would post stuff on my Tumblr, and friends would see it and say that it sounded good, but I didn’t really think anything of it. I was just like, Oh, that’s nice. At least they don’t hate it. Occasionally someone would message me and they’d say that they really liked it, and I’d be like, Oh, wow, that’s crazy, thank you. When I released Songs From My Bedroom… that’s the one that people started actually listening to. I would say that it wasn’t very big before that, mostly just friends. For that one, I went home during winter break and I made a cassette of both sides of it — part one and part two. I had just recorded half of it in my bedroom and half of it in my dorm, and I put it on a tape and was giving it out for free and a surprising number of people wanted it. That was the moment that I realized people were actually starting to like it, so I talked to a few friends and mentioned that it could be cool to play shows live when we came back from school in the summer.
I think at that point I had already started talking about doing a thing with Orchid Tapes, so I was already sort of planning a release show. The Orchid Tapes thing definitely gave me a few fans outside of people that I knew or kind of knew from high school. Then I would take every show offer that we had. It had a lot of space to grow in Nashville because there was so much punk at that time. I can’t think of many bands that weren’t doing that kind of music… There weren’t a lot of girls in the scene, at least within the younger high school-aged people, and it was mostly just punk dudes. There was space for it to grow because there were a lot of young girls in the scene and they were all going to shows because it’s what you did to have fun. You just kind of had to fit in with the dudes a little bit… that was sort of the vibe. I think a lot of other girls felt that, too, not just me.
STEREOGUM: Do you sense that the Nashville scene, or at least the scene that you’re involved in, has changed as a result of you being around?
ALLISON: I don’t know if it’s me per se, but I think it’s going somewhere a lot better. Just thinking about when I was in high school, it was such a “punk dude” thing. But, recently, I feel like it hasn’t been that big of a… There’s only been a few new bands popping up, but I’ve already noticed that the younger kids who were freshman in high school when I was a senior — that sort of age difference — are at my shows a lot and have talked to me about starting bands. At the last show that I went to in Nashville, I had three different girls come up to me and talk about starting a band, which is really cool. I was just like, Please do it.
There are also a few more people looking out for non-local acts and booking shows where people will come out and actually be interested. It used to be that bands from the indie scene would show up and no one would really care. I saw something the other day about Pinegrove playing years ago in Nashville at some house venue that I had never heard about and I don’t think that there were that many people there. I was just like, God, there’s people here that like this music, but it totally wasn’t being booked correctly.
STEREOGUM: Do you still feel like Nashville is your home base, even though you’ve been away at school in New York for most of the year?
ALLISON: I think I do still, just because the band is here. Especially now… I don’t think I’m going back to school all next year because of tour. It’s not an easy thing to manage — school and being in a band. So now I’m just going to be touring for the rest of the year. I just told my new agent and the people at the label that I’m down just to tour back-to-back now.
STEREOGUM: How do you think being in New York for a couple years helped you to develop as an artist?
ALLISON: I think leaving Nashville helped so much, even though I love it. Getting out of the mindset here and realizing that, even if you get big in Nashville, you’re not famous, you’re not going to be able to keep it going. That’s not going to sustain you for your whole life. You have to get out of the city — unless you’re a studio musician, then you can live and just play — but being in a local band isn’t going to make you a living or help your record sell. Getting away from Nashville and realizing how big everything is definitely helped me. It also just helped me grow as a person in my mindset of being like, If I’m going to do this, I should just do it. I can do it, I just have to work for it. I have to not let anything get to me and not get an ego about it and just do what I want to do, do things because I like them, and make the music that I like unapologetically.
I’ve been called “sad girl music” before and I’m not trying to feel bad about it… but I also don’t think it’s that, especially when it’s fully recorded. I think it was definitely lo-fi because I didn’t have the technology to do it any other way. I think it’s indie-rock, really, but there’s also a lot of sexism around getting labeled as that… Even here, I will occasionally hear someone say something subtle about it being “sad girl music,” and it’s like… you wouldn’t say that about any of the punk dudes that are just whining about their girlfriend. You wouldn’t. It’s the same thing lyrically. But you have to move past it, I guess. Moving away helped me realize that it doesn’t really matter what anyone at home thinks. I hope they like it, but it doesn’t really matter. I just have to do my own music.
STEREOGUM: Especially in the last couple years, when you know that people are going to be listening to these songs, how do you think your songwriting has transformed and developed in reaction to that?
ALLISON: I think I’ve developed to actually think about my songwriting a little more, definitely melodically and chord-wise. I think I’ve discovered what themes I tend to write about and why I tend to do that, and I think that’s helped me write with more intent. I also just think I’ve grown up a little bit, so it’s not always me writing about a crush. While I do like to interpret that kind of stuff, it’s usually more because I’m trying to bring in an element of youth, not just because I’m feeling sad about something. I kind of use it more intentionally and a little more thematically now when I write about some things. I’ve learned how to tie in different contrasting themes in a way that actually expresses how I’m feeling, and I think that, having grown up a little bit, I’m not just writing about feeling bad for myself anymore. I can look at it with more depth and understand more deeply why I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling and how to express it a little better.
STEREOGUM: A lot of your earlier songs are about love and how it’s a reflection on yourself and your own insecurities, but I feel like in the last couple songs you’ve put out — especially the 7″ from a few months ago with “Last Girl” and “Be Seeing You” — you’re starting to play a bit with that expectation in a more mature way. Tying back to what you were saying about not wanting to be defined as “sad girl music,” which I don’t think you are, but have you been branching out into writing about things besides relationships and relationship dynamics in your newer songs?
ALLISON: I think I have a little bit on some of the stuff for my new album. I think that, for the most part, I tend to stick to relationships because that’s the stuff that I need the most help expressing. That’s where I don’t express myself as much. Politically, I’m pretty open about my views to people and I’m expressive about them, and in my daily life, I feel like I express my opinions pretty well. But I tend to keep my feelings on relationships or friendships inside a little more. But I think I’ve developed past writing about feeling sad over things. On my new album that I’m working on, there are a few songs about relationships, but there are more about being mad or wanting to stand up for myself, about jealousy of other people or wanting to be more like someone else.
There’s a song on the next album about wanting to be a different kind of girl. It doesn’t even feature a specific someone that I want, it’s just about wanting to be a different kind of person. I think that’s the underlying meaning of a lot of my songs, actually, and I think that’s starting to come out in different ways. There’s a sad aspect to it, but yeah… being jealous or envious of someone else and wanting to be different, or being upset with myself for not being more expressive. That comes out a little bit more on the album I’m working on because it’s kind of about that — wanting to be something that I’m not and not being able to do that. But I think I’ll always tie it back to relationships a little bit because that’s the place I have the most trouble expressing my problems or concerns.
STEREOGUM: For the “mini-album” that you’re putting out, you re-recorded most of these songs with a full band for the first time. How did you go about doing that in a way that made these songs feel fresh for you?
ALLISON: It kind of happened naturally because we were playing them with different arrangements. It was pretty easy because we had been playing the songs totally differently live, so we just played them how we had already been playing them live. The drums were actual drums in this situation, so that sort of changes everything. Some of the [old songs] were so lo-fi, they were so low-quality. The songs off Songs For The Recently Sad were beefed up and the ones from Songs From My Bedroom were made to sound more indie-rock and less like chill, soft music just because I wasn’t recording the drums with a brush like I used to have to do because all I had was a TASCAM internal mic and it couldn’t be turned up that loud.
I beefed it up to sound more like a rock album, which is kind of how I always imagined them being. I never wanted them to just be soft sad girl music, even though I do like that, which is why they ended up sounding like they did because that was the quality I could manage then. That’s the best way I could make them sound. I probably could have made them sound even more like a rock album, but I prefer soft music to that kind of music. It was definitely a lot more tender on the demos, but I think I beefed it up a lot and I definitely want to step it up even more on the recording game for the next album. I want it to sound even more full. I kind of want it to sound like a summer evening or something. I want it to sound very full and warm. One day, I’ll fully get there, but for now I’m just trying to get a little bit more upbeat and closer to how it sounds live. On the next one, I’m going to try to get it even further into a big, warm, full studio sound.
STEREOGUM: Do you find part of that desire to go bigger is because you feel more confident with the full band behind you and you can do that whereas before you were limited to working within your means?
ALLISON: Totally. Before, I was just trying to make it sound not bad. But now I want to make it sound like it does live. When we play live, it’s very full, it’s very strong. I mean, obviously I can never hear how it fully sounds, but when I see videos of our live set, it sounds a lot fuller than any of the recordings ever have. It sounds more like I want it to sound. I want it to sound like a full, emotional song. Like, when I play “Inside Out,” it’s supposed to be loud on the chorus so that I can yell it and it can be more expressive for me and a more cathartic performance. It’s hard to do that when you’re doing lo-fi recordings. It’s hard to get that sound of an intense emotional swell when you don’t have control over the actual volume level. “Out Worn,” too, definitely has a big chorus. I want to be able to get that full moment where you can just yell it out. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
STEREOGUM: So what’s the stuff like that you’re recording now? You’re obviously working on the next project… What exactly is it going to entail?
ALLISON: I’m working on a full-length, which will be my debut. It’s gonna be all new music, I’m pretty sure. There might be one bonus track that’s a song people have already heard, but… It’s going to be nine songs, I think, maybe ten. It’ll sound a little bit bigger and a little bit more produced and more intense. Definitely more droning sounds… The only way that I’ve described the sound that I want is for it to sound like sitting in a field in the South in the summer at night. Experiencing that feeling of humid air and being able to see the stars… That feeling… I don’t know how else to describe it, it’s something I’ve experienced living in the South. Being outside at night, it’s kind of warm still, and being able to be alone with your thoughts. I want it to sound just like that.
It’s going to be about my journey of wanting to be someone that I’m not, especially coming out of a relationship, and realizing that I’m still that person and I can’t really not be that person ever. There’s no changing yourself, I guess. Some people are going to get hurt over and over again, and that’s just kind of how you are. You let yourself be vulnerable. I think that’s what it’s kind of about: not wanting to be vulnerable and still being vulnerable every time.
07/19 Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom #
07/21 San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore #
08/02 Brighton, UK @ The Hope
08/03 London, UK @ The Islington
08/05 London, UK @ Visions Festival
08/07 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair *
08/08 Hamden, CT @ The Ballroom at The Outer Space *
08/16 New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom *
08/18 Washington D.C. @ 9:30 Club *
08/19 Millvale, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre *
09/09 Santa Fe, NM @ Meow Wolf ^
09/10 Boulder, CO @ Fox Theatre ^
09/11 Omaha, NE @ Reverb Lounge ^
09/13 Milwaukee, WI @ The Back Room @ Collectivo Coffee ^
09/14 Chicago, IL @ Subterranean ^
09/16 Toronto, ON @ Legendary Horseshoe Tavern ^
09/17 Montreal, QC @ Petit Campus ^
09/22 Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church ^
09/24 Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506 ^
09/25 Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade (Purgatory Stage) ^
# w/ The Drums, Stef Chura
* w/ The Districts, Sam Evian
^ w/ Jay Som, Stef Chura