On the way to 22, Sophie Allison, better known as Soccer Mommy, made a collage of the 1990s and 2000s music she was raised on. Pairing the pure-pop innocence of her vocal delivery with distorted, at times screeching guitars, her new album “Color Theory” finds a writer coming to terms with herself in real-time. Her self-evaluations turned into structured, often jarringly direct choruses that feel as natural as conversation.
Take the opening track, “Bloodstream,” for example: Allison contrasts childhood innocence with eventual self-harm and begs herself for answers with the refrain, “What did you have that I didn’t? / And why am I so blue?” Elsewhere on the album, doom is a straight-up threat: “You’ll let me in, and you’ll regret it,” she sings.
Divided into three sections — blue, yellow and gray — Allison reveals a different side of Soccer Mommy in each, avoiding the common pop pitfalls that have made cliches of some of her idols. Variety had the opportunity to speak with the young songwriter about her latest album, signing to Loma Vista Records (label home to St. Vincent and Margo Price) and the perils of radio edits.
“Color Theory” feels based around someone who is grappling with career, mental health and family. What were some of the major themes you were trying to capture with this album?
For me, I feel like most of it revolved around what was going on in my life for the last couple years. Specifically, the time since I started doing this for a living, and things got intense. It was such a fast, drastic change. I do definitely look back to childhood a lot [and] I realize that I never had a lot of problems and wasn’t aware of all the issues of our world. Things seemed so black and white, good and evil, to me. There’s such a contrast from that now. It’s now all completely flipped upside down.
How does color fit in with your songwriting process?
I don’t have synesthesia or anything. I think for a long time, I’ve always imagined visual representations of my music. When I’m playing something, sometimes an image of peacefulness, or something more concrete, maybe like a meadow… Well, that’s a bad example, but imagery often comes to me when I’m making music [and those images] are often very colored. It usually has something like a summery yellow image to it. Or something wintery and blue. It could also be as simple as a song feeling darker than others. … Like movies might use a blueish green tone to portray twilight and coldness. I think in my mind, and a lot of other people’s minds, color is so intrinsically connected to mood and feeling.
You’ve said that you felt a lot more comfortable in the studio than you did with your first album. How did you approach “Color Theory” differently?
I feel like I was able to come in with more ideas and more of a vision with the production. With Clean I had never really been in a studio before that. I had never recorded with a producer ever, so I didn’t know how to tell someone what I wanted beyond a sort of bedroom-pop like recording.
Is there a track you’re particularly proud of?
One of my favorite songs on the record, and one that I was particularly impressed that I was able to make, was “gray light.” I feel like we did something really special with that one.
That one is a striking moment for the end of the album, and it felt like a departure from the other tracks with its production. How did it come to be?
On the demo, it was originally just two acoustic guitars. Then when we came into the studio, I had been listening to some 90s music that had some pretty industrial elements to it, and I liked the idea of making this one gentle but have an industrial harshness to it. I wanted it to feel mechanical and systematic. I wanted this really emotional depth to it, but feel that sense of modernism.
You mentioned music of the 1990s. Who were some of the artists that inspired the creation of “Color Theory?”
I was definitely feeling very inspired by Tori Amos’s album, “To Venus and Back,” it’s something that I love and was listening to a lot again when I was thinking about where I wanted to go with the album. Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” too. That one will always be really inspiring to me because I love that album. It does such amazing stuff, especially with the production. I was also listening to this Japanese pop band, Fishmans — their live stuff — and I love how they work so many melodies into things without having them clash. I wanted [“Color Theory”] to have this cross-genre feeling to it. I didn’t want any of these songs to sound exactly like the next.
You were sent a radio edit of your single, “yellow is the color of her eyes,” but you chose not to release it. Why did you make that decision?
With that, it wasn’t even a decision. I didn’t even listen to it. They sent me the radio edit, I saw the time stamp, and I just said, “nope.” I told them “I don’t know what you did, but you couldn’t have done anything good.” I wasn’t expecting that one to be a radio song.
In the past, you’ve mentioned wanting to make a radio-friendly, Top 40 hit. Is that something you’re still hoping for?
I think that comment about wanting a Top 40 hit was misunderstood. What I said was, not that it was my goal, but that it was an unachievable, crazy dream of mine to get a song in the Top 40. …You now see people like 100 Gecs who are making it with this poppy, 2000s kind of sound but really f–ed up production. I think we should scooch towards that again and take that element of pop perfection that was cool [in the 2000s]… not this dance-y movement that is in right now. I want to hear that old, perfect, inoffensive pop but to make it almost disgusting and a little appalling in some small ways. I would love to try it someday, but I’m not just about to make some kind of dancehall song just to be in the Top 40. I think it’d be great if someone could bring back pure pop energy.
Loma Vista, which is affiliated with Concord Music Group, released this album. How different was the experience from being on an indie like Fat Possum?
One thing that was nice about [Loma Vista] was that we had more time in the studio, and I had my full band there because we had the money to do it. We got to rent gear we wanted and spend a lot more time f–ing around to find what sounded good. People really underestimate how much of creating something that sounds different and new is just sitting somewhere and messing with a thousand sounds until you find something that strangely fits. Rather than just doing a Juno warm synthesizer, like every other indie pop record has. That’s a beautiful sound, but if you want it to have a different feel, you have to find those soundsthat aren’t pre-given to you. It takes time. I sat at a sampling keyboard with a bunch of floppy disks, and I’d have to eject them and load them and try out each sound. Everyone in the band did that at some point while other people worked on other stuff, someone was always going through thousands of sounds and seeing if there was anything cool.
So time was a huge thing, but I never had problems with Fat Possum. They were great and very supportive and cared a lot about me. But with more money [from Loma Vista] I was able to hire an art director and that changed a lot. It made putting together the art a lot more smooth and cohesive. We were able to carry out the idea of having it all look like an old video game or an old movie. But it wasn’t like I had any issues with Fat Possum.