Words by Luke LaBenne
Contrast is key to life in this universe. The push and pull, ebb and flow, dark and light. Forces are constantly shifting and interacting attempting to bring balance to our world. This age old dance can be felt when listening to the music of Sophia Kennedy. Her bold and innovative production style is met with insightful and powerful songwriting. Not only does she create engrossing compositions that make you want to move your feet but she uses her music to capture the uncomfortable yet necessary truths of life. Balancing between catchy and challenging, uplifting and ominous, she exposes the dark side of sunny nostalgia and the chaotic nature of beauty and joy. On her second album she braves the darkness and dances with Monsters to capture the contrast and balance that drives us all.
Off Shelf: You have the voice of a classic crooner and innovative compositional skills. Do you have specific influence for both styles or did you just generally want to channel those styles?
Sophia Kennedy: I don’t really feel like a crooner, but I sometimes use my voice in that way whenever it seems fitting for a song. I’m not an educated musician and I wouldn’t consider myself as a classic composer either – to me, it’s more of an electronic Trial-and-Error approach to writing music. I like to play around with different songwriting styles, sometimes replacing acoustic instrumentation with atmospheric and electronic sounds. Also, I’m not alone – I co-produce and co-write most of my stuff together with Mense Reents, German electronic producer and member of several bands. His production skills, musical knowledge, and personal advice are a massive influence on me and my music and I am very lucky to be able to work with him.
OS: I love how your music balances sounding apocalyptic and ominous with sunny and melodic. How did you arrive at this unique, dynamic sound?
SK: I always want to generate a complex and wide range of moods – I like confusion and irritation in music. When you create contrasts, things start to become exciting, creepy, funny, and beautiful. I’ve noticed that I’m an adrenaline type of person when I have a new idea for a song. I always need everything to seem larger than life. I also noticed that, for example, in the way I season my food. I like extremely salty things and dry bread. Every song has its own conflict and maybe that’s why there’s so much going on within a song, even things that actually contradict each other or don’t belong together.
OS: This album is expertly composed and features so many unique sounds, synths and samples. How did you go about crafting these impressive orchestrations and distinct electronic elements?
SK: In general, Mense and I have fun playing around with weird production techniques. We often just fool around with stuff until it works. All instruments such as piano, synths, organs, guitars, acoustic bass, flutes & trumpets were played by me and Mense – after we record them, we have fun with digital treatments afterward. The songs often go through different stages or phases and change permanently. That’s why there are often scraps from earlier versions, which we then consciously leave in the mix.
OS: “Orange Tic Tac” sounds like it’s being sung by two different people. How did you go about differentiating these different parts of the song, both musically and vocally?
SK: The rough idea was to put two characters in one song. They both are part of the same world but have a totally different perspective. We wanted the chorus vocals to be tight and rhythmic and that the song then would switch into this bright crooning style for the verse – like two worlds colliding.
OS: This album is called Monsters and on “Seventeen” you talk about how you were “Afraid of everything,” Did making this album help you face some of those monsters?
SK: I think music in general has always been a way for me to hide away and deal with things – but it has also always been my access to the world, too. I think there’s a reason why artists or musicians are the way they are – shy, but also egocentric, in their own world and extroverted. On “Monsters” I did try to allow myself to give more insight of my personal life and things I’m dealing with – I always am a bit reluctant with being one to one in the lyrics, because to me it tends to get stale and boring if things are only based on a certain inwardness of the singer. With “Seventeen” I often questioned whether the lyrics had any relevance or were just another clichéd take on youth. But it’s an autobiographical song that also reflects upon the melancholy of adolescence rather than glorifying it.
OS: I know you grew up in Baltimore but now are based in Hamburg. Did those two locations and that shift from one country to another inform your music in any way?
SK: I think there’s a misunderstanding around my biography that started when my debut came out: I moved to Germany as a kid and grew up here – I visited my family in America regularly during school holiday, so I spent a lot of time overseas, Baltimore in particular. I think the fact of being born in America, raised in Germany, and switching back and forth between two countries and cultures throughout my life certainly has an effect on my music. I missed my family in America a lot while growing up. When I’m making music I often go there in my mind – maybe it’s subconsciously a way of feeling connected or even disconnected at times. I learned that to Germans, some parts of my music are deeply American and to Americans, some parts of it might seem deeply European… I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to tell. As for my identity, I’ve never asked myself: Am I an American or am I German? It was never important to me.
OS: “Francis” is a haunting comment on white male privilege and toxic masculinity. I love the lyrics, “Everybody’s got a problem and they treat it like a pet. Feed it when its hungry and cry when it is dead.” Why do you think people often feed their problems rather than try to deal with them?
SK: I think it all has to do something with being in power, being used to power, and being afraid of losing power. The unwillingness to question one’s own status quo and the inability to see oneself as part of the bigger picture and therefore part of the problem. It’s also convenience, laziness, and a very weird sense of entitlement – if it doesn’t affect me directly, where’s the problem? Why should I give something up or question how I lead my life if it works out fine for me? Why should anything change? The problem is: white privilege. White privilege creates and holds on to a system of injustice, racism, sexism, and capitalism because we benefit from it. We only crawl out of our mansions when we feel our privileges are being “threatened” – whenever we are demanded to change and question the way we lead our lives.
OS: You give stellar performances in the “Orange Tic Tac” video but especially in the “I Can See You” video. What was your performance process for those videos?
SK: To me, the key thing is simplicity. I often shy away when it comes to music videos because it automatically means more stress. So on one level, I was looking for a way to cheat and to come up with something I thought would be easy for me to do – I thought I’d just perform “Orange Tic Tac” in an intense way but I needed one simple element that I could use as a tool – so I came up with the idea to use a mouth gear as a gimmick. It somehow reminded me of grillz. The brilliant cinematographer Tom Otte shot my one-take Performance of “Orange Tic Tac” and we were surprised that it actually worked! As for “I Can See You,” which was directed by Timo Schierhorn, we both wanted to challenge ourselves of doing a reenactment of the prominent scene taken from “Wolf Of Wall Street” – he had this idea for a music video for a long time and I thought it would be a hilarious and interesting thing for me to do – so we did it.
OS: “I Can See You” is such a jam! I love it so much, it’s so fun and creative but also the lyrics deal with some heavier subject matter. Did you intend to make a kind of subtly morbid pop banger?
SK: As mentioned before, I’m interested in contrasts and irritations. Musically, a song can take on a sense of hopefulness and lightness, while the lyrics might still be dealing with certain conflict. I like to combine the two opposites and see what they might give one another – often, something exciting happens. It brings things in a certain balance or diss balance which I find essential in music, because that’s how the complexity and variety of everything comes to life.
OS: “Dragged Myself Into The Sun” is an epic and chaotic closer that builds into such a beautiful crescendo. Did you want to end it on a somewhat hopeful note?
SK: I’d be happy if it feels that way. Musically, “Dragged Myself Into The Sun” might be the most dense and tense song on the album – as if everything comes together for the last run – it ends with the voice of my grandmother, a phone call I recorded years ago. I wanted everything to channel into this kind of realness & peacefulness, discharging all tension and artiness. Kind of like when your Mom sticks her head through the door asking if you’ve brushed your teeth yet, while you’ve spent days in your room working on a plan of how to conquer the world, just slightly losing your mind. This kind of interruption which is actually a form of relief and a reminder: someone’s taking care of me! I may go to sleep now!
OS: What do you hope people take away from Monsters?
OS: I hope they get it – I hope they come back to it over time and I hope they’ll listen to it often enough, so that I can retire and spend the rest of my life in a little cottage, way up on a hill in far away land with endless free wifi.