You might imagine the launch of a debut musical release to be an occasion to throw (read: have your label throw for you) an ostentatious party in an exclusive London hotel filled with illustrious guests, perhaps a flamboyant cake depicting the album cover, gaudy giftbags and undeniably far too much alcohol. After all, how many of those have we seen evidence of the morning after on Instagram?
For 22-year-old musician Sophie May, however, she laughs at my suggestion. “When it came out, it was actually one of my cousin’s 21st birthdays,” she says. “It was really cute to be with all my family and friends and we had a drink at midnight for it. I think my mum was probably the most excited person there, we’re really close. And my two brothers, even though they might not like telling me they’re proud, I feel like I get the vibe.”
Growing up in East Dulwich, the rising star counts her family among her closest supporters and admits it took a long time to share music outside of this circle. But after finding like-minded creatives on TikTok during lockdown, Sophie’s steady rise to fame on the platform has brought with it a devoted community of like-minded listeners to add to her growing fanbase which already includes Billie Eilish and Celeste.
“I’m grateful for the slow build,” she explains, “It wasn’t like I had one massive song that blew up because I think that can be hard sometimes. I think a lot of the people that have been following me have come along with me this past year as my songwriting has gotten better.” Sharing snippets of lyrics or melodies allowed the budding songstress to gain her confidence and work into her best tracks, resulting in latest single ‘Bad Man’ following the success of her debut ‘With the Band’.
Below, Sophie shares shares how guilt, growth and poetry inspired her latest single ‘Bad Man’ along with details from her upcoming EP.
I like the song [Bad Man] because it feels a bit gritty and it exposes the dirtier side of myself that I don’t like, and so it feels fun to embrace that.
Sophie’s initial inspiration for her latest single came from the all-too-familiar experiences faced during adolescence. “The word bad,” she starts. “I think was a really big word that I would obsess over… feeling bad and feeling guilty about being bad. I think that period of your life around 18-21 is a really confusing time because you’re a young adult making lots of mistakes, and especially as a young woman, we’re expected to be good which often means passive, and then you end up feeling bad when you’re not that.”
“There’s a lot of guilt that came with that for me, especially in relationships and not falling into stereotypical roles, I guess. I grew up with two brothers and a mainly-male household and I’ve always felt a bit boyish, I think,” she shares.
The single became a safe space for the budding songstress to explore the emotional complexity of feeling guilty, the never-ending expectations set for us and that we set ourselves, and the freedom that rejecting these expectations can bring. “I love [the song] because it feels a little different to the rest of my other songs on the EP,” she says. “I’m always questioning if I’m a bad person so I found writing it to be such a release, allowing me to say all of the intrusive thoughts in my head and let go.”
She continues, “I think especially in lockdown, the online world is constantly telling you to be the best version of yourself and work on yourself which is good, but sometimes I found that really distressing because I feel like humans have bad parts of themselves as well. I like the song because it feels a bit gritty and it exposes the dirtier side of myself that I don’t like, and so it feels fun to embrace that.”
The digitally-native creator thanks her loyal, 200,000-strong TikTok following for supporting her rising star, crediting the enforced lockdowns endured throughout 2020 and 2021 for pushing her to share her songs online. “For me, lockdown feels like an integral part of the EP and any of the songs that I’m releasing now because I don’t think I would even be [in the music industry] or the songs wouldn’t exist without lockdown,” she says thoughtfully. “I never really studied music until I left school at 19 and started a one-year course on songwriting that then got cut in half… because of lockdown. Then I was kind of forced into this state where it felt like there was nothing else to do except write songs. For me, it was quite a good time because it forced me into the right mindset to write songs, and this is also when I downloaded TikTok.”
Having come up at a time when all artists could rely on was the tools in their immediate vicinity and their creativity, a DIY approach and can-do attitude developed into essential elements of Sophie’s pop persona. She produced the artwork and music video for the single, explaining she wanted to reference her recording experience in the accompanying visuals: “I wanted it all to be contained to my room but more dramatic because I wanted it to relate to where the songs and the TikTok videos first started. I had to go super DIY with it to create this visual world that matched the songs – I used a spotlight in my bedroom so the background is really dark because it reminds me of watching videos on your phone when your room is in darkness and you feel like you could be anywhere.”
“It felt like a bit of a safe space on TikTok because it felt like everyone was doing things DIY,” she explains. For the music video, Sophie attached her phone to her bike and cycled up and down a lane beside her house near 100 times during the day, and the same again at night. “That’s what I love – I think as growing artists, I’ve found it really pleasing working with what I had, I guess because I felt like I couldn’t really compete with big artists and labels that are doing really insane concepts because it’s money, it’s time, it’s people. It made sense to me to really lean into the DIY nature, and it felt more authentic. It’s been really fun exploring that on this EP.”
The London-based talent reveals the responsibility of curating her visuals has boosted her creative confidence: “I don’t think I realised how much I loved the visual aspect of things until after TikTok and making my own videos, just because I wasn’t always very good in school so I’ve always had the mindset that I couldn’t do things or I wouldn’t be good enough – classic self-deprecation, I guess!”
I think as a growing artist, I’ve found it really pleasing working with what I have, I guess because I felt like I couldn’t really competent with big artists and labels that are doing really insane concepts because it’s money, it’s time, it’s people. It made sense to me to really lean into the DIY nature, and it felt more authentic.
“For the artwork, I just wanted to make a bigger version of the world that I created in the TikToks,” Sophie explains. I’m struck by her keenness for storytelling and how these stories can be told through music, music videos, written prose and even TikTok.“I think I’m drawn to what I’ve seen in the past, like films I like and actors too,” she says.
Sophie’s love of stories is no surprise to her as her mother is a writer. “I’ve grown up with a storyteller in the house,” she explains. “My middle brother is now a games developer, which is funny because he was always creating stories and games when we were younger. Remembering the games we used to play makes me feel like I’m hallucinating!” she says fondly of her childhood, which she reveals was full of nurtured imagination.
Admitting she thought she might study English literature, Sophie says treating music as a hobby in her teens has kept her blissfully unaware of the plights of the music industry. But after a brief interest in drama school (“I thought I could be an actor, for about five minutes,” she jokes) and finding herself working in Soho bars, poetry performers rekindled her interest in the genre.
“I was that girl that loved slammed poetry when I was 13, which is really embarrassing,” she laughs. “But in a way, I credit it for the songwriting experience because I do think it makes sense when it comes to rhythm and structure, and that was the first time I wrote for myself. I reckon if lockdown hadn’t happened, I probably would have pursued a creative writing course. That’s what has always interested me – more than the music, the production or the singing, I think the writing has always been my favourite part.”
“Now, luckily I get to do this instead!” Sophie adds. She considers American poet Mary Oliver as her favourite on account of how forgiving she is and says this inspired her carefree exploration on ‘Bad Man’. “She’s all about nature and just accepting that we’re this fresh body basically walking around and making mistakes,” she explains.
Other inspirations she shares include the styling of Mad Men, her favourite short story, Brokeback Mountain, and the storytelling songwriting of Joni Mitchell and Jeff Buckley, who she confesses she’s found a new appreciation for with age.
“‘With The Band’ wasn’t a song that did well on TikTok, I didn’t post much of it, so it might not have seemed like an obvious choice,” Sophie explains. “But for me, it was the first song I’d written that felt like I had said something I’d had bottled up for a long time.”
I ask her if a lyric from the upcoming EP has stuck with her since writing it, and she’s quick with her reply. “I think the one lyric is in ‘With The Band’ in the second verse and it says “school girl’s shoes on velcro floors / he could mumble all his words / he’d still be man enough.” I remember really meaning it when I wrote it. And I think it says everything, these guys that my friends or I have dated who can just get away with anything and they would, and still be adored. He could be slurring his words, fucked on stage and everyone would still love him, even if they can see he’s an awful guy.
“If it was the other way around, if it was a woman on stage, she’d be shredded to pieces,” she points out. “I’m proud of those lyrics because I think they sum up an experience that all of my friends of gone through, that my mum has gone through, that every kind of woman I’ve met has been through or something similar, even if it wasn’t necessarily dating a band member.”
Listen to Sophie May’s single ‘Bad Man’ on Spotify and Apple Music now.
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