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Soccer Mommy Is Pushing Through the Indie-Rock Growing Pains

The 22-year-old singer and songwriter Sophie Allison made one of the most acclaimed albums of 2018. Then she had to figure out what comes next.

[New York Times]

Sophie Allison, who records as Soccer Mommy, shows off her increasing ambition on her second album, “Color Theory.”
Sophie Allison, who records as Soccer Mommy, shows off her increasing ambition on her second album, “Color Theory.”Credit…Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

By Joe Coscarelli

NASHVILLE — Last spring, in a charmingly overstuffed and dingy house-turned-recording studio tucked away in an ugly industrial stretch a few miles from Music Row, the singer and songwriter Sophie Allison was gently bossing around four babyfaced dudes because, somehow, that had become her full-time job.

There was a raccoon in the ceiling and apple cider by the jug as Allison, who is 22 and performs emotionally incisive indie rock as Soccer Mommy, took breaks from discussing Lil Uzi Vert or singing along to Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson songs to record her new album, “Color Theory.” Almost a year before its release next month, her second studio LP — and first for a larger record label — was already shaping up to be her most fully realized work yet, the next step in her steady journey toward budding indie-rock stardom.

At Allison’s side, and in her creative thrall, were four friends enlisted to help execute her plans: a young producer energized by the vintage studio equipment at hand; a good-natured guitar player (who also happened to be Allison’s boyfriend); a lanky bassist; and an old pal with a video camera, hired to document the process. It felt like a sleepover with no parents home.

Allison, who can go giddy when discussing video games or “The Vampire Diaries” but usually defaults to a self-deprecating deadpan, knowingly leaning into her internet sad-girl persona, was obviously the ringleader. She wore pigtails, a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a long skirt, Doc Martens and cat-eye makeup as she languidly tried vocal takes on fuzzy old microphones and sourced sound-effect samples from a pile of dusty floppy disks.

“On the last record, I didn’t have any experience in a studio, so I didn’t know how to bring in any ideas,” she said later of her debut, “Clean,” which made both of The New York Times pop critics’ best-albums lists in 2018. “This time, I had basically learned how it works. I had so many thoughts on how to make my vision of the song itself match the recording.”

But even as Allison bloomed in real time, gaining technical confidence and growing into a professional musician with real ambition and intentionality — a fair distance from the heart-shredding, raw bedroom demos that sent her on this path — she has also spent the last two years adjusting to her role as an employer, a decision maker, an adult with an itinerant lifestyle and a public figure with an expectant, intimately engaged and growing audience. It may go largely unremarked upon, but the life of a moderately successful rock singer, especially these days, can be as managerial as it is glamorous.

“It’s not going to break my heart if I can’t do it,” Allison said of one day having a Top 40 hit, “but I do have that ambition to possibly be really big one day.”
“It’s not going to break my heart if I can’t do it,” Allison said of one day having a Top 40 hit, “but I do have that ambition to possibly be really big one day.”Credit…Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella

“I’m touring for a living and I run a small business, basically,” Allison said last month at the cozy home in her native Nashville that she rents with her older sister and her bandmate-slash-boyfriend, Julian Powell.

“It is a very isolating existence,” she admitted. “You’re gone all the time. The friends you do make are also gone all the time.” And much of her life and career exist online, where she cannot help but obsessively read just about everything any random person says about the band that is now her world.

While Soccer Mommy’s fan base remains intimate enough that listeners are generally supportive and adoring, “none of them really know you,” Allison said. “A lot of them don’t understand anything you’re going through.”

The work is supposed to help with that, and “Color Theory,” out Feb. 28, while blisteringly personal, is also an offering of connection. Meticulously conceived as a three-movement cycle divided by mood and theme, each represented by a color — blue for sadness, depression and heartbreak; yellow for paranoia and illness, mental and physical; and gray for death — the album can be piercing in both its plain-spoken specificity and also in its wide-lens view of personal trauma and suffering.

“It’s a halfhearted calm — the way I’ve felt since I was 13,” Allison sings on “Bloodstream,” the crushing opening track, “’cause I may not feel it now, covered up the wounds with my long sleeves/but I know it’s waiting there swimming through my bloodstream/and it’s gonna come for me.”

The self-proclaimed “princess of screwing up,” Allison could only laugh when confronted with the heaviness of her new songs, which camouflage their bleak illustrations of physical and mental decay in lush, even peppy ’90s-alternative musical packaging. (“Color Theory” was engineered and produced by Gabe Wax, known for his work with Big Thief, the War on Drugs and Frankie Cosmos.)

“I feel like it really bangs,” Allison said with a shrug of the finished music.

Though “Color Theory” veers from the spiky irreverence of previous Soccer Mommy songs like “Your Dog” or “Cool,” Allison tells a trickier story, nimbly linking her own lows to those of her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer when Allison was a teenager. On the seven-plus-minute centerpiece, “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” and the closing song “Gray Light,” she does not shy from the cold indifference of mortality (“loving you isn’t enough/you’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done”) and she ends the album with a line no more hopeful than where she began: “I’m watching my mother drown.”

“All of this stuff just kills you over time,” Allison said of her chosen subject matter, “or it makes you a shell of a person, almost.” She added: “At least it’s out. Before, it was just sitting in my heart, weighing on me, and I was just constantly feeling that way, having to act happy and excited.”

Yet the desolate version of Allison in Soccer Mommy songs, aching from hours of depressive TV-watching in bed, is at odds with the self-assured artist and goal-oriented overseer she has become since dropping out of New York University to pursue music full-time after her dorm-room recordings took off online. “Clean” put Allison in a league with a growing crop of assertively independent female musicians and led to opening gigs for Liz Phair, Paramore, Vampire Weekend and Wilco.

Hayley Williams, the lead singer of Paramore, said in an email that she felt like a “a proud big sister” to Allison and Soccer Mommy, a group she discovered at a time when she was “craving a connection to a community of women — really to any expression of femininity, specifically in music and art,” after years in a male-dominated scene.

“I felt drawn to the sincerity and simplicity of how she was trying to assert her worth while also exposing a weakness and a longing,” Williams wrote of Allison’s songwriting.

She recalled that after one performance by Soccer Mommy on tour, “Sophie was pointing out mistakes each one of them had made during their set and what needed to improve. It wasn’t ridiculous and it wasn’t even egotistical. In fact, I was really inspired by how cool she was with just leading her band.If we’re being honest, I was never that way in my own band. I’m still not.”

Through her proximity to successful career acts, Allison has honed the drive she’s nurtured since telling her parents around the age of 5 that she was going to be a rock star. Raised on the canny work — and work ethic — of artists like Taylor Swift, Lavigne and Phair, Allison is frank, if a little abashed, about the scale of her ambitions for Soccer Mommy.

After a year of touring behind “Clean,” the band jumped a level, leaving the label Fat Possum for Loma Vista Recordings, and setting out to make an album that could live up to Allison’s go-to playlist of “bops” — ’90s and early 2000s pop-rock hits like Lavigne’s “Complicated,” Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” or Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy.”

Allison didn’t have previous studio experience while making her debut, “Clean.” This time, “I had so many thoughts on how to make my vision of the song itself match the recording.”
Allison didn’t have previous studio experience while making her debut, “Clean.” This time, “I had so many thoughts on how to make my vision of the song itself match the recording.”Credit…Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

“My dream — and it’s a long way off, if ever even possible,” Allison said, with a pile of additional qualifiers, “would be that I can get, like, even just one of my Soccer Mommy songs into the Top 40” — a crossover hit by a girl with a guitar that harkens back to when Allison fell in love with music as a child.

“It’s not going to break my heart if I can’t do it,” she added, “but I do have that ambition to possibly be really big one day.”

Compromise, however, is out of the question for now. Allison said that she would never work with a pop-oriented co-writer, and she declined to even make a shorter radio edit for “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” the de facto first single from “Color Theory.”

Alex Ross Perry, the Brooklyn filmmaker who directed the song’s music video, marveled at the sturdiness of Allison’s gut instincts. “You kind of have to be young and so confidently unquestioning in your decisions to lead off your new album with a seven-and-a-half minute song,” he said, adding: “What she’s doing is so wrought and almost conceptual. Those are big power moves for someone barely of drinking age to be making that early in their career.”

At home in Nashville ahead of her album release, Allison oscillated between youthful exuberance — like when describing how she engineered a run-in with Robert Pattinson by hiding in a restaurant bathroom — and the sober practicality that’s now required of her.

Back when she was uploading her diaristic song sketches to Bandcamp, where listeners could throw her a few bucks if they felt like it, music “wasn’t a career,” she said. “I was just happy to have anything coming in. Now I know that I have to work to make money, not only for me, but to pay everyone that’s working for me better.”

“That’s a large goal of mine,” she continued, “to be able to pay the guys more money. Whenever it’s in the budget, I want to go up for them until it’s at an extremely livable wage, where they don’t have to have other jobs when we’re off for a couple months.”

Her own aims are equally modest. “I don’t want to have millions of dollars and be like, rich and famous,” Allison said. “I want to be able to have a house like this even, for my life, and be comfortable.” She recently upgraded from a beat-up Subaru Outback (bumper sticker: “silly boys trucks are for girls”) to a Ford Ranger pickup (“the one with the big Buffy sticker on it”) that’s not much younger than she is.

That she can excavate her emotional demons in order to achieve such a lifestyle is still something she is getting used to — a reality that can be as daunting as it is thrilling, especially as she comes to terms with who is in charge.

“It’s definitely on me,” Allison said. She couldn’t help but sound prepared.