For centuries the world’s been awash with performers—singers with an instrument and a story to tell. Some fade from memory, others never stuck. To grab hold of a listener, captivate and charm, there needs to be something more. With her new EP Side Effects out today, singer/songwriter Sofia Wolfson does exactly that. There are traces of those that have come before, and maybe even a hint of She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel. There’s also the impact of producer Marshall Vore, whose talents have coalesced with those of Ryan Adams and rising star Phoebe Bridgers. There’s a lushness to Wolfson’s soundscapes, supported by an array of musicians like former Rilo Kiley member and indie rock swingman Jason Boesel. At 18, Wolfson has moved from Los Angeles to Boston to develop her craft (and education) further. In the midst of it all, we spoke with her about process, inspiration and what’s to come.
What was your production process like on this EP? How did you find your producer?
I met Marshall Vore because he plays drums for Phoebe Bridgers, who I’ve known for many years. I had heard some tunes he had produced and I thought going into the studio together would be a good match. We are inspired by the same records, like Blake Mills’s Break Mirrors, and I knew we’d have similar thoughts on the overall production of my songs. I went into his studio to record one tune, “Snake Eyes,” kind of as a test run. He brought in Lee Pardini from Dawes and listening to Lee play the piano for the single made me realize I wanted to make an EP with Marshall. We brought in a ton of incredible musicians, like Jason Boesel, Dylan Day, Mason Stoops, Jay Rudolph, Jon Joseph and Charlie Hickey.
How long did it take to get these tracks right?
We spent a couple days on each individual song, which is a different kind of recording process than I had known before. When I made my first record, Hunker Down, we would record the basic tracks for five songs in one day and all the subsequent sessions would be used to flesh out the songs as a batch. Though I was able to technically get more done in those sessions, I found how much I prefer the way I recorded this new EP. Taking whole sessions to focus time and energy on a single tune brought out really complex and interesting interpretations of the songs. Before these sessions, “Snake Eyes” was very upbeat and more folky. Now, it’s piano-driven, smooth, and rhythmic. I spent July in and out of Marshall’s studio getting these songs right and I’m thankful I was given the time to take it slow in the process.
Can you describe your songwriting process?
My songwriting process is always evolving, but most of the time I’ll be out in the world—whether it’s walking down a street, driving, or having a conversation—and I’ll think of a line. I either jot it down on my phone, sing it into voice memos, or both. When I get back to my guitar, I then match chords and melody to the line. I’ve found more often than not, words come to me first, as my music is heavily lyric-driven. One time I was driving home and I thought of the line “I’ve got a prescription to deal with your symptoms,” which became the opening line of the song “Capsule.” I don’t usually sit down with my guitar or at the piano and say “I’m going to write a song today.” Instead, there have been times I have sat down to write with a specific idea or feeling that I want to express, and the song comes that way.
Where do you draw inspiration from? When you are feeling uninspired, what do you do to breakthrough?
I find it easiest to write music about emotions I’m struggling with. Most of my songs are a reflection of thoughts I have, relationships in my life, and my fears. I also draw a lot of inspiration from the city I grew up in, LA, everything from the scenery to the people to things I overhear. I’m also super-inspired by literature. I have a tune I play at some shows called “This Is What We Talk About,” based on the Raymond Carver short story. When I’m having trouble finding something to write about, I go back to some of my favorite lines in books or movies, which usually tend to spark some sort of relatable feeling in me. But it can be challenging at times to feel inspired. “Write It Down,” the second song on the EP, is a song about feeling like I’m saying the same thing over and over again in songs.
Can you share some observations, though fledgling, on the difference between the LA and Boston music scenes?
LA music venues will forever have my heart. My childhood was shaped by Largo on La Cienega, a venue that introduced me to a lot of my favorite artists, like Sara & Sean Watkins. More recently, The Theater at the Ace Hotel became one of my favorites, as I got to see some pretty incredible shows like The Milk Carton Kids, Wilco, and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings in such an incredibly beautiful theater. Over here in Boston, I’m growing to learn the concert scene and I’m really thankful for it. The transition to college, all the way across the country, is a pretty bizarre one and I’m grateful in my first couple months I got to catch Big Thief, Margaret Glaspy, Solange, and Julien Baker here. One thing I have noticed is that Boston concert-goers seem super-dedicated to the shows they attend. There are a lot of music lovers in this city.
Have people asked about your age? And if so, how do you handle questions about that?
My age comes up at almost every gig I play. I started gigging at 14, which isn’t completely strange in LA but I definitely got asked a lot of questions. Though oftentimes being young can be impressive, I’ve definitely felt disrespected at certain gigs. Being both young and a woman, many gigs can feel like you have to prove yourself in order to gain respect. But recently, Kevin Bronson from Buzzbands was playing my single on the radio, said I was 18, and then compared me to the likes of Carole King and Lucinda Williams, which was really flattering.
What’s next—both with this EP and after its run its cycle?
I’m going to be making a music video for this EP and releasing it in the coming months. Over here in Boston, I’ve been writing a lot of new songs so I’m hoping to get back into the studio soon.
First image courtesy of David Wolfson, remaining images courtesy of Grace Gallagher