Sophie Allison, also known as the indie rocker Soccer Mommy, is about to open a time capsule. Perched on a couch at the Grandstand Media offices in New York, she cradles her iPhone in her pale hands and opens Spotify, searching for a playlist. As she scrolls, her fingernails—painted an iridescent purple-silver and cut short to play her guitar—catch light through the window, even though the weather is overcast. She wears a black dress and black fishnet stockings, and her dark brown hair is pulled up into two pigtails that sit squarely on the sides of her head, with glittery, Barbie-pink and purple barrettes holding back the stray strands. When she leans over the table between us to show me her phone screen, the ends of her pigtails fall forward past her ears.
The playlist she’s pulled up contains the songs she has on repeat right now, which also happen to be songs that have informed her second studio album, color theory (out Friday via Lorna Vista Recordings). The mood is pure early-aughts pop: Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me,” Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul,” and several early tracks from Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, and Hilary Duff, who Allison says was also her first-ever concert, at an arena in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Accordingly, the past sits front and center on Allison’s new album—but perhaps not in the way one might expect. The nostalgia of color theory is not a confection, nor is it full of cheeky throwback references á la Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s “1999.” Rather, it is an emotional excavation of a particularly difficult period of Allison’s life—her adolescence, during which her mother was diagnosed with cancer—as well as her years-long struggle with her own mental health.
This ability to gaze inward is a practice that Allison, 22, had been honing as a songwriter for years—from her first mixtapes on Bandcamp circa 2015, to her excellent first studio album, Clean, which put her firmly on the map in 2018. Lauded by critics for its incisive, emotionally honest songs about romantic love and heartbreak, the record propelled her into opening gigs for acts like Paramore, Kacey Musgraves, Wilco, and Phoebe Brigers, as well as slots at festivals like Coachella and Governor’s Ball. (Currently, Allison’s live band consists of Rodrigo Avendano (guitar, keyboard), Graeme Goetz (bass), Rollum Haas (drums), and Julian Powell (guitar), who is also her boyfriend.)
Although most artists would pause to let the success of their debut album sink in for a second, Allison wasted no time getting back to work. In March 2018, the same month that she released Clean, she started writing “bloodstream” and “circle the drain,” the first two songs on color theory. She soon found herself associating these new songs with imagery and colors, which eventually helped her continue to write and then organize the body of work that would become color theory.
"Color is very attached to imagery for me when it comes to music—especially my own," Allison says, though she says she wouldn't call this sensation synesthesia. "So, I kind of started to see those colors and feel like they were matching these separate moods."
If color theory were a three-act play, each act would be a color that represents a different swath of moods and emotions. The first of these is blue, which, for Allison, covers “depression and sadness and self-doubt and feeling low and morose.” For example, from the blue section, “circle the drain” is much darker than its vibe would imply. Driven by acoustic guitar and imbued with the chilled-out pluck of early Liz Phair, Allison’s lyrics tell a different story: “Hey, I’ve been falling apart these days,” she sings, “Split open, watching my heart go round and round / Round and around / Circle the drain, I’m going down.”
This sort of juxtaposition—the pairing of catchy melodies with raw lyrics—is intentional for Allison, who writes virtually 100 percent of her songs solo: “I constantly try to add in elements of humor and making something upbeat if it’s a little bit heavy,” she says. “Which I think is really important to do to make [a song] feel really real and not just like you read someone’s diary they only write in when they're in a really bad place.”
The second act, yellow, is about anxiety, paranoia, and mental illness—“but also physical sickness and watching someone else be sick,” adds Allison, “[or] watching my mom be sick.” The centerpiece of this section is “yellow is the color of her eyes,” a seven-minute song that confronts her mother’s illness head-on before shifting into an instrumental coda that's dream-like and nearly psychedelic. “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done,” Allison sings, crushingly. “I’ll know the day when it comes / I’ll feel the cold as they put out my sun.”
When asked why she didn’t write about her mother before color theory, Allison credits being away from home for long periods of time on tour. “I wasn’t so close to her [physically], so there wasn’t that kind of separation anxiety there,” she says. “It did kind of poke in my brain a lot and come back to the surface. I think, when I was younger, I just kind of buried [feelings about it] a little bit.”
Allison also says that although she’s shared her new album with her mother, they haven’t discussed it. “I don’t want to talk about it with her,” she says matter-of-factly, her gaze steady. Her eyes are painted with a black cat-eye and bright pink shadow—a look she’s perfected herself after years of practice doing makeup. Originally, she learned the art from her older sister, who watched makeup tutorials online, as a young teenager. “I was just like, ‘Here you go, you can listen to the album, have fun.’”
The album’s last section, gray, hones in more tightly on different forms of grief. The song “stain” is about losing a piece of yourself to another person, while “gray light,” the album’s closer, is a reckoning with death: “[The song] closes the album on on a bright note”—Allison lets out a small laugh—”of wondering about death and watching someone else go through illness and kind of comparing it to yourself. [It’s about] looking forward to your future and wondering what that holds, and fearing time and uncertainty.”
Fear of the future can feel paralyzing, but color theory feels anything but. Each of the tracks was first recorded with a live take and then embellished and refined later; the resulting effect is a certain warmth and aliveness. (Gabe Wax, who’s known for his work with Frankie Cosmos, Crumb, and Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief, handled production and engineering on color theory as well as Clean.) It is also noteworthy that Allison is using her project to shape the future, politically. Last week, she made headlines by playing a rally in Houston, Texas, for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (The Vermont senator’s line thanking her now has an Internet life all its own.)
Following the momentum going into color theory, however, Allison’s goal is fairly simple: that her new album reaches a wider audience and that her growth as an artist continues. But she doesn’t need her listeners to get something specific out of it, necessarily. “If they do, that’s great, she says. “But it’s really just, I got something out of [making] it.” She shrugs, pleasantly. “And I’m kind of like, that’s it.”