Interview: Nashville Singer-Songwriter Sophie Sanders Talks Debut Album
Sophie Sanders strings together poetry like she breathes air: easily, seemingly without thought. The truth, though, is that her songwriting craft is relatively new, despite her being born with its inevitability sleeping in the corner of her soul until she picked up a guitar a few years ago. The daughter of a sunny schoolteacher and a chart-topping country songwriter, Sophie felt the push-and-pull of both career directions, and has been lucky enough to bring her talents to each.
Today, we’re honored to introduce you to Sophie and her debut album, Steep and Shining Spaces. The record — 11 songs with a guest appearence by the legendary Amy Grant — is a beautiful foray into Sophie’s self-reflection in the form of soft folk anthems.
Steep and Shining Spaces opens with “Still Waters,” the record’s first single featuring Amy Grant on backup vocals. A family friend, Amy was more than happy to connect with Sophie for the track — thank god. The upbeat opener is full of life, sweetened by a steady percussive beat pulsing beneath Sophie’s low drawl and twangy guitar strums. Amy’s energetic delivery offers a special flavor to the harmony, so much warmth and sugary happiness pumping along. Next comes “Easy Enough,” an alt-folk singalong opening with searing rock ‘n roll rhythms before moving quickly into Sophie’s peppy pop-folk beats. On “Pretty,” a woozy guitar line opens the track, but falls back for a modest acoustic rhythm and Sophie’s lax vocals delivering a quiet empowerment anthem.
On Sophie’s personal favorite song off the record, “The Things That Give Me Wings,” she sets aside her badass, rollicking rhythms in favor of gentle folk-tinged melody and sparkling swells floating behind her aching vocals singing quick lines that say so much, like “Here I am and yes I can.” Next, we get back to folk-rock romps with “Ladder,” which finds Sophie talk-singing a sharp-witted verse in her droning drawl before the arrangement builds to include layers of guitar lines, steady throbs of percussion, and choir-like harmony. “Sky Blue Sky” comes next, mimicking its title by opening with the chiming bloom of this sort of sonic vastness, big and resounding and beautiful. It’s not necessarily a high-energy song, but it’s gentle and modest, much like Sophie herself.
The halfway point of Steep and Shining Spaces finds “DNA.” The inclusion of sparkling piano sweeps here is a smart production decision, offering a new layer of beauty to the subtle thumps of drums and, later, the fleeting sear of electric underlying the arrangement. On “Sliding Glass,” Sophie starts with a sweet acoustic rhythm and her humming vocals painting a pretty picture. Soon, the minimalist arrangement is met by rapid-fire percussive plinks and the rise of keys as Sophie reluctantly sings, “love don’t work like that.” With “Capsize,” we’re treated to a more classically ‘Nashville’ ballad. The arrangement moves slowly, crawling toward the bittersweet splash of slow-burn percussion and warbling strums building the base for Sophie’s saddened pipes to play on, delivering some of her best lyrics.
On “Love Eludes Me" (an in-your-face title that says everything), Sophie gets real about her battle with love and loss, confessing that love “lies next to me but it never is what it seems” among the sparkle and chime of high-pitch keys and layers of rolling folk-pop melody. Steep and Shining Spaces ends nearly 40 minutes later with “The Fall For You,” a gorgeous conclusion to a record full of change. Sophie sings line after line of poetry, backed by an increasingly complex piano composition before joining a more robust arrangement of hopping drum-pad beats, deep bass warbles, and twangy guitar rhythms.
Steep and Shining Spaces introduces Sophie Sanders as a songwriter with the soul to back up the words that fall out of her mouth like jewels. As she continues to flourish and hone her craft in Nashville’s welcoming arms, Sophie is bound to become a force in folk’s own sweet embrace.
Listen to Steep and Shining Spaces below and connect with Sophie Sanders on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read on for our exclusive interview with Sophie, who is as smart and eloquent as her music suggests.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
Sophie Sanders: I was born and raised in Nashville. My dad is a country songwriter, so this business is in my blood, but it took me a long while to realize it. I was 21, had just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology and Anthropology, and was awaiting placement in the Peace Corps. I’d never thought of making music and had certainly never been a singer.
For whatever reason, though, I happened to reach for one of the guitars that had always been in the house one afternoon when I was home. I think it took about ten minutes for obsession to kick in. I got determined to play the thing, my dormant songwriting gene slowly awakened, and here I am, one and a half years of Peace Corps service and almost six years of writing in Nashville later, about to release my first record.
I think of myself as a songwriter first [and as an] artist second. I always describe my music as country-ish. The lyrical structure is country, but the sound falls somewhere under the country-pop-folk umbrella. I feel like music is hard to categorize these days, so I try not to worry too much about categorizing myself.
TMM: You were born in Nashville, a lucky dweller of Music City’s magic since birth. We’ve spoken to tons of Nashville transplants on The Music Mermaid, but we’d love to hear from you about what it was like to grow up in a space dominated by sonic talent (including your own father!).
SS: It’s funny. I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I should have as a kid, to be honest. I remember thinking it was pretty cool that my dad’s song was on the radio, or that I could go watch him play at the Bluebird, or that sometimes he wasn’t home for dinner because he was in some mysterious thing called a demo session. But the weight of what he was doing, and what was going on around me, never really sunk in until I stepped away for a bit then came back hoping to break into this monster of a business myself. Sometimes when you’re so close to something you forget to really look at it. Nowadays, I can’t believe how much talent this town packs into it, or that I got lucky enough to grow up in its midst.
TMM: You recently released you debut album, Steep and Shining Spaces, a collection of impactful soft folk anthems. What was the production process like?
SS: The production process was a journey of many months. We did it piece-by-piece because Felix McTeigue, my producer, lives up in Vermont and works out of Brooklyn quite a bit. He comes down to Nashville once a month or so, so we recorded the basis of the tracks on one visit, the keys on the next, vocals on the next, etc. It was interesting to live with the songs for so long and really think through how we wanted them to feel.
There was definitely some trial and error involved. We scrapped one whole song because it took a sharp turn towards rock ‘n roll that didn’t feel like me anymore. It was fun though, having such a wide open canvas. Since this is my first record, I’m not boxed into something I’m “supposed” to sound like, so we just got to experiment with a handful of very talented musicians until the sound felt right.
Sometimes when you’re so close to something you forget to really look at it.
TMM: You didn’t exactly grow up writing songs, but you did grow up writing. How has your relationship with literature and poetry influenced your work as a songwriter?
SS: I think it makes me not scared to be poetic in songs. All songs are “poetic” to an extent because they rhyme, but there’s a difference in just rhyming two lines and really making the lines feel poetic. My favorite writing has always been the kind where the thoughts and phrases are so pretty and rhythmic that I want to underline them all — like reading Lolita or reading Mary Oliver’s poems. There are certain writers who just have a way with words and the shape and rhythm of them, no matter what the subject matter is. It’s like they let you look at their thoughts through a stained-glass window, when it could have just been a regular old window. Somehow there are brilliant bits of light and color reflecting off of everything.
So that’s a strange metaphor, and those are crazy high bars I just set for myself, but I guess that’s what I hope I can do in song form — construct lines and phrases that make people say, “Wow, look at how beautiful.”
TMM: You are a product of the people who love you, having followed in your mother’s footsteps as a teacher and your father’s as a songwriter. In what ways does having a support system help to advance your passion?
SS: I don’t have any idea where I’d be without the support of my family. We are so close, and I count myself incredibly lucky to have such loving and present mentors. I really am a product of them. My mom’s a social, adventure-seeking bundle of energy and positivity, and my dad’s a solitary, introspective poet with a tendency to see the glass half-empty. But he has the most brilliant things to say when he wants to.
You wouldn’t think those two could co-exist within one being, but I see the dichotomy in both my brother and me. I know I can look to my dad for how to say things better, and for how to handle the beast that is this never-ending need to create and to look deeply at life. And I can look to my mom for the tools to stay grounded somewhere above that downward pull that creativity can have on people. I don’t think I could make it without both of them within me and beside me.
TMM: The first single off the new record, “Still Waters,” features Amy Grant. How’d you score that collaboration with such a legendary musician?
SS: I’ve sort of known Amy tangentially since I was younger. One of her nieces is my good friend from high school and our families have known each other through the music business. On our very first day of recording for the record, Felix wanted to start with “Still Waters.” He said, “We should get someone big to sing on this. We should get Amy Grant!” I sort of laughed and said we could try, not thinking that it would actually ever happen. But sure enough, a few months later when it was time to do background vocals, we texted her and she said of course she would do it. I still can’t believe that. I guess it’s true that sometimes all you have to do is ask!
this never-ending need to create and to look deeply at life…
TMM: Forgive us for even asking this but we have to… which song off Steep and Shining Spaces do you feel closest to and why?
SS: I guess I would say “The Things That Give Me Wings.” That’s the track that the whole record’s name, Steep and Shining Spaces, comes from, and I don’t think that’s coincidental, listening back now. I wrote that song after a couple weeks away from writing. I’d been out of town and returned with that sinking feeling that I’d definitely forgotten how to have a good idea or make a song of it. I remember I sat down at my keyboard thinking I should at least try. Somehow I got to that melody, and then the thought that “I rise up on the things that give me wings” came out. It’s true. I am shaking, sometimes, and small, and so unsure that this insignificant me with doubt in my head and dirt on my feet can matter or make an impact. But if I focus on the things that give me wings, I can. I just have to remind myself of that. If I aim for “the steep and shining spaces that the song is sure to reach,” I think they really will reach them in time.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to hear ASAP?
SS: Blessing Offor — he sings and plays the piano and will move you to tears with his sound and his story. We have written a pile of songs together, and they are some of the songs I hold dearest. I can’t wait for the day the world starts paying attention to him.
Annika Bennett — she has this lovely sing-songy voice and a sound that you could float away on. I think I’ve told her before that I wish I could put her voice in a jar and carry it around with me. She’s a brilliant writer, too. One of those artists who just has “a thing” that’s all her own.
Johnny Duke — he’s an incredible guitarist. Honestly I don’t even know enough about guitar to appreciate how incredible he is. I was lucky enough to get to have him play on a couple tracks on the record. He’s recorded with Little Big Town and some others, but he also does his own stuff and has a knack for producing that I hope he’ll get to show the world someday.
I am shaking, sometimes, and small, and so unsure… but if I focus on the things that give me wings, I can.
TMM: What has been your most memorable music moment so far?
SS: Oh gosh. There are already so many. My dad and I played a parent-child round at the Bluebird a couple of years ago with Tom Douglas and his daughter Claire, and Amy Grant and her stepdaughter Jenny Gill. It was such a sweet evening of music, almost like the older generation was passing off the torch to us bright-eyed young folks. I felt like we were so in awe of their songs and all they’ve accomplished, and, somehow, they were equally in awe of us in the fact that somehow they created someone who has this thing called music so alive inside of them too. I swear you could hear the genetics in each family’s songs and how they’re written. It’s fascinating to me that music can be passed down like that.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Sophie Sanders?
Sophie Sanders: Mostly just writing. I can’t get away from it. I hope more of my own records come in the future, but even if I just end up writing songs for other people to sing, I’ll be content. I plan to have my head down creating until the day a song really takes off. Then I guess I’ll look up, watch it take off, and put my head back down and keep creating.