Interview: Sophia Knapp

We get sent a lot of albums here at Death + Taxes and some, naturally, are better than others. When your email inbox is full of publicists trying to grab your ear it becomes less and less likely to find something you’d actually want to hear. Such was not the case with Sophia Knapp’s arresting new album “Into The Waves” – one of the most original sounding albums of the year and a testament to romance, it seems. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with her the other week.

DEATH + TAXES: Hey, this is Ned Hepburn from Death and Taxes.

SOPHIA KNAPP: Hey Ned, how are you doing?

DT: I’m good, how are you?

SK: Cool.

DT: Where are you right now?

SK: I’m in Brooklyn right now.

DT: Oh crazy, same here. Nice — do you live in Brooklyn?

SK: I’ve been here the past three months. I kind of go back and forth between Brooklyn and SF. We’ll be touring, so, living out of a suitcase right now.

DT: Nice. Brooklyn and, where did you say?

SK: Brooklyn and San Francisco.

DT: Oh nice, I used to live in San Jose, which is not really anything to talk about.

SK: Oh! Close, still.

DT: There’s really nothing to do there.

SK: I haven’t really spent time there. I’m from San Francisco originally.

SK: Did you grow up around there?

SK: Mmm-hmm.

DT: So, I’m gonna start with a very “meet the Beatles”-y sounding question, I really liked your album, I thought it was really fucking good.

SK: Thanks so much man! Thanks for sharing that.

DT: How long did it take to record?

SK: It took a good year and a half from start to finish.

DT: Oh wow.

SK: Yeah. It was really, really slow. [Laughs] Really detail-oriented.

DT: Yeah, you can tell. I was in the grocery store maybe an hour ago, and Fleetwood Mac was playing, I thought it was interesting that your album sounded like it was pulled directly from that era. Was that a conscious thing that you did?

SK: I wouldn’t say that we were aiming to make it sound exactly like that. But that style of production, and things that are easy to listen to—what you would hear in a grocery store—I like combining things that sound smooth with subversive content. Finding different ways to mix the form and the content. I thought it would be interesting to make something that was superficially very clean sounding, you know?

DT: That’s what I really liked about it, actually. As you start getting more into it and you realize what the lyrics are, you realize it’s a really different story.

SK: I like things that are challenging, but maybe not upon first listen. My mother’s a classical pianist, and I grew up listening to a lot of classical music obviously. I like things that are traditionally beautiful. And I guess when people talk about how this record has this “sheen” to it—I like things that go down easy, but then you’re thinking about it later.

DT: Can I ask a really boring music journalist question? Like, really boring.

SK: Go for it, yeah. [Laughs.]

DT: The stand-out track—and I’m not trying to blow smoke up your ass, I fucking hate when interviewers, or when I’m interviewing someone and I try to compliment someone and it comes off like some sort of thing—but I really fucking like “Into the Waves.” There’s something about that which very easily could be—and I mean this in a good way, but it has this Stevie Nicks kind of vibe to it—like it’s a very fucking good song.

SK: Thank you!

DT: It’s good in a way like “There Will be Blood” is good, like not in a “hot dog” kind of way. Like, hot dogs are great, but this was fucking great, know what I’m saying?

SK: Not in a “hot dog” way? [Laughs.] The whole song is like a hot dog, basically? Thank you so much. Making music, you’re always happy to hear—and then, it’s like this weird thing that exists in the mind and it’s really cool. My favorite thing about making [an album] besides actually making it is actually hearing from people that they’re really connecting with it, and I really appreciate it.

DT: What’s the story behind it, can you tell me more about that song? ‘Cuz it’s fucking killer, and I want to find out what the backstory behind it was.

SK: Thanks! Obviously I’m a bleeding heart romantic, you can probably tell from the lyrics on the record. That song is about falling in love and knowing that it’s a dangerous situation. The two-faced mask of being really excited about something and also knowing that you’re entering into the great mystery—that’s why the record’s called Diving Into the Wave, you’re shifting your perspective in merging with another person. You don’t really know how cold the water’s gonna be when you dive in, but you have to clip your nose and do it anyway.

DT: That’s a good way to put it. Next ‘Music Journalist’ question. Actually fuck it… I’ve got a really weird one.

SK: Music journalist question? [Laughs.] Nothing is boring. Nothing is ever boring to me.

DT: Do you want a really weird question or do you want a straight boring one for the next question?

SK: I dunno, whatever.

DT: It took a year and a half to make, right? I’ve got to ask, when you actually held the physical record in your hand, and it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a year, a year and a half, eighteen months of recording, I’ve got to ask—you did mention you’re a hopeless romantic and everything—I’ve got to ask what goes through your mind when you hold something you’ve been working on that long for that basically came out of your head into physical presence.

SK: It feels good to complete a project and see it through to the end. It’s definitely a satisfying feeling. Also, being a creative person, I’m always thinking about the next thing, too. It’s like an addiction. By the time I actually had the record in my hands I was already formulating other things. Which doesn’t take away from the joy of the moment, it’s just the cycle of seeing something through. What’s most exciting for me is being able to share it with people, because this music is going on in my head. Some people are seeing us play in Brooklyn, and my friends might know the songs, but it’s a gift to be able to have the record available to anyone who wants to hear it. I guess pretty proud.

DT: How did Bill Callahan become involved?

SK: We met three years ago, and he’s been such an ally for me. I like a lot of male/female duets. I’ve been inspired musically by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin— there’s so many. I tend to gravitate towards that sound. I think there’s always some sort of underlying tension that makes it interesting. His voice is so extraordinary, I wanted to get him involved with the record.

DT: What was he like in the studio? Was he anything like you’d think he might be, like this kind of quiet gruff guy? What’s he like in person?

SK: Bill’s really funny. That’s a thing most people don’t really know about Bill. He’s hilarious. Yeah, he is quiet. He’s really got a golden sense of humor. That comes out in his music a bit, but that’s something I’ve always appreciated about him.

DT: What about your sense of humor, what’s that like? What do you find funny?

SK: Oh my gosh, I’m like a total goofball, it’s out of control.

DT: Really?

SK: I love funny things, like a lot of comedians you hear these days. Almost every word that comes out of my mouth when I’m talking to my friends is some sort of joke. I think life is too short to take anything seriously.

DT: What about a favorite movie actor, that sort of thing? That’s a really terrible question, I apologize, Jesus Christ.

SK: You don’t need to apologize.

DT: I have a set of questions here, and half of it’s just thinking it up on the fly, and sometimes you just throw out a lead balloon like that and it’s fucking terrible.

SK: Don’t worry, it’s all good. Movie actors…

DT: You said “romantic” earlier and the angle I’m trying to come at is if there’s a classic movie actor you could sing this album to—

SK: I love Steve McQueen.

DT: Could you sing the whole album to Steve McQueen?

SK: [Laughs.] I don’t know, I’m a very romantic person but I think that’s not even just romantic love, like in the boy-girl, girl-girl, boy-boy sense, it’s also— it sounds cheesy, but [I really like] flowers and hearts and all those things. By “romantic” I mean not afraid to express emotions. It’s interesting that you bring up movies, because I do think what’s thought of as being sentimental is more okay in film form, because it’s okay to cry at movies. It’s okay for you to feel all shaken up by seeing a movie. But people don’t expect to see that at an indie rock show.

DT: Yeah, exactly. Everyone’s just folding their fucking arms and sitting around not doing anything. It’s depressing.

SK: Yeah, and I feel I definitely feel like I got some flack for that, like “what you’re doing is cheesy.” But you know what, I don’t care. Life is short, you gotta do what you love. I do like singing love songs, you know? I’m not afraid to say those things in words. I think there’s a place for it. I’m interested in how that space that is more commonly reached through films can be reached through music. 

DT: You say people have given you flack for singing love songs, right?

SK: I don’t feel like there’s an army against me or something, But I do think that sometimes what I do can sometimes be off-putting. But that’s okay, I don’t expect everyone to enjoy what I do. I never wanted that, and it’s impossible to always do what everyone’s cool with.

DT: How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?

SK: I’m 27.

DT: You’re younger than me, Jesus. I’m interviewing people younger than me, it’s terrible. I’m kidding. You’re from the Bay Area originally, but can you take me through the last few years, like where you grew up? You said your mom’s a classical pianist. What kind of upbringing would bring such an unashamed love album?

SK: I grew up in San Francisco, I went to a French immersion school. That was only because my parents slacked off and didn’t apply to American schools in time, so they sent me to the French schools. I definitely think that was an influence on my writing, because the French curriculum, they start the children memorizing poems at a very young age. I’m talking five and six. So I credit that as something that started me writing. We’d literally be memorizing these classic poems and reciting them in front of the class, so I started using my mind in that way pretty early. I think that helps me remember lyrics on stage, actually, those skills I learned from that French school. My father is an eye surgeon. He’s a healer type. I’m very fortunate I grew up in a household where music was appreciated, and I grew up listening to a lot of music and was exposed to a lot of things. My parents never pushed me to do music, it was actually something I was embarrassed about. I didn’t start playing my songs for people until long after I’d started writing them because I somehow felt embarrassed about it. [Laughs.] And then I moved to New York to go to art school and I’ve been here on and off ever since.

DT: Do you think it’s harder for female artists to be taken seriously?

SK: I don’t think so. I think women are valued in music, in the industry. of course there are still certain situations that come up where it’s something that needs to be acknowledged or gotten out of the way in some way, but I think women are respected as a whole. A pet peeve of mine is being called a ‘protege’ of any man I happen to be working with. You’d be surprised with how often this term is thrown around, and it’s extremely derogatory because it not only denotes inferiority but also lack of knowledge or maturity as an artist. It also implies the guy I’m working with is somehow shaping and controlling my work, which removes the credit from where it’s due. Writers have many times assumed (and written, in major publications. oof, don’t they have fact checkers?) that someone else is playing guitar on my recordings, when I have written and played all guitar on my record and with Lights. I don’t think this would happen if I were a man.
So, though I generally think audiences and labels embrace and honor women in all their power, we still run into these sorts of problems.

DT: Who are some of your favorite female artists?

SK: I like Lykke Li, I think she’s really great. I have a lot of friends in Brooklyn I’m really inspired by. I like Marie Sioux. I don’t know if you’ve heard of her but her voice is just so beautiful. She’s in California.

DT: Are you playing any shows in Brooklyn anytime soon?

SK: Yeah! We’re actually playing Manhattan on June 19th, we’re playing at the Poisson Rouge.

DT: I pretty much got everything I need. I just wanted to say your album is really fucking good, you should really be proud of it, it one of the more original recordings I’ve heard in a long time so you should take that and run with it.

SK: Thank you so much! I’m really glad you like the record. You’re an artist too?

DT: No I mean, I used to when I was 19, and I was a complete dick.

SK: [Laughs.] You’re so hard on yourself, what’s up with that?

DT: I don’t know, I gotta keep myself in check otherwise I’ll be like Prince or someone like that, you know? That was a bad Prince joke for you.

SK: I looooove Prince.

DT: He’s the fucking best. What’s your favorite Prince album?

SK: He’s so good. I like “Sign of the Times.” Prince is so inspiring. I love his whole aesthetic, too.

DT: Could you make your whole next album sound like Prince?

SK: That would definitely be a challenge.

DT: Could you put my name in the liner notes if you do that, as having given you the idea?

SK: Yeah! I love watching him perform. He’s so focused. Oh man. His dance moves are great too. It’s always tricky as a guitar player for people to dance while you play, but he’s able to wear high heels, play guitar and dance—which is something I’m working on. I just watch him and shake my head, like “You’re so good.”

DT: So you’re jealous of Prince, then?

SK: He’s so good.

DT: Last question: what’s your favorite place to play? If there was a city you could play the album in, what would it be?

SK: To listen to it or to play a concert?

DT: To play. Like an emblematic, unplugged “Live in New York” kinda shit.

SK: Gosh. I dunno, I feel like it’s a very New York album. I actually feel like New York’s a good place for it.

DT: Like Williamsburg area? Cobble Hill? What part?

SK: A lot of Manhattan. It’s funny, we’ve been playing more Manhattan recently actually. When I was recording and writing the album I was living and recording in this place in Greenpoint, and I was living in this skyline. I was living in the end of Greenpoint near the water and overlooking near the Empire State and everything. When I think of the record I think of that scene I was looking at. How much Manhattan feels like this city in outer space, there’s so much energy and so much bustling. I know it has a cotton candy vibe to it, but there’s also this underlying, New York, dark grey thing happening, too. It was influenced by a lot of records made in New York.

DT: So do you think Manhattan needs more romance?

SK: Sure. I think everywhere could use more romance.

DT: Fuck yeah.

SK: But Manhattan is very romantic. It’s also very challenging, very hard place to live and spend time. But there’s still looking at that skyline. And the way the seasons change here, there’s something really nice about it.

DT: Thank you very much. You’ve made an amazing fucking album.

Big thanks to Sarah Kasulke for helping me transcribe the interview.