Photo by Jasper Rischenjpg
Soko Explores Her Feelings
Soko is having a rough 2020. (Then again, aren’t we all?) There was a broken foot that kept her from walking for two months. Then came Covid-19, which she caught and is only now feeling fully recovered. And of course, having to promote an album at home—when like every musician, she'd rather be out in the world, performing and experiencing the human connection that comes with it.
Still, as we speak, socially distanced but connected over the phone, she sounds thankful. She's healthy, has work and is surrounded by her family. (A fact underscored by her occasional pauses to coo to her son in rapid-fire French.) As she explains, this newfound bliss came after working for it—both through therapy and in creating new patterns in her day-to-day life.
It’s an attitude of hard-won contentment that's reflected in her just-released third album, Feel Feelings. Across its 12 tracks of woozy guitar pop, Soko aims for balance, accepting the duality of sadness and happiness in a husky alto. But however heavy or honest she gets, there’s also a dedication to resisting escapism. ("Everything about you is a lie, made up in a movie, that I don’t want to watch," she sings on "Time Waits For No One.") It’s a balancing act wrapped in music, one which she’ll be the first to admit takes a determined spirit to achieve.
Ahead of the release, Soko unpacked the album with GRAMMY.com, discussing her newfound definition of "exist," ignoring those who tell her to smile, and why this time, she didn’t feel the need to create alone.
Has the D.I.Y. of music always been important to you?
It has, yeah, for as far as I can remember. I've always recorded my songs on GarageBand. So, teaching myself how to play instruments and figuring it out, kind of not really by the book but just by learning, making mistakes, correcting your mistakes and doing better. I experienced a lot of D.I.Y. stuff on the previous record [2015's My Dreams Dictate My Reality]. But for this record, I didn't want to do it myself. For the first time, I felt confident enough that I had to prove myself that I could do it all by myself, but I felt like, okay, now I proved to myself that I'm able to do it myself. I have that strength and confidence in me, I can finally invite people in a way that is more playful. And also, I just wanted to collaborate with people. I really liked making the record.
That's huge that you felt like you could communicate your vision.
Yeah, I felt like, "Okay, I know what I'm talking about." I don't have that sort of like imposter syndrome anymore. I felt like before, people would just attribute all of my choices to whichever man was in the room. And I was like, "No, this is what I wanted—nobody else's decisions." And now I feel pretty strong in my ability to communicate musically with people, and I know what I like and I know what I don't like. I love making melodies. I'm kind of a goofy player. I could play it but it would probably take me a lot of practice when I could find the melody and communicate to someone in no time. And then they can play it much better than I [can].
You've worked on so many different creative projects. Was there a moment when this clicked in for you and you realized you did have that confidence?
I think over time. We do a lot of writing prior getting into the studio, and my entire record would be mapped out. Everything would be returned and then [I'd] take it to people to help me do my vision. I think I went to the studio, very charged with everything I was talking about in the record. A few songs were fully written, like "Let Me Adore You." It was the first thing I did for the record, and I wrote it by myself on acoustic guitar. And the song "Quiet Storm" was actually left over from my previous record. And that was finally the version that I felt like it was always meant to be. And a lot of songs came into the studio or playing with other people, jamming some little bits of chord progressions that I like and then feeling, "Oh I want this to be the title." I know I'm gonna write the lyrics and these are the melodies.
I'm feeling a lot of joy, moving through all this.
I think it was a lot of growth in confidence. Also, because I did make the choice valuing my worth, depending on who, or if I'm dating. So, I wanted to go celibate and make this record. Because I wanted to have no distraction and be fully committed to my record and all the chit-chat in my head of like, "Am I worthy enough? Is anyone gonna love me?" Whatever, it didn't have to matter anymore, because I didn't want to attribute my confidence to other people and give other people my strength when I should keep it for myself. It needed that, all of that self-love I was gaining by not wasting it on things that were not worth it. [It] made me feel more free and independent.
I've explored a lot, and I've encountered things, and now it's time to break the bad patterns that I have. Instead of being like, "I'm the victim," [now I think], "Okay, well, if people do [something] to me, it's because I let them." So, if I let them, I have to take responsibility for it and cut the pattern and stop it. [I have to] look within to see what I can change to have a healthy partnership with someone. And, then my work, relationships, thrive and my friendships thrive, because I wasn't looking for the destructive pattern.
I think that's amazing because it can be so scary to take that responsibility.
To me, everyone is always talking about like, how do we get fit? How do we work out enough? Do you take care of your body enough? Do you feel good in your body? How is your skin routine? And what's your beauty routine? To me, there's another very challenging element to all of this. I feel like there is not enough talk about the importance of looking within to rerail your destructive patterns into a healthy place. And there was no open conversation about this. To me, it is as important as your skincare routine and how much you work out. It's a whole. And it's not just meditation, or it's not just doing yoga—obviously, that helps with anxiety and stuff—but therapy, work on yourself, cutting negative patterns and finding ways to develop tools of communication: I feel like that's what I was trying to do with this record. I wanted to make a record that is like, "It is okay to have all the feelings." They're all valid.
Is that where a song like "Being Sad is Not a Crime" comes in?
Absolutely. And "Don't Tell Me to Smile." It's like, why should I be told to smile for your picture if that's not what I'm feeling? Why can't you just be okay with what I'm feeling? If you're trying to see me and see me for who I am, and not for who I could be in your mind. There's a lot about the fantasy of relationship[s] and the fantasy of the world that it can be one way, but like, really I think it's beautiful to just see it for what it is.
Have you found sort of a sense of fantasy or magic having a positive influence in any area of your life?
I find different things magical. I find making a project come to life magical. I find being able to imagine doing it [and] putting it out magical. I find having an idea for video and then making it with your friends, and putting it out into the world, and then it doesn't belong to you anymore and people connecting to it magical. And I find that I find travelling magical. I definitely right now fantasize about being on the beach with my friend in Costa Rica. Because I miss her terribly and I hate that borders are closed. And also, I've been doing movies as an actress since 16. And, you know, every movie that gets made and that goes into production that comes out is like a miracle. Yeah, it takes so much work and so many people in so many conversations and so much imagination and creativity.
Given that you you've done so much positive work on yourself, are you able to dig into the sadness on a song like "Quiet Storm" without falling back into it?
The first version of that song was pretty sad, but when I recorded it for the record, I wanted the sound of it to be happy. Even though the context and the situation is pretty dramatic—and I think I did that—I'm really happy with the results, and that's exactly what I want for that song. The fact that the music has a happy tone—even like a sexy groove—it's like [keeping] the songs from being totally dramatic. I just didn't want things to be just one way or another. I wanted it to have the ray of emotion, like the before the during and the after. And after is a lot brighter than the during. And so, by putting these sounds, next to this subject. I felt like, you know, it's my way of being like okay I've lived through this. I survived.
Do you find that you're often singing to yourself?
In a way that it's diary-like where I want to be able to listen to them in like 20-30 years, and be like, "That is exactly what I was feeling." And if something is a song that I did write 10 years ago, I still feel very much that way, even though sonically it's not something I like. Lyrically, the themes and stuff feel very childish of me to sing that way, but it's good because it's still there and it's a musical memory.
Is it tough to let some of this out into the wild?
It's like, dude I might put out the record and nobody will care. And it was a year and a half of my life working on it and then it's been in the can for two years because we're waiting for the moment to put it out. I've been carrying it to dreaming and dreaming and dreaming [or] even talking about it, or hearing what people think about it. I get most of the satisfaction, making the sounds and recording them. But even packaging the record and making videos is something that I really love, and then the response... I'm super anxious.
How do you define success?
What I have right now, waking up next to my girlfriend and my baby, every day, and feeling super content with what I have.
I love how you've titled this album because it feels like you've never had any problem feeling things.
Yeah, I never had any problems doing that. Other people around would [say to me], you should have a stiff upper lip. Not everybody needs to know when you're feeling sad. And I'm like, why not? If they were more in tune with their feelings, they might have compassion for what I'm going through right now. And we might even get into a great conversation that is deeply personal and we might even realize that we are more alike than we imagined, and we might even grow friendship out of this. But if everyone is just pretending that everything's okay all the time, it's very hard to create new connections.
Speaking of people coming together, how have the recent L.A. protests affected you and your family? Did you participate?
It really gave us a sense of togetherness facing the big issues. We wanted to physically be present but that didn't feel safe for our family with the omnipresent Covid scares. But we were very vocal and present and supportive on social media, relaying important informations about the protests, bailouts, links to support, donate, learn and research.
How would you encourage your listeners get involved? What does allyship look like to you?
Being a white ally to me means being actively anti-racist. Starting the conversation into our home. My baby just started watching this show "Motown Magic" on Netflix that he loves—it stars a little Black kid and all the music is amazing and Indigo is obsessed with it!
For me, it was also important to take a pause to listen. I watched a lot of movies like I'm Not Your Negro, 13th, Selma, The Banker... Such good films! And I also decided to delay the release of my album because it didn't feel appropriate to use this sensitive and very important time for self-promotion, and i wanted to make sure to put my energy and focus into showing full support to ALL Black lives matter. Because we shouldn't forget about trans lives and our trans brothers and sisters did so much for the LGBTQ+ community and we wouldn't be where we're at today without them!
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