Sophie Allison, better known by her stage name, Soccer Mommy, is a queen of contrast. On breakout single Your Dog, she delivers a lyric you’d imagine screaming at someone in a fit of rage (“I don’t wanna be your fucking dog”). She belts it out as if she is snaking through a mall on a skateboard. Her press shots for her latest album, color theory, released last Friday, are luminous. But the songs’ subjects are deeply gloomy. She explains color theory as a body of work split into three colours linked with corresponding feelings: blue for depression and anxiety, yellow for sickness, and grey for death.
Soccer Mommy’s been on a roll lately, making her TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel and even playing a packed Bernie Sanders rally in Houston last month. “It is my duty to listen to other people who are more oppressed and are facing the effects of Trump’s bullshit and apply it to my politics,” says Allison of the endorsement.
Allison is at home in Nashville when we connect. It’s afternoon the day of her album’s release. When we speak color theory has been out in the world a little over 12 hours. In conversation, she is cooly mellow about it all. “I woke up and kinda read some stuff I guess,” she says. She went to a local record store to buy copies of the album with her bandmates, “even though we [already] have a bunch of free ones”. Having put out one of the most talked-up records of the year, Soccer Mommy is keeping it real.
color theory is about mood association in imagery with its different sections. The sound is nostalgic for a simpler past. While the record deals in dark, hopeless context, however, the songs themselves distract from their depressive episodes because they’re so easy to enjoy. Allison doesn’t want to drown in the misery. “You’re not constantly devouring darkness. You have a lighter side to you,” she says, referring to the human condition. “That contrast is important to make the songs digestible, to make it hit people, to make them enjoy it.”
When Allison was 18, she started a Bandcamp for Soccer Mommy. After that summer, she moved to New York to attend NYU. She studied music business. “I wanted to see if things could be different,” she says, of her decision to get out of Nashville. “There were parts of my teenage years when I was really unhappy. I was definitely happier – partially – right before I left because I had great friends and people in the music scene that I really loved.” She played her first gig at the now shuttered Silent Barn in Brooklyn, and dropped out of college after her second year in 2017 when she signed to Fat Possum Records. She moved back to Nashville. “I grew to love New York, but Nashville always felt like home. It’s stupid little things, like the way people party. You don’t go drink in the park in New York. You go to a tiny apartment.”
After the release of Clean, her third album, Allison’s star rose. Still, she felt boxed in with other female-fronted acts. It was a source of frustration. “I was getting compared to people who sounded very different from me. I never felt like there was anything I could do,” she says. With color theory, her songwriting has nestled into its own bed of power pop rock, and her unguarded voice sets her apart as a cut above in confessional indie.
The fact that she now has an audience ready to interpret the deeply personal subject matter of her lyrics does not faze her. When Allison was 12, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and she’s been processing that diagnosis for ten years. The album’s centrepiece and first single – Yellow Is The Color Of Her Eyes – contains the line: “Loving you isn’t enough/you’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done”. What was it like sharing that song with her mother? “Yeah, I didn’t talk to her about it,” she says. “I gave her the album. Whenever she tries to talk to me about it I’m like – ‘Stop right there. We’re not gonna have a deep talk, I just can’t do it.’” Clearly, Allison has found catharsis in writing out her turmoil.
color theory is full of built-up tension, but Allison doesn’t foster that type of chaos in the business side of her artistry. For instance, there was no sophomore slump. She began writing while on the road touring Clean. “It was easy to get back into it,” she says of the writing process – not the stock response for a young songwriter adjusting to incessant touring. She wrote color theory’s masterwork Circle The Drain in the back seat of the van while on the West Coast leg of her US tour, humming to herself. As a songwriter, Allison never stops documenting. “It’s something I do whenever I have time,” she says. “It doesn’t ever feel like – Oh, I need to start writing.”
Guitar has been Allison’s most trusted journal since she was old enough to keep one. She started playing at home in Nashville when she was five. “I just loved it from the start. My dad would play me old classic rock stuff in the car. My first memories are getting a guitar.” Her first was a toy. She got it at a benefit concert put on by country-and-western band Riders In The Sky at her brother’s nursery. “It was untuneable,” she says, laughing. “It sounded like shit. I would play it all the time.” She was so persistent her parents bought her a small acoustic shortly after. “I picked it up and went forever.”
Even as a small child, writing was the main draw. “I don’t know why I was so driven to do it,” she says, reflecting on her younger years. “I was melodramatic but reserved with it.” She would hide the songs she’d write from friends and family, then perform them when she was feeling expressive. It was her tool to emote sadness. “I’d want to create this perfect little song about being bummed out,” she says.
The word “perfect” falls out of her mouth frequently to describe what she’s reaching for. As a perfectionist, the success of her songwriting is in its attention to detail. The storytelling sounds casual and haphazard, like a patient in a therapist’s chair unpacking the trauma of the day. But the way she hones her melodies makes it sound as though she’s figured it all out. Her precision is up there with pop’s hookiest masters. It’s no surprise she mentions the Max Martin school of early 2000s chart songs by the likes of Britney Spears and *NSYNC as inspiration.
Her new record introduces a palette more in line with mainstream charts two decades ago. A first listen calls to mind The Spirit Room by Michelle Branch or Let Go by Avril Lavigne. In 2002, when five-year-old Allison began to write, the first MP3s she owned on iTunes were Fly by Hilary Duff and Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson. “That was the music I was born into.” They became her teachers. She’d take their craft and meld it with an affinity for more DIY rock: bands like Sleater-Kinney and Hole. “Even when I could barely play guitar, the one thing I could do was make a hook.”
The catchy hooks on color theory make the melancholic content all the more poignant. The album’s first chapter is steeped in the colour blue, and is focused on depression. “Fear lingering, running through my heart like a wild stream,” she sings on Bloodstream. Allison has been contending with her own mental health struggles since her younger years but is writing about them a lot more directly on color theory. “I don’t think anything has helped [my anxiety] besides good medication,” she says. “Especially when it comes to being isolated and lonely. Anxiety persists constantly, paranoia hits me at any given moment. There’s nothing I can do besides try to tell myself that the fear I’m having is fake. You have to try to calm down, but it’s hard. Especially if it’s based on hallucination or delusion.”
Allison says the easiest way to get the honest truth out is to disregard a future audience. “I don’t ever want to open up to people in the way I do but it’s what comes when I’m writing a song for myself. I’ve been writing for myself my whole life. Now it’s weird because people get to hear it all and nothing stops me.” She pauses. “Who knows if I’ll be as open about stuff next time. Because it’s honestly not fun. It’s difficult.”
For Soccer Mommy, the reward of this vulnerability is in performing. She gets amped about being lost in the music-making of the songs, but not necessarily re-living the lyrics, which could be triggering but which also help fans who have similar struggles. “Most of the time I feel nothing,” she says. “It makes it strangely dissonant when everyone is listening. I get excited about the band sounding right. That takes away from the harsh emotion.” In color theory, Sophie Allison rearranges her demons into sublime pop songs that hit you like a defibrillator to the soul. And for just a moment, it feels like something is fixed.