19-year-old Sofia Wolfson is part of a rising movement of women in music who’re writing personal, confessional songs that are unafraid to leave out details or alienate their listeners through specifics. In fact, the opposite is happening; their songwriting is some of the most relatable and far-reaching to have emerged in recent memory. Whether it’s the Elliott Smith-informed writing of Johanna Samuels, Olivia Kaplan, Madison Cunningham, or Phoebe Bridgers– who Wolfson calls a friend– wide-reaching lines about your heart hurting seem to be on the out, with confessional and highly personal music taking its place.
Wolfson has spent her formative years being informed by this sensibility, and the result is a small but growing body of work that aims to not only express herself, but to connect to a growing audience.
Wolfson—who currently splits time between her hometown of Los Angeles and Boston, where she’s a sophomore studying English at Tufts University—has been writing songs and gigging around Los Angeles since she was in her early teens. Her first album Hunker Down, a country-informed LP, was written and recorded when she was only fifteen and studying at the Los Angeles Country High School for the Arts, where she studied music and theater.
“When I graduated from high school, I had majored in theater, but I realized that I didn’t want to act [for a living] pretty early on. I really loved reading the plays an analyzing the plays, though. My dad teaches creative writing and my mom’s a journalist, so English was always really prevalent in my family,” she says.
After she graduated, she met Marshall Vore, a drummer, songwriter, and producer who’s recently rose to relevance for his work with Phoebe Bridgers. Vore was getting into producing, and the two recorded Wolfson’s song “Snake Eyes” as the inaugural session at his studio in LA. One song snowballed into the Side Effects EP, and a collaboration that would boldly influence the trajectory of Wolfson’s music began to take shape.
“’Snake Eyes’ was originally a country standard that chugged along with a swing, and Marshall was the first person who suggested we half time it, make it piano-driven, and give it some more R&B influences,” she says.
With the help of Vore, Wolfson’s country-tinged songwriting took on a new, low-fi sound more reminiscent of LA musicians like Blake Mills and Ethan Gruska than it is Tom Petty, Lucina Williams, and Joni Mitchel—three musicians she cites as influences growing up, who still continue to influence her, but are far more pronounced on her earlier material.
“In LA, there’s definitely a pressure to make your songs sound unique and interesting, but returning to songwriters like Lucina Williams and Joni Mitchel reminds me that you can write a great song with only three or four chords,” she says.
After releasing Side Effects, Wolfson moved to Boston to pursue a degree in English. She and Vore kept in touch during that time though, and after making the emotive, rock-driven “Never Been” with Vore and releasing it as a single, her new EP Adulting (out March 20) began to take shape. Featuring percussion and production from Vore, guitars from Harrison Whitford—who also works with Phoebe Bridgers and recorded his own solo album Afraid of Everything with Vore in 2017—and background vocals from LA singer-songwriters Johanna Samuels and Olivia Kaplan, Adulting is a portrait of a young musician in transition. Moving away from home for the first time and reconciling with getting older and finding a balance all influence her confessional, detail-driven songwriting.
“I read a lot of poetry and a lot of short stories. My songwriting became really detail-oriented when Raymond Carver became my favorite short story writer. He’s not trying to pack a lot of action into his stories and trying to give you a full scope of conflicts. Writers like him taught me that I can use more specific details in my songs and have them still be relatable,” she says.
Adulting chugs along with a crooning, low-fi rumble, using inventive recording techniques and tones to coax out the rhymthic candor and ambidexterity out of Wolfson’s songwriting, which often begins with nothing but her voice and an acoustic guitar. Songs that have the potential to fall into traditional, naval-gazing singer/songwriter fare are instead fully realized, taking on multiple layers of sound without compromising her emphasis on lyrics.
On the rumbling opener “Hotel Room”—a song that, production-wise, calls back to Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”—sings about being on one side of the coast and wishing she were on the other. “Call me puzzled, call me confused /Cause you jigsaw me into a hangman’s noose /And I’m waving around my sentence/Loving you is like some form of dependence,” she sings, subverting traditional themes of missing someone and injecting them with vibrant, literary sensibilities.
“Probably Paradise”, a self-aware rock song with a similar lo-fi chug, digs into the feeling of wanting someone and them feeling unobtainable. Instead of focusing entirerly on the words, the song was written from a more rhythmic ideal than a thematic one.
“I was recently reading Jeff Tweedy’s book, and he talked about how when he writes a song, he’ll mumble the words when he’s demoing, and fill them in later with words that fit in rhythmically. He and Blake Mills both use rhythm as a tool to write lyrics, and they really helped inspire parts of this song,” she says.
On “Remind Me”, Wolfson drew from frustration and wanting to figure things out on her own to craft a forthwright song that sees the EP at it’s most serious point.
“We finished ‘Remind Me’ the day of the session. There was something in me saying that this song is really important, and it needed to be on the EP. The song talks about being a woman and [dealing with] the patriarchy in a subtle way. In music, I’ve had experiences as a woman in music where I’m not taken as seriously, and the song expresses frustration towards that,” she says.
The lead single “Nothing’s Real” occupies similar low-fi territory, this time focusing on the ennui of routine and feeling like you’re not accomplishing enough in comparison to those close to you; a feeling that isn’t necessarily new, but is exemplified by social media.
“I’m definitely still working out the balance between being a student and a performing musician. I sing about that on ‘Nothing’s Real’ and how it sometimes feels like I’m ‘going through the motions and spinning like a wheel.’ There’s definitely something to be said about moving to the other side of the country where the weather’s completely different and being out of your element,” she says.
The closing song “Johnny Cash” shows Wolfson taking her songwriting back to its roots, setting aside the low-fi rumble of the rest of the EP and instead delving into a confessional, acoustic crooner that uses specific, scene setting details. She begins at the beginning of the relationship, where she sings, “Saw you singing Johnny Cash when you were ten and I was eight” and eventually ends up in a far different place, singing “I can’t stop checking my phone/Saw that you got interviewed by someone I know/I just had to listen, couldn’t tell you off/She asked you about me and you lied”.
“As I get older, I’m not as scared anymore to include details like these in my songs,” she says.
These details are tight and specific, but the end of the chorus proclaims, “Living seems easier with my arms crossed/I have loved, and I have lost,” taking the song’s narrow focus and connecting it to a feeling that’s universal. Wolfson’s talent lies in her ability to unite these personal, scene-setting details from her own life into a broader emotional thesis; something that many songwriters set out to achieve, but few actually accomplish.
“One of the things I love about being a songwriter is that once your private experience becomes public by putting it out into the world, everyone’s interpretation is valid, because it’s now for them. ‘Snake Eyes’ was written for a friend I had who was betraying me and taking friends away from me. None of those lyrics were written with any romantic intention, but once the song started getting covered, everyone referred to it as a breakup song, which was funny because I wrote it when I was sixteen—I had never even had a boyfriend at the time. Instead of getting upset, I accepted the fact that the song means one thing to me, but to others, it can mean something completely different,” she says.
Moving away from home, feeling trapped in the routine that can ultimately come to define adulthood, and looking back upon past relationships with newer, fresher eyes are what make Adulting a powerful and charming portrait of Wolfson growing up in real time. The songs are confessional, but they aren’t sweeping and wide narratives. Instead, they focus on the small moments along the way; the ones that in the end, shape us far more drastically.
“I grew up on folk music where there’s a lot of action in the songs, but I’m trying to balance that with a Carver-esque idea of trying to capture small moments and to make them relatable,” she says.
Adulting is out March 20, 2019. You can stream “Nothing’s Real” here.