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On the Rise
Soccer Mommy

16 August 2017, 12:45
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Jason Williamson

Soccer Mommy's bedroom rock is fast evolving. And she wants everyone to know about it.

Sophie Allison, aka Soccer Mommy, has written songs since she was an infant. Now at the age of twenty, her music is poised to make the transition from her bedroom to a much wider audience.

Despite the buzz surrounding her, meeting Allison in her dressing room before her debut London show at The Islington is to encounter someone unfazed by nerves. In the first of several deadpan one-liners, she attributes her calmness to jetlag.

The reason for the buzz is simple, Allison’s songs, in which she explores the nuances of love and heartbreak, identity and experience, are relatable and universal. Having reached this point via the songs she recorded on her own and released on Bandcamp, tonight she’s playing solo, but she’s looking at the present as well as the future. “I don’t really play solo anymore. I prefer playing with the band, the songs aren’t lo-fi bedroom songs, they’re more like rock songs.”

In person she’s incredibly witty but very serious about her musical ambitions. She started a degree at New York University two years ago, but signing a record deal and eager to tour as much as she can has seen her put academia on hold. Soccer Mommy’s story started when Allison uploaded a slew of songs on Bandcamp that went viral. She’s just released Collection, re-recorded versions of some of those songs a full band, plus a couple of outstanding new tracks, “Allison” and “Out Worn”.

One of the reasons her songs have garnered so much attention is that even in their stripped back versions they sound fully formed, deceptively simple yet incredibly intricate, where the lyrics, playing and singing transcend her age. The wonderful “Out Worn”, replete with jangly guitars, organ and razor-sharp lyrics is a case in point, the line “You made your love like a forest fire / I wanted someone to keep me warm” isn’t limited to teenage experiences after all.

Allison grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and started writing songs aged five after seeing an autographed guitar at a fund-raising event for her brother’s school: “That was the beginning, after playing it for a week my parents got me a real guitar.”

She uploaded songs to the internet for the first time at the age of twelve on a MySpace page for a two-piece band she’d formed with the little brother of a friend who lived across the street. “I looked for it the other day but I couldn’t find it, if anyone finds it please send it to me.” The difficulty in finding the page is perhaps due to the frequency with which they changed band names. “At one point it was ‘Chemical X’, then it became ‘Chemical Unknown.’” They pressed some CDs which they signed; I say perhaps they’ll be collectors’ items in the future, to which Allison deadpans, “I know! In a couple of years they’ll be worth a lot.”

Her musical horizons expanded as she took jazz guitar lessons, went to an arts school, where she played guitar and sang in the school Swing band and attended the Southern Girls Rock Camp every summer until she was seventeen. Such a background sounds a world away from Soccer Mommy’s music, but she says her formative musical experiences still informs her writing. “I still use a lot of those chord structures, major sevenths and minor sevenths. You can make things very open sounding with those kinds of chords.”

Allison refined her writing method in her teens, moving from just voice and guitar to adding other instruments she played herself. “Even though now the licks on songs like “Try” and “Benadryl Dreams” are very specific, at the time I’d improv over them. Playing a lick and doodling on the guitar was how I got the sound of the band by trying to play the other parts.”

She discovered artists who would inform her initial musical ideas, with Mitski’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek and closer to home, Bully, providing pivotal influences. “Bully was one of the only women in Nashville doing music, her lyrics were so vulnerable and I thought that was really cool.”

Given her songs’ universal canvas, tellingly, Allison also loves pop music. “Listening to Avril Lavigne was definitely a big one, I remember having Let Go on CD and Taylor Swift’s first album too. I loved it, she was this singer/songwriter chick, that was before she hit it big and then I was ‘She sucks!”, the stuff middle-schoolers say to be cool, but in High School I changed back and was ‘I like Taylor Swift.’ At one point she was almost trying to be rock, that was when Demi Lovato was in, remember that? I think after 1989 she could take it a further and do electronic pop with beats.”

Allison’s debut album proper is due next year, she’s already written nine songs for it, but the recording personnel is still to be decided. “I was playing with friends from back home on Collection but I can’t ask them to drop everything and tour for a year. It’s probably going to be me on guitar, my lead guitarist, maybe a drummer and I’ll fill out the rest of the parts.”

“Guitar music is kind of dead as a pop thing, I don’t think anyone’s going to get in the charts with it again, unless Rihanna does a guitar song."

She describes the new songs as “a progression of a period of my life. It’s about things a lot of people go through, especially women, wanting to be someone who grows past vulnerability, but realising you can’t. If you meet a new person, you act like you’re above that vulnerability but it comes back to it in the end.”

Given her love of guitars, how does she feel about guitar music’s marginalisation from the mainstream? “Guitar music is kind of dead as a pop thing, I don’t think anyone’s going to get in the charts with it again, unless Rihanna does a guitar song. There’s still bands like Tame Impala, Modest Mouse who could put out an album and it’d be big, but they’ve been out for a while.”

Watching her play later that evening is to witness someone who could be a serious contender, regardless of the vagaries of musical fashion. The lack of a band brings the songs into sharp focus - a highlight being “Henry” from 2016 cassette for young hearts. It’s seemingly a story of rapt devotion, but the line “there's a city in his smile and there's an ocean in his eyes” is followed by the sting in the tail of “he's driving all the good girls bad, with that evil smile of his.”

The years performing at Southern Girls Rock Camp have paid off too, Allison chats with the audience and downs a coffee-cocktail with the word “Chug!” As well as some new songs, including the tremendous set-closer “Still Clean” she also plays a beautifully sparse take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, which shows how she can take a classic of the rock songbook apart and put it back together in her own vision.

After the show we sit down in the dressing room and Allison says she was moved by the audience’s response. “I didn’t know it would sell out, it was over a hundred people and that’s a lot for a city I’ve never been to. Sometimes you play a solo show and people talk but no one talked, it was beautiful. That’s what it was like when I played in New York for the first time, no one would speak and at first I’d be ‘Do people really hate this?’ and then they’d clap and it was ‘Holy shit! that’s crazy.’”

Talk turns to Jeff Buckley and I mention how his use of space to create sound is reminiscent of Allison’s guitar playing. “That’s great because I love him. He used those jazz chords and I think that’s where I get some of the guitar tones I play, I like to make it sound really bright and I want it to twinkle. The way he played guitar and sings, he could be doing The Smiths “I Know It’s Over” solo and it’s so dynamic.” She adds that Buckley’s Smiths cover was something that made her want to tackle “I’m On Fire”, “I love playing it, the melody is beautiful and the lyrics are insane.” She explains that one of the reasons she loves the song is it reminds her of her boyfriend, who she’s apart from for the first significant period of time whilst she’s on tour. She first heard “I’m On Fire” at High School and says, “it made me so sad, but I never knew why. Then I realised it was because I’d not had this intense feeling of love and when I met my boyfriend I had that. I thought it’d be beautiful if it was more dynamic volume wise, with chords and ambience and I just sing the fuck out of it.”

Allison comes back to The Smiths and muses on their importance on her art. “I never say they’re one of my influences, but now I’m thinking about it, they were one of the first indie bands I listened to. Their songs are very upbeat, but really sad.” The first Smiths song she heard was “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" and she laughs as she describes Morrissey’s lyrics as “so all over the place, it’s not like he’s telling a story, he’s piecing together this whole feeling.”

Similarly, she says her songs rarely focus on one person. “On “Inside Out” there’s a line about my ex-boyfriend, a crush I never talked to, it’s little pieces of everything in one thing and Morrissey totally does that. ‘Please let me get what I want’, doesn’t connect with ‘good times for a change’ that much, it’s a progression, putting different pieces of a feeling together.”

She returns to the live experience, remembering early shows she performed in a house in Nashville called Glass Ménage. “It was a really cool venue but it was a house so it got shut down. Half the time people wouldn’t be listening and it was so sweaty I’d take my shirt off and wear a bra and overalls, thinking people didn’t give a shit, but people usually cared.”

“Someone will say something degrading, like “It’s ‘sad-girl’ music”, ‘I’m like no, it’s rock music.’ "

Those early live experiences prepared her for people pigeonholing her music in lazy gender stereotypes. “Someone will say something degrading, like “It’s ‘sad-girl’ music”, ‘I’m like no, it’s rock music.’ I still have this part of me that’s insecure and thinks there’s people that hate it, so I go up there and sing for me, thinking ‘I’m going to let myself be cathartic in this moment and not give a shit’, but then someone will ask for a specific song and it’s ‘Oh, people are listening, they didn’t walk out of the room.’”

As we come to a close, Allison says her ambitions have moved on from her origins as a bedroom recording artist. “I want to go at the speed of light. I want to tour with the band and share the music with everyone. To be able to express myself musically, to be confident in it and do it as a career is the ultimate goal. I think that’s most musicians’ goal, to survive playing music.”

With the songs she writes, surviving through making music is the least Soccer Mommy could achieve. For such a prodigiously gifted songwriter, the sky’s the limit.

Collection is out now on Fat Possum Records.
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