Sophie Strauss’s album Hard Study, is one of the most engaging albums released toward the end of 2018. This is a collection that sequences deeply personal songs beside broader, universal issues in a way that makes deeper sense of both angles. The further in time that we get away from the release of the album, and the more singles and videos we’ve seen, there’s a very real sense that Strauss’s work will endure beyond the time which it depicts.
There’s a timeliness, but also timelessness to this collection of songs. On one hand the pop sensibility is adult, unabridged, and entertaining. On the other hand Strauss provides lyrics that show how years of studying, and loving craft, have paid off. The album is no small accomplishment.
A couple of months out from Hard Study, we wanted to speak with Sophie about her album, her process, and how life shaped the collection, and what’s been happening since release.
Finn: It’s been few months since the release of Hard Study. You’ve played a few gigs. Can you describe any evolution in the material, and any changes that have occurred through live performance?
Sophie Strauss: Hmm, I haven’t really even thought of that…I think, unless you have endless resources or you’re playing shows with the exact band you recorded with, there’s always a practical sort of evolution that happens with the material simply because you’re trying to recreate the sound but maybe don’t have all the exact same instruments etc. In that sense, nearly every song is transformed a bit from the record.
Perhaps the most conscious changes have been for ‘Joan…’, where my guitarist Dan Light did some rewriting of the chords to really soften it up, and then ‘Aphids’ which isn’t necessarily different but we do the “solo” version of it instead of the more poppy version of it. I love both versions so much, but I think for a live performance of the scale I’m doing right now the intimacy of the solo version just always feels so special, and the slower pace lets me really sink into the vocals. It’s probably my favorite song to sing.
Finn: The album was released during a particularly unsettling time in the news cycle. Whilst not immediately ‘political’ the undercurrent of the album relies on the strength of compassion and individualism in the face of apparently insurmountable powers-that-be. Do you feel compelled to articulate a more direct political message with new material?
Sophie Strauss: Not to mince words but I think I might want to make a distinction between individualism and individuality—I’d say the record has more to say about individuality and is, perhaps, almost an indictment of the mythology of rugged individualism (if that makes sense). I guess I see the difference between the two terms this way: Individuality feels like self expression, like being who you are. And I’m all about that! Individualism, on the other hand, feels like the false notion that being on your own and not needing anyone else’s support is something to strive for. I don’t mean to dwell on semantics cause I hate when people do that shit, but I thought it brought up a cool opportunity to tease out the difference between those two terms (in my head, cause definitionally I may be way off!).
Now to actually answer your question instead of blabbering on, I don’t think I feel a need to be more explicit about political matters in my material, I like coming at those topics sideways. That’s not to say that my music isn’t political, but that I have a really hard time being direct about those kinds of topics without coming across super corny so I always prefer to find the specific, daily minutia that reveals a bigger theme so that I don’t have to say it myself.
Finn: Through your music you offer a significant range of opportunities to celebrate the power of the feminine. You also address the impositions, and assumptions of the status quo. Can you speak a little on how you retain your level of compassion and drive when common sense seems so lacking across basic human rights for women, and the control over their bodies?
Sophie Strauss: Well, let me tell you, I’m fucking exhausted. And I don’t think exhaustion is glamorous. The world feels really fucking heavy all the time and everyone is constantly inundated with suffering and misery and stupidity and it’s just not a hospitable environment for creation. It wears you down. I think, at its best, writing music or collaborating with other artists to make something is a cathartic outlet for all the shit I’m (or any of us are) collecting and holding on to all the time. But often all the planning and working that surrounds that creative work is also exhausting. Writing a song feels amazing but then recording, producing, mixing, mastering, releasing, getting press, promoting, booking, all that shit is a lot. And it feels really worth it, but I guess I just want to validate that it’s a whole fuck ton of work. Work that, at least at this stage in my life, I’m not making money doing. In fact, I’m usually spending money to get that done. So then you have to work somewhere else to fund all that. Not to be super depressing, I just want to be real.
I know I look at a lot of other artists and I’m like “wow they really have it all made and figured out, and I’m here working a day job just to still lose money on my music career” when really most of them all also have day jobs and are working round the clock so….for anyone reading this I want to validate that you’re still an artist even if it’s not paying your bills. Financial compensation doesn’t make your artistry real, it just might make it easier to keep doing it. On a slightly brighter note, I do think I am fortunately someone who is pretty energized and driven. So I never worry that I’m going to stop making music because it’s something that I just physically and emotionally always have to be doing in some form or another.
Finn: So, how does that approach affect your songwriting?
Sophie Strauss: Oh boy…I think in the past all the pressure and norms of the music industry have made me feel like I have to write and release music on a certain time table or in a certain format. I’m only just now realizing I can do whatever the fuck I want.
Finn: It seems that many of your songs are written in the first-person. You lift deeply personal totems that represent universal issues. Do you seek out the personal aspects of your life that are influenced by the world, or do you simply ‘start locally’ and work from the center – finding associations later?
Sophie Strauss: I definitely start locally and work out from there. I basically string together a bunch of small, personal experiences or thoughts and retroactively find a common thread. Or just start with one little thought and then do loose word association from there and see what happens.
Finn: Across the album tracks like “I Was” lay open the vulnerability that you feel. Do you ever regret over-sharing, or do you think you could expose more?
Sophie Strauss: I’ve never regretted over-sharing I think primarily because I’ve never narrated a perfectly factual experience from my life. I always spin it, or take it apart and piece it back together or color it differently. That’s not to say the narratives are always unrecognizable, but it means I can be really really honest without being entirely diaristic.
Finn: There’s also a sense of longing in all of your work – as if you’re seeking connection with something other? Is songwriting a lonely process for you?
Sophie Strauss: The initial process of writing lyrics is typically lonely but in a way I like. I love the isolation and letting ideas bounce around inside my head until they form something. But, once I have something written down, my first instinct is ALWAYS to immediately share it with someone. So yes, even when it starts off lonely it’s all about connecting.
Finn: Can you talk a little on why Joan of Arc is such a compelling figure for you?
Sophie Strauss: I don’t even think Joan of Arc ever was a super exciting figure to me at all. The title actually came from the line in the Smiths’ song Big Mouth Strikes Again because I was annoyed at the idea of Morrissey thinking he knew how Joan of Arc felt—even in jest. After writing that line the rest of the song coalesced around it and the title Joan of Arc felt apt, I thought she deserved the title more than Morrissey did.
Finn: Your Covers mix offers a view to some of the songs that must have informed your listening habits. Many of your versions celebrate the vulnerabilities at the heart of the source material. Is there a cover you’re yet to record that sums up where your head is today?
Sophie Strauss: I’m desperate to cover Mitski’s “Me and My Husband.”
Finn: What’s next?
I’m getting back to writing….
Finn: Finally – we like to ask everyone – what keeps you keeping on, making all this stuff?!
Sophie Strauss: Because I want to! Because I have to!
HURRY – BUY – SOPHIE STRAUSS MUSIC
PHOTOGRAPH BY OLIVIA MCMANUS