“I want to see guitar in the mainstream, I don’t ever want it to go away. God I would love to see that happen.” Sophie Allison, aka Nashville solo artist Soccer Mommy, is reflecting on her desire to see the instrument she has been entwined with since the age of five become an enduring part of the pop zeitgeist.
If that admirable ambition comes to fruition the 23-year-old, who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Tennessee, will have been as instrumental as anyone. Already two studio albums in, and working on a third, Soccer Mommy’s evocative grunge-pop melds the serrated edge of mid-90s alt-rock role models such as Liz Phair, Sonic Youth and The Breeders with the pop sensibilities of Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift. Her songs burst with heart-swelling melodicism, the lyricism unflinchingly direct and emotionally nuanced, the arrangements smartly honed.
It’s emblematic of a modern landscape where archaic genre boundaries are being swept aside, and Allison and contemporaries such as Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, SASAMI and Snail Mail are leading the charge. A Fender Next artist and owner of an enviably cool arsenal of Strats and offsets, Allison is one of a growing wave of players bending the guitar to contemporary ends – and inspiring more young women to follow suit.
“The guitar is great for pop music,” Allison explains over Skype during a day of interviews to promote her new Soccer Mommy And Friends Singles Series in aid of Oxfam’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. “It can make something that’s so summery, cool and just fun if you do it right. A lot of that is learning to experiment with things outside the basic chord structures and stuff that you learn, going into open tunings and making these cool-sounding progressions that have a really fun lightness.
“It’s still a really cool instrument, and people who say the guitar is dead and synths are in or whatever, it’s not true. The two things work amazingly together. It’s not a case of one’s out, the other’s in.”
Allison’s own musical journey began at the age of five when her parents bought her a toy guitar. “I’d play it all around the house,” she recalls with a smile, “until after a little while of being obsessed with this thing, they got me a tunable children’s acoustic guitar so I could start taking lessons. I never gave it up, I just loved it.”
The fateful first Fender, a red Mini Strat, arrived when Allison was nine, and she has been an evangelist for the brand ever since.
“At that age, I had no idea who any guitar players were,” she says. “I just loved Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff and wanted to make music that sounded like theirs with my guitar. I loved writing parts, separating chords and interesting melodies, rather than technical playing. I’ve always loved the tone of a Strat. They’re extremely versatile and I like how light they are in comparison to a Jaguar or something like that.”
Joining the Fender Next artist development programme has not only helped sate Allison’s appetite for their guitars, it has a more significant purpose, too. Fender last year published statistics that claim 50 per cent of new guitar purchases are now made by women. In an industry that has been dominated by men for decades, it’s perhaps not cause for high fives just yet, but a clear sign of long-overdue progress, and Allison is pleased to be playing her part.
“That’s really important to me,” she says. “When I think about when I started playing guitar, if I’d started when I was 11 or 12 I don’t know if I’d have been so confident and eager. Being young gives you the confidence to try out things. People in their 20s or 30s might not pick up the guitar, especially women. Confidence is a big issue, and there’s a lot of sexism, especially when you’re young learning to play guitar. I experienced it too, but I loved doing it so much that I really didn’t care.
“It’s really great that Fender is reaching out to so many women who play guitar and giving them the opportunity to encourage that in other people.”
Fender guitars have been linked intrinsically to the Soccer Mommy project, which Allison started in 2015 initially posting her songs and albums on Bandcamp before her debut proper, Clean, arrived through Fat Possum in 2018.
Produced again by War On Drugs engineer Gabe Wax, follow-up Color Theory was a big stride forward, an absorbing examination of family, grief and Allison’s own mental health. The record is divided into three colour moods – blue representing depression, yellow sickness and grey darkness and loss as Allison grappled with her mother’s battle with cancer.
On the affecting Circle The Drain, she sings, “I cling to the dark of my room, and the days thin me out. Or just burn me straight through”. Across the album, that naked honesty is met with Allison’s considered guitar playing, which fizzes with melodic ideas, beatific clean tones and ambient textures that demonstrate a growing interest in soundscaping.
We ask how she feels with the benefit of distance about that second record’s sonic evolution.
“I feel great about it,” she answers, “even just in comparison to Clean, my songwriting took a big step up and I got to explore so many production and instrumental ideas that I didn’t do on Clean. I’m very happy with it.”
It was, she says, inspired partly by a refreshed pedalboard and a new amp. Allison added the Hologram Electronics Infinite Jets resytnthesizer and Mr Black Ambience modulated reverb and delay to the line-up, alongside her ever-present Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer.
“It’s changed so much [sonically]. Most of my equipment has changed. I have the Ambience for some light wobble and it gives things a glittery sound. When I first started touring, I wasn’t using a lot of effects and hadn’t really figured out my tone. I had a Deluxe Reverb that sounded so nice clean, so I kept things clean. I’ve slowly got away from that, and introduced a bit more warmth and shimmer.
“I changed to a [Roland] Jazz Chorus and that was the game changer, I’ll never leave that amp behind. I’ve started building up some pedals around it that can do some nice atmospheric warmth and the Infinite Jets brings in these weird ghost notes hovering around what I’m playing. It’s all just about keeping it tasteful, not overdoing it.”
As well as a pretty tidy selection of pedals, a quick scroll through Allison’s social media feeds reveals a voracious appetite for guitar collecting. She’s played a Guild Jetstar, a Phantom Teardrop, Mustangs, Jazzmasters, Jaguars and numerous Strats. Her tally of the latter currently stands at three, including her primary guitar, a Purple Sparkle ’94 example that’s all over Color Theory.
“I just love the tone, and in my opinion if you’re recording direct in the only guitar that’s going to sound nice is a Strat,” says Allison. “The pickups sound really great clean, and with effects too.
“I have one that I got when I was 14, a Hot Rod reissue, off white with a mint pickguard. It has these Klein jazz pickups that sound really amazing. I have another off white one, that Fender gave me, the American Vintage, which sounds amazing too.
“Then there’s my favourite, a ’94 Custom Shop Strat with a Purple Sparkle holographic finish. It’s my favourite thing ever. The pickups sound really great, the body feels great… and part of it is that it looks amazing. If I had to design my own Custom Shop guitar, that’s exactly what it would be. It’s definitely the main guitar on the album.”
There is a new guitar challenging the ’94 Strat for prominence in Allison’s collection, built in her home city, Dennis Fano’s Nashville company providing a custom-made Novo Serus J in her favoured Purple Sparkle finish. The dazzling offset has a bespoke fretboard etching that reads “Gemini bitch”.
“I was scrolling on Instagram one day and saw a Purple Sparkle Novo,” Allison explains, “and was like, ‘Wow, I want this guitar’. I contacted Novo and they’d already sold it, but they said they’d make me one. I came up with the idea to get an engraving on the fretboard, which they’d never done before. They did it in this super-cool Buffy font, and it’s the coolest thing in my entire house.
“Those guitars sound so amazing and the Mastery bridge is fantastic. It’s hard to go back to any of my guitars that don’t have one now. I was never one to use the whammy bar, but now I’ve got the Mastery bridge I use it every two seconds because it can bend so far and still stay in tune. It’s become a necessity.
“I love the tone, it cuts way more than the other guitars I have. It’s got P-90s in, and a really nice sharp tone. A lot of the stuff on Color Theory sounds so much better with a lot more cut.”
Breaking the mold
While new guitars undoubtedly help to spark songwriting inspiration, Allison admits to battling against the same constraints that all players experience from time to time. Having played the guitar for nearly 20 years, how does she overcome the limitations imposed by her own knowledge? One of the answers lies in her frequent use of alternate tunings.
“For someone who’s been playing a long time, I just know the numbers a little too well I guess,” she says. “I jump automatically to things that are obvious to me, but when you play something in a new tuning, you have no clue what chords you’re playing.
“It’s all based on your ear and that’s how you get these amazing new chords. It makes it all your own, breaking it down and learning again from nothing. Everything you find out of it is your own new way of playing these chords.
“The one I use the most is open A, I love it. You can play anything in open A and it’s gonna sound good, pretty much. It can sound beautiful, it can sound dark and it can sound really fun.
“I’ve been playing with this new one recently, too, a Joni Mitchell tuning that’s really cool, even strumming an open chord sounds amazing. It’s DACGAE.”
No doubt some of those tunings will appear on Soccer Mommy’s third album. Our call nearing its end, Allison drops casually into conversation that her next record is almost complete – just four months after the release of Color Theory. She’s nothing if not prolific.
“I feel like I’ve almost finished the new record, and it’s weird to be already moving away from Color Theory, but I’m just as fond and proud of it as I ever was.
“I’ve got seven songs, so it’s pretty close, it’s almost done. I’m interested in constantly trying to get better and better. Even though I love Color Theory, I’m motivated by this idea of trying to do something even cooler with the next thing I make.
“It’s definitely going to be different. It’s a strange mix of songs, they’re in some ways very far from each other, but I see these little ties that connect them. I like it when a record doesn’t sound the same all the way through and has a couple of different styles of song – some that are really dark and weird, ones that are more produced and upbeat, ones that are more stripped down and natural. There’s a lot of varying ideas going on.”
And at the heart of all that fresh creativity, will we be hearing more from Allison’s pair of Purple Sparkle favourites – the ’94 Strat and the Novo Serus J?
“Oh yeah,” she says emphatically. “They’ll definitely be on it.”
Check out the Soccer Mommy & Friends Single Series here.