For Sophie Allison, it all starts with the guitar. The singer-songwriter, who performs with a band as Soccer Mommy, was playing the instrument by kindergarten. Even now, when she begins working on new songs, she picks up the guitar. First come the riff or chord progression, then melody and finally lyrics. Listeners, however, have been responding fervently to all of it, since Soccer Mommy “chill but kinda sad” lo-fi recordings landed on critics’ best lists well before her debut studio album, Clean, dropped this past March. At 21, Allison is able to distill the sound of, well, being 21 — its uncertainty and infatuation, its open wounds and preternatural savvy. “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog,” Allison sings in sweet, blasé tones on “Your Dog,” whose title takes on the Stooges without a backward glance. As a post-millennial, Allison draws inspiration from a not-so-distant past that's just out of reach, since she wasn't conscious for it: the mid- to late ’90s, filtered through Daria memes and Hole with the knowledge that Courtney Love continues to live through this.
Westword spoke with Allison, who was in a van somewhere between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, about influences, life on the road and protesting in the streets instead of on Twitter.
Westword: I caught your set when you were touring with Phoebe Bridgers back in February, and I was sitting at the back next to these parents and their little girl. She was eight, and it was her first real concert — like in a club, started after her bedtime. When you were playing, she was standing on the rungs of her stool so she could see, and she was just so pumped. It occurred to me that at her age, you were already making your own music.
I was always someone who really loved music. I don’t know where it came from. My parents aren’t super-musical, really. I started playing guitar when I was five or six after I saw a charity concert and I got a toy guitar there. After a week or so of me playing that all the time, my parents got me an actual, cheap acoustic guitar and lessons, and I never stopped. I learned drums and bass at rock camp, then played guitar in high school. Kinda just kept doing it forever.
You grew up in Nashville. What was your understanding of music, coming up in a place where country music is omnipresent?
I wasn’t really a country person growing up. I mean, I liked Taylor Swift, but that was hardly country. My dad played a lot of Bruce Springsteen and the Who, and I got into grunge and indie rock. I did start to get into ’90s alt-country when I was in high school and college, but before that, it was mostly rock.
How have ’90s cultural icons — Daria, Miyazaki films, Hole — impacted your views and music? How do you connect with this time before you were born?
Well, I was actually born in the ’90s [in 1997]. I’m more influenced by a blend of ’90s and early 2000s. I think those eras, with indie rock and emo, are more connected than the ’90s and ’80s. I’ve always felt connected to it — the amazing singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette, bands like Hole and Sleater-Kinney. A lot of different directions were thriving in that time period. There was a messiness that I’m really drawn to. I felt it was extremely cool and raw.
I’m also really drawn to TV shows from that period; I love Buffy [the Vampire Slayer], Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And Daria, of course.
That was a prime time for supernatural female leads. Did you do anything big for your 21st birthday?
We camped at Sasquatch [music festival] for the weekend. We were playing, but not on my birthday, so we got to hang out and watch all the bands.
I saw on your Twitter profile, you list “Gemini Realness.” How do you feel about stereotypes of Geminis?
We can be space cadet and distracted; it’s chaotic. I don’t think we’re two-faced…though I definitely know some who are. It’s more like you’re going to be supportive of whoever you’re talking to.
What’s your writing process like, and how has it changed from your Bandcamp releases to Clean, and after?
I don’t think it’s changed at all. I start by playing guitar, and I find a lick or a chord progression I like. It always starts as a guitar part, and then I’ll sing, improvising ideas until I get a melody and maybe some lyrics. Then I’ll workshop the lyrics until they’re done. It’s all [worked out] solo. I don’t bring it to other people, really.
I’ve been writing some new songs on the road, and hopefully we’ll have time to record them sometime early next year, but I don’t know yet.
You’ve toured with a variety of artists, from Slowdive to Stephen Malkmus to Kacey Musgraves. These are very different audiences. Do you adjust your sets at all?
For the last year or so, we haven’t had time to learn new material. Ever since we learned stuff for the record, we’ve been pretty much on the road the entire time. We switch bandmembers occasionally too, so we’re just trying to make sure we can play the songs well. I don’t worry too much about trying to switch it up. I feel like the music reaches a wide audience already.
Does it feel like you’ve been on tour forever? What do you do to feel healthy or balanced on the road?
Yes. I try to get sleep, mostly, not rage when you have an early morning. Try to eat good food and not McDonald’s. If you have an off day, do something fun. I sometimes don’t know where I am, because I’m usually watching TV in the back seat or playing Pokémon on Gameboy.
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Like a lot of people, I’ve been glued to the Supreme Court hearings and falling down various wells of despair. Since you’ve been all over this country in the last year, what’s your sense of what it feels like to be a 21-year-old in America right now?
It’s grim, for sure. Most people feel helpless [about politics]. It can feel like it doesn’t matter what you have to say because the people in power are the ones who make the rules. Everyone can text “resist” or “go vote,” but being in Tennessee, for example, my vote doesn’t really matter. Big change is going to take radical action, even more than voting.
Do you feel pushed — personally, and not just as a musician with a platform —to take political action beyond, say, Twitter?
I do think everyone should care and do what they can. I don’t think everyone needs to be an activist. I get that people have jobs and other passions. You can still stand up for what you think is right. It’s important to take action rather than just tweeting. Obviously, people talking isn’t changing the government.