by Deborah Krieger
As I prepare to graduate from college (!), it's always incredibly interesting to learn about what my former high school classmates are doing. And when I saw Sophie Strauss' Kickstarter making the rounds in order to fund her upcoming EP, Yeah No Fine, I knew I had to get back in touch and get the scoop on Sophie's up-and-coming career as a professional musician. Back in high school, Sophie was often the star of the bi-yearly Coffeehouses, where her adept guitar-playing and tender, dreamy vocals made her stand out amongst all of the Windward High School musicians. Now Sophie attends NYU and wows the crowd at intimate venues all over NYC, earning recognition and praise from sites like Indieminded and PopularTV.
I'm happy to report that Sophie's Kickstarter ended up earning $1000 over its $10,000 target. Yeah No Fine drops in April, and is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. You can check out her first single from the EP, "The Freezer," here.
Deborah: How did you get into making music and writing songs? What instruments do you play?
Sophie Strauss: Growing up, I always loved to sing and perform in front of whoever would tolerate it. When I was two years old, I would come downstairs all dressed up in some giant, pink polyester party dress and interrupt their dinner party or whatever was going on and sing—usually something from The Little Mermaid. So for most of my childhood I just sang. In choir, in musicals, at home, with friends. I took guitar lessons and piano lessons off and on but never as seriously as I did singing. I also started writing poetry when I was really young, usually just in a diary or on my computer. And that quickly turned into writing song lyrics, but I just couldn’t seem to put music and lyrics together. I loved to sing and I loved to write but for some reason marrying the two felt impossible. But then when I was seventeen and taking piano lessons again, we lost an extremely close family friend, and suddenly I just had to write music just to deal with it. Not that music deals with it, but it helps at least for a little. So I wrote my first song out of some compulsive necessity, and then the whole thing cracked wide open; I realized it’s not so hard and I started writing all the time.
D: What musicians and music teachers have inspired you most?
SS: I grew up listening to a lot of folk, classic rock, and Americana with my dad so that definitely informed my taste. He and I have almost identical taste in music—I like what he likes and he likes what I like. He played me a lot of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sandy Denny, Mavis Staples, Elliot Smith, PJ Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, etc. And I’d play him Hop Along, Laura Stevenson, Jenny Lewis, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and Frazey Ford. But lately I’ve been listening to a lot of pop—new and from when I was a kid—and a lot of riot grrrl. It’s really hard to say which musicians inspired me the most because I think we are all constantly absorbing what we like and don’t like and processing that whether we mean to or not. But I do know that it was really inspiring to see female musicians of all kinds. To be a girl and see women like Regina Spektor or Michelle Branch up on stage playing their own music in front of thousands of people makes it way easier to put yourself in their shoes and think “Oh, I could do that! That’s a thing that’s possible!” I can’t express how powerful that is. That’s why, of course, there’s so much talk about the importance of diverse representation in media—because it fucking matters!
In terms of music teachers who have inspired me, one comes to mind strongly: George Grove. George was my piano teacher. He was an 80 year old retired lawyer, lived in a studio apartment with just a fridge and a futon, and had climbed every major mountain in the world. He’s probably climbing one right now honestly. He was so patient and encouraging. He was always happy to take time out of a lesson for me to share something I had written, even if it meant spending less time on whatever piece he had assigned. He was so unsnobbish about whether I was writing complicated or technically impressive songs--to him they were always beautiful and worth his time.
D: You’re a student at NYU. What kind of subjects are you studying, and do they relate to your music?
SS: You know, people always ask how I can balance music and being a student and I think that being both is actually super lucky. I never feel too busy to write music when I am in school. Instead, I find myself extra inspired to write stuff because I’m forced to think about things that would never cross my mind and that is an excellent environment for creativity. If I just sat around all day staring in a mirror thinking about myself I’d run out of shit to say very quickly. But when I’m taking random-ass classes on art history or translation or Spanish film (which I still know nothing about), I end up seeing all these connections between different academic subjects and my own life. I have taken many music classes, but they tend to focus more on the career of a musician in various forms and so they feel more practical than they do inspirational.
D: What made you decide to become a professional musician?
SS: It’s funny, I don’t remember a time when I ever wanted to be anything else, but I think as soon as I started writing and performing my own music I was like “how did I not always know this is what I want to do?!?” I never questioned it after that. I’m also extra lucky that I don’t have parents who insist that I become a lawyer or an accountant or something, they’ve always been encouraging. I’m horribly fortunate to have them behind me and I think about that all the time.
D: What themes and ideas/emotions inspire your songs and lyrics?
Well, of course there are all the love and heartbreak songs, those are unavoidable. But lately I’ve been preoccupied with hypochondria so that’ll creep in. Fun stuff like anxiety and neurosis but also excitement and confidence. The theme is rarely the thing I think of when I sit down to write. Instead I usually hear a word or a sentence or I think of some little line when I’m grocery shopping and I write it down and kind of let the rest of it unfold around that one little thought. Then the Big Ideas find their way in.
D: Are there plans for a full-length album? Can you describe the project(s) you are working on now?
SS: I’d love to record a full-length album! But I need to get this EP out there first. Right now I’m working on doing just that, but I’m also always writing. I have a handful of shows coming up in New York so I’ve been rehearsing for those with guitarist Mo Reynolds, who co-wrote two of the songs on Yeah No Fine with me and who is just an all-around brilliant and thoughtful musician. Maybe there will be a video or something soon too, who knows?
D: How long does it take you to write a song? Do you write the music or the lyrics first?
SS: I write lyrics first almost always. Sometimes with a melody or a rhythm in mind but often really amorphously and then I have to rework them over the music I write. It’s hard to say how long it takes to write a song. Sometimes I sit down in one night and write music, melody, lyrics all at once. But sometimes I’ll write lyrics and then not touch them for months.
D: What is your best memory of performing or writing music?
SS: A year ago, I was visiting some friends in Edinburgh, Scotland and they took me to this tiny pub called The Royal Oak. It’s just one room and most of the tables are pushed to the side and every night local musicians and bar regulars come and bring instruments and just sit wherever and take turns playing their own music or Scottish folk songs. It’s like a campfire in a bar with way more alcohol and it’s fucking great. I just had my little ukulele with me but they let me play a couple songs. The sound in the room was just warm and lots of the patrons would join in with perfect harmonies on whatever I sang. Then, a very drunk woman wandered in off the street and sat right in front of me as I played and decided to do a call-and-response with me. It sounded terrible. It was hilarious. I’d love to go back.
D: What is the most challenging aspect of being a musician?
I think the practical stuff is the biggest challenge. All the talk about how the music industry is not nearly as lucrative as it used to be is very true. Streaming services are amazing but also terrible for musicians. So figuring out how to make a career out of music—especially as an artist and performer—is not easy and frankly terrifying.
D: What’s it like recording professionally in a studio?
SS: Recording in a studio is amazing. Every single person who I got to work with was talented and kind—from Jeff Elmassian who owns Endless Nosie Studios, to Grant Cornish who recorded and mixed and mastered the EP, to all the musicians who were involved. I’d never recorded in a studio before and I learned so much. You need to be really focused, but super patient. I was lucky that we all got along so well and everyone was so generous with their time and their talent—you’re collaborating with a bunch of people in this dark cave for like two weeks so you have to communicate really well and be thoughtful and driven. Then you emerge and you’re like “even if this EP never sees the light of day, at least we fucking made something.”
D: Would you say your LA background or current New York City home influence your sound?
SS: Looking at the musical references I listed above, they all feel very California. I definitely think about the kind of music I’d want to listen to driving up the coast or something cheesy like that—but that’s my favorite way to listen to music so why not? But I’ve had way more experience in the New York music scene which has impacted how I perform and write and probably a lot of the lyrical content especially. It’s cramped here and it can be the most supportive community and the loneliest place all at once. It’s exciting and monotonous. I’m sure I have nothing new to say about New York, only tired cliches, but it’s absolutely there in my music. But hey, I’m still a California girl!