“People forget that I’m a Gemini,” Sophie Allison tells me. The 22-year-old songwriter, who records hazy, candid indie rock under the name Soccer Mommy, is sitting on a couch in her publicist’s New York City office, just a week before the release of her remarkable second album, Color Theory, explaining why she worries that her fan interactions don’t always go as she—or rather, they—want. “There is this looming underbelly, but I tend to be the type of person who, partially out of discomfort, jokes about it and tries to keep on a happy face and smile, and doesn’t really want to delve into deep conversations with people I don’t know,” she admits. “I need an intense connection with someone to be able to get there.”
It’s a testament to her music, then, that fans feel they have exactly that.
Since her 2018 debut, Allison has become Gen Z’s preeminent scholar on torment. Why do I feel what I feel? What am I to do with all of this pain?, she wonders aloud in song, with an unflinching gaze and piercing vulnerability. It’s made her a critical darling as well as musicians’ favorite new musician. Clean landed on several major Best Of lists following its release while scoring her band opening slots for Vampire Weekend, Liz Phair, Kacey Musgraves, and more. It also sent many clamoring for the glory days when female rockers like Phair, Sheryl Crow, and Natalie Imbruglia ruled the airwaves.
“It’s just the way I write,” Allison says. “I don’t really have any sense of thinking about [stylings] when I’m writing. It’s unintentional.” Unintentional it may be, we’ll be calling it brilliant all the same.
Below, Esquire catches up with the artist about the traumas and triumphs that inspired Color Theory, dropping out of college, and loving creepy, gory shit.
Esquire: Clean was so adored, you really could have worked with anyone you wanted for your second album. But rather than expand, you returned to the same producer for Color Theory. How did you know you already had the right team in place?
Sophie Allison: For one, I really appreciate people who are there when you don’t have a lot—when you don’t have all the glitz and glamor or whatever. And there’s also just the fact that if I connect with someone and it really works, I don’t want to let go of it. It’s an intense feeling of safety. So maybe I could bring in the best players in Nashville, but I wouldn’t have that feeling that these people understood what I was trying to make. Once I found that I said, just stick to it.
A weird thing happens when a band takes off, which is that you become, in effect, the head of a suddenly popular business. Do you wish that people knew the amount of work and prep that goes on behind the scenes?
I don’t mind people not knowing. It is a group effort. When it comes to music and my work, I’m very driven to perfection in all these ways, but these guys are, too. They come off stage in the exact same way [as myself]; we all go back to the green room and we’re like, “How was that for you?” And they’ll be like, “I thought it was good, but I didn’t like what I did tonight.” Everyone is constantly listening to themselves and trying to see if they could better it. That’s how you get great. A part of the process is critiquing yourself.
As a society, we don’t often accept girls who are willing to offer constructive feedback—and we, as women, aren’t encouraged to give it. At what point in your life did you develop your voice, to be someone who says, I can take criticism and I can give it, and I am comfortable being a team leader?
I don’t know when it happened. I just think, when I make my own thing, I am very much a perfectionist about it. It has to be right. It’s why I don’t work that well writing with someone. I don’t think I could do that, really. I would just let go if it’s not going where I want.
Living in Nashville, you’re in the epicenter of the songwriter room and group writing session-approach.
You have to be combative if you need to, and also [you have to] be able to like someone else’s idea that changes your idea. I don’t think I can do that. That’s why I’m in control of the vision; I’m very driven to make it perfect. But I’ve brought in all these people that I think are perfect and that I think bring these things that we need. It leaves room to trust someone else to make their own part of it. I’ve always been outspoken, but for a long time, with my music, I didn’t really want to show it to everyone or play it with people. I was worried about the vision being tainted.
You’re in a relationship with someone in your band, guitarist Julian Powell. How do you balance the personal and the professional in this career growth spurt?
We work really well together. He brings so much to the music and I respect that and I care about it. And I want him to be involved. And he appreciates me too and wants it. So the balance is good. The only part part, ever, is when you’re working a lot. When you don’t have as much time to be alone, I guess. You have to find that time to be normal.
When an artist writes their first album, there’s sort of an embedded naiveté about what it’ll be like to have the entire world hear your secrets. I was so happy to see that here, rather than pull away from the realization that a lot of people are now waiting for your next batch of confessions, you actually went deeper and shared more.
I have this weird disconnect with people when it comes to music and writing. It’s way harder for me to give the album to my family and have them listen to it [than fans]. I just gave away the record to my parents and I was like, “Don’t talk to me about it. Don’t even try it.” But my mom tries incessantly—she’ll be like, “I love the imagery and it reminds me of my youth.” I’m like, “Mom, no, I can’t. Please don’t make me do this. It’s so uncomfortable.”
Color Theory works through three movements: blue, which chronicles depression and sadness; yellow, which has a lot to do with paranoia and anxiety; and then gray for kind of a finality or emptiness. Were the songs written intentionally to fill each bucket or when did that organization arrive to you?
It was in the process. I saw that I was doing these three different moods that were very different. And I was kind of confused at first. I was like, “I feel like I’m writing about some really different sounds. How is this connected?” And I’m always one to, when I’m writing, try to also picture a visual in my head, like a music video or an album cover. And color is very involved—it’s like a mood that matches a color in my brain, like association. So I saw these three moods happening.
I don’t want to say there is a hope lying in the grey, but part of me did kind of feel that way. Earlier on the album, there are references to the scars that self-harm leaves. So by grey, when you’re looking forward, to me, there is also this feeling that, okay there’s a commitment to being here.
I think there’s definitely a longing for better. Even though it’s stuck in this void, it’s not hope necessarily, but there is desire for change. There’s almost a begging for change that’s happening there.
Are you ever surprised, when you listen back to your own music, about what you were feeling in that moment?
I don’t think I’ve ever been shocked. I’m very in-tune, even if I’m lying to myself. A song like “Royal Screwup,” I knew all of that, but I didn’t really want to say it…but, I guess it’s in a song now so I did say it. [Laughs]
In “Bloodstream,” you sing about the voice of doubt that’s never far from your mind. “Someone’s talking in my forehead,” you sing, “It says I’ll never be like you.” There’s something so terribly isolating about that line, but also universal. It’s a self-talk insult we’ve all thrown at ourselves.
There’s not much that someone can say, “This happened to me,” and it’s going to be like, “Wow, not a lot of people can say that.” People tend to think that their problems are so different from anyone else. And it’s important to be like, yeah, you can wallow in your sadness, but a lot of people also dealt with this. So much of what anyone struggles with is universal.
When you decided to drop out of NYU, just before your debut album, Clean, released, what did your parents think?
They were totally fine with it, honestly. They were seeing that I was gaining a little bit of an online fanbase, and I got a record deal. I had this album coming out and I was getting all these tour offers for the summer. So I was thinking about taking the spring semester off for when Clean came out, but when I started getting fall offers for tours I was like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be in school at all. And I don’t see why I should.”
How involved were they in getting you to a place where you were getting a record deal? Were they pushing you to work on your guitar and songwriting from a young age at all?
It was really my own world, actually. I was five—and I was immediately very driven to keep playing all the time. They were really supportive, but I’m sure they would’ve rather me done something else. The only other thing I ever talked about as a little kid was wanting to be a doctor. It sounds creepy now, but I was really into blood and body parts. It sounds like I’m a fucking killer. [Laughs] I always wanted to see blood if someone was bleeding.
Are you still into gore now, as an adult?
I do watch a lot of creepy things. Weirdly, though, if I see my own blood, I will faint. But it’s this weird thing where I can’t look away. I am so drawn to looking at it. So I used to want to be a surgeon, and open people up. That was the only other thing that intrigued me as a little kid, looking inside of a body.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I do. [Laughs] It was called, “What the Heck is a Cowgirl?” My mom still remembers all of it. I don’t know how—I don’t. I knew I wanted to be a musician when I grew up, but at that point, I didn’t even think about it as working towards a goal. It was just a passion, immediately. I just did it, like I breathe.