It’s been a full year since Sophie Jamieson returned from her six-year break from music. Though she started writing music in her teens, it was during her time at university that she discovered the blossoming nu-folk scene, drawing inspiration from artists like Laura Marling, Daughter, and Lucy Rose. In 2013, she put her first EP, the hauntingly evocative Where, which earned her tour support slots with the likes of Marika Hackman and Pale Seas. And then, suddenly, she disappeared from the spotlight. A disastrous recording session contributed to a mental breakdown, and it wasn’t until November of 2019 that she reemerged with a new single, ‘Hammer’, the strikingly poignant title track to the EP that followed in March. After a string of European shows with Charlie Cunningham, she was invited by Lucy Rose to support Samantha Crain on tour (Crain is on Rose’s label, Real Kind Records), which had to be cancelled due to COVID-19. Both the Hammer EP and her forthcoming project, Release, were written during a period of intense isolation before the pandemic hit, reflecting on the kind of self-destructive behaviours that may act as a form of escape but fail to provide a path forward. Produced by Steph Marziano (Hayley Williams, Denai Moore, Lazy Day), the introspective new EP finds her experimenting with more layers of synths and percussion without abandoning her folk roots. Though in some ways as beautifully melancholic as her past work – the opening track builds and builds before cutting abruptly at the end, while ‘Concrete’ imagines a moment of peace before that, too, is disrupted – it’s also part of a journey that hints at the possibility of a more hopeful direction in the future.
We caught up with Sophie Jamieson for this edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her new EP, how the pandemic has affected her work, and more.
How are you? What have you been up to during lockdown?
Well, I’ve been mostly working – I work in a restaurant as a bartender, but we’ve been doing this takeaway delivery service thing, so I’ve actually just carried on working this whole time. But otherwise, I’m fiddling with bits of music and writing and trying to read. I’m not doing a very good job – everything’s a bit stressful at the moment.
What have you been reading?
I’m reading a book by a writer called Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring. It’s a book about writers and alcoholism, which is fascinating. It’s structured in this really interesting way in that she looks at the different alcoholic tendencies of five or six different American writers from the mid-twentieth century. And she goes on a journey where she explores each of their pasts and lives and homes and finds out everything she can about their addictions.
Is there any one story that has stood out to you?
Well, she interweaves them really beautifully. I mean, they all sit with me. I’ve always been interested in writing about addiction. In some ways, it seeps into my writing as well. I tend to find a topic and dig into as much as possible and then see what I can make out of it.
How does the theme of addiction inform your new material?
It is actually kind of relevant. The EP that I’m just about to finish releasing, Release, is about coping mechanisms. And I think coping mechanisms, dangerous ones at least, can be addictive. There’s a theme of addiction to self-punishment in various forms, which can be a way of escaping reality – kind of pulling yourself down a notch in order to have an excuse for not being good enough, and as a way out of a feeling of isolation.
Obviously, that also relates to the opening title track of the new EP. I was wondering if you could talk about the ending of that song – at what point in the songwriting process did you decide you wanted it to end that way?
Interestingly, I hadn’t really found a comfortable ending for that song until I went into the studio. It’s something that happens really naturally when I work with Steph [Marziano], my producer. When you’re at the end of that song, everything is at its maximum. And when we were constructing the end, it just felt like if you cut off on a certain beat, it’s almost like you lurch the listener over the edge of a cliff. And I really like having the power to do that. [laughs] It’s quite thrilling. And also, when you give someone a lot of sounds and surround them with it and then take it away, suddenly enough, it can leave the listener feeling really naked and aware of themself.
I definitely had that reaction when I was listening to it. Musically, it subverted my expectation that it would have a kind of natural resolution, but it also made me think of music more broadly, because it can serve as a sort of escape, and ending the song that way sort of negates that.
As far as songs with natural resolutions goes, it can be really hard. I’ve been writing music today and thinking about this; the idea of where you want to leave somebody at the end of the song. When I was thinking about this EP a month ago, I described it as a cyclical EP. It doesn’t really provide any answers. It should circle around a topic and look into a few different doors, but the fact is, there aren’t really any answers. It’s about falling down a spiral and not being able to get out of it.
I guess, ironically, the title is Release, which suggests escape, but the fact is that release isn’t actually escape. It’s temporary. It’s the eye of the storm.
How would you compare Hammer and Release in terms of what you were trying to achieve with each project?
Those songs were all written within about six-seven months, so a lot of the subjects cross over. But the Hammer EP sort of had a function as a reintroduction to me and my music after a long break, and we put forward the songs that felt right to lead with. Release is where I’m starting to really delve into a topic.
At what point did you start writing again, and what was your approach going into it? Had you been writing at all during that time?
I hadn’t been writing at all. I hadn’t felt able to. Picking up the guitar made me feel very anxious – it felt like a lot of pressure before I even played anything. I didn’t play for a good four years. However, when I started writing again at the end of 2018, I started writing ‘Hammer’ just before Christmas. Over the Christmas break, I was at home at my mom and dad’s and even just having written half a song, I kind of knew that there was gonna be more to come.
I don’t think I came with any specific approach. It just started happening. But I was very lonely at the time – the circumstances that I lived and worked in meant that I was isolated for the best part of the year. I didn’t have a lot of time off my work, it was really exhausting. And when I wasn’t working, I was too tired to meet up with people. I ended up spending most of that time playing music alone. But I don’t think I thought about it very hard, and I guess that’s one of the features of the Hammer EP, is that’s kind of the music that ended up coming.
Was experimenting with a more electronic sound something that came naturally with that? Or was it more of a conscious choice?
The electronic element – it’s funny, when people use that word, because I really don’t feel like I deserve to have that word be put alongside my music when I know nothing about electronic anything. But when I went into the studio with Steph, she sort of opened up the world of synthesizers and drum machines to me. A lot of the sounds that were in my original demos that were quite simple became more interesting and more deliberate and more thought-through. And I guess what we’ve got now is something that’s grown out of some very simple beginnings.
Like many artists, you had very different plans for 2020, especially since you had just come out of a hiatus. Did the pandemic affect the writing and recording of your new EP at all?
Well, none of the songs on Release were written during the pandemic. They were all written last year. We were originally meant to record the EP in March, which then had to get delayed until later in the summer. But as for the pandemic’s impact on writing and music, yeah, it’s definitely turned 2020 over. I mean, my plan for this year was to release this EP and then gig as much as humanly possible. But what it’s ended up doing is giving me the time to reflect on why I make music and to gently edge towards a direction that feels informed and a direction that I can justify.
Especially in these times, I’m sure I’m not the only artist who’s constantly asking themselves why they’re bothering to do something that it feels like nobody’s gonna hear, or “Is what I’m doing self-indulgent?” and “Who am I helping?” As soon as I started writing again, I searched for that kind of assurance that I wasn’t wasting my time, especially as it’s already an occupation that earns little to no money without the pandemic throwing it as well. So there’s a lot of justifying to try and do, but I think I’ve come out this end of 2020 never having been surer of what I want to do, and never having had a better idea of why and where next.
Do you mind sharing some of those thoughts or answers that you found while reflecting?
[Pauses] Well, I tend to write a lot of it on my wall, so I’m looking around me now.
I guess a lot of my writing, especially over the last year, has been trying to understand myself, and in that way, trying to understand everybody. [laughs] It’s quite a big mission statement, but you gotta start somewhere. I think it’s fairly common knowledge that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t really love other people. And if you don’t have compassion for yourself then you won’t get very far being there for others. And I think with a lot of what I do everyday, I try to keep that in mind. I’m someone who’s always had a difficult relationship with myself and I always have to fight back a part of me that wants to undermine myself.
I’m trying to understand and at the same time accept that I can never fully understand. I’ve been reading bits and pieces lately of Buddhist philosophy, which I feel like is not really original, but still, it’s great. I think I’ve described the song ‘Forward’ before as kind of like being on a boat in a storm and you’re just literally hitting one side at a time and trying to find balance and find yourself in the middle, and it’s impossible. But you know, there’s a bit of Buddhist philosophy that says you should be able to find the middle way, and life will throw you from big highs to big lows, but if you can be okay with just things being neutral, that’s where the peace is. You have to be okay with just being in the middle of everything and not having control, necessarily.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Sophie Jamieson’s Release EP arrives on December 1. The Hammer EP is out now.