Soccer Mommy and the coloured catharsis of Color Theory
On her second album color theory, Soccer Mommy contrasts bright melodies with the gloomy darkness of her last few years.
Header image and in-article images by Brian Ziff.
In a world that feels like it’s coming apart at the seams, Sophie Allison is here to remind us that sometimes things are incredibly shit and there’s nothing anyone can do about it – but that’s okay.
It often seems like artists are invincible. They’re famed, have adoring fans falling at their feet, frequent parties in some of the most beautiful places with the most beautiful people, and often live a very comfortable financial existence. We expect so much of these artists to perform in their everyday lives, in the same way as they do when it comes to their craft. Sometimes, we expect so much of these artists, as if they’re not human. We see it in the ruthless comments sections of articles praising those who have unfortunately fallen victim to Tall Poppy Syndrome; we see it in the fandoms when artists cancel shows due to illness or personal circumstances and all hell breaks loose because someone spent $200 on a ticket to just see them. We rely on these musos to soundtrack the most pivotal moments of our lives, with – more often than not - little consideration or knowledge of their lives, unless they put it in a song. At the end of the day, we only see a portion of their lives, and it’s easy to overlook the varied growing pains we all share.
For Sophie Allison - who we know through Nashville born-and-bred project Soccer Mommy – no number of accolades, tours or streams even comes close to masking the ongoing trauma of her early twenties. Two years ago, Soccer Mommy released her debut album, Clean, a collection of songs that marked her lo-fi jangly production and wry storytelling, as something to pay attention to. She was constantly on the road, since opening for Paramore, Vampire Weekend and Kacey Musgraves, along with her own series of headline shows. She had broken through the market in a big way and it seemed as though everything was golden, but at home, her mother was battling a terminal illness that Allison had been coming to terms with since her pre-teen years. The glass shattered. Allison found herself struggling to balance the demands of this new-found ‘rockstar’ lifestyle with emotional ties back in Nashville, her worlds divided by time. Suddenly being on the road heightened worries she had hiding in the corners of her mind: that she was losing valuable time with her sick mother, that every part of herself was now subject to scrutiny from a global audience, that she was losing her youth.\
Struggles with personal worth, explorations of death and open discussions of pure longing for the past sit side by sprawling seven-minute musings of her mother in Soccer Mommy’s latest piece of catharsis, color theory. The aptly named album is emotionally divided into three: blue as depression, melancholy and nostalgia; yellow as illness, both physical and mental; and grey, a nod towards inevitable death, loss, grief and slight fear. At 22 years old, she has firmly seen the colours of everyday life drain away, akin to her opening track bloodstream: “just a little kid, blood flowing into my rosy cheeks, now…there’s a pale girl staring through the mirror at me.” The result is a sophisticated look at the life of someone in their early twenties, now navigating the world under a critical, somewhat hopeless gaze, that stretches far beyond just Allison’s experience.
color theory is deceiving in its appearance too, full of light, palatable melodies and peppered with breaths, allowing the listener to digest the 90s-inflected production in all its indie-pop glory. There are samples aplenty - thanks to an old, decaying keyboard, scoured for this record - along with intricate layers of all the usual suspects, plus new flames, like a mandolin. And, along with new instruments and textures to play with, color theory ditches the typical crescendo of an album, in favour of going out with a bang. Usually, there are traces of risk in second albums, as artists grapple balancing what they’ve done and are known for with where they want to go, but for Soccer Mommy, conventions are thrown out the window with ease. From the ambitiously confessional yellow is the colour of her eyes to the solace of night swimming and instantly gripping circle the drain, Allison is anything but stagnant.
This is Soccer Mommy living in a dichotomous world, one where beauty and decay co-exist in more ways than just dirty effects and sullen vocals working in tandem with clean strings. When Allison said, “I think we just upped it on both ends, the grittiness and the dirtiness but also the beauty of it,” she meant more than just the sonic nature of color theory. Here, Soccer Mommy motions us to take an intimate, unsettling look into the past few years of her life.
One thing that stood out for me on color theory was how clearly you express yourself, especially when it comes to something like your mother being chronically sick, like in yellow is the color of her eyes. How do you find the right words to summarise all those emotions?
I feel like, specifically on that issue, this is something that’s been weighing on me since I was twelve; for ten years, literally. It was something I never confronted because I was too young to really understand what any of that meant and now that I’m older I can kind of see what that shit means, and what is going to happen and what I’m going to have to be confronted with.
When I was touring a lot – I mean, I still am – but there was a time [in 2018] where I was touring a lot and my mum - she’s still sick, she’s doing really well, she wasn’t supposed to even live five years or ten years and she’s doing really well - but at the same time, being away from her and being away from my family and seeing all this time pass where I wasn’t even seeing her or speaking to her... I started to subconsciously think about how she was going to die eventually and, was I just going to be gone still? That’s what started to hit me: was I going to be gone when my mum died? And regret it?
It was something that hit me randomly and I had to start thinking about, and it weighed on me a lot and that’s why I started writing about it more, to help myself work through it.
Yeah, there’s definitely elements of catharsis that come out in your own songs, but do you turn to other artists for therapy too?
I turn to music for whatever mood I’m in. I turn to it when I want to party with my friends, and when I want to chill in my room. Music is all about the mood it conveys and what it makes you feel. There are definitely times where I’ve been through say, a breakup, and I’ve listened to Jeff Buckley and Mitski and found a lot of solace in it, but there are also times when I’ve been having a lot of fun, or [music] that’s connected me to a time period, like now. When I look back, I can’t help but think of an album and think of the time period when I first discovered it, and how it hit me so hard because of whatever I was going through.
color theory is incredibly descriptive too; details of broken bones and bruises – graphic things like that – run through most songs. Are you imagining these images as you write?
Definitely, I think of lyrics a lot like painting an image of something that’s happened. The reason why I picked those things is because they stuck with me and knowing that must mean they are things that also stick to other people. That’s how I write lyrics a lot of the time and that’s how I convey emotion, saying what happened in a way that is connected to all these other little things that have happened and can make people see the feeling that’s lasted through a long relationship, or a year, or something like that. There are songwriters that tell things in other ways, but for some reason, that’s just how it hits me: taking the parts that hit the most and throwing them in, like a big cocktail of things that made me feel shitty.
I was reading about this album not too long ago, and you said that color theory is an expression of all the things that have slowly degraded you. Degraded is such a harsh word; what do you mean by this?
When I’m going through something hard, I often find myself thinking back to being a little kid… I was a really happy kid, I had things I loved, and lots of good friends and family, and I still have that stuff, but something has changed me, you know, the harshness of the world. I think it does that to a lot of people; a lot of people are really happy kids, and some people grow up to stay happy and ignorant to things that are screwed up in the world, and [for other] people, awfulness gets to you and it changes you and you can’t get that back. You can’t get that ignorance and youth back, so to me, it degrades your soul; it kind of takes a piece of you, slowly, and, over time, all those little shitty things that made you feel terrible about yourself or made you not like yourself or the world…. It degrades you. You can still be a good person and be positive and have good things but, I find that a lot of people have had something happen to them when they were young, that changed them and then they saw the world a different way, forever. I think that’s a common thing.
Absolutely. It seems crazy that we’re dealing with these things in our early 20s too, standing back, that just seems so young.
I think a lot of people are though! The world right now is pretty shitty for a lot of people; if you know all the stuff that’s going on, it’s hard to even want to be in this. It gets hard for a lot of people to just realise so many things about the world are fucked up. So many things that were supposed to be good, like the fucking police, for example, who are supposed to be there to protect you and who are supposed to be good, are really fucked and aren’t going to change because they’ve always been this way, just no one realised it. There’s stuff like that but also, everyone has anxiety and everyone’s fucking depressed. There’s a lot of shit to be stressed out about in the world and we’re all hyper-aware of it. A lot of people who are 20-something are really stressed out and freaked out and frustrated with the state of the world and the fact that they don’t know how to fix it.
We’re seeing this all over the world, but it feels like in Australia, people have been more open about their frustration and they’re more willing to be like hey, the world is burning around us, will someone listen! I think that ties into this hopelessness you speak of.
color theory is different to what I expected. I also wanted to ask why you made this album and decided to follow up your debut with something so heavy and private?
It wasn’t something I thought about, it was just something I wrote; it came out this way. I didn’t really think much about the logistics of it being my second album and what I ‘needed’ to do for that, I just wrote what I wanted to, and I feel like I have a tendency to write sad songs that can still be really up beat and fun to listen to, stuff that sounds like pop music but is sad. I’ve always felt like I could get away with it being dark and not being too much.
There definitely is that contrast. Can you explain a bit what it’s like to write in that way where you take something so grim and make it seem quite light?
It’s just natural for me, it’s just how I like things to sound, it’s what makes me feel nostalgic, it’s what makes me feel like I’m thinking off my ears... because that’s how pop music sounded when I was growing up, even rock music and indie stuff. That all sounded warm and punchy and upbeat, even if it was talking about sad stuff, so it’s just something that I feel like has just been ingrained in me. That’s how I write melodies and choruses most of the time.
On the other hand, I feel like the content I’m talking about is just based off what I’m dealing with and my life. It gets dark a lot but that’s just more the stuff that’s weighing on me. There’s some level of me thinking that contrast there can one day just [reinstate] my youth, which was a time when I was also a lot happier. It’s kind of contrasting that with the lyrics being about current matters that are a little bit heavy; it’s just two different parts of me, you know? The highs and lows of me.
Speaking of your youth, have you always grown up associating feelings with colours? I feel like that’s a common, childlike thing to do.
I’ve always had this thought that colours and imagery are associated with feelings, I think that’s a pretty normal thing – seeing art and being able to see certain hues and colours and get a mood off of it, even if it doesn’t say what it’s about. Especially grey, I’ve always associated that with dullness in life, darkness and loss, the feeling of loss and losing yourself; blue, I feel like a lot of people associate with sadness, I also associate it with water and tears; yellow, since I was in high school, I’ve always associated it with sickness and madness. I think [the colour associations] came out of me writing a couple of these songs and feeling like the songs had different moods to them in a way that art can have different moods to them.
That’s definitely a common thing in art but, at the same time, I find it interesting how colours can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the person. I’ve always associated yellow with brightness. Did you think about whether other people would relate to your colour meanings?
Not that much! I just hope they like it but that’s not going to change what I’m doing and especially with a colour, specifically yellow, I think that’s common. It’s sort of thought of as a youthful, which is another reason why I thought it fits so well because the album looks back on youth, when I had less problems [compared to] this further decayed version of myself now. On top of that, it’s more images of madness and a sickly yellow, not as much as a yellow balloon colour. I think having that be open to other people’s interpretations just gives more space for people to find interesting things in the writing and different metaphors and meanings.
So how are you going to work these slower, sadder songs into a live setting?
I don’t know! We’re going to have to start practising, the only song we know now is lucy. I think I’m going to do it how I did Clean. There are songs like circle the drain, which is pretty depressing when you listen to the lyrics, but it’s actually really poppy and fun, so I feel like the fact that it’s upbeat and people know it and will probably sing-along, will distract from how depressing it is. My plan is to just try to have a lot of fun, upbeat ones and then have small portions of the sadder ones, maybe in a solo section where I play songs like night swimming or maybe a cover, like I’m On Fire. Then, maybe, I’ll keep the rest of the more fun, upbeat that are still depressing but have other things to offer besides my sadness [laughs]. You’ve got to give a little bit of relief with the sadness.
Clean was so acclaimed, you received a huge amount of praise and positive feedback from everyone from Pitchfork to the New York Times. How do you think color theory compares?
I think it’s a step up, honestly. We had a lot of ideas for Clean, and we took it to the next level. We had crazy noisy solos, samples of ambient noise and more drum machines - that’s something we did on Clean a little, but we took it to the next level in mixing. Something that was very early 2000s [was] mixing a drum machine with an actual drum kit and giving the drum set a little more punchiness and a bit more poppiness, but still not making it totally without drums - that was something we did a lot.
We also did something new that I’ve always thought was really cool: we took an old sampling keyboard and we got different kinds of samples that we could use on that for different kinds of synths and strings that made it sound cool and kind of degraded, like it had come off a tape originally. We added more of this dirtiness or degraded-ness, but also more of the really beautiful arrangements and instruments, like on night swimming, there are really beautiful guitars and loops, along with mandolins and things that are really pretty. We had some steel guitar on the album too. I think we just upped it on both ends, the grittiness and the dirtiness but also the beauty of it.
The perfect example of that is gray light - the album’s closer.
I always felt like the grey section should close it out, because of the decay and darkness. I think it’s fun to make an album that way, as a decent. That song specifically is a big explosion talking about death and your own death and my mother’s death, the death of people you love… it doesn’t really end on a happy note, it just ends on this explosion. I think that’s really cool way to end an album.
Soccer Mommy's new album color theory is out now via Loma Vista Recordings / Caroline Australia.
Follow Soccer Mommy: FACEBOOK