There's an old writing exercise that involves describing a color without naming it; it challenges the writer to evoke the emotional primacy of a concept we often take for granted.
That task of refreshing preconceived notions of emotional experience is exactly what 22-year-old Nashville indie rocker Sophie Allison accomplishes with Soccer Mommy's sophomore album, Color Theory. She paints suites of songs in broad strokes, grouping three and four-song sets together according to color. Allison sequences them as blue, yellow and gray — like the bleeding light of an old box TV set left on overnight — with her descriptions of the blue swimming in her veins ("bloodstream"), the yellow of a sun that comes and goes ("yellow is the color of her eyes") and the gray of smoke and ghosts ("stain") as an attempt to capture difficult emotional states without naming them, too.
"I always think when I'm writing I want to be vague," she says. "It's not about telling my complete story; it's about capturing an emotion and often that is in strange details."
After gaining buzz on Bandcamp, Allison asserted her skill as a songwriter to a larger audience on her 2018 debut, Clean. On songs like "Your Dog" and "Cool," she plotted complex emotion out with short-syllabled lyrics, letting melody lead in a way that fuzzed the message until it whalloped on the second, or 20th, or 100th listen.
But where Clean centers the stakes of young love (fears of not being wanted, of coming in second place, of giving too much of your heart), Color Theory trades interpersonal conflicts for more intrapersonal ones. The weight of other people's expectations pale in the face of her own.
Allison was prone to songwriting introspection even prior to the large spike in attention to her career. But Color Theory argues that the joy of outward success — a record deal, an opening slot on tour with bands like Paramore, Vampire Weekend and Wilco — doesn't always translate to lasting internal happiness.
"That's kind of what happens with people a lot of the time," she says. "The outside can be going through life and then the inside is struggling."
The figure of Allison's mother looms large on Color Theory, particularly on the seven-minute opus "Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes." She was diagnosed with cancer almost a decade ago. And although Allison says her mother is currently responding to medication, the stress of touring, of the expanding distance and dwindling time, takes its toll on her. Mothers are mirrors, who at their best show us a more complete picture of ourselves, but they're also architects; we don't exist without them. Allison knows the day her mother dies, she'll "feel the cold as they put out my sun," as she sings on the track.
Soccer Mommy hides these moments of truth-telling in an intricate pattern of steady riffs and cascading countermelodies; she unveils them with smart and surprising melodic choices in which she forgoes an expected line resolution. "Yellow," for instance, builds on a repeated melody until Allison breaks format with an extra line; the guitars hovers in the air as she admits her depression can't be erased, only "colored over." It's a gutting observation from a young woman full of them. On only her second full-length record, Allison's only limits seem to be the ones she decides for herself.
Ahead of the release of Color Theory last week, NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy about taking more control over the production of her music, finding sonic inspiration on floppy disks and writing about her mother's struggles with cancer. You can listen in the player above and read an edited version of their conversation below. —Cyrena Touros
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Audie Cornish: I was reading that you said the first time around when you were in the studio, you didn't know enough about the process to always contribute the way that you liked. This time around you had much more experience, so how did that change the songwriting process?
Sophie Allison: I worked with the same producer, Gabe Wax. Last time that we worked together, while I wasn't really able to fully explain all of my ideas all the time, he was really good at understanding [them], at taking it to the next level with what he knew was what I wanted. This time around, it was great because I came in having all these ideas that I could convert into specific musical parts like "I want to add a drum machine here that has this type of beat going on."
One where I shifted the idea based on what was going on in my head was "Gray Light." The demo was two acoustic guitars throughout the whole song and no drums. But I think when we went into the studio, I got this idea for that opening drum machine, just having it be really drawn back; I spent 45 minutes in the studio on my Volca Beats [synthesizer] trying to get this drum machine sound right. Then it was all about crafting it into something that starts really empty and almost cold, and is swelling — and I think we nailed it, but it sounds completely different.
If you don't mind, I have to ask about the lyrics, because I think some has been written about the fact that your mom has been dealing with cancer for a very long time. And in this song, this line of "I'm watching my mother drown": Can you talk about how you decided you wanted to talk about this in your music, and how much you wanted to say in your music?
I didn't ever decide "I want to talk about this." I think when I write, I get these guitar chords and then I start kind of singing random things that come to my head and start building beyond that, and end up finding myself having written about something that I didn't even know I wanted to write about. So I think that's why it came up. It was really hard being away from home so much while I was touring. It started to give me almost separation anxiety. I always think when I'm writing I want to be vague; it's not about telling my complete story, it's about capturing an emotion and often that is in strange details.
This song is direct in talking about your own fear of death. And you're really young for that.
I guess I am. I feel old. It really is just taking a look at yourself, seeing this reflection of your mother — something that could be you in the future — and wondering if that will be you and wondering if you'll even get that far in your life.
How has your family reacted to your music? Because as a parent and knowing other parents who have gone through this kind of thing, you kind of want to shield your child from it. So to hear music in which it's like "Nope, they have fully absorbed what's going on and have a lot of fears about the future," I'm wondering what that is like?
I really honestly haven't talked with my family that much about the songs that are out. My mom has the album, but whenever she tries to talk to me about it, I tell her to stop.
You do? Really?
Yeah, I'm kind of like "This is the deal: You can have it, but you can't talk to me about it."
What are you afraid of?
I talk with my mom all the time, and she knows most of the stuff firsthand. But I have a hard time revealing this much of myself on a record. I can give it away and I can say "Everyone can hear it," but I don't like the feeling of saying "You can hear it."
I think for those of us that grew up in the '90s there's something that does remind us of that period, and some of the women of that period, who made it into the pop mainstream. What artists from the '90s are important to you?
Anything from like Sleater-Kinney, Hole, to Liz Phair to Elliot Smith. There are so many different influences, and I think that's why I'm often, in my music, torn between a lot of genres and sounds: Sometimes it can be a little more confessional and slow, and then other times it kicks in a lot more and can be a little bit more rock-y or pop-y.
It's not just about the influences, it's also about the sounds, and I understand that you got sounds from kind of unusual places to give the album this kind of time capsule feel. How did it work?
I wanted that time capsule-feel: of something being shiny and new when it comes out and being degraded over time. And the way got that was we had a floppy disk sampling keyboard, for one.
That's crazy! A floppy disk sampling keyboard.
Yeah. I know how to work one now, I promise. In the studio where we were recording, in Alex the Great, they had boxes of floppy disks because one of the people that owns it had made a lot back in the '90s; that was the new technology. You would pick a sample out and you would just do that over and over again until you found a sound that you liked.
We'd add that kind of stuff in, along with finding samples of sounds of the world — sounds of busy traffic or people playing on a playground — that are going along in the background. They give it this kind of realism, of something not being pristine because it's been affected by the world and time, and it carries that in the sound.
Can I ask a song where you ran away with that?
It's on all of them, but "Circle The Drain" has a lot of sounds.
This song is really about having depressive episodes. Specifically, I look back on some [episodes] in college and talk about some of those harder experiences, how dark things could get and how sometimes, even when none of that stuff is happening, I feel awful, just as a lot of people do.
There are so many sounds in this. Weird synths that are just going through the whole song in the background that are really airy. There's also bubble sound effects that I put in, that I'm very proud of.
One thing about a song like this is that it has a sunniness to it, a kind of Sheryl Crow-ish sunniness to what you're describing, which is dark. Is that on purpose?
Yeah definitely. I wanted it to feel like this really sunny, beachy, summer jam from the early 2000s while also hiding feeling bogged down. Because that's kind of what happens with people a lot of the time: The outside can be going through life [like normal] and then the inside is struggling.
One of the things I noticed when I was reading your background is that you want a mainstream hit.
I would totally have one! Only if it can sound like this.
But you're not in the business of trying to be "indie story for life." Is that going against the grain? What are your ambitions?
I think people really don't realize how hard it is to write a song that is extremely catchy and can just get caught in your head on a loop. Because I think that's the strongest way to deliver a deeper message sometimes, is have something that is so catchy and so upbeat and just kind of grabs you in with all of that, and then have people say "Oh, wow this is like screaming for help."
I will never compromise the sound of anything I do or my integrity, but I want to keep growing until I hit the ceiling.
NPR's Connor Donevan, Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
National security officials issued a warning on Monday. Foreign actors are using social media to interfere in this year's presidential race. Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders acknowledged he'd been briefed by the intelligence community about Russia's efforts to boost his campaign - efforts that are unwelcome. NPR's Tim Mak looks deeper into what Russia's campaign to boost Sanders looks like.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Russia's campaign includes an ever-changing number of targets based on Russian strategic goals, including, reportedly, the reelection of President Donald Trump. But its support for Sanders in particular has become an attack line. Take this example from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a recent presidential debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE BLOOMBERG: Vladimir Putin thinks that Donald Trump is - should be president of the United States, and that's why Russia is helping you get elected - so you'll lose to him.
MAK: Sanders had this response.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: Hey, Mr. Putin. If I'm president of the United States, trust me. You're not going to interfere in any more American elections.
MAK: The Russian government's apparent campaign to aid Sanders would mostly be hidden behind the anonymity of the Internet. But there are ways to look to Russia's public messaging to see how they're supporting the senator.
Clint Watts has been monitoring Russian interference as part of his work with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He says Russian state-backed media was more neutral on Sanders in the fall but has begun to mirror pro-Sanders talking points first seen four years ago.
CLINT WATTS: Well, what's really come on strong just in the last 30 to 45 days are very similar narratives that we saw in 2016 about Sanders.
MAK: On Russian news agencies RT and Sputnik, Watts noticed that Sanders receives substantially better coverage than his opponents. Sanders received a higher percentage of positive coverage - 2 1/2 times more - than any other Democratic candidate, surpassing even President Donald Trump by that metric. And Sanders receives far less negative coverage than his rivals.
Jessica Brandt, who works for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, has also examined Russian narratives about Sanders.
JESSICA BRANDT: Those tend to be that the corporate media and that the Democratic establishment, the DNC and elites are rigging the system against him and, you know, endeavoring to deny him a win.
MAK: Another way to gauge Russia's support for Sanders is by examining social media accounts linked to their efforts. In October, Facebook announced it had suspended Instagram accounts with apparent links to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm based in Saint Petersburg. Facebook shared its data with Graphika, a social media analytics firm, which said that four of the suspended accounts had a focus on praising Senator Sanders. He was the only candidate on the Democratic side that was a focus of these fake accounts.
In some cases, these accounts plagiarized memes and content directly from the Sanders campaign. One post read, quote, "Millions of people in America want to get an education, and Bernie Sanders is their last hope." The Sanders campaign says Russia is trying to do their best to sow discord in the race, not elect Bernie Sanders. And campaign co-chair Congressman Ro Khanna points out that the senator has been a fervent advocate of solutions to foreign interference.
RO KHANNA: Senator Sanders has been at the forefront of election security. What we need is paper ballots. What we need is an investment in our election infrastructure. What we need is smart regulation against disinformation campaigns.
MAK: But Sanders' disavowal of Russia's efforts haven't stopped them. Mieke Eoyang is the vice president of the National Security Program at Third Way, a center-left think tank that opposes a Sanders candidacy.
MIEKE EOYANG: One of the things that I think Russia looks at when they see Bernie is that he's someone who's talking about a rigged system. He's talking about, the elites aren't with you.
MAK: With a long election campaign ahead this year, the sense among experts is that problems with foreign interference are just starting.
Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.