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“In the summer, you said you loved me like an animal.”
Those are the words that will introduce most of the world to the music of Soccer Mommy, aka 20-year-old Nashville songwriter Sophie Allison. Dark with desire and blunt with loss, that opening line of that song, “Still Clean,” is emblematic of Allison’s ability to gesture at the wild and tender aspects of love in ways that make age-old aches feel newly bruising. Her debut album, Clean, came out last Friday on Fat Possum, and though it’s her first proper full-length, it follows up a recent smattering of Bandcamp one-off tracks released by the label as Collection in 2017.
Where her early demos were beautiful in a bleary and tentative way, the best moments on Clean border on insolent; Allison has plenty to rail against — including herself — and the anger is a nice companion to the small griefs she mourns and battles through in her music. For instance, on one of the album’s standouts, “Your Dog,” she typifies her status in the relationship as a pet on a leash, sleeping on the edge of the bed, and snarls against it: I don’t want to be your fucking dog. The rebuttal, of course, is that yes she does, and will continue to be. There’s something so reluctantly familiar in both the resentment and the quiet resolve that makes this song intractable, and tangible in a way that few songs about relationships ever manage to be.
Though she’s just at the beginning of her career, Allison has a grip on the kind of songwriting that appeals to people in every stage of their lives, because it’s about emotional processes, not necessarily conclusions. After graduating high school, the young songwriter moved to New York City to attend NYU, where she felt the freedom to begin releasing music in earnest, played her first show at Silent Barn, and shortly after landed a record deal with Fat Possum. Now, she’s putting school on hold to focus on her blossoming career. I recently spoke with Allison by phone about her own process behind putting together a first proper full-length, some of the intricacies of her songwriting, and how it felt to drop out of college to be a full-fledged musician.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “Still Clean.” It felt like the concept of being clean on the record was connected to not being attached to the wrong kind of relationship, or something like that. How do you sort of envision that?
It’s this idea of being clean of a person or wanting someone to not — after a break up wanting someone to not be clean of you and hoping and wanting someone to not be stained by another person. Wanting someone to wait for you, wanting someone to… that romantic idea, even that he’s waiting for you forever and you’ll wait forever. It’s this over-romanticized idea that’s so theatrical and dramatic that just isn’t healthy and isn’t what you should want. It’s kind of just reveling in this idea of wanting to be certain ways because it’s cinematic or would make you feel like you’re the type of person that you want to be, but really it’s just all feeling the feelings. You’ve got to be realistic, I guess.
Another of my early favorite songs is “Your Dog,” which obviously a lot of people know at this point and clearly connect with. On the song, you’re writing about the kind of relationship you don’t want to be in … obviously, it takes being in one like that to learn what you want to avoid. Does writing about what you don’t want help you remember to stay out of it or does it help you feel, sort of, empowered again?
Yeah, I think it’s kind of empowering. I think it’s empowering because a lot of people — I think it kind of came from a place where I’m empowered for this moment, but it’s probably not gonna last. So, it’s not totally there, it’s kind of a moment of strength, but, you know, in the end, I kind of find out that I can’t just change who I am. And want to be different — and just be different all of a sudden. But, yeah, I think for a lot of other people it’s empowering. The song itself, it is. In the sense of the album, it’s not totally [Laughs].
Did your process change for this record since you were writing songs with an album in mind, instead of just one-off tracks for Bandcamp?
It actually didn’t feel that different for me. I was writing it knowing I was making an album, which definitely changed it to like, ‘Oh, I’m writing, like, a full thing, there needs to be like connecting ideas here.’ But it ended up being really easy to make it all connecting just because of the point I was at in my life where every song was kind of about this progression I was going through anyway.
I started writing this over like a year of my life, which is definitely the longest I’ve ever taken to write something before releasing it. It was pretty crazy to do that. It sometimes felt like it was driving me insane a little bit. Just taking so much time to work on it, not knowing if people were going to like it, not knowing if it was going to be good, and then still having to write more and more and put so much effort into it. That was very different than what I had done before.
In the past when you wrote a song you would kind of just put it up on Bandcamp right away?
Yeah, pretty much, I would record it, mess around with it for a couple days, and then just like throw it up on the internet whenever I was kind of done with it.
And I read that you initially sort of were keeping your songwriting a secret. Could you talk a little bit about what the impetus behind that was? And how you decided to stop and just be open about it?
My friends knew I wrote songs and everything and they’d all heard them, but, like, I definitely wasn’t in the scene, I wasn’t, like, local writer or anything. I just kind of did it for myself. And then, it was kind of a process where I finally threw a song up on Tumblr, and then SoundCloud, and then eventually Bandcamp. I was posting my music on social media and stuff. But, it was really more of a recording project for me because I got a TASCAM and I wanted to learn to record stuff and see what I could do with it. So, it was really more me trying to record things and trying to make my songs sound like a recording, you know? More than it felt like I was a songwriter.
When you say the scene, how would you characterize that? Because I know, especially for Nashville, people have ideas that aren’t necessarily the whole picture.
It was a lot of people from my school and other schools nearby that were playing shows together at local DIY venues. It was kind of like people I went to high school with and bands from people who were friends of people I went to high school with. And yes, there’s a lot bigger music scene than just that, but it was kind of this little DIY market of people we knew, people our age, and maybe a little bit older.
And that’s what you didn’t feel like you were part of or that’s what you didn’t know if you wanted to be out among? Do you remember a moment where that shifted for you and you did start to feel that way?
Yeah, exactly. I felt like I was a part of it in the sense I went to shows and everything, but I didn’t feel like a writer. Like, I didn’t feel like I was going to be a musician in that scene. I guess when I came back from my first year of college and I played an early show and a lot of people came out. It just felt much more like this is a band now and the local scene and the people who go to it know about it. But, even at times still I feel like I’m not like praised as a local band — I don’t get written up that often in the local music blogs and stuff.
I do on occasion, but I’m not their favorite and I’m not considered Nashville’s DIY scene or an example of someone blowing up from our scene, really. I feel like locally sometimes I get the vibe that people don’t support me or are maybe saying stuff behind my back. Not, like, my friends, but that people in the local scene aren’t super into my music. Which is understandable, I get it, it’s hard to watch other people succeed. There’s no hate. There’s no hate. I understand. It can be hard to watch.
So how early on did you actually start doing music yourself? Was it in high school and college or was it before that?
I was like five when I first started playing guitar and writing songs. So, it’s been pretty much most of my life. I got a toy guitar and was playing with that. And then I really liked it so my parents got me a real acoustic one, and then I was doing lessons after that, but no one in my family is really a musician.
And when you went to New York for college at NYU, were you starting your music and pursuing music there, or how did that shift impact your career?
Yeah, that’s when I started putting stuff up for real. I wasn’t necessarily pursuing it, but I was going to shows there and meeting people and posting stuff online, trying to grow. My first Soccer Mommy show was actually in New York at Silent Barn that a friend booked. It started there, and eventually, people started listening to my music. New York is kind of the hub for that, so people in New York knew it and I was there and going to shows and met some people through that who helped me book my first show and all that. At school, I started off undecided and then last year I was doing music business.
And now you’re sort of putting college on hold. How has that decision been?
I just decided to do it. My parents were pretty supportive of it because I was already touring and stuff and doing all this. You know, I had a booking agent and a label and a record deal. So, it was kind of not that big of a decision to make. I don’t know if I’ll go back right now, I have no clue. If I did go back, I would want to go back to NYU. You know, I did like it. But, I have no clue right now.
For the people that have heard Collection and sort of some of your stuff before, how would you say that Clean is connected to your past work?
I think that it’s just kind of where everything is going with Collection, like, with the new songs it follows that direction. I feel like I’m showing this is what I used to do, this is where it’s going, and now this is where I’ve gone with it.
Another song I really connected to as a fan of astrology is “Scorpio Rising”–
That’s my favorite, too.
Really? Okay, tell me your chart, and also what was going on in your head when you wrote that one?
I’m a Gemini with Scorpio rising, and an Aquarius moon. I was dating someone in Nashville. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it, to be honest, but I had been dating someone in Nashville and we weren’t gonna date when I went to school and… well, it didn’t end up that way, we did end up dating anyway. I may have even written it reflecting upon what happened, but it kind of came from a place of fear of like, ‘I’m gonna lose this person to distance or to being cold or to being not myself, and not being open.’ Which is something I’d always felt, like I wasn’t open enough in relationships and didn’t let people know me that easily. It came kind of from a place of being afraid of vulnerability and being afraid of losing someone.
For production on this album, how did you get connected with Gabe Wax? Did you feel hesitant to polish it so much with outside influences after working on your own?
I got work with Gabe through the label. He contacted me and was interested and when I met with him I thought it would work well. Gabe was a big decision, I think. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to work with a producer, but after talking with him and making some demos, I was like, ‘Okay, this is gonna work.’ It was super easy and not at all like relinquishing any power, it felt like it was just someone helping me make my ideas fully fleshed.
I wanted to ask you about the band name because I think it’s, obviously, very interesting. How do you feel it functions along with the music you make?
I don’t really know. I think it kind of shows a bit of my personality. I’m kind of goofy and funny and not to super serious all the time. I think it works for me. Some people don’t like it, but, whatever, I don’t really care. That’s not really the point of it.
You’ve referenced Taylor Swift and Avril Lavigne as influences. I think those artists are a bit different than what some people would expect artists to say. How do you feel about the recent reframing of female pop in critical history? Do you feel that citing those women as influences makes people see you — or them — in a different light?
I think if you really look at it, it’s not that surprising that it’s like Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift and stuff like that. Because that’s just definitely what I grew up on when I was a child, I liked Hilary Duff and stuff like that. Hilary Duff was actually my first concert that I ever saw, in Nashville, when I was like seven years old or something. I think that there’s a lot of pop influence in my work, and I always try to have catchy stuff. Especially with someone like Avril Lavigne, production-wise, my sound definitely goes a little emo like that. The new album can definitely have some very, like, distorted, strong choruses.
I think that it’s just, like, if I’m honest, that’s what I was listening to, that was developmental for me when I was a child listening to those kinds of artists. And then later in my life I found artists like Mitski, who is just one of the best writers out right now, I think. It’s all very exciting to see someone who is so good and came out of a DIY scene and is doing so great right now. It’s really cool that there’s someone like that, who new artists can look to to see that it can work. I guess that’s why I would say that those are all inspirations for me.
As a fairly young songwriter. Have you faced any pushback as a young woman in the industry? If not, where do you sort of see yourself in the next decade or so of your career?
I don’t feel like there’s a huge pushback. I’ve obviously experienced sexism, especially from fans who can be really weird in a way where they think they’re not being sexist, but it’s like, ‘No, I’m not your future girlfriend. I don’t know why you commented that on my single. It’s weird that you would do that. I don’t think you’re cool right now. You’re not giving a good impression.’ [Laughs]. As far as where I see myself in the future, hopefully making a living out of music. That’s all I really desire to do. I want to have a fan base and be able to make a living out of releasing music and live comfortably. Those are pretty much the only wants that I have.
Clean is out now via Fat Possum Records. Get it here and stream it below.