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For Sophie Allison, pain is a color. That’s almost oversimplifying it, but on her second album, Color Theory, the 22-year-old songwriter distills some of the most difficult experiences of human life into three distinct categories: Blue, yellow, and gray. Each of these intuitively corresponds to a feeling or experience, the blues of sadness and depression, the glaring yellow of physical and mental illness, and the dark gray emptiness of death or loss. The album is structured as a suite format, opening with the glistening insistence of “Bloodstream” and “Circle The Drain,” expanding into the itchy, meandering rhythms of “Crawling In My Skin” and “Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes,” and closing out with the slow, somber pulse of “Gray Light.”
Following up an adored project like her 2018 breakout album, Clean, would’ve been a lot of pressure for plenty of young songwriters. Instead, Allison seems to thrive in the spotlight, more confident than ever now that the world has caught up with her. Most of these songs were written while she was touring the world with her band, and later recorded back home in Nashville. While the overarching themes of the record are heavy and aching, the lightness of her melodies and the sharpness of her lyrics rise above any sense of moroseness, normalizing the process of mourning as simply another part of life. It’s all there, in the spectrum, one color after the next. Allison and I spoke over the phone last week about how the color palette helped inform the structure of the album, writing songs on tour, and how the sound of ’90s pop-rock will live forever. Read a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation below.
You’re presenting the different themes as colors and suites within this album. Does each color appear this way to you, when you’re confronting each issue? Or how does the color palette help manifest talking about the subject matter?
I’ve always been someone that just associates moods with colors. Like blue and sad, or gray and emptiness or darkness — those are obvious connections. When I’m writing a song, the mood is really important to me, the feeling it gives me. But I think when I’m writing, I’ll often be trying to think of album art, or a music video, and imagining how this sound would look; what would capture the feeling the same way with images, that the song does with sound? Usually it’s a very specific color palette, as a hue. Not just one exact color, but it has a tone to it, there’s always this sense of season, and color, and mood, in the images. I had written some songs already, maybe one or two had this summery, beachy blue going on, and others had something brighter.
For example, “Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes.” To me, yellow has always been something that I’ve associated with, on one hand, youth, and summer, and brightness, but also illness. Just something aging and getting sickly. That’s partially because there’s some physical characteristics that go along with that, with sickness. So, those associations were starting to come, and that’s how the idea started, to separate them into moods. As I kept writing, the songs kept coming back into these themes, and developing even more intensely. I just fell in love with the idea of separating it into acts almost, and having it be these acts that are very different, and connect to each other to give a full picture — like a play or something.
When you were focusing on the three different prongs of subject matter, was that something that you had already thought — the subjects of sadness, depression, illness, and loss — or were those just coming up as you were writing the songs?
I guess they were just coming up. When I sit down and write, I don’t say, ‘I want to write about this topic,’ or ‘I have an idea for a song.’ I don’t write that way. I find it starts as guitar, because I think that’s basis of great songs. You could get really cool melody, but if the chords suck it just defeats the purpose. Getting the right progression chords you can sit and play on their own is really important. I start there, and then I usually start to sing an idea with lyrics. A lyrical idea will come into my head with melody, and I start to sing that. Then I start working off it, and sometimes I’ll like the melody but not the lyrics. What I write about depends on what’s going on in my life; I’m the type to overthink and analyze everything that happens in my life, all of these relationships, and what everything means, why I do the things I do, and why other people do the things they do. So, I spent all this time thinking about things that are present. When it comes to creating, the songs just come out.
You wrote most of this album while out on tour. Was songwriting different this time around, being in such a state of flux?
It didn’t feel any different to me. I think that the only thing I can say about touring is that some places I was in, occasionally the imagery was really inspiring, and some of that gets into the album. Other than that, I think the only way touring changed my writing was the fact that I am essentially working a really high-intensity and high-stress job. I was constantly working and everything is chaos. Sometimes I loved it — and I would never say I really hated it — but sometimes it wasn’t great for my mental health. I think that’s why it ended up inspiring a lot of writing that was a little bit more intense. I guess I didn’t write as much about mental health problems in the past, because I feel like I had flushed my thoughts on them out a lot. All of the stress and the intensity of tour felt like it worsened them, to a level where it wasn’t something I had flushed out of my head before.
What was it like to be recording with the band this time, and mostly starting off of live takes?
It was great, I mean I always wanted to do that. The only reason I didn’t on Clean was because we couldn’t get the whole band up there. Julian, our guitar player, did play on Clean, but at the time we had a rotating band, and I was doing the record in New York and I didn’t really have any money. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough money to pay for gas all the way. So yeah, it was really about money, and having them there this time was great. Because I feel like, when we were in the studio for Clean, having Julian there was amazing. Because he just got it, and he had so many ideas based on knowing the music, and knowing my style, and knowing how we play together. Now it was like everyone was able to do that.
Everyone was playing different instruments, and coming up with these ideas and trying things out because we had time. We didn’t have as much time with Clean, and this time we had time to sit and try something, and then go maybe like, ‘Oh it’s just not going to work. This just doesn’t sound great, but it was a cool idea.’ Because that’s how you get the coolest little ideas, you have to sit there and work with it. And you don’t even know if it’ll work, you just try to figure it out and see if you can make it work, and sometimes you do and it’s amazing.
There’s a songwriting style across a lot of the album where the melodies are really sweet, and warm, and light, but the lyrics are pretty dark, or dealing with darker things. I’d love to talk about that contrast and why you’re drawn to it.
I love using that contrast and I think the reason it works for me is because I’m kind of a bubbly person when it comes to my day-to-day life. Often, I’m really upbeat. But sometimes I’m really not — I think I have that contrast with myself. Sometimes being in this completely upbeat mood, and then other times being totally drowned in sadness. So, it’s kind of like putting them both in one. Having this outward super upbeat energy, and then you look into the lyrics and it’s like someone is drowning inside there. I have different purposes when I use that versus when I don’t. For example, I might use it on “Circle The Drain,” but I’m definitely not using it on “Stain.” Some topics call for that, because some of them are everyday problems that you have to smile through. Things you you do have to smile through these things for your job, when you start to feel like you’re trapped inside yourself. Then, other feelings devour you whole.
Releasing “Circle The Drain” as the third new song was interesting, because it seemed like the one that everyone latched onto immediately. Why do you think that became the one that people really saw as emblematic of your return, even though there were two other songs? Did that reaction surprise you?
No, I knew that was going to be the one. I knew it, and that’s why I said, ‘this one has to come out when we announced the album, and it can’t come out any sooner.’ I loved this idea that “Lucy” was upbeat but really different and had this darkness to it but it was still fast-paced. Definitely the least heavy song from the gray section, and it was this song that I could do to be like, ‘yeah, I’ve been working on new music.’ And I didn’t say if anything else was coming. And then, “Yellow” was this song that I felt like doesn’t have that feeling of being obviously the radio single, and the song that could be in a movie, or anything like that. Because, it’s like seven minutes long and it’s a little bit of a different creative side than stuff I usually do. It felt like this moment too, before the album was announced and people were expecting things, to give them a song that’s extremely different.
Once “Circle The Drain” was out, and it was this really catchy, fun, upbeat one, releasing a song like “Yellow,” or just not even making it a single, and having it on the album, it wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did. From a lot of people. Because people really wanted to hear anything, so it was like ‘well, let me give you this one to marinate on.’ And I really wanted to get a visual to go with it, because it’s such a visual song. So, that’s kind of the thinking behind releasing those two first. It was like this moment before anyone knew when to expect anything and they were hungry for stuff. To give them these ones that had totally different vibes. But I always thought when the album’s announced, it needs to be “Circle The Drain,” because that’s the one that I felt was going to blow the roof off.
A lot of people tend to bring up ’90’s bands when listening to your music, it seems to kind of reference, and resonate with that era of rock a lot. Are there specific touchstones that you felt connected with for this album?
I was definitely connected with a lot of ’90s and early 2000’s music for this album. Because I wanted to capture the sound that was prominent when I was born, and when I was a little kid. I wanted to catch the things that I liked and was my first introduction to music. The kind of songs that were on the radio from the late ’90s and early 2000s, like Hilary Duff and Kelly Clarkson, and stuff that a lot of young girls became obsessed with as some of the first music they really listened to. The whole idea I had from this album was to basically look and find something that twenty years ago was fresh, and new, and useful, and happy, and excited and see how it’s been dismantled, in some ways. So I wanted to capture that sound, and then bring in also, stuff that’s more modern. Like more modern production, while capturing this stuff that sounds almost like Tori Amos or Sheryl Crow, lots of late-’90s and early-2000’s singer/songwriter, pop-type stuff. Getting that sound and then having it be changed into something that has these modern aspects.
Who have you been listening to, that’s more contemporary?
Well, one I’ve been listening to Caroline Polachek because I really liked her new album Pang. Loved it. I’ve been listening to some of the Big Thief album, Two Hands. I really like that, it’s amazing. I’m excited to hear the new Grimes album, I haven’t heard it yet though. I’ve heard some of the songs, like the singles, and I liked them. So, I’m pumped.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Royal Screw Up.” I love the strings at the end, which felt like a little bit of a departure from you, and the lyric “I’m the princess of screwing up.” So, I wanted to see if you could talk about the process behind writing that one.
I wanted it to start really empty, and really feel like it did when I was writing it. Sitting in my bedroom, playing it on acoustic guitar, it felt raw. I wanted it to feel really raw, and empty at the beginning, and then slowly build in — not only the band, but these beautiful, gentle sounds around it, gentle little guitar plucking, and kind of like synthy guitars, like this big performance slowly building in, almost orchestral. Some of the things the song is about are like me being honest about being performative sometimes, and being self-destructive a lot of the time. When usually, I’m not being honest about it.
So, I want it to feel like this performance aspect was in it, and it’s building in to everything behind it, and swelling until the end — this slow swell. The strings, I really just thought they were beautiful, and they had that sense of feeling kind of old, but also like timeless. Gentle, and sweet. I feel the song is so harsh and I just wanted to get that other side of it. I think if you’re going to make something that is really harsh and being upfront, almost telling yourself off, you need to contrast it with sweetness. We aren’t always that harsh on ourselves. But in the same way that if I write something extremely sad, I want to contrast it with a sense of light. Because obviously we’re not always so melodramatic.
Color Theory is out Friday on Loma Vista. Get it here.