Sophia Black On Being Discovered By Dr. Luke, Japanese Boy Bands & Her Debut EP: Idolator Interview
Discovered by super-producer Dr. Luke as a 13-year-old, Sophia Black spent the next seven years honing her craft before dropping a self-titled EP in late August. (And they say they don’t develop artists anymore!) A hazy, multi-layered synth-experiment that documents the life cycle of a relationship, the five-song set stands out as one of the better debuts of 2015. Current single “Anchor,” in particular, feels like a prelude to something much bigger.
I recently spoke with the newcomer about her impressive debut, pop apprenticeship under Dr. Luke and visual approach to songwriting. Sophia explained how a bad case of jet lag led to her big break and walked me through the narrative that holds her EP together. She also opened up about her obsession with Japanese man band SMAP and studio time with creative heavyweights Billboard, SOHN and Kool Kojak. Find out more below.
I read that Dr. Luke signed you when you were really young.
I got discovered when I was 13. Well, if you want to bring it way back, I got discovered when I was like 11 or 12 and then I met Luke when I was about 13 or 14 and got signed. I’m 20 now. So, I’ve known Luke for seven years and it’s been a crazy development process.
That’s a long period between being signed and releasing your EP. Are you relieved that it’s finally out there?
At first, I was really like… not frustrated, but I really wanted stuff to be out as soon as I signed. But I’m kind of glad that that didn’t happen because you’re not the same person as you are when you’re 14 as when you’re 20. That’s a huge difference. So I went through different stages — grew up, kissed boys and developed my sound over this whole time. It’s really great. I’m one of the last people that was actually “developed.”
It sounds like you did a pop apprenticeship!
Yeah. I don’t think it was ever meant to be that way, but I finished high school. I actually went to high school in Los Angeles, and that took up some time. I not only developed my sound but matured personally and mentally as well.
Did any of your very early material make the album?
The early stuff… I think there are a couple songs that I want to revisit and hopefully put on the album, but as far as this EP goes, no. It’s just songs that I’ve written in the past couple years.
Were you writing for other people before your EP was released?
To be honest, no. I was super focused on finding what my sound was, but in the past, I want to say year and a half, I’ve been writing for some people. I actually have a song that I co-wrote on the new Katharine McPhee album. That’s pretty exciting. It’s called “Appetite.” It was a song that was already written and they were like, “Hey, do you want to write the lyrics to it?” So, we all collaborated and made this wonderful song.
Would you like to do more of that moving forward?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I just love to write lyrics. It was just kind of weird because when I was first signed, I had never written a single song. They threw me in the studio and it just came naturally. When I was younger, I’d try to write in my little journal, but I just always thought it was stupid. I’d give up halfway, or not even write two sentences. But as soon as I got into a studio setting, with a producer, it just happened very naturally and came very easy to me.
You said that you only started writing after you got signed. What was on that demo tape that Dr. Luke heard?
I’ll tell you the whole story. I got signed when I was 11 to a development deal with Sony Japan. I did two demos for them. That demo CD got passed around and while Luke was on a promo tour in Japan, someone just handed him my CD. And because of jet lag, he listened to it. And then he messaged me and we started talking and it all just happened.
Were the songs in English or Japanese?
They were in English. I’m half Japanese. I’ve always been surrounded by the culture and I grew up watching Japanese variety shows and listening to Japanese music, particularly Japanese boy bands. Japan is still a huge goal for me. It’s funny because they have this R&B influence in a lot of their music, and I love it. I grew up listening to this band called SMAP, which is a huge Japanese boy band. They’re pretty old now, not old… but like 40. They’re in their late 40s and they’re so popular.
So they’re like the New Kids On The Block of Japan?
Yeah, but they’re still relevant. They have their own TV show, which I’ve been watching. Oh my god, it’s so good. It’s kind of like SNL in a way. It’s crazy. The first half of the show is dedicated to the band members cooking for a guest. Lady Gaga has been on it, Will Smith has been on it. And those boy band members cook for their guest. And then the guest, whoever it is, has to pick the winner. And then they get a prize. It’s just really interesting. And then they have short little sketches afterwards.
Maybe one day you’ll be the celebrity guest.
Oh my god. I would die. That is my ultimate goal. I love it. It’s so conceptual.
Speaking of conceptual, one thing I loved about your EP is that it tells a story.
Thank you. I wanted to order the songs so that if you listen to them from start to finish, it sounds like a musical audio book. So “k i s s i n g” is the butterflies and the honeymoon stage. And then “Vibration” is kind of like “we don’t care what anyone thinks of us, we’re just going to be on that vibe and keep vibing.”
Then there’s “Mizu,” which is Japanese for water. And that’s the stage in a relationship where you’re kind of fighting and questioning it but you’re still trying to hold on to your relationship. Like water, but it slips through your fingertips. And then, “OVR AGN” is the break-up. You have that one person where you’re broken up with and you know you’ll never be with them again, but you can’t help but reminisce on the times you had together. “Anchor,” the last one, is the tie-in — the resolution of the whole story. It’s like, “No matter what happens, I’ll be your rock. I’ll be always there for you.”
I love a (kind of) happy ending. Were the songs based on personal experiences?
Yeah, absolutely. Most of the time, I write about things that have happened to me in my life or things I’m feeling at that moment. And I write like that so that when I perform them live, I can emote and really capture the song and perform them.
You said that you see music as images. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m glad you asked that. Someone once said that I write in pictures and that’s how I describe my writing. Not only does it create this different experience to listening to music, but also it makes it a lot more personal with whoever is listening to it. Because whenever I read a book, I always imagine the setting and I can see things so clearly; it’s almost as if I have a little TV screen in my brain. And I was like, why not make music the same thing?
Are we getting videos for the songs?
I’ve been putting out these little teaser videos on my Instagram and on Youtube and Facebook. I think that a lot of them… make sense for the song, how I visualize it.
What was it like working with Billboard and SOHN?
I wrote “Anchor” with them. Being in the studio with them was amazing. First, they’re just amazing writers. If you look at their discography, that alone is just really impressive. And then, watching them work together is indescribable. It was kind of like watching two rocket scientists build a rocket because SOHN would do his thing on the computer — it was almost like a tag team. Billboard would tap his shoulder and they would switch places and Billboard would start doing his thing. It was so cool to watch.
Have you worked with Dr. Luke yet?
Yes. I have one song with him, which hopefully will be on the album. He is awesome to work with. He’s really, really, really talented.
You mentioned the album. How long will we have to wait for it?
Honestly, I have no idea. But hopefully, not too long after this EP comes out.
Have you been recording since you finished the EP?
Yeah, a little bit. I wrote another song with BASECAMP, who worked on “OVR AGN.” It’s a really trippy, spacey song. I actually wrote a couple songs with LunchMoney Lewis too. He’s a great writer, I love him to death.
You’ve already worked with so many great names. Did you get any advice from them?
A big one, especially because I’ve been writing for so long and at times I was like, “Oh my god, when is my EP going to come out? When is everything going to happen?” I got really good advice that one of the writers, Kool Kojak. He told me to be patient and believe in myself and know that the time will come. That you have to continue to be hard-working and just write music until then.
Kemosabe is a real hit factory, Did you ever feel any pressure to make more accessible music?
The good thing about my team and everyone I’m surrounded with is that they just want me to make good music. They aren’t forcing me to dress a certain way, they don’t say, “Your music has to sound like this.” I’m really, really thankful for that and it’s given me a lot of freedom to be creative. At times, I did feel that way because I’m surrounded by so many brilliant writers who make top forty music, which I love.
I grew up listening to Britney Spears and Katy Perry. The cool about it is that I’ve been influenced by their technique in writing, but I also put a different… I bring a different perspective to that as well. It’s kind of a balance.
What’s next for you? Are you touring?
I’m definitely going to continue to write music. And, hopefully, aim for an album. I’m also going to be performing a lot in Los Angeles and hopefully in other places as well.
How do you re-create a song like “Mizu” live?
One thing I really like is when artists make live music sound like the track as much as possible. I don’t like it when an artist does something different, because I just love the song so much and I want to hear it that way. But sometimes they make it really cool. I think I want to try to make it different, but still sound the same. Does that make sense?
Kind of! Ok, lucky last question. Who do you think is making great pop music at the moment?
I say this in every interview, and everyone is probably sick of hearing it, but I love Hiatus Kaiyote. It’s this band from Australia. Nai Palm, the lead singer, is just amazing. Great production, so next-level. Her voice is crazy. Her look is amazing. I just love everything about her.