Free Range is the project of 19-year-old Chicago-based musician Sofia Jensen, who spent a lot of time growing up in the forests of Scandinavia, where their family is from. Though she doesn’t get to visit as often as she used to, Jensen evokes that kind of environment in their debut album, Practice, which largely revolves around the need for escapism; imagining a place free of distractions and noise, where emotions can naturally take their course. The record came together like that, slowly but organically – Jensen had an album’s worth of songs when they started working with future bandmate and co-producer Jack Henry, and the pair were later joined in the studio by bassist Bailey Minzenberger. Although the material was rearranged and recording took place over several years, but mostly during nighttime in the bleakest days of the pandemic, Practice retains an atmosphere of warm intimacy as Jensen reflects on tangled feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, the small messes of youth that always take up more mental space than you remember. Even when they sing about the desire to be somewhere else, Free Range is always right there – dreaming, growing, quietly figuring things out as time moves along.
We caught up with Free Range for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about their earliest musical memories, the making of Practice, the meaning behind Free Range, and more.
Do you mind sharing some of your earliest memories of relating to music in a significant way?
I definitely grew up around a lot of music, but no one in my family plays music. My mom would take me to Pitchfork every year when I was really young, she would always volunteer there, so that was one of the earliest experiences that I had with live music. I feel like there’s a thing of, your parents are playing music around the house and they’re in control of it, and it just influences the bands that you’re aware of as a kid. I wanted to know the names of bands that were cool and that I liked – it wasn’t like a passive thing, I wanted to know who it was and what the song was called and what album it was from. I remember my mom would just ask me if I knew who’s playing, very casually testing if I remember, and I remember being really proud of myself for remembering. I played piano as a kid, and that was the only experience I had with playing any kind of music for my whole childhood. I didn’t start playing guitar until middle school, so I didn’t write songs or anything before then. I just did classical piano, but I wasn’t so enamored with playing music, it was kind of a chore. But I grew up as a really big fan of music. The memories that I have of being a kid – I can hear what music is playing.
It wasn’t something that was just in the background, but something you bonded over as a family.
Yeah, and it felt like a way to get to know my parents. I got to a point, when I was a little bit older, where it was very clear what the distinction was with, like, this is my dad’s music taste and this is my mom’s music taste, and I could pinpoint what musical taste and knowledge I got from each of them. My parents are divorced, so I would spend a lot of time with them one at a time. So going to my dad’s house, this would be the music that we talked about – he really loves Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd and Guns N’ Roses and Queen, and then my mom showed me Wilco and Andrew Bird and stuff like that. I’m not at any point wondering where my musical taste started to form. I feel like I can see it very clearly that it came from my parents, and definitely more so from my mom in terms of where I’ve returned to. I did have points of “I love classic rock,” but it’s cool to be at a point now of feeling more comfortable in what I like.
Did that change when you started writing your own music, where it became something more private?
The minute I knew that I wanted to play guitar, it was very much a thing of, “I want to be able to write a song.” That was always the goal for me. I spent a long time trying to write the first song – it was my freshman year of high school. After that, it came out a lot easier, so I started writing a lot. For about a year, I didn’t really have much intention of having a band or putting music out in a real way. I would put demos out on SoundCloud or Bandcamp sometimes. But it was a super solitary thing. I had a couple of friends that were really supportive of it and my parents, but I never was doing it with someone at that time. It was like, “These are my songs that aren’t really for anyone, it’s just for me to see how good of a song I can write.” If I wrote a really good song, it would just be rewarding for myself, because it would feel good to listen to. And that’s still honestly the case, that’s the thing that I enjoy. A big part of it now for me as well is sharing music with people, I think I have much more of a musical support system where I have people that I know will be interested in the songs that I send them. But when I write a song and I like it, I’m just excited to sit alone in my room with my headphones on and listen to it a bunch. I feel like it’s remained a thing that I’ve done for myself first.
On Practice, you often sing about working through or digging up thoughts. When did songwriting feel like that for you, like a tool of discovery or self-reflection more than any other interest?
It was kind of always that as well. In middle school and freshman year of high school, like any kid, I had my issues with feeling, like, lonely and feeling like I didn’t want to be in school and I didn’t fit in – just very textbook, adolescent feelings. I think there is something therapeutic about being good at something, that it’s rewarding for you. My whole life I had been a sports person, and at a certain point I kind of hit a wall with it, and I think I wanted something that felt like it was really mine, that could be my actual thing. And when I realized that it was possible for me to write a song, I was like, “Oh, I can put whatever I want into this. I can just talk about anything.” Initially, I was so scared of anyone hearing a song of mine and knowing what I was talking about, so I would just layer the lyrics in nonsense. It was just me trying to be super metaphorical and clever, but it ultimately just didn’t make any sense. But I knew what I was talking about with those lyrics, so I would definitely use it to work through stuff.
I think it was just another form of journaling for me. If you’re journaling, or if you’re writing about your emotions, you don’t read it over and over again after you’re done writing it. You kind of leave it behind. There’s something very unique about songs, because it can feel similar in terms of writing about my feelings and trying to construct a text that accurately represents what I want to say, but for whatever reason, whether I’m just listening to it to listen to it or I’m recording a song and I have to hear the song over and over again, you’re listening to these words on repeat. I think sometimes you can put these feelings into a song and it doesn’t make it go away, but it’s kind of like setting them free. It starts to lose its effect on you a little bit because you’re just hearing it all the time. It’s no longer the thing that I was initially talking about, it’s its own thing living in the song. It can kind of immortalize those feelings, and then you’re giving them away. They’re no longer yours.
‘All My Thoughts’ was the first song you wrote during the pandemic. What does it bring up for you?
It’s a very emotional song for me. I think of it as that line of, before COVID, I feel like my songs were living in a different world, and then something shifted. It came from me having a moment to sit and be alone for a long time, and all I really did for those first few months was just write songs. I think it was one of the darkest periods of my life, but it was also huge for me. A part of me had been fumbling with writing before that in terms of being unsure what it was that I was looking for – and just the general practice of writing, I still felt bad at it and new to it. And then I kind of I figured it out – not in a way that I perfected the craft, but I became much more aware of what it was that I was trying to achieve. ‘All My Thoughts’ is still one of my favorite songs that I’ve written in terms of what it means for me personally, in terms of the songwriting. Lyrically, I think there was a darkness that I was unwilling to put into songs and show people before I did that. And it felt really good to do this and be like, “Okay, I’m not hiding anything anymore.”
And then it felt like a really big moment for Jack and I making the record together, because when the pandemic happened, we took a big break and then got back together during that summer and kind of started over on the record. We got rid of a lot of recordings with my old band and redid it with Jack and our bassist, Bailey. We had to sit down and be like, “What do we want this record to be?” It wasn’t an explicit conversation like that, but I feel like a big part of us answering that question was with ‘All My Thoughts’, realizing it together. It simultaneously all came to us, we could see what the song could be. And the way that it came together and what the song ultimately became was so on point of, like, “This is what we’ve been trying to make the whole time.”
How did the dynamic between the three of you evolve when you were in the studio?
My relationship to both Jack and Bailey is probably the craziest progression of a friendship and a musical relationship I’ve ever had. People will talk about an artist’s relationship to their like engineer or their producer as very unique and particular – I remember Jeff Tweedy talking about him and the engineer for Wilco, and how it took him a long time to find someone like that. There’s an understanding that you have with this person where you’re both speaking the same language and you really don’t have to say that much for the other person to know what you’re talking about. There’s this creative flow that happens because you’re on the same page. I know that Jack and I have that, and it feels crazy that the first person that I ever recorded with turned out to be like that. I was 14 when we met and Jack was 19, and I just really wanted to make a record because I had enough songs for it. I had no idea what it would take to make a record – I was like, Jack knows how to physically record music, and we’re gonna go in for like a month and it’s gonna be done, and then it’s gonna be out immediately. Jack is a lot older than me, but he was still pretty young in terms of in his career as a recording artist. This is the first record that he ever started working on, and it took four years to make.
Initially, it was a very different dynamic because my bandmates would come into the studio too, and we’d all be there with Jack. But then at a certain point, I realized that all of the guitar parts on the record, those are things that I can do, I’m singing all the songs, and I guess what it is that I want to do is produce the record because I have all these ideas. So there was a lot of time that we ended up spending alone in the studio where it was just me and Jack, and we did a lot of the sessions at night, too, because he was interning at the studio at the time in Chicago and we could get in for free as long as no one else was working. I very vividly remember this moment in the studio – I would just stare at his back for hours and hours because he’d be at the computer and I would be sitting on the couch, waiting. I had no idea what it was that he was doing. And I was like, “Oh, this is basically an adult man that I don’t know that well, but we just sit here in silence or alone together for hours and hours, and it’s very comfortable.” There was this moment where I realized that it wouldn’t be like this with everyone, and there was something special about our dynamic.
Bailey was brought in a little before the pandemic, came into the studio and would just sit there and listen with us. Every once in a while, they would say one thing and it would be just a great idea. We’d bounce ideas off each other, and then they were just a producer on the record. Bailey is simply the best multi-instrumentalist I’ve ever met. It was super cool to have this person there that can play literally anything. Bailey and Jack grew up together, so they’ve been best friends for forever, but somehow it was so natural for the three of us to be in the studio together. We would just have so much fun all the time.
The song ‘Free Range’ begins with you singing, “I’m thinking of a place where I could notice how I’ve disappeared.” What sort of places come to mind when you think about that song and the name Free Range?
The meaning of Free Rang, there were different levels to it, and I found meaning in them after I came up with the name. I just came up with the name and it felt like it made sense with the music, but I really connected with it afterwards. This idea of free range, of this place that is visually and environmentally in nature, and it’s really expansive – the whole idea is that you’re able to wander, you have free reign of this space and you’re not being kept in an enclosure. It was at a time when I was super unhappy being in school and the stuff I was doing, none of it was what I really wanted to be doing. I had a lot of tumultuous relationships with people that made me want to run away from them. So Free Range definitely came from that idea of escapism, just wanting to leave this place where everything feels really messy and painful and you just want to go somewhere that is quiet and open and you’re alone.
I had these non-stop fantasies about going to the mountains or going to Southern Illinois where there are farms, these places that I can imagine feeling so much more comfortable being in than the city. I’ve grown up in the city and I’ve always lived here, but I’ve always been very appreciative of rural places and have had various connections to rural places over the course of my life. I have a lot of family in Scandinavia and go there all the time. My dad’s family is from Denmark, and it’s a lot of farmland, it’s kind of similar to the Midwest. But ultimately, the amount of time that I spend in these kinds of places is very minimal, so it was me projecting myself in this environment where I could imagine having this time and space to process emotions. That’s what that song is about, wanting to have this ability to escape a situation and go to a place where it’s perfectly easy to process your emotions. Which doesn’t really change depending on your environment – you’re still left with your emotions, and it’s still difficult to deal with them.
There’s another level to it that was really important to me, more in the sense of me and my excitement for being a songwriter. Imagining the scope of my life as an artist and wanting, ultimately, to just explore – explore what it means to be an artist and go anywhere I want to creatively. Being creative in any sense, so much of it is imagining these worlds and getting to explore the limits of language and sound and melody. These things excite me to think about, because they’ve existed forever and somehow every single day a bunch of people find a way to make something totally new out of it. I think that’s why “practice,” the word, means so much to me and why I wanted that to be the name of this record, because it’s really about the practice of being an artist and understanding that I’m not striving for perfection or to be done, to complete anything. I’ve just made the decision that this is what my life is going to be. I’m always going to be figuring out what it means for me to be an artist or what it means to be a person or to be a friend, and I’m never going to reach a point where I’m like, “Okay, I’m the best person that I could ever be. I did it.”
‘Growing Away’ touches on the subject of sobriety, but it was written a few months before you did get sober. How did that change your perspective on these songs and the things we’ve talked about?
When I wrote ‘Growing Away’, it wasn’t a thing that I sat down to be like, “I’m going to write a song about my drinking.” It was like, I’m writing a song, and the first thing that came to mind was the first verse, which now, looking back, is very explicitly about that. Sometimes I can’t really see the bigger picture of what the song is saying until after I finished it and I’ve had some space from it. Initially, it wasn’t really an emotional song for me. And then a month or two later, I was looking back on it and I realized what it was about, and it was one sign of many signs that opened my eyes a little bit to my life and the problem that I was having. That was the first time I ever wrote about that subject, and it felt honestly really scary to write about, even in that small way. Afterwards, I started writing about it a lot more because I wasn’t really in denial anymore about it, and I think that was a big part of me having some acceptance around it and admitting it to myself. It was like, “I’m putting this into words on a song that I’m sending to people, I can’t really hide from it anymore.” Other than the same themes of human relationships and love and whatever, my sobriety or addiction and everything that surrounds is the thing that I write about the most now, because I’m never really not thinking about it.
I don’t really explicitly say anything about alcohol or drugs, but the thing that I talk about is memory, loss, or this idea of experiencing things and not being able to remember them. That was a big thing for me: so much of my life was not existing for me because I didn’t remember it after it happened. It was weird to have my life be almost in the hands of other people, because the people around me knew more about the things that I was doing than I did. I just wouldn’t remember, and my friends would be like, “This is what happened last night, this is where we went, and this is what you said.” And now, I remember every single thing that happens to me – except I have like terrible short-term memory, but for the most part, I remember all the important things.
I think ultimately songs are mile markers with certain experiences, and I can always visualize where I was when I wrote a song or what was happening. It helps me not forget the stuff that’s happened to me. A lot of the songs on the record are emotional songs, but ultimately they’re about kind of trivial high school experiences and high school crushes on people that didn’t like me back. And it’s like, “Okay, was the world actually ending?” No, it was okay, and it worked out. But it was very real to me then, and it was very emotional, and I think that it’s captured in the songs. It’s cool to have time capsules of these experiences – to keep them with me, or to have them and then choose to let them go.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.