23. August 2017

She has transformed songwriting into experimental pop, testing the boundaries of this traditional genre: An interview with Sophia Kennedy, who will be appearing live at the SCHIRN SUMMER HANGOUTS.

By Teresa Köster

“Being lonely makes you special/But being special makes you lonely too,” sings Sophia Kennedy in her song of the same name “Being Special” and you wonder whether she could in fact be talking about herself. The music of this artist who has now made her home in Hamburg is nothing if not catchy. Effortlessly and with a voice that is warm but never entirely smooth Kennedy’s songs advance in circular arguments and rely strongly on metaphors; texts that appear simple but then evoke images which take on lives of their own in their listeners’ heads. The music is an equivalent which tries to be many things but never trivial. Before playing her self-titled debut album live at SCHIRN SUMMER HANGOUTS on August 30 SCHIRN MAG is introducing her in an interview:

In your album of the same name you use the often-quoted phrase: “I want to take the traditional to its limits, the place where it becomes extreme […]. You just can’t be afraid of it turning into pop.” – What happens at and beyond those limits – to your music, to you, to the audience?

It is important to me for the music to sound fresh and exciting and for it to feel exactly the same way, although of course there is a great deal in my music which is already familiar and where people get the feeling of having heard something similar before. What I want is to get away from the formulaic, those outworn ideas of how pop songs should sound. In 2017 why should I record any old thing with a classic retro band, chirping my pathetic songs into the microphone? What I don’t want is to prove that I once sang in a school band and that I am now out on the road – that really isn’t my intention. If I want to do a jingle then that’s what I’ll do and if I want to do a pop song and have the vision to belt it out when necessary and sometimes let the structure of the piece get ripped apart then that’s exactly what I’ll do as well. At the same time I want my music to maintain the tension, I want it to communicate with the outside world and not to be totally over-the-top. After all, my work is not just noise and I haven’t just spent three hours banging on a tin drum. It is important to me for it to be accessible but for me there is nothing worse than harmless triviality in music.

Sophia Kennedy, Photo Rosanna Graf

But originally your creative roots were something quite different – you did Film Studies at HFBK, the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, and, after an initial single with Erobique, started out writing music for the theater – until your debut album and thus “your first songwriting album” appeared on Pampa Records the same year. What does your music mean to you, partly in the context of any further work from you?

You really do have to be assertive and that is of course sometimes quite a challenge because I do need something to live on and that’s not always that easy. On the other hand I enjoy the freedom of being able to do what I want. That is a privilege and means a great deal to me.

Composing music is one thing but writing the relevant lyrics something else. And you don’t seem to want to commit yourself either way – neither to a particular style nor to a specific audience as is usually the case. Where do your lyrics come from?

Sadly, I am not one of those people who sit writing and smoking in the attic with a notepad, a pen and a bottle of red wine. I write my lyrics in a different way – sometimes I just sing loudly to myself and make a note of any brainwaves I might have. But sometimes I also write down a song title although the song itself doesn’t exist yet. This can be very funny and inspiring. In both cases the lyrics and the music usually develop in tandem – it seldom happens that I finish a set of lyrics without the music having come to me beforehand. This sometimes means that a large chunk of lyrics looks more like fragments and that I don’t have any specific activities or audiences in mind. Or do I? I’m not sure about that one myself. I only check my lyrics to see whether they are too embarrassing, cool or beautiful. 

And films and the theatrical aspects – are you currently working on pieces in the latter area?

I definitely have ideas and plans for new pieces and am looking forward to a second album. It looks as if in the fall I will be writing music for the theater in Leipzig.

Sophia Kennedy, Photo Rosanna Graf

Leaving your own music aside, what are you currently listening to?

At the moment, I just don’t have the time to listen to exciting music which is why I don’t really know what people are listening to. I am currently listening to a lot of country music or really old stuff such as Burl Ives. Somehow, there’s something I don’t like about him and I am a bit afraid of his voice. At the same time, he amuses me. And I like the hissing sound that those old records make. But I also love “Malibu”, Miley Cyrus’s new single.

Schirn Summer Hangouts, Photo Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt

Appearing on stage is also one of the things that are a part of music. For example, at the Summer Hangouts on August 30 at the SCHIRN. What has been your best or weirdest experience on stage to date?

To tell the truth to date I haven’t had a truly wicked moment on stage yet. Perhaps it is too early for that. People need to get to know my music; I still need to get to know my audience a little better. Then I’m sure it will all happen but I’m currently still taking the time to let it develop. One of the toughest moments on stage to date – I was playing at a wine fair, in front of 500 drunk people who had no interest at all in a concert and stared at me as though I came from another planet. A group of men started booing me and a woman asked where the DJ was so I just threw my water in her face.

Schirn Summer Hangouts, Photo Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt