Soccer Mommy Carves Her Own Indie Pop Path on color theory

Sophie Allison is a busy woman these days. Not only is she on the cusp of putting out the biggest album of her career thus far (her second full-length album under the moniker Soccer Mommy), but she’s also about to burst her own bubble.

Only a few years ago, Allison was a small-time musician putting out tunes on Bandcamp and playing shows on the side as a full-time college student. Now, she’s on the same label as Denzel Curry, Iggy Pop, and St. Vincent, and she’s making her late-night television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! next Wednesday.

It’s 2020, and Allison is as popular as ever. In fact, even a month before her new album, color theory, drops, I wasn’t even able to get an interview with her — her publicist said she already had a large backlog of interview requests. It’s rare that an artist with under 30,000 Facebook followers is this high in demand, but it’s been a trend among Soccer Mommy’s sonic counterparts in recent years.

Call her the next Julien Baker, the next Mitski, the next Clairo — three female artists who are the brains behind their projects, all of whom have surged from independent to label status. I recall a time when Baker only had around 1,000 Facebook followers, right after her under-the-radar debut album, Sprained Ankle, hit shelves in 2015. This year, Allison’s project is following in a similar vein, growing exponentially and without any opportunity for the 22-year-old to catch her breath.

Julien Baker is two years older than Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison. She released her second album, Turn Out the Lights, in 2017 at age 22. Allison is about to release her second album, color theory, at the same age.

She shares some other similarities with Baker, too: They both emerged from Tennessee (Allison from Nashville and Baker from Memphis), they both got their big breaks while in college (Allison while at NYU and Baker while at Middle Tennessee State), and they both are experiencing a comeuppance, with arcs only a few years apart. Like Allison, Baker made her late-night debut around the time her second LP dropped too (on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert back in 2018).

Julien Baker’s performance on network television was a triumphant moment for this wave of indie music — the moment when the musician was no longer merely a talent, but an absolute star.

Baker became the trendsetter for an entire burgeoning scene of heart-on-sleeve indie rock frontwomen who had something important to say. Now, it’s hard to find a 20-something Spotify user who hasn’t been touched by Baker’s words. Soon, we may be saying the same thing about Soccer Mommy, another iteration of this highly personal style of indie rock — one that cuts out all the noise by heightening the emotional intimacy and stripping things down at all the right moments.

But Soccer Mommy isn’t any of the three aforementioned artists, and one listen to color theory assures that she’s moving in a direction that’s all her own. That’s because the record is all over the place, not sticking to one distinct influence or era of music that came before her.

The first single to reach our ears, “Circle the Drain” suggested that the LP would be drenched in early 2000s pop stylizations à la Avril Lavigne. It’s an addicting song that brings back the dark sheen and topical moodiness of “Complicated” — after all, who doesn’t remember hearing the song as a pre-teen and not sensing Lavigne’s aching and breaking heart? “Circle the Drain” highlights the state of Allison’s heart as well: She’s been watching it “go ‘round and around.”

The mention of Avril Lavigne inspired my personal list of her 10 best songs. Five come from her debut album, Let Go, which I (and many others) consider a landmark 2000s pop album.

The song isn’t about a relationship, like much of what the previous Soccer Mommy album, Clean, circled around. If the lyrics weren’t already personal enough, Allison has upped the ante, moving from self-versus-boyfriend to self-versus-self. There’s a clear reason for that: the musician finds herself in a healthy relationship at the moment, so naturally her focus has been on other tribulations in her life.

“A lot of it is way more about the things I’ve been going through with my mental health and also sickness in my family,” Allison noted in an interview last fall.

She calls it a dive into “deeper, longer-lasting issues” in her life — a mature advancement that makes the lyrical content much more resonant. Reflecting on a romantic relationship brings time and place to lyrics, but reflecting on your relationship with yourself is something 100 percent timeless, as it’s something you’ll always carry with you.

The same timelessness applies to Soccer Mommy’s musical approach, as she doesn’t bind herself to the alternative edge of Lavigne throughout the remainder of the album. It’s a bummer for fans of the direction like me (and fellow staffer Jessica, as we both said it’s our new favorite Soccer Mommy song). But it’s an admirable pursuit nonetheless.

Allison goes back further in time in “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes,” bringing to mind the English shoegaze and Britpop sounds of the ‘90s throughout its adventurous seven-minute runtime. The fact that she’s able to bring density into the air while her attitude remains slow and gentle reminds me of the likes of Mazzy Star. The combination of glistening electric guitar and softly-strummed acoustic guitar is exactly what “Fade Into You” had going for it back in 1993, and it’s what carries color theory’s longest cut as well.

Sophie Allison has been involved in music long before Soccer Mommy, picking up a guitar at age six and later studying guitar in high school at Nashville School of the Arts.

Allison is proud of her output on “Yellow.”

“It’s a song that I really feel showcases my writing when it comes to instrumentation,” she said in a press release shared on Pitchfork last year. Lyrically, it’s also a deep dive, examining Allison’s struggles on the road while away from her cancer-stricken mother.

“Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done,” she says in the song’s outro. The two forces combine to produce the closest thing to an epic as she’s ever crafted.

Looking into ‘90s influences, Allison clarifies a few specific musicians from the decade that have built the album’s roots.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of Fiona Apple and Tori Amos,” she said last April. There’s something invigorating about both pop singers, on top of the fact that their spunky delivery and piano backdrops flaunt oozing personality.

They’re prime examples of shaking up the status quo: Apple once held the record for longest album title, while Amos was kicked out of the Peabody Institute for “musical insubordination.”

“This world is bullshit,” Apple said in her acceptance speech for MTV’s Best New Artist in 1997, “Go with yourself.” It’s clear that Allison is going with herself, even with Apple and Amos in her back pocket.

There are some broader hints at these two artists throughout color theory, notably in a lyrical approach that highlights the leaps in maturity the musician has made. Go listen to Little Earthquakes and When the Pawn… (yes, the one with the long title) to see where this ambition comes from.

Allison had already made big leaps on Clean, upping the production value from Collection (a collection of revamped Bandcamp bedroom pop recordings). But she makes even bigger leaps on color theory, expanding her musical palette and lyrical themes.

The musician put extra dedication into the intricacies of the record, too, adding in recordings from factories and string samples from a floppy disk (is it surprising that someone born in 1997 knows what those are?). You can hear some of them humming in the background of “Night Swimming,” where guitars float around Allison’s echoing vocals in the spirit of a Julien Baker performance.

color theory is a record made with care, sculpted with depth, and played with passion. It’s a breakout in the sense of the genius we’re seeing from the musician behind the project. It’s also why we’re seeing Soccer Mommy as the next in line to achieve the same success as Baker, Clairo, and other comparable artists.

Sophie Allison has been featured on the cover of both of Soccer Mommy’s full-lengths, Clean and color theory. On color theory, she goes for a more elegant appearance, with winged eyeliner and pulled-back hair.

Take a look at the album cover, and you’ll see Soccer Mommy embracing the upward movement wholeheartedly. This is not an Allison hiding under the cover of Nashville’s District and Grand Ole Opry. Instead it’s an Allison welcoming the popularity and seizing the potential it gives her for brighter packaging, bigger sounds, and more impactful lyricism. The cover makes color theory out as a video game, but it’s truly the musician’s movie in execution.

If the cinematics aren’t enough, there’s a concept tying everything together, too. Allison said it organically came together as a three-part collection divided up by color (hence why it’s called color theory). The first third is blue for loneliness (i.e. “Circle the Drain”), the second third is yellow for sickness (i.e. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes”), and the final third is gray for death (i.e. “Gray Light”).

As much as she’s grown outwardly, her core is still as firm as ever. “Night Swimming” puts the emphasis back on Allison’s roots, reminding of the minimalism that defined her early Bandcamp works. After all, sometimes all you need to carry a room is a guitar and your voice. The preceding track, “Royal Screw Up,” is much more of a foil to “Night Swimming” in terms of the ugliness it eschews on the surface. Allison’s rigid plucking of her guitar and her raw vocals (as opposed to her tendency to echo them) capture the imperfection perfectly — it’s her embracing the “princess of screwing up” title she mentions throughout the song.

“I’m not so pretty when I am naked,” she suggests in one of her most vulnerable moments as a indie starling.

Five songs from color theory made my personal list of Soccer Mommy’s 10 best songs. “Circle the Drain” is a clear number one, but “Scorpio Rising” off Clean is a close second.

Soccer Mommy is getting bigger, providing more financial security for Allison and more justification that music is her calling than ever. But that doesn’t erase all of her worries.

“I just feel like now it’s an equal amount of being more comfortable and more nervous that people won’t like this next one,” she said about her progression from a lesser-known Bandcamp artist to an established professional who will shake Jimmy Kimmel’s hand in a few days.

Fortunately for Allison, she won’t have to worry about us liking this one, as it’s excellent through and through — and hopefully will garner critical acclaim on top of the growing number of new listeners that will grow attached to it.

color theory is one of the more fascinating albums to come out of this era of indie pop. It’s not as musically focused as Snail Mail’s Lush, nor is it as tightly produced as Clairo’s Immunity. It’s raw at times, polished at others. It’s conceptual in form, yet it varies from song to song. Some tracks are short and barren in nature, while others are expertly structured and verge on the grandiose. 

The one constant holding everything in cohesion is the person behind the effort: Sophie Allison.

“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 said in an interview with Rolling Stone a few weeks ago. 

Sure, Allison is on the fast track to hit the mainstream like her “female indie rock” peers, but she’s out to prove with color theory that Soccer Mommy is so much more than that description.

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