French Singer Soko on Moving Past Your Wild Misconceptions
The French singer became an American celebrity for dating Kristen Stewart, but she's been influential in the indie pop music scene for nearly a decade.
Photos by Alice Baxley
Soko sits in Lamill Coffee in Los Angeles. She drinks nothing, wears a Violent Femmes T-shirt, and leans against a wall covered in the mural of ancient Greek women walking tigers on leashes. She walked to the cafe from her house, which is located in the messy grass and weed-covered hills of Silver Lake, the Williamsburg of Los Angeles.
Many Americans know Soko as a singer hailing from France; University of Berkeley students have been playing her three indie albums for at least a decade. She plays all her own instruments, hangs out with celebrity-hater Ariel Pink, and writes songs called names like "We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow," "Ocean of Tears," and "I'll Kill Her." Soko encompasses the antitheses of sunny, fame-obsessed Los Angeles, but in the last four years, she has also become known for DJing, dating Kristen Stewart (they've since split), and acting in critically adored French films like Augustine. This year, she walked the red carpet at Cannes.
Still, Soko says she hasn't fundamentally changed. "I don't have the life of an actress at all," she insists. "But last year I had to take a year off of music [because] I did two movies in a row."
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Soko moved to Los Angeles nine years ago and recorded all of her albums in the city. She loves living in the hills, close to the grass and trees. "I don't like city centers. I like parks and mountains and the beach and the desert and the forest," she says.
She grew up in a very different location: a small town outside Bordeaux, France. The second youngest of six children, Soko spent most her time with her little brother. "I just felt already, as a kid, very inclined towards culture and stuff," she recalls. She wanted to visit museums, see cinema, and act; she grew up faster than her peers.
"I started going out when I was 13," she says. "I never did drugs or whatever, but I was definitely drinking and partying and looking at people and being like, 'Oof! I don't want to be 30 and be a wreck, and have no accomplishments to my name."
At age 16, she left home and fled to Paris to become an actress. "I was from the smallest town in France, so [Paris] was just, like, where I needed to be," she says. "I moved there by myself because it was like, 'Move to the capital and try to make it!'"
Her family worried but ultimately supported her. Soko paid her own bills—she scored a movie gig right when she landed in Paris—and acted like a baby adult. Shock hits Soko when she reflects on her circumstances back then. "If you see any 16-year-old today being like, 'I live on my own and pay my own bills, and I'm working, and I don't need my family,' you'd be like, 'Yeah, right. Go back to your mom!'" she laughs.
Acting started to bore Soko: Filmmaking requires massive collaboration from everyone, from performers to directors to gaffers, whereas teenagers demand independence. "I wanted to find something in which I feel more like I can self-create and be at the origin of, and express my own ideas, and be independent, and not need anyone else to do it," Soko recalls. So she started writing songs.
In 2007, Soko released a single called "I'll Kill Her," which became an indie hit. According to the Guardian, music execs approached her in the aftermath of the song's sudden success, but she rebuked their advances, posting "Soko Is Dead" on her MySpace and then deleting her page altogether. Her debut album, 2012's I Thought I Was an Alien, caused an onslaught of articles about how "Soko Is Back."
Soko remains committed to music but lacks a specific writing regimen because of her schedule. "I wish I had more routine," she says. On perfect days, she wakes up, meditates, runs, and then plays music into the night. "Very, very late," she says.
She mostly writes on the road: She travels so much for work that she keeps all of her belongings in suitcases. Lately, she has even stopped purchasing records, choosing Spotify over hard copies due to space constraints. Her Spotify playlists consists of many California bands, like Cherry Glazerr, Warpaint, and Ariel Pink. She only listens to one French band, La Femme, whom she considers close friends.
Ariel Pink's melding of pop and indie sounds influenced Soko's most recent album, last year's My Dreams Dictate My Reality. (He also plays on the record.) It's different from Soko's previous stream-of-consciousness, sad records, which abandoned more traditional song structure because, at the time, Soko rejected structure in general.
"I think it's a lot happier and punchier," Soko says of her most recent work, which veers more towards the "80s structure of having a chorus and not being afraid of it," as she puts it.
She performs because she loves to perform, but the nature of the economy forces her to make a living through the influencer industrial complex: DJing, modeling, and acting.Like many contemporary artists, she actually loses money on tours after she pays her band and for rehearsal space. "It sucks, but I accept whatever," she says. "Also, I'm such a music nerd. Getting paid to go somewhere, show up, and play all my favorite songs is still a very privileged side job. I can't complain."
Although Soko DJs parties for a living, she says she has been sober since age 18 and practices a straight-edge lifestyle. When asked what the biggest misconception about her is, she responds, "That I'm a party head. People think I'm a punk, and wild, and out of control but I'm really healthy. I'm vegan, I'm a straight-edge, and I like being home alone."
Although she values alone time, her privacy rapidly evaporated in the last year, when paparazzi started snapping photos of her with her then-girlfriend, Twilight star Kristen Stewart. (The couple split in May.) Los Angeles-based performers often trade in their personal life: It's not unusual for rising celebrities to call paparazzi on themselves or allegedly stage relationships for press. For Soko, however, that lifestyle has no appeal. When I ask her how she views fame, she seems totally uninterested in the question.
"That's just not my scene so I don't know," Soko says. "I don't care."