How Soccer Mommy Spun Her Grief Into Beautiful, Vibrant Colour
Indie hero Soccer Mommy's new album is joy and horror, sweetness and hurt, all churned up together.
It’s cloudy in Nashville. “It was beautiful yesterday,” says 22-year-old Soccer Mommy — real name: Sophia Regina Allison — somewhat glumly. “Now it’s disgusting.”
And yet that sudden turn in the weather is neatly symbolic of Soccer Mommy’s whole deal, and her new record, Color Theory in particular. ‘Circle the Drain’, the album’s excellent lead single, is a humming contradiction: poppy hooks brushing against stinging, painful lyrics.
Elsewhere, the seven-minute ‘Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes’ mixes hope and tragedy like a toddler getting into the finger paints. It’s joy and horror, sweetness and hurt, all churned up together. Beautiful one day, foggy the next. Clouds, always lurking on the horizon, even when it’s nice out.
But Allison, who emerged onto the international scene with an avalanche of excellent reviews thanks to her debut studio album Clean and a slew of singles posted to Bandcamp, doesn’t begrudge Nashville its temperamental mood swings. “It’s my hometown,” she says, simply. “It’s hard to say whether it’s cool for everyone else. But I really love it here.”
Indeed, when Allison consciously uncoupled herself from Nashville for a stint of living in New York, she suffered. “I really missed being able to sit in a park, or go on a hike, or go stargazing somewhere.” Now, when Allison is trying to write about ‘peace’, she imagines being out in nature. “I think of laying in the steeplechase in the middle of the night, and looking up at the stars, and there’s nothing around. That helps me think of a peacefulness that I often use in songs, as a visual expression of something I’m feeling.”
I’m on the phone for Allison for 20 minutes, and we never really talk about anything but craft. Color Theory is a record in part about her mother’s illness — she was diagnosed with cancer when Allison was a teenager, and many of the songs are written in the shadow of loss, both potential and actual. But it would be wrong to see the record as simply a diary entry, or a direct catalogue of pains.
Allison is too sophisticated a songwriter for that. Her music refuses easy thematic or emotional binaries — ‘Up the Walls’ is about the way that depression can reduce you, but it’s also not, in much the way that Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ is about more than a woman who feeds you tea and oranges while also being exactly about that.
“When I write, it’s so unintentional most of the time,” Allison says. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. “When I was writing ‘Bloodstream’, I couldn’t get the verse for that for like two weeks, and I had the rest of the song entirely done. I had all of these ideas for lyrics, and I couldn’t finish it for so long. But when I have a melody that I love, or a chorus, or a verse — then I won’t give up on finishing it.”
And anyway, the struggle is where the joy lives. “It’s kind of fun to really have to work something out, and not to have this perfect, algorithmic version of exactly what you wanted to say. You manage to get everything that you wanted to say in there, even though it was really difficult. It can be beautiful. If it was easy, it would lack…this sense that every word has meaning. It would lack the intention, and all these little secret meanings that everything can have.”
“I think of laying in the steeplechase in the middle of the night, and looking up at the stars, and there’s nothing around. That helps me think of a peacefulness that I often use in songs, as a visual expression of something I’m feeling.”
Much of Color Theory was written on the road. But Allison didn’t mind composing a record in the back of vans, and sitting in the corner of hotel rooms. “For me, it doesn’t matter where I’m writing. I don’t care. It just doesn’t feel like I’m sitting down and saying, ‘I have to do something right now. I have to write a song.’ It’s more like, when I do write, it’s just like breathing. It’s something I naturally do.”
The process is as natural when it comes time to put the kind of thing in an order. Color Theory is assembled into a tripartite structure — it’s not a concept album, exactly, but each phase of the record has its own colour, and it moves through agony and pain into something a little bit like redemption, if you squint at it sideways. But Allison didn’t impose that order on the songs from the outset. They just revealed their true nature as she wrote them.
How the record is received when it is actually released is out of her hands, and she knows it. Since she and I spoke, Color Theory has been warmly reviewed, with many critics calling it one of her strongest works. “Soccer Mommy could go anywhere from here,” wrote Michael Hamm of The Guardian. But before release, she seemed ready for things to go either way.
“I think that people give this immediate opinion [about an album],” she explains. “And sometimes that opinion might even change. It’s a lot about social media, and the hype we build up around things. It leads people to be like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to listen and give my opinion.’ And a lot of times they want to be controversial, and judge things too quickly, just to get their answer and opinion in. Everybody does it. It just involves a lot of intensity.
“Honestly, with a lot of albums, you need to listen to it a couple of times to get it anyway. With my favourite albums, first listen I’m always like, ‘This is good. I don’t know if I get it all yet.’ And then later, it may be one of my favourite albums ever.”
So no, the reception doesn’t matter. All that does is the moment after Allison has first assembled the thing, and it’s done, and she’s proud of it, and it’s ready.
“Usually when I finish an album, it feels like I’ve just finished this essay that explains everything that I have ever felt,” she says simply, her voice ducking up at the end of the sentence, the auditory equivalent of a good-natured shrug.
Color Theory by Soccer Mommy is out now through Caroline Australia.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.
Photo Credit: Brian Ziff