Inspiring young women to follow their passion for music, 24-year-old Sophie Strauss has been unapologetically taking over the LA scene with her unique, detail-oriented songwriting, as well as her strong activism. When combined, these two qualities create a welcoming voice in a predominantly male industry. We recently spoke with Sophie about breaking down stereotypes, self-expression, and the history behind unequal representation of women in music.
Photo by Claudia Cassina
When did you start seriously pursuing music? What pushed you in that direction?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been singing, but it wasn’t until I was sixteen [that] I started writing my own music. As soon as I was able to write that first song on my own, something clicked inside of me like, “Oh yeah. This. I need to do more of this forever.”
Do you take personal experiences into your songwriting? Can you elaborate a little on that?
Absolutely! I don’t tend to write super narrative songs, so the personal experiences I incorporate aren’t usually stories about things I’ve experienced, but are more like snippets or abstractions of things I’ve thought about, witnessed, had said to me, or overheard. I find it much easier to tackle a big subject like love, death, pain, fear, or whatever by addressing it indirectly through small, specific lyrics and images, as opposed to trying to write broadly about those giant concepts. Instead, I write lyrics about mundane or very personal things as a way to access those larger themes.
Do you think that songs are better if they’re more personal? Does it ever scare you to put yourself out there with your music?
Well, I think everything is personal, even if you sat down and tried to write a song that meant absolutely nothing to you, the specifics of what is meaningless to you would be subjective, and therefore, inherently personal. So it’s unavoidable! I will say that I don’t always write confessionally or “truthfully” about myself, even if I am the subject of the song. Like any writer, much of what I put in my songs is fiction. Usually I’ll start with a line that is true to me in some way and then I will use that line as a jumping-off point for the rest of the song—but what comes after may or may not be truthfully autobiographical. But I don’t think it has to be. It’s totally scary to put yourself out into the world as a musician, but it’s absolutely scarier not to.
What inspires you lyrically?
Conversations! So many of my songs start [with] some snippet of conversation I overhear or a line I read in a book or article that strikes me as sounding especially poetic or strange. Usually, just a few words are enough to get my brain going and generating more ideas—kind of like a word association game.
Stepping into music, who are some of your strongest female role models?
The strongest female role models I’ve had in music are Beyonce (obviously), Jenny Lewis, Fiona Apple, Frances Quinlan of Hop Along, Laura Stevenson, and Solange. I think that all of them are such smart and supremely unique artists who embrace their own identities with strength, nuance, and self-awareness.
Have you had to face any prejudices or preconceived notions, being a woman in the music industry?
I think the most consistent prejudice I’ve gotten is that a lot of people (and by people I mean mostly adult white men) assume that, because I’m a girl making music, that my music is either inherently 100% frivolous or inherently 100% confessional…that because I’m a girl, I’m not capable of depth or complexity, nor am I capable of creating fictional or abstract music. It’s the assumption that that kind of “genius” is saved exclusively for men while we girls are just “sharing our diaries.” (No disrespect to diaries, all disrespect to those dudes.) I’m very interested in rejecting that assumption, but also in reclaiming what it means to make “girl music.” I don’t want anyone to pigeonhole girl music as “light” or “diaristic,” but I also don’t want anyone to think less of music by girls if it’s light or diaristic. Girl music can be anything and still be valid, because a girl can be anything and still be valid.
Why do you personally think there isn’t an equal representation of men, women, and nonbinary people in music?
The [modern] music industry came about during an era that was extremely unequal, an era [when] white men had all the power and made all the decisions and filled any role they wanted. That fact was naturally reflected in the music industry they built. We still live in an era that’s extremely unequal, so it would be foolish to assume the music industry wouldn’t remain a reflection of that inequality, though I do believe it’s getting better. I’m glad Neil Portnow stepped the fuck down. Good riddance.
Do think you empower other girls to follow their passions, musical or not? What kind of role have you taken on to make a difference in gender inequality?
I really, really hope I do! I try to use social media to communicate with as wide an audience as possible about issues I come across as a girl, and also about issues that I have the privilege to float above because I’m white, able-bodied, and cis. I certainly can’t claim to know everything about the experiences of others, but I try to listen as much as possible and then still always assume I know nothing. That typically puts me in a good position to be a decent human being. I am also personally not very shy or squeamish, so I talk (and post) very openly about stuff that some people find uncomfortable… like my period, body image issues, abortion, sexual assault, [and] whatever else pops into my head. However, I try to do it in a way that makes people feel able to actually digest whatever I’m rambling about without feeling defensive or shut down.
What impact do you think social media has had on fixing this gender gap?
Sophie: I think social media is incredibly positive in a lot of ways. It’s democratizing, which is beautiful. There is essentially no barrier to entry for [creating] diverse music, bodies, opinions, and art. Many spread out members of niche communities are able to find each other and flourish through social media. At the same time, though, it can be a really awful place: a toxic vehicle for hatred and bigotry, a place where it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s manufactured.
How can we level the playing fields and make the music scene a more open and welcoming place for non-male voices? What do you think we can do to help make change?
I think [leveling] the playing fields could start with a simple numbers game. No festival, concert lineup, no nothing should be 100% white dudes. If your show or panel or whatever is all white dudes, there’s no excuse. It’s not quota-filling, it’s scale-tipping. If you’re a white dude on a lineup with all white dudes, you need to step down.
What would your ideal future look like?
At this point I’m just hoping we all make it to the future. But if we do….I’d like to just fast-forward to the stage in my career [when] I can be like [what] Fiona Apple is now. She can just drive down to the Largo to play an impromptu show whenever she wants to, but otherwise she spends most of her quality time with her dog Janet.