Having grown up in Germany after her family emigrated from Baltimore, Sophia Kennedy started recording audio on a camcorder given to her on her sixteenth birthday. It’s no surprise that the singer-songwriter takes a cinematic approach to making music: obsessed with the work of John Cassavetes and 70s horror movies, she went on to study film in Hamburg, where she started her music career writing for theatre productions. While immersing herself in the city’s dance music scene, she met Mense Reents, who ended up co-producing her debut self-titled record, released in 2017 on DJ Koze and Marcus Fink’s Pampa Records – a label better known for house and techno than the eclectic pop stylings the album confidently displayed. Drawing inspiration from Tin Pan Alley and vintage showtunes as much as deconstructed club music, the album served as a bold introduction to Kennedy’s unique and playful vision as well as her distinct voice. Her sophomore LP, Monsters, released earlier this month via City Slang, sees her experimenting with a more diverse palette while leaning more into the darker, melancholic undertones that belied her debut: it’s an album that’s both unnerving and strangely comforting, yet Kennedy’s ability to craft a compelling world remains intact. The word monster might have different connotations depending on the context, but Kennedy evokes both its child-like and threatening qualities, stitching together parts of one’s self the human mind tends to separate.
We caught up with Sophia Kennedy for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, her artistic journey, Monsters, and more.
What are some of your earliest musical memories?
Growing up, my mother listened to a lot of music. She loved to sing, she loved to listen to music in the car and at home, so I always connected music with a very joyful way of life. She listened to a lot of soul, jazz, Ray Charles and Nina Simone, stuff like that. And then when I was teenager I got more into folk or indie music; Velvet Underground was a big thing for me growing up as a teenager, and the Beatles, of course, Smog, the band Moldy Peaches. When Moldy Peaches was introduced to me, I’d never – it’s such a teenage band, it’s like teenage people making teenage music for teenagers, and it really had an effect on me when I was young because I thought it was so close to the way that I was perceiving my life, you know, with the troubles I had being a teenager. And I really loved the lo-fi production, the fact that you could hear the telephone ringing in the background and the singer starting to laugh while she was still performing.
I think we all have that band or record that we identify with as teenagers. But it made me think of your song ‘Seventeen’, which opens with the line, “When I was seventeen, I was afraid of everything.” I guess that’s reflective of a lot of people’s experience, but how personal was it to you?
I ask myself this question a lot because I always – and I don’t know actually why – but in my lyrics, I’m rarely one-to-one with what really happened. Because I have, like, surrealism and other kinds of stuff in my lyrics. But this song – the lyrics just came to me when I was writing the piano and I was like, “Does this have any relevance at all?” Because there’s so many songs that reflect on that time. But I think in my song, it doesn’t glorify youth or anything, it’s more about the melancholy of growing up. I think that being a teenager in my life was a very important time, even though it was a very difficult time, because I felt – I was very productive, but I didn’t know what productive actually meant. I was driven by fear of life itself – that’s why afraid of everything – and confusion, but also being curious about what else will happen, and overcoming troubles and overcoming crises. That’s why it’s a personal song.
I read that you started recording sounds and music when you got your first camcorder. And you said you were very productive at the time, but why do you think you were drawn to documenting your life from such a young age?
I don’t know why; maybe it had something to do with growing up in two different places. I was born in America and then I moved to Germany, and so my family was kind of torn – the one side of my family who I was very close with, my grandparents and my father, they lived in America, and then I had my mother and my stepdad and my brothers in Germany. There was so much going on in my personal life, but also, I thought it was so important to hold on to that time, and that’s why I think that when I was in America I always took my camcorder with me; to have this kind of proof that this life actually existed, so I could take it back to Germany and then watch and see that I have this life as well, these people. And I used the camcorder as a tool to record audio because I didn’t know how else to record audio. So I took the camcorder and used it not only as a tool to film things but also use the audio, which I still have and I always kept with me my whole life. And that’s why I use the voices of my grandparents, which one can hear on the album as well, and it’s important because they’ve passed, sadly. But I just knew at that time that I want to have it and keep it; having the voice of my grandparents and putting it into my music is a way of keeping them in my memory.
That’s actually something I wanted to bring up later on because I wasn’t sure who it was in that voice recording. Do you feel that your music or the creative process in general is a way for you to hold on to a certain moment, despite it being quite surreal in places?
I don’t know if I only do music to hold on to something. With the audio snippets, it’s also just another thing I use, and it’s also an artistic thought. The last song, ‘Dragged Myself Into the Sun’, I think it’s the most tense and dense song on the album. It has these psychedelic moments and lyrics and then having the voice of this old lady – that is my grandmother, but to you can be somebody else – and having this real voice asking real questions, it channels the realness that I was looking for in the end. So I don’t think it’s necessary all about keeping memories. Music is just a way for me to create something that I think is important to say.
Your artistic trajectory has often been described as an unusual one – from your film studies to your experience in the theatre and your signing to DJ Koze’s Pampa label. When you look back on your musical and personal journey, does it feel in any way bizarre?
I don’t know if it’s a bizarre journey. I’m still thrilled that I can do what I do because I’ve been wanting to do it for so long, and it took me so long to realize that it’s actually a reality; it’s not just my fantasy or dream world. But I think that thing goes hand in hand, you have to hide away from a certain kind of reality; being this person who finishes school and studies and has a job, you know, that things are in a certain way. And from an early age, I just knew that that kind of normal expectation of life wasn’t for me. What I really like about the journey is that everything came organically, because I didn’t – I have the feeling that sometimes people who start making music are at a very high level when it comes to what they can actually do, but sometimes they don’t have time to grow or explore. And I’ve been in so many different places, trying to figure out how to become my own person in music, and I’m rather grateful for it.
The bizarre part I think is just the business part of it. It’s a weird feeling to work on something and put it out into the world because it automatically has a different context then, and people do stuff with it and people see different stuff in it. That’s actually a very beautiful process, but also can be scary. But my journey, I think I’ve enjoyed it – everything came at it at its time.
There’s a line on ‘Loop’ that goes, “All the people in art business trying making money with their visions.”
That line is about my conflict of being in this kind of art world but also not fitting in, and because I sometimes have the feeling that the art world can also be very pretentious. That’s just something that I’ve noticed and that I’ve dealt with, that it’s contradictory to be willing to make art or to be in that world and being successful or something.
I wonder if the success of your debut album changed the way you feel about the art world in any way. How do you look back on that record now?
When I started that record, it was like this decision in my life to – because I was just floating before, and I think that I never thought of actually doing an album until Mense Reents, who co-produced the album, came up to me and said, “You have a lot of songs now, let’s just make an album.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to make an album! Me doing an album?” And then we went into the studio and that was the first time I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna make something out of this.” And I think on the first album, the songs are very strict; I layered my voice like three times and I wanted to be confident and fresh and everything is at its place, because it was a way for me to introduce myself into the world of pop music. And on the second album, it wasn’t that question of “How will I introduce myself into this world?” It was more about, “How can I bring more liveliness into the music?” That’s why we wanted more improvisation on the guitars, or why we just left mistakes or out-of-tune organs, we just left them that way, so things aren’t that strict anymore.
Can you talk more about your headspace going into the new album?
I wanted to do another album, but having the experience from the first album and playing live and going back into the studio – I think everything happens in a certain time and reflects upon that certain time, and for me it was important to be a little bit more personal or to make things that are a little bit darker and a bit more melancholic, and the music to feel more alive. But it took a long time to figure out what actually is the theme, because I never think of themes. I just want every song to be a chaotic world of its of its own, and I don’t want to get rid of the chaos; I just want to put it in form. But starting the second album – it’s hard to say that there’s a start point where I started working on the album, because everything has this flow and I don’t go into the studio if I know that nothing’s going to happen or that I’m not in the mood or whatever. But I think with the song ‘Loop’, when I had that song, that’s when I kind of knew what the album could be like.
What are some things that influenced the darker, more haunting direction of the album?
I think it’s two things: having the experience of my first album and coming out of that kind of dreamy world and that playfulness that was good at the time but I think wouldn’t have fit for this album, and it was also that I had my family in America – my grandparents who passed, and my father passed. It was a very dark time in my life in many ways and I think that that shaped and influenced the album a lot, but it was important to me that the album doesn’t feel morbid or that it’s about death or something. But it has traces and moments that deal with the heaviness of grief and loss. I just wanted it to feel conflicted and confused and irritated but also have lighter moments and be fun; that it’s a pop album that you can listen to and enjoy but also have these moments of heaviness.
That contrast definitely comes through. I think it’s interesting in particular that you said you went into this album wanting it to feel more alive while also reflecting on grief and loss. Was it a difficult process for you to bring those things together?
It was a difficult process because I wanted things to still be balanced, you know, like I said, that the album doesn’t feel like this heavy dark cloud. I didn’t want it to be depressing; I wanted it to have moments of lightness and hopefulness and funny and silly parts, because I think that’s an essential part of my life and but also life itself, but also to go places where it hits you in the core and makes you feel overwhelmed.
On your previous album, there was a strong preoccupation with place and a lingering sense of nostalgia, especially about home and the idea of home. And here, we mentioned ‘Seventeen’, but also the song ‘Do They Know’ is an example of this as well. Why do you think you keep returning to these themes?
It’s funny because when my first album came out and I was reading reviews and everybody was talking about, it’s a feeling of homesickness or place or home, I didn’t even think of that. But I think it was such a subconscious thing for me, and with my new record, there’s this – I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but there is something about home and longing and memory, but I never do it on purpose. I think maybe it has something to do with living in Germany for so long, but my identity here is being this American who moved to Germany, and when I go to America I’m the German who’s visiting. And making music – I do often go there in my mind, you know, to Baltimore, trying to connect those two. And maybe that’s the case, but it’s not like I sit down and want to do that precisely. I think it’s just inside of me somehow.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Sophia Kennedy’s Monsters is out now via City Slang.