Sophie Allison does not do therapy. She’s tried it, many times – but she has a problem. “I lie too much,” she says. “Just like, instantly. Days later I’ll think, why did I lie? There’s no reason – I just don’t want them to know things.”
This defensiveness does not extend to interviews. Twenty-two-year-old Allison is warm and open, clear-headed and sarcastic. Dressed in a long, white net skirt, a pink mesh T-shirt and matching hot pink eyeshadow, her look is grungy, girly and unsubtle – heavily inspired, it seems, by the style of the late Nineties and early Noughties.
Allison, who was born in Switzerland but raised in Nashville, Tennessee, is the creator of the pop-rock project Soccer Mommy. Her 2018 debut studio album, Clean, was critically acclaimed; her second, Color Theory, was released in February this year. Like her outfit, Allison’s music is steeped in nostalgia: key influences are Avril Lavigne (“not just plain old pop, it had an edgier, darker side”) and Taylor Swift.
Soccer Mommy’s sound has been described by critics as “bedroom pop”: her early work was entirely self-made and simply uploaded to the internet. Though Clean was recorded in the studio, it was raw and sparse. Color Theory retains the vulnerability and sardonic bite of Clean, but is more complex. Allison blends catchy pop melodies and guitar with retro samples that deepen the texture and add to the nostalgic, immersive mood. It helped that she recorded Color Theory with her full band: “A lot of what’s new on the album has come from getting to play live a lot and figure out what my sound was with other people.”
The new album is more electronic, with drum machines, sub bass and old synth samples for a turn-of-the-century feel. The production has a touch of Nineties distortion – a nod to how trauma can wear you down as you grow up. While past songs have dealt with the pain of unrequited love, she now finds herself in a happy relationship with her bandmate Julian Powell, and her thoughts have turned inward. “I couldn’t write about someone not loving me back,” she says. “All of those problems came up that had been there the whole time.”
One such problem is the grief she feels about her mother, who has been terminally ill since Allison was 12. “I never really dealt with it because I wasn’t comfortable with it,” she explains. “Leaving home a lot is what started to make me think about it more.” Having moved to New York for university at 18, Allison dropped out at 20, moving back to Nashville to pursue music full time. As she wrote much of Color Theory on the road, she faced her mother’s absence again. On the seven-minute-long “Yellow Is the Color of her Eyes” she confronts it head on: “I’m thinking of her from over the ocean,” she sings. “I know that she’s fading.”
This track forms the bulk of the second section of the record, which is split into three colours: blue, yellow and grey. The opening blue section is about sadness and depression; the yellow section, she says, is “about sickness, but also anxiety and tension – paranoia and mental problems along with physical illness”. The grey section deals with “darkness, decay and death”.
“Bloodstream” and “Royal Screw Up” – two of the album’s blue songs – build a portrait of a self-destructive person. “I isolate pretty heavily when I get depressed,” Allison says matter-of-factly. Standout single “Circle the Drain” has a repetitive, appropriately dreary chorus that is offset by a tender, optimistic guitar riff.
Last year’s single “Lucy” leads us into the grey section. This part of the album is “not just about the idea of loss and grief, but also your own death – fearing it, and looking forward to it, in a weird way”, she says. Allison finds catharsis in the process of turning scary thoughts into music. “Writing for me is thinking about something a lot and trying to get down on paper what I feel about it, and say all I need to say. Then I can close that book, ” she explains.
Outside music, Allison has a more turbulent relationship with expressing emotion. “I have a really bad habit of sharing online,” she says. “But as soon as I start getting more than about five replies, I’m like – shut it down. Get it all off. My heart starts having palpitations.” She posts and deletes. Allison is aware that in gaining fame, she has lost access to a less public online world that much of her generation inhabits. “I have friends out here who I just wanna tweet with,” she says. “But I have a bunch of fans following me and I can’t just be myself all the time.”
When Allison moved back to Nashville, she wasn’t thinking far ahead. She never expected to be in the limelight; she hates being photographed, or watched. “I wanna do music,” she shrugs. “I didn’t think I would have tons of fans.”
Allison blames the zodiac for many of her emotions. She says her “Scorpio rising” sign gives her “an urge to spitefully be like: I wish you all knew how awful things feel right now, but none of you will ever know or care!” The flighty, defensive side of her – the side that deletes tweets and lies in therapy – is, she says, her “Aquarius Moon”. But she is also principled and passionate about politics: she is a Democrat supporter and on 23 February opened for Bernie Sanders at a rally in Texas.
Despite the obstacles she addresses on the record, Allison is becoming more confident in herself and her music. And so she should. I ask her what star sign she thinks I am. She studies me for a moment. “I would guess an Earth sign?” I nod. “Capricorn?” Spot on. “Occasionally someone doesn’t jive with astrology and that’s fine,” she says. “But I think it’s good to believe in things you can’t prove, especially when they’re all positive. It gives you time to think about yourself.”
“Color Theory” is out now on Loma Vista
This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10