Soko can't sit still. She usually gets wired on coffee before a gig, but during an interview at GnarBurger's Studio G, the Bordeaux-born, L.A.-reborn punk singer seems just as revved up to discuss everything from frenemy Ariel Pink, to the weed-friendly DIY scene she now belongs to. But most of all, Soko's just glad to be back home in her self-described “Care Bears universe.”
“I feel like the full spectrum of myself here, with no restrictions,” she says. “Sometimes people in Paris are too judgmental. They want to categorize you. Here you can be everything.”
Soko moved to L.A. in 2008, and currently lives out of a used Ford Escape she describes as a “shit mom car.” While she crashes on couches, she DJs lesbian parties and local shows to pay for her groceries. “To make money with music is pretty much a lost cause. Sometimes I make more money DJing! How fucking unfair is that?”
L.A. is where she recorded her second LP, My Dreams Dictate My Reality, first released in March, and soon to be available as a Burger Records cassette. The album title is literal. “I write all my songs in my sleep,” she says. “I wake up in the middle of the night with all the arrangements already in her head.”
Soko dreamed of having The Cure's Robert Smith produce the record, but instead settled for Cure producer Ross Robinson, who turned out to be transformative for Soko's sound and career. After living in Robinson's Venice home studio for six months, Soko transformed her musical reality from folkie art-pop into aggressive and completely manic new wave that sounds like a mélange of The Pretenders, Blondie and The Cure. “Who Wears the Pants?”, a declaration of war on lesbian stereotypes, is an example of her new sound, which is more aggressive but no less personal than her 2012 debut, the vulnerable I Thought I Was an Alien.
She's now part of the new indie scene that bridges the gap between DIY and mainstream. Unlike a proper pop star, Soko doesn't have a staff of songwriters and stylists; instead, she's realness personified. “I crave real emotions in everything I do,” she says. “If I feel like I'm lying, I just won't do it. I want to capture something that's in my heart, like a picture, without Photoshop.”
During a stripped-down live performance, Soko might free her nipples to make a statement, or poke fun at Ariel Pink before performing “Lovetrap,” a song they collaborated on, which includes a music video that ended up destroying their relationship.
“He hates me,” she says. “He basically conned me into shooting a video, and had a crazy, druggy freak-out and bailed.” She impersonates Pink exclaiming: “I'm not an actor, you're an actress, I hate music videos, I don't want to be filmed!” Pink's move cost Soko $5,000 and forced her to get creative.
“I was so pissed I made this vengeful video,” where she impersonates a methed-up Ariel Pink roaming the streets of L.A.
When Soko isn't polishing her satirical chops, she's side-hustling as a DIY filmmaker, “First Kiss” model, and César Award-nominated actress (the French equivalent of the Oscars). She's already packing her bags for Paris to start filming The Dancer, which co-stars Elle Fanning. But she's not quite ready to give her Oscar speech just yet: “How could you say more than two words in front of so many people? I would shit myself and vomit in my mouth!”
“She's super big in France,” says Rikky Gage, the pot-bellied impresario of L.A. weed-punk, who's currently collaborating with Soko on a song titled “Sweet Memories.” You can hear a sample of it on Soko's Miley Cyrus-esque Instagram. Unlike Miley and Gage, Soko only dabbles in weed when she wants to revisit the past. “It made me unafraid of digging into my past and embracing my childhood,” says Soko, who lost her father at the age of five, and left Bordeaux for Paris at 16. “Instead of feeling wounded, it was eye-opening. It opened doors in my writing and it made me unafraid to write about my childhood.”
She wrote the bass-driven “Ocean of Tears” while she was stoned and deeply emotional. It sounds like something off Arcade Fire's Suburbs. “I had no saliva, and I felt like all this saliva was accumulating under my tongue.” She was also crying when she wrote the song, which digs deep into the painful memories of her past:
And every day I wake up from a crazy dream/Where I'm looking for my daddy, and I know he's here/And I don't wanna wake, I can control my dreams/I feel safer this way, 'cause I can disappear.
Other than caffeine, Soko's only addiction is happiness, which she protects at all costs. “I've totally obstructed all the things in my life that could piss me off,” she says. “I hate violence, I don't watch horror movies. As soon as I feel the slightest discomfort, I'm out of there.”
In GnarBurger's Studio G, Soko often reclines into a relaxed pose on a leather couch, which lasts about a minute. Then she pops up like a cat, kicking her boots in front of her and remembering why she's so happy to be in L.A.: “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” a Leslie Gore tune she sings with dramatic flare, as if there's an audience in the retrofitted garage studio.
While Soko is creating buzz on the indie scene at large, her L.A.-based following doesn't seem to be as vocal — at least not yet. But in just a few years, Soko has collaborated with Stella Mozgawa (drummer of Warpaint), played bass with rockers Deap Vally, and performed a topless set at Burgerama 4 in March. She's also a regular at the Echo. But while she's headlining in Europe, Soko still isn't the big draw in L.A. that say a Meg Myers is. But she's far more interesting in terms of the current pop milieu; she's part of a sound that's redefining pop music with punk attitude, so her tipping point is definitely on the horizon.
Soko will be back in L.A. in 2016, after wrapping up production on The Dancer. By the time she gets back, don't be surprised if she's finally as big in L.A. as she is in Paris.
'My Dreams Dictate My Reality' will be released as a Burger Records cassette later this month.