Soko is the first person I’ve written about here @ 1985 who I haven’t met in person. Such is the modern world and modern obstacles.
By our interactions (and her songs and videos) I know the following: Soko (Stéphanie Sokolinski) is a thoughtful, funny, and an uber talented singer/songwriter (and semi retired) actor. She’s a French Chanteuse born in ’85 and a throwback to edgier (cooler) musical times. She loves Doc Martins and all things 80’s - from the music to the hairstyles, to the bright and glittered clothing (mixed with a steady dose of black, of course). She’s punk but accessible, refuses to conform, and with her new record My Dreams Dictate My Reality, is poised to have a pretty exciting year. That, of course, is putting it lightly.
Another thing’s for sure: This busy songbird isn’t just into the 80’s, she’s transporting us back there with her. With a classic punk-pop sensibility all her own, she immediately calls up The Cure and The Clash more than current mainstream music. Perhaps she actually is an Alien, or living in her dream, or perhaps she’s just doing a damn good job of picking up where some badass classic bands left off. Whatever your take, she’s got plenty of great sonic and other shit to say about it. We’re a listenin’:
Jonathan Mayor: When did you get into acting? Have you been working steadily since?
Soko: I started theatre class when I was 5, and I started working as an actress when I was 16. I’ve been working on and off since, because once i started music, it began stealing most of my focus.
JM: When did you (begin to) make that transition? What are the similarities and differences in careers in the arts and the business? What do you miss about acting when you are focusing on music?
Soko: I started acting at 16, and got bored and wanted to have my own creative outlet, so I started music around 20 (I guess). I try to just be very present wherever I am when I’m there.. so when I do music, that’s all I think about. When I act in movies, I can’t think of anything else either… so, I never miss one or the other.. I’m just trying to be happy and content and fully committed to whichever I’m doing at the time.
JM: How is your music influenced by film and your experience acting? How have they worked together to turn you into the artist you’re becoming/have become?
Soko: I’m influenced and fed by everything that surrounds me… but mostly by personal life experiences. There is one movie in particular, Inception that definitely had a huge impact on me (creatively and otherwise). Not in terms of the actual movie exactly, but what it left me with. For days, I was wondering about the purpose of life and the fine line between dreams and reality… and it’s sort of what pushed me closer into writing this new album all about it and even naming it My Dreams Dictate My Reality.
JM: I know you grew up in France - What role if any did that (and your family life) play?
Soko: This new record actually talks a lot about growing up, in the country side (in the South West of France close to Bordeaux), and feeling depressed and lonely. That’s very much how I grew up. Facing death and boredom.
JM: What early signs were there that you were an artist? Was it encouraged?
Soko: After my dad died, my mum wanted me and my brother to be out of the house and learn to be versatile and curious, creative, musical, busy and make friends… be normal kids. So she pushed us to do a lot of activities like horse riding, judo, dance, piano lessons. My town (some even call it a village) was so little and good in that way for kids. If you signed up for one thing, you could do it all. So I was exposed to a lot of different things.
JM: Who and what influenced your style and what influences it still? The 80s seem to have played a significant role in informing your sound, especially groups like The Cure. What other groups, records did you listen to as a kid? How does this translate to fashion, etc... the Soko brand?
Soko: (laughs) You're funny... so many questions in one! I grew up with shit pop music on the radio, nothing I particularly liked. I’d hear a few classics of course, Gainsbourg, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones… I left home at 16, and started buying music magazines and illegally downloading every cool looking band I came across. I slowly turned into a huge music nerd. By then, Boys don't Cry was already my favorite Cure song. Later on, I started digging into more of their records and Three Imaginary Boys became my absolute favorite. I also love the re-edition of it with all the B-sides and demos. Too good! I also love 80’s pictures. There's a book about punks in the 80's in England that I love.. so many amazing styles. I love vintage clothes and weird outfits. Anything looks good with a pair of white creepers, white t-shirt, 80’s leather jacket, and high wasted black pants! I feel like I belong in the Clash when I dress that way and it gives me a bit of a confidence boost for the day!
JM: Describe your music. What are the themes and topics you explore? Jammin' out to the record this morning it seems like everything from growing up to reality, honesty, responsibility, mortality, and defining your own rules and sanity? Not your typical pop fodder.
Soko: Uh.. you nailed it all. I’m not a pop artist, and these are all the subjects that touch me. All I care about is for my music to follow my moods, which are often dark when I write. And you forgot DREAMS. That’s a big/obvious theme too.. and childhood, and fear of getting old.. and being terrified of relationships too.
JM: Things can be pretty scary.
Soko: You said it!
JM: What interests you as an expresser/expressionist? What do you hope to 'say" with your music?
Soko: I write music almost as a way to take pictures of what’s inside my head, and do it with authenticity and truth, and as vivid with details as possible, to remind me forever what state of mind I was in, and to remember my thought process. When I finally put all my thoughts in a song, I can finally move on to the next chapter in my life. It’s very therapeutic for me (and this is one of the things I use it for).
JM: Give us a recap of last year. I know some big things happened for you on the charts (We Might be Dead Tomorrow skyrocketed, Spike Jonze, collaborating with Theophilus London, Anton Newcombe, etc.) Were your friends like, who the fuck is Anton Newcombe, or do they know who he is?
Soko: (laughs) Some of my friends are music nerds and FREAKED OUT about me working with Anton Newcomb.. others are just.... in need of better musical taste! And also, a bunch of my friends were psyched that I sing on Pom Pom, the new Ariel Pink album, and that he’s on 2 songs on my album too! And yes, I don’t know… 2014 was busy, mostly focused on making my record with Ross Robinson, which was the best. And We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow being used in the First Kiss video was a huge happy surprise. Lending my voice to a character in “Her" was incredible.. I love this movie so dearly. And writing stuff for Theophilus on his record was also something totally different and awesome. And I went on my first big US tour opening for Foster The People, finally playing all my new songs. that was the best.
JM: Tell us about your writing process. What is similar and different with each song?
Soko: It usually starts with my mind going insane, my life being chaos, me being lost, feeling lonely, having insomnia, maybe even PMSing! (laughs) I write every day, accumulate ideas, until it completely pours out of my head like a need to pee and I write very quick and hear all the parts and once it’s finished it feels so good… it usually takes me an hour or 2. Then I know what the bass will be, how the keys will sound, what the guitar riff will be and the drum parts… I make a sound map of the song and it haunts me until I finally lay it all down in the studio.
JM: Contrast your new record with the last, then vs now. What steps did you take forward, what did you leave behind, and what do you miss vs what you’ve learned as a recording artist?
Soko: The new record is simply in a better mood. The first one was very depressed, this one feels a lot happier. The lyrics are still dark and haunted and very self reflective. There’s no more acoustic instruments on this one at all. I used to write mostly on guitar, but on this album, there’s only one song, the closing track Keaton’s Song, that I wrote on guitar. Which was a good way for me to end the chapter. By remembering the sound of the past. I start the album with a song called I Come in Peace which was an important message for me, first of all because it stills refers to Aliens and links perfectly with my first album (I thought I was an alien), but also, because I wanted to openly come to peace with all my demons from the past, accept them, and make something more dreamy with all the darkness. To transform it all into something lighter and brighter. Most of the songs on My Dreams Dictate My Reality were written either on Bass or on my Farfisa organ and drum machines. Bass is fairly new to me and makes me write in a whole different way. (I guess) that conspired to make the album a lot more upbeat and punky than before, and it’s definitely made the whole difference in the sound of my new album.. being a lot more upbeat, and sounding a lot more 80's! I play bass like a teenager: only down strokes, and very poorly… so it ends up sounding very punk.. and playing bass always lifts up my mood… also, I love writing on synth / organs… I always feel surrounded by a wall of sound, as if I was in space. But it worked for the record.
JM: Tell us more about working with Ross Robinson (as a fan of the Cure)? I know he’s done some Cure and Alt rock stuff in addition to A LOT of punk and heavier work. Describe the producer/artist relationship, or at least that producer/artist relationship? How did collaborating in the studio work and how did it influence the material?
Soko: I met Ross through asking him to forward a letter to Robert Smith to ask him to produce my record. Yes, I’m a dreamer! Well, Ross ended up answering, and we met and it was immediate love and trust… He was the first producer I had met who's first concern wasn't how much money he was going to be making on this project but how GOOD he wanted to make it sound and how much he loved the material. HUGE difference. And that straight up put me at ease. I moved into his guest room 3 days later and we started recording right away. All of the songs were already written and some were even partly recorded. He pushed me to be 100% true to all my emotions, whether I was passionate, sick, sad, happy, having panic attacks, freak outs, doubts, self loathing… whatever it was, he was THERE! Like an absolute unshakeable pole. Surrounding me with so much strength and wrapping me in a security blanket, calming me down by being so steady, understanding, and patient with me. He really gave me the biggest gift and luxury of his TIME. He never pressured me. Before we recorded vocals, he’d always put me in the mood by asking a series of questions (he’d also genuinely want to know, because he loves artists, lyrics, emotions): Why did you write that song? What does it mean? Why did you use this word…? So you basically wrote as if you were talking to yourself right? He would dig for ages. Sometimes it almost felt uncomfortable to say so much about me and have him pick my brain, but it felt so safe, too. I’ve never felt so comfortable recording vocals with anyone before, because all he cares about is truth, performances, fire, vulnerability and hearing your soul through the mic.. and he does it to perfection. I think/hope you can really hear it on the record.
JM: Is it true you do all the graphic design for your albums, as well as the video directing and producing? Do you consider collaborations with directors? Anyone you’re dying to work with in that way?
Soko: I do all of the concepts around my artwork and since it’s very DYI based, I cut and past and tear a lot of it by myself, but then I have the best little helper to guide me through it all and make sure it’s not too shit and put it through the machines.. he's called Ryan Baxley, he's THE BEST… and easiest person to work with… he also does all of Fidlar's artwork. As far as videos go… yeah, I just really enjoy directing… I always have such precise ideas of what I want to see that I always think "might as well do it”… and it is indeed such a rewarding experience each and every time.. that I can't help but wanting to do it again!
JM: What's your favorite part about being in the studio & recording, collaborating, etc...
Soko: Witnessing a song starting from scratch to being done is the best feeling on earth. I also love writing all the arrangements and then hearing them all together forming proper parts and dynamics. I hate the tedious parts of editing and annoying computer stuff though. But that’s just cause I’m very impatient and I want to be in the action all the time. I’m embracing the process.
JM: What's the best thing about playing live? How is it different from you? How do you relate with an intimate vs. a bigger audience?
Soko: Playing live is almost like being the most hyped up version of myself… the most everything. The most excited, the happiest, the saddest. I get so emotional over my songs. I sway between being fearless out there and then again being full of self loathing enough to almost cry on the microphone. I definitely like intimate audiences better… because I like being able to really connect with people and shout at them, and they shout back… and I feel their tears rolling down their cheeks.
JM: Tell me about the road. What's it like for a girl out there making it? What are your favorite places to play and visit? Where do you live when you're not out and about?
Soko: I love being on tour.. It's hard out there because you have to rough it up… sleep with your 5 band mates in 1 sketchy motel room most nights and drive a crappy van… but oh well… it's still the best feeling on earth when you actually get on stage, so it's all worth it. My favorite show on my last tour was Savannah, Georgia.. actually, the whole south. I love Miami and Gainesville too… it's so beautiful out there and we had so many crazy adventures.. When I’m not moving around constantly, I spend most of my time in LA though…
JM: Does that tempt the acting bug or are you keeping focused on music these days?
Soko: I live in LA for the sun, the chill times, and how much it inspires me to write. I don’t have the acting bug or hollywood-ness… also, I don’t ever go on auditions… I don’t feel like having the life of an actress (which is so hard and full of constant disappointment and the feeling of rejection). I’m really content and fulfilled with my music right now, so unless a movie project is presented to me and is perfectly right for me and an awesome life changing challenge, I don’t really pursue it.
JM: What are other career and personal accomplishments? Where do you see yourself headed?
Soko: I made 2 albums, wrote so many songs… and did some cool videos and movies, one of which I won an award for. I’ve traveled so much. I left home early. i’m pretty stoked already.
JM: What drives you?
Soko: My fear of death. Time going too fast… Wanting to do as much as possible in this life.
JM: What’s something not a lot of people know about you?
Soko: I am actually an alien cat (though some people knew part of that from my last record).
JM: What's on your rider?
Soko: Tons of vegan, gluten free, organic stuff, fresh fruits and nuts. Kombucha! I’m sure they all think I’m the craziest girl in the world. They’re not wrong…
JM: Any questions you haven't been asked you'd like to make up to respond to? Or any parting words?
Soko: I will always be back.
Photography by Daniele Sarti.