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Sophia Kennedy Made the Best Pop Record You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Photo: Rosanna Graf

That’s a Bop is our monthlong effort to introduce you to artists and songs beyond the top-ten list. In Up Next we’re giving you a deeper look at this year’s up-and-comers, so when your friends finally discover them, you can honestly say that you prefer their first album.

It’s not even July and already the summer of 2017 has seen some great releases in the almost-pop-but-not-really-pop genre. While Katy Perry grasped at straws in a woke-off of her own making, SZA delivered a record to remember, Beth Ditto gave us a rock-inflected Gossip update, and Ibeyi’s new single shows promise of a joyful sophomore album to come in the near future. But among the more recognizable names, one release has skirted by under the radar: Sophia Kennedy’s self-titled debut record is the most exciting pop album out this year that you’ve probably never heard of.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, whose lyrics embrace a confessional, introspective style, Kennedy takes a more “psychedelic” route, as she put it on the phone with the Cut in May. Kennedy sings lines like “the eggs are just sizzling in the pan,” “lazy Lizzy she’s not busy / take the bus to business palace,” and “little pockets filled with olives” over electronic music layered with strings, declarative drums, and thick, theatrical piano. The record is like a Dr. Seuss book come to life, but in an even brighter Technicolor.

“For me, the record sounds like Moldy Peaches but with a loser’s attitude,” she says after mulling over what genre she believes she fits in. “It’s the weirdness and the humor and the roughness of Moldy Peaches with the weird melody stuff from the Dirty Projectors or Frank Sinatra or, I don’t know, just Hollywood [in general].”

Kennedy was born in Baltimore but moved to Germany when she was a child. She says Germans think her album sounds very American and Americans think her album is … well, not from around here. “I would love to know what the average American would compare my music to,” she says. When she was young, Kennedy used to “sing to the bushes,” pretending they were her audience, which seems a fitting portrait of her musical upbringing.

That Hollywood influence that Kennedy references might come from the music she produces on the side for theater and film. “I do a lot of stuff to pay the rent,” she explains. “I always try to make money with music. The earlier you get on that path, the more realistic it will be that it will stay that way.” Kennedy may be hustling right now but she’s hopeful about the future. “We’ll see. In five years, maybe I’ll be a huge star. But right now nobody cares.”

That, of course, is not entirely true. Kennedy’s record was given a more than favorable review by Pitchfork when it was released in April, and Kennedy was signed early to Pampa Records. But contrary to Pitchfork’s review, which insinuated a theme of loneliness and homesickness, Kennedy insists that she didn’t want the record to have too much of herself in it. “I didn’t feel lonely or depressed when doing the album. I didn’t want to be that specific.”

The result is an album that is timeless and of the future at the same time, a characteristic Kennedy attributes to whom she was listening to when she was making it. “I paid attention to how Kanye West works and how his songs are put together,” she points out. “He has a very interesting way of structuring and arranging his songs that doesn’t necessarily only deal with traditional forms of hip-hop. He puts in wild things and glues parts together and his songs have a very weird structure that I really like.”

With such a compelling first outing, does Kennedy have any inclination about what her sophomore record will look like? “Your first album shouldn’t be about your little life, or how you feel about something,” she says, so she’s looking forward to trying out some of that first-person songwriting on her second go-round. “On my next record, I’ll make sure to write a breakup song.”

Sophia Kennedy Made the Best Pop Album You’ve Never Heard Of