If the goal for Sophie Allison was to touch all the bases of indie-rock ubiquity by age 22—play Kimmel, open for Vampire Weekend, headline a Bernie Sanders rally—she passed with flying colors. As Soccer Mommy, her indie-rock vehicle that harkens back to the raw angst and growling guitars of Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair, Allison has managed to cut through the cacophony of bedroom-based Bandcamp artists and earn a firm place in the hearts of internet youth the world over. Her third album, 2018’s Clean, cemented her as a festival darling with a serrated edge; lyrics like “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog” and a commitment to cat-eye makeup had fans comparing her to both Avril Lavigne and “Danny Phantom’s goth friend” (a reference you will only get if you were still watching Nickelodeon in 2007). Soon, Allison earned covetable spots on several Best-of lists and opened for the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Mitski, and Phair herself.
It wasn’t until her latest album, however, that Allison has shown her “true colors,” so to speak. On color theory, Allison wrestles with anxiety, depression, and impending grief amidst her mother’s battle with cancer. Its palette contains muted yellows, dull grays, and ocean-y blues, a watery swirl of emotive combustion. Sonically, the album maintains the nostalgic glitter of her earlier work, but it swells with ambition. Produced by Gabe Wax, who has worked with Big Thief and Frankie Cosmos, color theory contains more layers, more minutes—the lead single “yellow is the color of her eyes” clocks in at a little over seven—and more, well, bubbles.
I sat down with Allison on a plush couch at the Ace Hotel, where she arrived in high pigtails and fishnet tights. She was giggly and composed, eager to delve into her own color theory, if not a little tired from talking to people. Below, Allison tells me about all the colors that have colored her life, a spectrum that ranges from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to scarlet fever to a purple sparkly guitar that says “Gemini Bitch” on the fretboard.
SARAH NECHAMKIN: I wanted to start by talking about the concept of color theory. What does that mean to you? If you do have a color theory, what is it?
SOPHIE ALLISON: Yeah, I feel like it’s just that here are three main moods to the album that connected to colors. It kind of goes blue, yellow, gray—sadness, anxiety, sickness, loss, and mortality.
NECHAMKIN: What made you associate those specific colors with those ideas?
ALLISON: I think it’s just a connection in my brain. There are some obvious ones, like sadness and blue—a lot of people have that connection. And I think gray being such a lack of color, it’s kind of a quick connection to loss and emptiness. Yellow for me has just been a color that I for a long time associated with sickness and paranoia. I think partially because of the coloring of yellow skin or eyes—obviously something that’s associated with sickness. And it’s something that’s been for that reason, like its uses in literature.
NECHAMKIN: What examples come to mind?
ALLISON: A big one is The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s something I read when I was younger, and I always loved that one, along with other books that didn’t have that same connection but had themes of women going mad from the ways of the world. That’s something that always connected to me, so I think it’s stuck in my brain.
NECHAMKIN: I remember having to read a book about yellow fever. Or maybe it was scarlet fever. [Ed. note: It was Fever 1973, about yellow fever.]
ALLISON: I had scarlet fever as a kid.
ALLISON: Isn’t that crazy? I thought that didn’t happen anymore. I was like five, and I had scarlet fever.
NECHAMKIN: I didn’t know that happened in the 21st century. You’re a survivor.
ALLISON: I like the idea that I had something that a lot of people died of.
NECHAMKIN: Speaking of yellow, I was watching the video for “yellow is the color of her eyes,” which is directed by Alex Ross Perry, and there’s this beautiful yellow light. It’s funny to me how something that initially feels so happy and sunny also carries those darker connotations.
ALLISON: I feel like those are the two different connotations that are common. I think I liked that it had this other connotation of youth and joy because there’s so much on the record that is flashing back to being really young and filled with joy.
NECHAMKIN: Do you feel like the album leans more one way? Or that it’s about the joy and the darkness coexisting alongside one another?
ALLISON: I think I like that there’s a lot of contrast between beauty and youth and joy and age and sadness and destruction. Which I think have all been common things in my life, sometimes at similar times. Sometimes I have moments where I’m really happy, and then other times there’s all this destruction happening and so much is gone. I think it’s just a contrast of the different range of emotions that have been present in me for a long time.
NECHAMKIN: I noticed in the YouTube comments a bunch of people were saying that Coldplay was an influence.
ALLISON: I love Coldplay. I wouldn’t say that was an influence. But I do love “Yellow.” The imagery was really inspired by sickness and having seen my mom be sick when I was younger, the visual of that. And also, during the time I wrote it, I was in a seaside town in the UK and we had a day off and we went to this beach and it was this cold, sunny day. So that imagery resonated in the song because it’s what I was literally seeing. The song was talking about the inner thoughts of someone, almost like imagining seeing them in the water. So when I made the video, I was like, beach time! A super yellowy beach. But I do love that song.
NECHAMKIN: I also noticed there’s a lot of water imagery in the other songs, too. There’s “circle the drain.” The drowning feeling.
ALLISON: Specifically on the blue section, it was a little conscious because I liked the idea of the water imagery tying into the blue. But also, I just really love the water. I’m afraid of going in the ocean, but I love looking at the water and feeling the calm serenity of water. The imagery of water is always something I’ve been fascinated with. The calmness of the ocean is a weird low feeling. Being able to hear your thoughts a little more because my brain is really cluttered all the time. That soothing motion is really calming to me.
NECHAMKIN: When listening to the album, I was thinking about chromesthesia, which is one subset of synesthesia, and whether that way of thinking bled into your writing.
ALLISON: I can’t imagine what it would be like to actually see colors in that way, but when I’m writing songs I tend to be imagining a music video or an album cover in my mind that would go with it—a very visual representation. Often, color is a big part of it because that’s more of the concrete part I can visualize. That’s really important to me when trying to make an album color, to make sure that the colors that are there feel like they are similar to the music.
NECHAMKIN: The photos you took for this press cycle are definitely different for you. They’re less in the realm of what you’d expect from an indie singer-songwriter.
ALLISON: I think they are really different, but they match the music really well because the music goes off in all of these different directions. There are parts that are more folksy than anything on the last record, and there are parts that are way more chronic. They sound like crawling, a lot of electronic sound. It’s all got more color to it. It’s more produced. More layered. Even a song like “circle the drain”—there’s like, this groaning guitar that was just random, really tonal synth-y drums and stuff. Or, like, bubbles are in the song. Just straight up bubbles.
ALLISON: My idea. I had my phone plugged into the aux and we played through the song, and I had this bubble sound effect pulled up and I would literally say play and let the bubbles go on my phone. It’s almost like this weird transition sound in the song that makes it sound like you’re underwater or something.
NECHAMKIN: There’s the water imagery again.
ALLISON: Yeah. The bubbles.
NECHAMKIN: I saw on your Instagram that you got a purple sparkly guitar that says “Gemini Bitch” on the fretboard. So you’re a Gemini? And you also have the song “Scorpio Rising”…
ALLISON: Gemini, Scorpio rising, Aquarius moon.
NECHAMKIN: That’s quite a combo.
ALLISON: Yeah, it is. I feel very much like a Gemini. Gemini is really bubbly and talkative, and I can totally get that way with friends and stuff. But I think I have a more private reservedness the rest of the time. If I don’t have a reason to be talking to someone, if I don’t know them, I’m very reserved. People think I’m a bitch sometimes. Not like I say anything, but I will get that kind of death glare without trying to give it.
NECHAMKIN: What’s the story behind the guitar?
ALLISON: It was made for me, actually. This brand, Novo, I saw them make a purple sparkle guitar like mine and they make them to order, and I was like, “Oh my god I want one.” They were like, “cool.” Then I was like to my manager, “could they engrave something on the fretboard?” I sent them this font that was basically like a Buffy charged font that said “Gemini bitch” and they were like, “Okay, we’ve got to do it.” They had never done an engraving but they did it and it turned out great. It took months to make. It’s great. I always use it now.
NECHAMKIN: You don’t have purple on the album, though.
ALLISON: I don’t, but purple is kind of like the Sophie color. It’s my favorite color. On tour, the guys have black velvet suits with purple ties. I love purple sparkle. It’s just a Soccer Mommy color—a branded Soccer Mommy color.
NECHAMKIN: The Soccer Mommy purple van.
ALLISON: I would love that. A purple sparkle van.
NECHAMKIN: Maybe the next thing you put out—
ALLISON: Purple Album. I associate purple with Scorpios. Purple is the color.