“Piercing vulnerability,” “devastating,” an “indie rock exorcism”: these are all descriptors that have been used, not hyperbolically, to explain the music of Sophie Allison a.k.a. Soccer Mommy. But behind those aching records is a very real 22-year-old woman who writes them, records them, and spends months performing them over and over.
Living those emotions once is taxing enough, but having to constantly revisit them is a particularly daunting task. Allison’s new album, color theory probes even more powerful, painful territory. Divided into a triptych, the LP connects the colors blue, yellow, and gray to traumas like mental illness, mortality, and her mother's prolonged cancer battle.
“I felt like the three main things were depression, anxiety, paranoia, and then also this life cycle connected to aging,” Allison said. “It was those things that I felt were really connected to colors in my brain.”
Following 2018’s critically lauded Clean, which earned spots on Pitchfork and Rolling Stone’s best of the decade lists, was never going to be an easy feat, but Allison upped the degree of difficulty for herself by making a kind of synesthesia concept record. color theory might not have as many easy foothold melodies as its predecessor, but it matches and perhaps even surpasses Clean in emotional depth.
Alison sets up the juxtaposition of soundscapes and subjects in the first verse of opener “bloodstream,” as the image of a ruddy-cheeked child running in her yard morphs into bleeding knuckles and the hollowing feeling of not recognizing the person staring back in the mirror.
One of Soccer Mommy’s early hits was the 2016 track “3 am at a party,” but that was just a more literal embodiment of the bleary-eyed candor that is at the core of all her work. Her songs can be sweet, sullen, and self-effacing in equal measure, and they all feature the kind of clarity that often hits late at night on quiet streets.
Towards the end of 2019, we sat down with Allison in New York to talk about color theory—which is out everywhere today—and the unique, taxing challenges that come with turning your biggest fears and rawest feelings into art that you then have to live with.
The color theme concept is a very specific idea. When did it occur to you to frame this album through that lens?
When I make a record I just start writing songs. I almost don’t know where I’m going until a couple of songs in when I see where my brain is stuck right now, and then I build from that. From there, I can write the rest of the songs with more intent.
I was realizing that there were these three main focuses. I was writing a lot about depressive episodes and feeling that way, and also really bad paranoia and anxiety. I had just gone through a year of really bad sleeping to the point where I was hallucinating a little bit and hearing things. It was really bad.
I’m sure being on tour and constantly jetlagged didn’t make that any easier.
I’d wake up every two hours pretty much, so I wasn’t getting much sleep. I’d usually get like four hours of sleep a night, sometimes less. That was making me really paranoid. I felt like something was looming over me. There was a lot of anxiety that morphed into this yellow, strung out, sickness vibe.
I don’t know why it was hitting me at this time, but I was also thinking a lot about my mother, who has been sick since I was around 12. I was gone so much, sometimes I would have dreams where I’d be at home and she would be traveling and I would be missing her a lot.
Did writing about those feelings lead to any catharsis? Do you usually find songwriting to be a therapeutic act?
This was one of the only times where I feel like writing actually helped me feel better about that specific situation. Usually, writing doesn’t actually change anything for me. I don’t feel that once I have an album done I’m totally bettered by getting those emotions out. I still feel them. I feel like it was kind of a coming to terms a little bit.
I don’t feel that once I have an album done I’m totally bettered by getting those emotions out. I still feel them.
One of the things that drew me to your music early on was that you don’t try to solve problems in your songs, you seem more interested in just exploring them. I’m sure that takes a toll, how do you keep your head above water?
In a lot of interviews I’ve tried to say, “Oh, I do this to help keep me chipper,” but I don’t think I do a lot of the time. I think a lot of the time I have trouble. I’ve gotten better at it. I’m also on meds now, and I wasn’t when I first started touring. I feel like part of it is just getting my shit into shape.
There were a lot of times before where I would just be having meltdowns every day, every morning getting ready to go off with the band. I would be in a really bad place all the time. I feel like I’m pretty good at not letting that affect me talking to people and trying to be social, but sometimes I’ll snap a little bit. I feel like it does come out and that’s not really fair to people. Part of it is just getting your shit together a little bit, trying to get better, I think.
I feel like there’s a tendency to start to go down a path like that and say, “Fuck it, I’m just going to steer into it and really melt down.” Sometimes, I think that’s needed, but a lot of times it’s counterproductive.
That’s the thing: It’s not a normal amount of effort. When you’re on the road, it’s not the same as when you’re at home where if you’re feeling bad you can just be like, “I’m clearly in a bad mood or a bad place, I’m just going to stay home today.” You can’t do that. It’s a lot of work trying not to let yourself make it everyone else’s problem. Most people are understanding and don’t actually mind if you explain to them what’s going on, but it’s hard work for sure.
You said the writing isn’t usually much of an emotional release, but how do you feel about performing?
I think the shows themselves—playing the music—is definitely a bit of an escape. I don’t think it releases anything in the sense of, “I feel better after playing that show, it’s going to be better tomorrow.” But it’s an escape for a minute. I don’t really get nervous or stressed out about having to play a show, and I kind of like the routine.
The whole catharsis idea of, "Play your songs and it’s all out of you," I don’t think that’s how it is for most people. I think there’s a sense of that writing them, and every once in a while you have a show where you’re playing a song and it really hits you, but it’s not like I just get up on stage every night and play these songs and feel way better and I’m just great now. I don’t think it works like that.
I wanted this contrast of what I was like as a kid vs. who I am as a grownup now. It’s supposed to seem like maybe something went wrong in the algorithm for the fucking machine, you know?
Let’s talk more about color theory. “circle the drain” is a song that struck me for its more upbeat sound, especially in contrast to the subject matter it addresses.
I love the idea of songs that are these poppy—I wanted it to feel like the pop music from my childhood. That stuff was pretty peppy, but [I wanted to add] these fucked up lyrics. I wanted it to be like this thing from my childhood grown up and kind of fucked up by this point. I wanted it to be something that’s been destroyed over time a bit. I wanted this contrast of what I was like as a kid vs. who I am as a grownup now. It’s supposed to seem like maybe something went wrong in the algorithm for the fucking machine, you know?
I think it’s also cool to have something that can be devastatingly sad when you’re really listening, but also it’s fun to listen to and it’s upbeat.
Who are some of the musicians that inspired this sound?
One artist from my childhood who’s like that is Avril Lavigne. But also stuff like Sheryl Crow, who had poppy songs. We were listening to my playlist of bops and stuff like that. “Torn" [by Natalie Imbruglia] and “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks. Stuff like that that was very early 2000s pop and alt-pop. I feel like Liz Phair does a good job of having stuff like that. Her early music isn’t that poppy, but it’s still catchy and upbeat while the lyrics are sad, like “Fuck and Run” or something.
Now that these songs are coming out, are you thinking of how the people they’re about will react to them?
My mom’s already heard [the album]. I feel like my dad isn’t in it as much. And then most of it is just about me. That’s the thing about this record: it can be really honest without having any worry like that because I feel like most of it is just about me. There’s not much relationship stuff, just a little bit, but it’s more about me in relationships than what someone else did.
Explaining songs in interviews is kind of a necessary part of being an artist, but the tracks on color theory are pretty upfront and candid. Do you feel like these tracks really need further discussion in a conversation like this one?
I feel like there are a couple of songs where maybe people don’t know what they’re about and I can shed a little light. “yellow is the color of her eyes” is one where I could see people not really understanding what it’s about. But for a lot of them, I’m like, “It’s just that.”
It’s like having to explain a poem or something, it’s awkward. But, I haven’t had too many people be like, “So what exactly is this about?” Most of the time I can just be like, “That is what it’s about.”
You released the single “lucy” before you announced the new record. Why was that the track you wanted to put out first?
It’s a taste of what the different stuff that’s coming is going to be like, but it’s also a little more lighthearted. “stain” and “gray light” are pretty dark. It’d be hard to put one of those out first and not have people think I was in a really bad place. [“lucy”] is about inner turmoil and being really bothered by feeling like you’re losing pieces of your soul to something, but it’s done in almost this funny, fun way. It’s not too upsetting.
I feel like it’s a good transition from the rest of the album into the gray section, so I think it’s a good taste without giving away fully what the gray part or the rest of the record is going to be. But it’s still clear that it’s gonna be different, it won’t be exactly the same. I feel like that’s kind of what “Your Dog” was, too [on the album Clean]. It was like, “This is a track that’ll show you that some of the stuff is going to be different than what has come out.”
Was it always obvious to you that the color sequence should be blue then yellow then gray?
The yellow section was way more recent. And gray definitely had to be the end, because a lot of it is about death, and stuff that fucked me up really badly later in life. It had to be the ending, for sure. But yeah, it always seemed kind of easy to me, probably because of the chronological way it happened in my life.
You’re getting ready to retire some of the songs off Clean from your live shows. After spending all this time living with those tracks, has your relationship with them changed?
I don’t feel the same way about them as I did, because it’s just not as close to me. The things I was singing about don’t affect me as much anymore, but I still really like all the songs. It’s good that I’m not now like, “I don’t fucking like these.” I am really excited to move on though, too. I personally think the music in the next record is way better. I think it’s going to be way more fun to play.
There are a lot of really cool guitar parts that I’m excited to play live. Also, the band worked on the live arrangements together. Everyone played on it, so it’s going to feel more like what our live show is. The live sound of Soccer Mommy grew out of Clean after it was made. Now, I feel like we’ve got it on lock and it’s going to be way cooler to get to play all these new songs and get to flourish. [We] get to let everybody shine a little bit more.
It feels like ever since you started touring with a band you’ve been clear that Soccer Mommy is a “we” and that it’s more of a communal thing than just being you as the sole member with backup musicians
I cannot write with other people, and I don’t want to write with other people, and I don’t want to let other people write all my songs. But, I really like the thing of whoever’s in the band making their parts for the song beyond just the lead riff that I wrote, since obviously that has to be played. When you look at bands like Wilco or Radiohead, they’re all liking what they’re playing and feel good about it. That’s what makes it so great.
On “circle the drain” you sing, “I’m trying to seem strong for my love / For my family and friends / But I'm so tired of faking.” Is it ever a challenge to be honest with yourself about how you feel when you’re writing music?
I feel like I am constantly thinking about how I feel about everything whenever it’s quiet. I’m constantly having to think through things, so by the time I’m writing about something, I’ve already had the realization [about it]. And it’s like, am I gonna lie? It’s hard to lie to myself about how I feel. I can lie to others, I can hide it, but not really to myself. And that’s what’s going to make me feel good about the song is if I capture what I’m really feeling in a lyric and can say, “That’s what I wanted to say, what I wanted to get out of me.” If I’m lying, it’s not going to hit me.
Some songs make me sad—“royal screwup” is one that has a lot of admissions of stuff I don’t like about myself—but it’s just going to make it better. It makes it good.