In June 2018, Sophie Allison took the stage at amphitheaters across the eastern United States as the opening act for pop-punk mainstays Paramore. For Allison, who writes and performs perceptive, melancholic rock songs under the name Soccer Mommy, playing for outdoor crowds of dancing emo-pop fans that summer felt, at times, like an unlikely match.
“It’s hard having to play in front of an audience that sometimes does not like it, or just doesn’t care,” says the singer-songwriter, 22, who’s also opened for Liz Phair, Wilco, Kacey Musgraves and Vampire Weekend over the past two years. “There are definitely times where I am shocked at audiences liking us. Someone like Paramore — I’m surprised the fans would be into this.”
Listening to Clean, her 2018 studio debut, it’s easy to hear why Allison found such wide appeal among the indie-rock generation that grew up on Avril Lavigne. Her forthright lyrics about adolescent insecurities and her singalong melodies pull as much from Sonic Youth as they do from Taylor Swift, whether it’s in the biting kiss-offs (“Your Dog”) or in the admiring odes to heartbreakers (“Cool”). On her new album, Color Theory, Allison turns the focus on her earlier memories, with a wider-ranging sound that includes hints of industrial rock and songs about internal and familial conflicts dating back to her preteen years.
Allison first began writing and recording songs at home during the summer after high school, uploading them to Bandcamp with album titles like Songs for the Recently Sad and Songs From My Bedroom. The Soccer Mommy project became more fully realized while she was an undergraduate at New York University; Allison was taking music-business courses, but couldn’t get interested in a career that didn’t involve writing or performing onstage. She emailed booking agents during class time, played shows at the now-defunct DIY venue Silent Barn in Brooklyn and eventually scored a deal with Mississippi indie label Fat Possum.
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For Clean, she teamed up with producer and engineer Gabe Wax (Fleet Foxes, the War on Drugs). “I hadn’t really recorded in a real studio, so I didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalls. “I was going on faith that Gabe could help me make what I wanted. Fortunately, he did.”
Color Theory, her first LP on Loma Vista Recordings, is another leap forward. In both sound and lyrics, it’s an album that mixes darkness with light. Lead single “Lucy” playfully personifies heartbreak as the devil himself: “Hair like a feather, black leather, with a charming smile/He’ll touch you and burn you.” Elsewhere, “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” delves into her mother’s prolonged battle with cancer; its melody sounds like a perpetual slow-motion fall into the abyss. “I wanted it to have this paranoia, aching fear, this feeling of something that was like a slow burn but right there,” Allison says of the seven-minute-plus track.
The album organically emerged with a three-part structure, which Allison saw in terms of colors. “Blue,” the first third, represents depression and compulsive lonerism (see: “Circle the Drain”); “yellow” represents mental and physical illness; and “gray” deals with death and mortality.
“Am I just like you?/Am I gonna be there way too soon?/‘Cause I see the noose/It follows me closely whatever I do,” Allison sings on album closer “Grey Light.” She ends on the devastating note of “watching my mother drown,” an image that’s reflected in the music video for “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” directed by Her Smell filmmaker Alex Ross Perry. The camera follows Allison’s slow walk down to the beach at sunset, where she climbs into the water and slowly drifts off to sea, buoyed by the waves.
Allison wrote the new album mostly on the road — “I like to write all the time, especially when I’m bored in the car,” she says. In 2019, she and her band traveled to Nashville’s Alex the Great Studios, where Yo La Tengo worked in the Nineties, to record. Allison wanted Color Theory to feel like “a dusty old cassette tape that has become messed up over time,” and hidden in the studio archives, she found a close approximation: floppy disks full of string arrangements and samples. Elsewhere, she tracked down field recordings from factories for a “gritty, disintegrated vibe.” Songs like “Grey Light” took inspiration from the churning qualities of Tori Amos’ To Venus and Back.
Soccer Mommy will be back on the road next month, playing shows across the U.S. and Canada. Allison’s got her eye on further experimentation, with more demos in her back pocket, ranging from “kind of spooky” songs to folkier tracks.
She’s also feeling an itch to get out of the “female indie rock” genre box she’s often placed in. “I found it disappointing for me and other people [in music], how much of our time and our marketing is based off of women, and us being the same as each other,” she says with a sigh. “There are so many times where I see comments being like, ‘I can’t tell these two people apart, or these three people apart.’ Even from fans.”
She clarifies that while she has no ill will against her indie rock peers — she’s performed and toured with several, including Snail Mail and Phoebe Bridgers — she sees these comparisons as part of “a vicious cycle.”
“I just want to be able to make my music, and have people like me based on me, and not based on association with other people,” she says. “I would love to break out of that box, especially since I want to make things that have different sounds. I want to do different things. I want to make things that are more electronic, I want to make things that are more folky, I want to make [songs] that are more poppy, even.”
That said, she won’t be shying away from the brutal honesty in her lyrics anytime soon. “I know that I can have these melodies that pull some of the darkness out of it,” Allison reflects. “But if I didn’t do that [darkness], it would just be making fake songs, and nobody wants to listen to that.”