With a new album on the horizon, the musician discusses ghosting, motherhood, and the creative process
Soko is something of a mythical figure in my world. Through friends, I heard about her many revered music releases, her appointment as a brand ambassador for Gucci, her friendship with Hedi Slimane. There were stories about how she was a kind soul and numerous times friends I had introduced found common ground in singing her praises.
The first time we met was at a loud and crowded after-party in a small cafe somewhere on Forsyth street. I had just played a show at the Bowery Ballroom, closing out a tour my band had spent a month supporting. It was a location from a lost Sex and the City episode: the room was full of well-to-do fashion scenesters, chain-smoking cigarettes, desperately trying to look cool. Amidst the clouds of smoke, I smelled an unfamiliar perfume in the air. I consider myself something of a fragrance connoisseur, but could not place what this was. The scent kept appearing and disappearing throughout the night.
My bandmate, Jake, who had recently worked with Soko on a music project, introduced us, and off the bat, I awkwardly asked her if she was the person responsible for this trail of fragrance. As a person who lives in fear of disturbing someone, or even worse, coming across as creepy, I apologized for my question. She told me the perfume was called Molecule, and it was chemically designed to have a body-specific scent for each wearer. Because the scent builds upon the wearer’s own natural smells, the wearer cannot smell it on themselves. In my head, I related it to the science of properly eating caviar or cheese off of the back of your hand, since your brain can’t recognize your own body’s flavor. In a way, Molecule is kind of a leap of faith perfume; its smell, by nature, is unplaceable, even by the finest trained noses.
It was a fascinating concept, and with my perfume nerd antenna standing at attention, we began to chat in-depth about fragrances. We talked about our favorite brands, specific fragrances that we cherished, various scent notes, and most certainly forgot the entire conversation right after.
A few weeks back, a close friend and soccer teammate of mine put me in touch with Soko’s publicist to write about her upcoming album out later this spring, Feel Feelings, written alongside a certifiably Oscar-gold cast including Patrick Wimberly of Chairlift, James Richardson of MGMT, numerous members of Beach Fossils, and Sean Lennon. Fresh from a visit to a remote meditative retreat at The Hoffman Institute, plus an impromptu relocation to New York City, Soko wrote what is shaping up to be her most reflective and mature work to date. The album is twelve songs of chorus-dressed, understated instrumentals, with catchy top-lines evocative of that stately french crooning the world has come to love.
Shortly after the completion of Feel Feelings, Soko learned she was expecting. Her baby, Indigo Blue Honey Sokolinski, is now one year old, full of life, and growing more inquisitive with each new dawn. I sat down with her and we discussed the record, motherhood, acting, veganism, and most importantly, perfume.
Steele Kratt: Hey! What’s up?
Soko: I just went to the park with my baby, just got back.
Steele: How’s your baby doing?
Soko: Pretty good, enjoying life, he’s just learning about everything that is in the world out there, and feeling all of its magic! How are you?
Steele: I feel that! I’m currently enjoying a smoothie. Well, let’s dive in. You’ve stated that previously you’ve had full albums written before going into the studio, and you’ve also mentioned the freedom associated with writing from a blank slate. How was the process of writing and recording as you went?
Soko: Very different. The previous record had so many songs all finished and demoed out. This one had some snippets of recordings of late-night jams and noodles when I was feeling insomnia, but most of it was made on the spot. I don’t like demoing, because I don’t like getting demo-itis. For this record I wanted the first recordings to be the only recordings.
Steele: Totally feel that. I’m not as into writing the song, practicing it, and then going into the studio; I much prefer doing it all in one go.
Soko: It just captures more of the raw mess and the purer accents of the song. I think it captures more of what it’s supposed to be. Mind you, there are some songs, like my song, ‘Quiet Storm,’ that I have spent ages on. I tried to record that one three or four times without it working. For the album, I ended up recording it again, exactly like the very first recording of it. The reference was a take from a rehearsal room, jamming with my band, recording the practice into GarageBand. There was no click track and there were so many mistakes. The final recording is just us playing along to that really shit take. [It was] as if we were still in the room. That way we could keep all the laziness and the mistakes in the recording.
Steele: How was working with Patrick Wemberly throughout the process? What drew you to working with him?
Soko: I met Patrick through Andrew [Van Wyngarden] from MGMT. We worked on a different artist’s session together, and when he asked me what I had in the works, I asked him right then and there for a session. We began the following week.
I loved working with Patrick so much, and also with James Richardson from MGMT. I’d go to Patrick and say, ‘I have to write something today,’ and we’d start with two chords that I liked or a theme I wanted the song to be about. Sometimes I’d just come up with the name of the song before that song was written, like my song, ‘Replaceable Hands.’ I wanted one to sound like a French song: slow, sexy, with whispery talking, and a melodic chorus. I wrote that song with James Richardson at his house on his laptop. I was saying I want it to sound sleepy and with major 7ths.
Steele: Major 7ths are the Jam. Love a major 7th. You stated that you were influenced by Serge Gainsbourg and Air while creating the record. I hear the iconic, bare, and grooving francophone elements for sure and love the way they’re juxtaposed with more ornate accompaniments (high synths, bells, chimes, whims). What I also hear is Ultra Orange and Emmanuelle, some Dominique Dumont, and Connan Mockasin. Would you agree with those comparisons? What’s your take on ‘comparisons’ as a musician?
Soko: I’m a super music nerd and a big music fan, so I don’t mind comparisons. I’m a huge fan of Connan’s work. I’ve seen Emmanuelle play before. I wouldn’t call her a direct influence, but I’ve seen her. I spent a lot of time listening to Connan, Air, and Serge Gainsbourg while writing this album.
Steele: How important was your visit to the Hoffman Institute to the creation of this record?
Soko: That was interesting because it was a lot of therapy work. When writing a record it’s kind of like writing a thesis on where you’re at in life. What better time to do that than after you’ve done one week of intense therapy? When you know exactly what place you want to get to. I felt clarity in terms of where I was at, what I wanted, what I didn’t want, and knowing that, I felt like I had all the elements I needed to make a record.
Steele: Before going, did you have plans for this album in motion? Or was it purely in response to your experience?
Soko: I kind of knew that timeline was coming up. I had been doing a bunch of acting for a while. I did two movies in a row, and then the promo for both, which kept me away from working on music. I had planned to get back into writing and recording the minute I was done [with the films]. I had a week at Hoffman planned and then figured that afterwards I’d be feeling strong and ready to write. I was supposed to go back to LA after my stay but instead decided to head straight to New York. The first person to respond to my whim was Sean Lennon. He invited me to stay and record at his studio with him and encouraged me to also work with other producers who were near. That’s how I started working with Patrick [Wemberley] and James [Richardson].
Steele: You’ve also become a mother. How has motherhood affected your writing process?
Soko: It’s made it harder because I have not had a minute. Mind you, I’ve been very, very busy. Since being a mother, I’ve done three feature films, had to do all the artwork for this record and create two music videos. I haven’t really had the time to carve out new work yet.
Steele: I’m sure while pregnant there were many new thoughts and experiences to plan and prepare for, but what parts of life have changed that you never would have expected?
Soko: Sleep. All my mom’s friends were telling me, sleep while you can, but it’s worse than I’d ever expected. I’ve been so tired that I’ve been developing an eye twitch over the last three days.
You’re also never prepared to see your most valuable and precious thing in the world get sick or hurt. That’s the most heartbreaking thing in the world. You realize in those moments that nothing else matters. I’m not getting any sleep, and I remember being such a good sleeper before—I could do 12 hours, go down for a nap at any time. That all feels like the ultimate luxury now, but it’s so ok. I love him and he makes up for it all.
Steele: That’s what I’ve heard, and what excites me for when my time comes!
One of the beautiful things about music is that instrumentation and lyrics can change meaning and feeling as your familiarity to that material grows. The more you listen, the more subconscious elements begin to appear. How do you think your songs have changed since writing and recording them? Are there some songs on the record that you see entirely differently now?
Soko: For my final track, ‘Now What?’, I was listening to so much shoegaze. I wanted it to be a very simple acoustic song that’s drowsy and receptive. I wrote it two weeks before I found out I was pregnant. I was really hitting a wall; I had done so much traveling, had met all of my idols, seen so much live music. I had amazing friendships and had amazing lovers. I felt that I had explored my dream to the furthest extent that I thought was possible. So I kept thinking, now what? But it also felt like I kept waking up and was missing something. When mixing the song [post-recording], I had a line written about not yet having a baby. I ended up changing that line to, ‘my baby slowly growing.’ I was maybe 5 months pregnant then, and the crazy thing with ‘Now What?’, is that these days I wake up thinking, now what? But about my baby, Indigo. What’s he going to learn next? What’s going to be his next word? Anything now that I do, I get to experience for the first time all over again with him. I don’t have the sense of being jaded by experiences. [Being a mother] was my biggest dream ever, and it keeps me interested in life and into having different experiences.
Also, the title of the album [Feel Feelings] is also evolving since having a child. People always wondered why I was so open about my feelings, but I just wanted people to be real. Now I think more about encouraging my boy to have his feelings and to healthily process and acknowledge them. I’ve been raising him with the RIE method. That’s all about teaching a baby to feel independent and confident, and to validate their feelings. Saying that it’s ok to feel frustration and anger, but to acknowledge why they feel that way. It’s important to get the dialogue going early and to make them see emotions in a healthy way. Educating my baby gives a new perspective to the album name as well. To teach the youth that feeling things is totally fine.
Steele: I have to ask about your single, ‘Are You a Magician?’ Bear with me, I’m going to say the word ‘ghost’ a lot in the coming moments.
‘Are You a Magician’ deals with a subject matter that was once a very present part of my life: the ghost. There is always so much pain and confusion around being ghosted, and while being incredibly savage, in the abstract, it feels to some people like the simplest way to end things. Of course, when nothing has a definitive end, your emotions spiral out and self-doubt rushes in. Most people have been ghosted, and regrettably, a lot have also given the ghost. What is your relationship to this phenomenon, and how do you feel writing a song about it differs from writing about definitive breakups? Do you feel the pain of a ghost harder?
Soko: I think this song is more about the entity of meeting someone, and being like ‘you are everything I’ve ever wanted.’ Seeing someone with all your projections of what you wish you would attract in life, and realizing that that isn’t who’s in front of you. That they’re not consistent, they’re not who you wanted, and hearing your higher voice telling you that they’re just not the right person. If it was the right person you’d be with them right now.
Steele: I think it’s always easier for people to do the wrong thing. Maybe internally they think, ‘well I don’t have to say anything and therefore don’t have to confront it.’
Soko: For sure. I’ve always been one to call out a ghoster. I don’t want people like that, and I don’t want to like people that treat people like that.
Steele: Facts. Now let’s do some fun questions. You are an animal rights activist and a staunch vegan. What’s your opinion on fake meat? Do you like the impossible burger?
Soko: I personally stopped eating meat because I didn’t like the taste of it. I don’t like the texture of it, and I don’t want to cut something out, only to replace it with something that tastes the same. It’s not for me, but I respect people for trying to change their diet for health reasons, or for the sake of animals, or with the planet in mind. All the reasons for going vegan are great. I’m glad there are affordable options now for everyone. It makes it easier and more accessible for all types of eating habits.
Steele: Would you ever get a pro-vegan tattoo? Ideally, something similar to Moby’s tattoos?
Soko: I don’t have any tattoos and that’s my only comment on that one [laughs].
Steele: You are a well-traveled person. What is your dearest travel memory, and your favorite place that you’ve been?
Soko: Well, I think my favorite country that I’ve been to was Australia. I went there in 2009, and it was incredible. I loved playing music there. I lived on a hippie commune out there for a little while. I went into the ocean naked every day and picked my food from an organic garden. More recently, I did a movie in Croatia and lived there with my girlfriend and baby. My parents also came to visit for Indigo’s first birthday. Ultimately, it was a work trip, but we spent so much of our downtime walking along the ocean and taking in all of the stunning landscape.
Steele: I’ve always wanted to go to Croatia.
We met once upon a time at an after-party for a tour’s homecoming. The room was loud and difficult to have meaningful conversations in, but we had a lengthy discussion about the perfume, Molecule. You spread the gospel of this fine fragrance, and we discussed our favorite perfumes for a bit, and then went along on our merry way. Do you still wear Molecule?
Soko: Yes, but not as much. I have a bunch of perfumes because each time I do a movie I change my scent. I always try to find the right scent for my character. [Changing my perfume] is the first thing that makes me feel like I’m detaching from myself and becoming someone else. Each time, I have to ask my girlfriend what she wants to smell for the next few months. ‘Is this one ok?’ Every time I finish shooting, and I go back to tobacco vanilla she goes, ‘oh she’s back!’
Soko’s new album is out in June.