For Sophie Allison, aka Soccer Mommy, color theory is a distillation of hard-won catharsis. The album confronts the ongoing mental health and familial trials that have plagued the 22-year-old artist since pre-pubescence, presenting listeners with an uncompromisingly honest self-portrait, and reminding us exactly why her critically-acclaimed debut, 2018’s Clean, made her a hero to many. Wise beyond her years, Allison is a songwriter capable of capturing the fleeting moments of bliss that make an embattled existence temporarily beautiful. With color theory, Allison’s fraught past becomes a lens through which we might begin to understand what it means to be resilient.
Clean demonstrated Allison’s nuanced approach to lyricism and her disinterest in reducing complex emotional worlds into easily-digestible sound bites. On it, she projected the image of a confused but exceedingly mature teenager — the type to offer up life-saving advice while cutting class under the bleachers. Clean led Soccer Mommy to sell out tour dates and play major music festivals around the world on top of opening for the likes of Kacey Musgraves, Vampire Weekend, and Paramore. A grueling touring schedule made it so that Allison had to get used to writing on the road, a challenge that exhilarated her. She wrote dozens of songs in hotels, green rooms, and in the backseat of the van. The ones that make up color theory were recorded in her hometown of Nashville at Alex The Great, a modest studio where the likes of Yo La Tengo have recorded, just two miles from her childhood home. Produced by Gabe Wax and engineered by Lars Stalfors (Mars Volta, HEALTH, St. Vincent), color theory’s sonic landscape is vast and dextrous, illustrating how much Allison has evolved as a musician and matured as a person over the past year. The melodies on color theory shimmer on the surface, but they reveal an unsettling darkness with each progressive listen.
“I wanted the experience of listening to color theory to feel like finding a dusty old cassette tape that has become messed up over time, because that’s what this album is: an expression of all the things that have slowly degraded me personally,” Allison says. “The production warps, the guitar solos occasionally glitch, the melodies can be poppy and deceptively cheerful. To me, it sounds like the music of my childhood distressed and, in some instances, decaying.” Allison used a sampling keyboard and string arrangements drawn from old floppy discs to lend color theory a timeworn aesthetic. She also opted to enlist her band in the recording process, which hadn’t been the case on any of her earlier releases. “At the base of every song on color theory is a live take done to tape. This album reflects our live performance, which I’ve grown really happy with,” she says.
color theory is thematically subdivided into three sections, each of which is named for a color that distills the mood Allison wanted to freeze in time. We begin with blue, a color that evokes a certain melancholy, and for Allison, illuminates depressive episodes and memories of inflicting self-harm. On “circle the drain,” she admits that “the days thin me out or just burn me straight through” over a swirling, guitar-driven arrangement that inspires a sense of ease in spite of the distressing lyrical content. The next section is represented by yellow, a color that points to illness, both mental and physical. “My mom has been terminally ill since I was a pre-teen, and I never really found a way to deal with it,” Allison says. “On ‘yellow is the color of her eyes,’ I sing about a period when I was on an international tour and kept feeling like my time with her was ticking away.” Lackadaisical from the outset, the song marries its relaxed arrangement with gutting lyrics that will ring true to anyone who has ever witnessed a loved one’s health decline.
The final section, represented by grey, addresses that fear of loss directly. “Watching my parents age and witnessing sickness take its toll made me think a lot about the cycle of life, and forced me to confront the paranoid sense that death is coming for me,” Allison says. On the color theory’s closer, “grey light,” she doesn’t shrink from the terrifying promise of death’s inevitability and instead gives herself over to it completely. Atop a faded, oceanic bed of instrumentation, she unflinchingly admits, “I see the noose/ It follows me closely whatever I do.” But it’s not all tragic, and moments of lightness appear on this album, too. Take lead single “lucy,” which navigates an all-consuming dread with cunning wit and showcases Allison’s deft songwriting prowess. Here, she pleads with a devilish character and succumbs to his cruelty just as easily as she delights in his attention. “That irks me — that I’m falling down/ From heaven through the Earth/ To hellfire to wear his crown,” she sings, the twinkling instrumentation taking on an eerie, unsettling bent as the song progresses.
color theory investigates a traumatic past in exacting detail; in doing so, Allison finds inroads for healing through self-acceptance, and occasionally, humor. (“I’m the princess of screwing up!” she declares at one point.) This isn’t a quest to uncover some long-since forgotten happiness so much as it is an effort to stare-down the turmoil of adolescence that can haunt a person well into adulthood. Allison is a gifted storyteller, one who is able to take personal experience and project it to universal scale. On color theory, she beckons in outsiders, rejects, and anyone who has ever felt desperately alone in this world, lending them a place to unburden themselves and be momentarily free.
Ella O’Connor Williams, also known as Squirrel Flower, was born on August 11th 1996, the hottest day of the year, still inside of a translucent caul sac membrane, surrounded by amniotic fluid. Born with a membrane between her and the rest of the world, yet still very much connected to and dependent on a larger life force. It’s this origin story that inspired the name of Squirrel Flower’s new album I Was Born Swimming.
Williams comes from a deep-rooted musical family tree. Her grandparents were classical musicians who lived in the Gate Hill Co-op, an artistic cooperative from upstate New York that grew out of Black Mountain College. Ella’s father, Jesse Williams, spent most of his life as a touring jazz and blues performer and educator, and lends his bass playing to the album (listen for his smooth solo on “Headlights”). Growing up in a family of hard working musicians fostered a love of music and started Williams down her own musical path. As a child, Williams adopted the alter ego of Squirrel Flower. A couple years later, she began singing with the Boston Children’s Chorus while studying music theory and teaching herself to play the guitar. As a teen, she discovered the Boston DIY and folk music scenes and began writing, recording, and performing her own songs, now returning to the name Squirrel Flower as her chosen moniker. By the time Williams had begun performing live, recording and touring she was already well on her way to the signature artful songcraft heard on the album.
Squirrel Flower’s music is ethereal and warm, gushing with emotional depth that the listener can step into like a warm bath. The band on I Was Born Swimming plays with delicate intention, keeping the arrangements natural and light. The album was tracked live, with few overdubs, at The Rare Book Room Studio in New York City with producer Gabe Wax (Adrienne Lenker, Palehound, Cass McCombs). The musicians were selected by Wax and folded themselves into the songs effortlessly. At the heart of the album lives Williams’ massive, haunted vibrating voice and melancholic, soulful guitar playing. The sounds expand and contract over diverse moods, cutting loose on the heavier riffs of “Red Shoulder” or “Streetlight Blues,” both recorded in her hometown of Boston, and holding back with atmospheric restraint on “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or “Belly Of The City”.
I Was Born Swimming b egins with an Iowa drive down I-80 and continues to travel, poetically, between her college town of Grinnell Iowa, Boston, MA and New York City where the album was recorded. Throughout the 12 songs, landscapes change and relationships shift, “There’s so much in the record about movement and stagnation. Feeling stuck, needing to move, needing to stay still, swimming, falling, running, growing, etc etc.” said Williams. The album’s lyrics feel like effortless expressions of exactly the way it feels to change — abstract, sad and hopeful.
Williams eventually returns to the image of her in the sac; born swimming, knowing how to exist, love herself, and not needing anyone else to do it for her.
Born swimming in blue water
Didn’t ever need another
Now I live underwater.
Can you see it shimmer?
Can you see me shimmer?
I’m moving faster than it
Can you see me shimmer?
So dip me in the water.