Inside Soccer Mommy's widescreen world
Clients of Nashville's historic Sound Emporium studios are reminded right away that they're in elite company. Plaques commemorating the commercial success of Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves and other past patrons line the hallways, and across from the reception desk is a wall of framed snapshots, taken when the likes of Vince Gill, Little Big Town, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant laid down tracks in these rooms. Among the images is a single hand-drawn doodle: five cartoon figures, with the name "Soccer Mommy" spelled out beneath them in red bubble lettering. "That was my attempt at drawing everybody in the band," Sophie Allison says. "I kind of figured it'd get taken down."
We are here exactly a year and a day after Allison wrapped the final sessions for Soccer Mommy's third album, Sometimes, Forever. Her family home is just a few streets away, and as a kid, she and her friends would pass the studio when they wandered to the neighboring Bi-Rite grocery store, too young to drive themselves to more distant freedoms. Allison describes it as "that type of place that has the legacy of hit-making, people coming here to record big records" — far removed, in other words, from the lo-fi bedroom recording of Soccer Mommy's DIY origins. Graduating to Sound Emporium puts her in the footsteps of a different kind of artist: As she notes with coolheaded pleasure, one of the albums recorded here was Taylor Swift's self-titled debut. "I grew up listening to that stuff," Allison explains, "so to be in a studio that things like that are recorded and know that you're having that same acoustics, it's a magical feeling. Like kind of anything's possible, basically."
In the half dozen years that Allison, now 25, has been making music as Soccer Mommy, her approach has seldom been considered alongside Swift's ability to zero in on small snubs and enlarge them to the scale of pop anthems. Critics have instead connected the dots to Mazzy Star, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, PJ Harvey and other broody '80s and '90s predecessors who serve as clear reference points for Allison's songwriting and guitar playing. She found considerable success with Gabe Wax, a producer who has helped shape records by Beirut and The War on Drugs, on the first two Soccer Mommy albums. But in her ongoing drive to expand and cultivate her sonic vocabulary, she went further afield in the making of Sometimes, Forever, envisioning fully formed atmospheres spiraling around her songs — soundscapes grand and vivid enough to match the interior life that inspired them, and capricious enough to feel simultaneously bewitching and grotesque.
For help, Allison reached well outside her scene to Daniel Lopatin, the mischievous mind behind the experimental outfit Oneohtrix Point Never, who thought the Sound Emporium's cavernous tracking rooms and reverb chambers would enable them to get a little wild. "When we brought him in," Allison recalls, "I didn't want him to hold back and be like, 'OK, well, I'm making an indie rock record. I gotta chill out.' " Together, they and Allison's longtime bandmates tried all sorts of techniques: running everything they could through effects pedals, whipping arrangements into exquisite squalls of distortion and delay and, in the case of "newdemo" — a track with far more going on than its placeholder title suggests — weaving fragments of acoustic strumming and synthetic strings into a strangely beguiling, apocalyptic symphony.
By design, the only aspect of the new music that seems even remotely chill is Allison's vocal performance. She avoids the demonstrative, singing from postures that register as dazed, drained or pensive, which inserts a little space between the artist herself and the keen specificity of her first-person narrators. She does her most delicate singing during the eerie "Darkness Forever," which conjures Sylvia Plath's suicide in a breathy murmur: "Head in the oven didn't sound so crazy / My brain was burning, hot to the touch." Even as Allison exercises her imaginative capacity, fantasizing about the symbolic power of self-immolation, the obliteration that she yields to is a musical one, disappearing for measures at a time into her band's heaving attack.
Elsewhere, the thrill is in how she plays up the contradictions of romantic attraction and domestic partnership, lets masochism show through in expressions of devotion and ensures that the sounds and sentiments tower over her spent delivery. After opening with a meteor shower of synthesizer, "With U" settles into a hushed consideration of daily intimacy — as a source of excruciating pain in one verse, then a warm comfort in the next. When the glimmering chorus breaks through like a supernova, Allison is enveloped by its layers of synth and guitar, stricken by her all-consuming attachment, surrendering in a voice that she keeps small. "Being with you is all I can do," she cedes. "The stars and the moon can't compare / To coming undone, staring straight at the sun / Until all I can see is you there."
She describes arrangement choices like these as "mixing fantasy with reality a little bit," and that description applies to her new songwriting, too. Her breakthrough album, 2018's Clean, was comparatively sparse; 2020's color theory, on which she involved herself much more closely in the production, added splashes of watery ambience and degraded samples, another phase in her exploration of ever denser shadows. "I just feel like I'm always questioning myself, trying to figure out answers to things," she says. "Writing is a really good way of taking all of these jumbled thoughts that you have and putting them down in a concrete way." And the more that she can get out what's in her brain, in all its complexity, the more that everything feels like her.
Allison's parents, a university lab neuroscientist and an elementary school teacher, raised their children around the corner from Music Row, but didn't have industry connections — so when she got interested in performing, it was up to her to plot her own artistic path. By the fourth grade, she'd begun working up her originals with an even younger neighbor on drums, whose engineer dad recorded the young duo, called Chemical X. Allison reflects, "I was always very fascinated with being able to write this song with just me and my guitar and get to build some other stuff around it and make it into a, quote unquote, real song." Her interest in constructing musical scaffolding around her ideas outlived that band and several others; for a while, she focused on learning to tap those veins of emotion on her own, uploading the results to MySpace. After her sister recently conducted a chronological inventory of her entire iTunes library, she started sending Allison long-forgotten recordings: "She was like, 'This one is really dark. Why were you so angsty?' "
Allison had connected, on a rudimentary level, with artists like Swift and Avril Lavigne, young women using pop songcraft to speak to where they were in life. Through guitar lessons, she began developing her chops, and later auditioned to study jazz guitar and play in a swing combo at Nashville School of the Arts. She enjoyed learning the standards well enough, but improvising on her instrument wasn't her thing. By the time she became a regular at all-ages shows at 17, she'd drawn a distinction between her devotion to making music and her realistic career options. "It felt very much like, 'I've always loved playing music. Now I'm going out and getting more involved in this hobby,' " she says. "I was just another person in Nashville playing shows, pretty much."
In the Subaru wagon that served as her first tour vehicle, she drives us to the East Room — a venue she remembers as a haven for DIY acts, located in a semicircle of small businesses that also includes a goth shop and a vegan deli. Staring at a flier seeking a lead singer for a hardcore outfit and another advertising the club's 10th anniversary events, she recalls leaving her high school prom to catch the band Pujol here and, after she went off to New York University, returning to play a hometown Soccer Mommy show before embarking on a string of road dates to promote Clean. Packing the car required a Tetris-like precision: suitcases and cymbals lashed to the roof, amps, guitars and kick drum in the trunk, band members crammed next to the tom toms in the middle. "I know that sounds like the worst part," she says. "But it was kind of like you were in your own little pod. You could just lean either way and be asleep."
At the same time, the pieces of a modest infrastructure had started to come together. Buzz around the early Soccer Mommy tracks posted to Bandcamp, already adept at exposing and exploring emotional extremes and their aftermath, made way for deals with indie labels — first Orchid Tapes, then Fat Possum and finally Loma Vista, each one a step up in resources and visibility. A stable band lineup, including Allison's guitarist-partner Julian Powell, solidified, and her ardent audience grew. While she doesn't dismiss professional milestones, she's ambivalent at best, recognizing that they're as likely to multiply the conflicts between a performer's artistic and commercial ambitions as resolve them.
"I still hold that opinion about the industry and hate a lot of parts of it," she says. "But I withdrew myself from a lot of the stuff that was making me feel so bitter." These days she's handed off the curation of her social media and is more of a consciously apathetic presence at photo shoots, steeling herself against emotional investment. "I don't care about the photos," she says. "I'm not going to like them. Why put so much pressure and care on that kind of stuff when it's just going to come out as you in something someone else wanted you to wear, some angle that somebody else wanted? It doesn't really matter."
Though her career is still young, there's already ample evidence that she's honed in on her priorities: veering from a well-mapped guitar-rock path in favor of dramatic, fitful shading that suits her heightened sensitivity, refusing to invest energy in measures that would make some lesser version of her seem more knowable and digestible. She gets the most enthusiastic talking about the ways that she's sharpening her artistic vision, deepening her inquiry and elevating her recording game.
"It's like I have this new idea and I want to try to play with that for a little bit and see what we can make with it," she observes. "It makes the process of production exciting. You feel like you're doing something — at least for yourself, not for the whole world necessarily — that's innovative. You feel like you're taking yourself on a path that you haven't looked down yet."
The harshest textures on Sometimes, Forever are reserved for the grinding, glitchy track "Unholy Affliction," which lurches from an industrial feel to thrashy, punishing drumming and, eventually, the momentary disintegration of the ensemble altogether. The band's playing is ominous and overlaid with the crackling of what sounds like a Geiger counter as Allison makes her weary complaint: "I'm tired of the money, and all of the talking at me." But the words are sharpened by self-knowledge, coming from an artist determined to remember who she really is and what she's really after. She is alone with her sludgy guitar chords, even the reverb stripped away from her voice, when she delivers the pivotal line: "I'm barely a person, mechanically working." In that instant, the song and the singer couldn't be less alike.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.