If you don’t yet know Soko, née Stephanie Sokolinski, don’t box her in as your typical French actress turned singer-songwriter. As an actress, she’s best known for a few high-brow indie dramas in her native France, where she’s been twice nominated for a Cesar Award (France’s version of the Oscars). Since then she’s launched a career as a musician who makes a moody blend of bedroom pop and The Cure-esque punk, collaborating with artists like Ariel Pink and Spike Jonze. Her 2015 “pop-goth” breakout album My Dreams Dictate My Reality was described as a kind of “teenage rebellion” by Stereogum. But youthful angst has now made way for something else.
Unlike her previous album, which felt like a hazy dream suffused with anger, Feel Feelings is a warmer, more down to earth exploration of herself, her sexuality, and emotional needs. It took four years to make, following a rambling path that included intensive therapy, refocusing her career away from acting, and becoming a mother. The Cut spoke with the 34-year-old singer about how much her life has changed in the last four years, the process of making her new album, and being vocally queer.
You worked on Feel Feelings for over four years and had all of these crazy life experiences that happened while making it. Can you talk about the timeline of the album?
I had just done two movies in France. They both went to Cannes and I was high off of that. I had just released My Dreams Dictate My Reality. I toured it a little bit, but then I went straight into making movies and then promoting them and that took quite a big chunk of time. And after that I was like, I need to find a way to get back to myself and I got really into therapy and doing self improvement. I heard about [The Hoffman Institute] maybe 10 years [ago] and I thought, “that sounds amazing—a week of intensive therapy.” It was no phone, no romance, just very focused, like a very pure state of being. And so I wanted to stay in that very peaceful mindset [after going to the Hoffman Institute] and to start my record like that.
[Then I felt like] I am strong, I am worthy. I am experiencing more self love than I ever have. And I was also completely in tune with my emotions and I wanted to pour all of that into my record without any shame or guilt around it. I wasn’t going to hang out with anyone. I was just going to make music every day. And that’s what I did.
What was it like making music in this mindset?
I had planted all these seeds of manifesting like-minded open people in my life and because I had no more distractions, it all just sort of happens. And I had very highly intelligent, emotional people around me,people just enabling my emotions.
The record was finished before I got pregnant, but I was still doing the mix. It was definitely a whole journey from being celibate for the whole record, pausing it and then getting pregnant and meeting someone all of a sudden and being in a very healthy relationship. There’s a song on the record called “Replaceable Heads”—
That was one of my questions, I need to know everything about that song because it cut me to my core!
I wrote it after having such a slew of unhealthy relationships that literally were all exactly the same. The script was they’ve just broken up with someone, and they’re like, Oh my God, I’ve never felt like this, you’re my everything and it becomes a very completely codependent relationship. I’m like, I don’t think you’re ready. And within a month it would be like, I need to be alone and work on myself.
Going to Hoffman was interesting because I thought, Oh, I have abandonment issues. Because my dad died when I was a kid. I realized that I modeled my love attachment on my mom who wasn’t emotionally available because she was in survival mode with four kids and being a single mom. So the song is literally about cutting the pattern, knowing where it’s from and knowing that I don’t want a love like this anymore. That’s not what I deserve. That’s not what I need. That’s not what I liked ever.
The song felt very empowering to me because I always feel like, Oh my God, I need love so much. I need so much love. And also feeling like, you get so close to people and then that line in the song, “you’re the one who knows me best and hates me most.” It’s like, how can you love someone so much? And then be the worst version of yourself [with them]? Or they’re the worst version of themselves [with you]. It’s very empowering to know that my worth is not determined on whether or not someone romantically likes me.
That’s the interesting thing is that it feels like both a very romantic album and an album about having personal boundaries.
[Making the album] definitely felt like a time for me when I had to be more assertive with my boundaries and needed to hold my space. And also I think that’s why the record sounds so different because I didn’t let anything invade it. I wanted it to be purposely more relaxed, slower, warmer and more sensual, but almost just as a gift to myself.
Feel Feelings was mostly completed before you got pregnant. How do you feel like becoming a mother has changed your relationship to the album?
My life is definitely more of what I had been longing for. I started working when I was 15 and that’s all I had done for over half of my life. I really wanted to finally, not just like work, work, work, but think about my personal life and what’s gonna make me happy in 10 years. Back then, I thought I definitely want to have a family. I definitely want to have a home because I’m living out of my suitcase and traveling all the time. It was a very big thing for me to settle. That happened when I just finished making the record, and I finally got a house, too. I mean, [being a mom] is my favorite thing in the world. But also it hasn’t changed my relationship to this record. All I try to teach Indigo [my son] is to feel his feelings and to make sure that he’s being heard when he says no and when he says yes and make sure to install healthy communication skills and tools.
I love that you had Feel Feelings as the title from the get go. How did you know that’s what the album should be called?
I think you tell yourself that you should be a different way your whole life until you find someone who loves you for exactly who you are. I always felt like I needed to reel back my affection. And I was like, the next person I’m going to date has to be an angel and I’m not going to date anyone who’s not an angel. And I literally manifested an angel in my life. The day my record came out, she wrote me a letter as she made me fresh orange juice and cake for breakfast. She said things that I never thought anyone would ever say to me, noticed things about me. I never thought that was possible.
You’re openly queer, raising your child with a woman, and you write about that in your lyrics. Why is it important for you to be vocal about that?
When I started talking about promo with my label, I was like, I only want to be interviewed by queer women or people of color. It goes back to how you use your voice and how you use your platform. Growing up, I didn’t have any models of people who I admired or that I was like, wow, I can’t believe such a life is possible. [I never saw] two women raising a kid anywhere in magazines.
Since the beginning, there were always songs about women on my records. But then on this one, I was like, fuck it. I’m going to write a song about being a fucking rainbow, “Oh, To Be a Rainbow.” That was also inspired by the lyrics “oh to be the cream” from the Bauhaus song “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.” I’ve always loved those lyrics. Very sexual.
Were you ever afraid about being openly queer and in your music or in public life?
No, I’ve always been pretty open about my sexuality and I never really thought twice about it. I feel like visibility is so important. I wish I’d grown up with the option of knowing that this is a possibility. A lot of young boys and girls write me, being like, Oh my God, my parents have no idea I’m gay, thank you so much, your family’s the dream, we want to see more pictures of your gay-ass family. It’s just really sweet. I write back to a lot of these kids.