Sophia Kennedy was five when she moved from Baltimore, Maryland, to a small village near Göttingen, central Germany. Her mother had always wanted to bring up her three children outside the US, and when she married a German man, the move made sense. Kennedy and her brothers had agreed to keep speaking English at home in order to keep hold of their sense of an American identity; once they started kindergarten, their “soft” young brains quickly learned German. “The other kids would get mad at me if I spoke English because they thought I was talking bad about them,” said Kennedy, “so I always had this sense of guilt when I was speaking English.”
Now 31, Kennedy has forged a career singing in her mother tongue – and there is no longer any guilt involved. Her 2017 self-titled debut record was a hit in Germany, and her piano-heavy, hallucinatory songs were played on the radio and used in films there. The record scored a positive Pitchfork review and a couple of features (“Sophia Kennedy made the best pop record you’ve probably never heard of” ran one headline in the Cut), but otherwise stayed very much under the radar in the anglophone world. This skewed Kennedy’s sense of identity somewhat because she feels her music is more American than it is German, she said over a video call from the Hamburg flat she shares with her partner – though she doesn’t necessarily feel either German or American: “I just think I’m a person with a certain history, of being born somewhere, and then moving somewhere else.”
This sense of confidence in one’s own displacement – of having no fear of sitting outside the box – is apparent in Kennedy’s music, which is a totally idiosyncratic mix of dance and alt-pop. Her debut album was an unlikely release on DJ Koze and Marcus Fink’s Pampa Records, a label better known for house and techno than piano-driven pop. However, her oddball lyrics, which combined a childlike simplicity (“Build Me a House”) and an unsettling anxiety towards the realities of modern life (“Being Special”), suggested she was never going to be an obvious fit anywhere. Her second record, Monsters, which will be released on the Berlin-based indie label City Slang on 7 May, is just as bewitching. Kennedy has for the most part left the piano behind, looking instead to brazen synth-led production, but her lyrics cement her outsider status: “Our mothers are insane/Cause their mothers are insane/Our fathers are insane/Cause their fathers are insane,” she sings, nonchalantly, on “Loop”.
Kennedy wrote one of the new songs, “I’m Looking Up”, following her father’s death from cancer in 2019. “I tried to write a song not necessarily about him, but about how to deal with death in some psychedelic way,” she said. After a slow build, a synthetic rocket goes off – and then the track breaks down and, over and over, Kennedy sings: “Please give me a sign/Ich bin so allein” (“I am so alone”). The riff is a moving, subtle indicator of Kennedy’s relationship with her father – who stayed in the US following the family’s move to Germany – both physically and linguistically: the rhyme is formed of two different languages, yet it sits close and tight.
Kennedy moved to Hamburg for university, and found kindred spirits at the Golden Pudel, a small club known for its Nineties hip-hop scene that was, by the time Kennedy got there, home to the city’s best techno. She was entranced by electronica’s hypnotic qualities and its seeming endlessness. “Club music has a function: it’s to be played at night, and that’s a special thing,” she said. “Club culture is a very European way of coming together.” The purpose of electronica would, too, speak to Kennedy’s work as a theatre composer, her primary job until the release of her debut. In the theatre, “if the actress needs to sing”, she said, “then you have to compose a song. But that’s not all there is: it’s also about what’s underneath the scene and how it can support a certain atmosphere.” The idea that music can be functional – used to tell a story, or evoke a mood – lives on in Kennedy’s solo work.
And while the sounds of Hamburg have become an important influence on Kennedy’s music, living in Europe has also been imperative for her development as an artist. “Being a loser in Europe is easier than being a loser in America,” she said. She means “loser” in the German sense, she clarifies – Germans use the same word, but it’s perhaps a little softer. “I’m not saying that every artist is a loser, but you need to have this time to develop as an artist. Doing that includes failure. You have to build yourself up, and I think in America it’s all about money, and where your family comes from. It’s harder there, and there’s more competition.”
It took Kennedy a long time to get to know her singing style and, at first, being in the studio “was like being in a laboratory”. Hers is a rich voice, which she describes as “crooning” at points, and rap-like at others. That her voice is bold when her lyrics are vulnerable is, to Kennedy, not a contradiction: “Being self-confident and being insecure – they don’t necessarily have to be the opposite of each other. I want to be confident in things I’m not confident about. I wanted to have this confident, powerful tool, and to use it to say something that is uncomfortable.”
That her tone is sincere while her lyrics can be playful, and sometimes downright absurd, is to Kennedy not a conflict either – for both elements are attempts to bring about truth, in their own way. “You can sit down and write a song about strawberries and that’s totally fine,” she said. “You don’t have to write a song about your relationship to your dead uncle. I think you can go deep into yourself by writing a song about strawberries. I also think you can write a song about strawberries, but actually you’re writing about your dead uncle.”
“Monsters” is out on City Slang on 7 May