ILLUSTRATION BY COLL HAMILTON
The self-professed eternal child Soko arrived on the scene in 2006 with a gritty music video threatening to kill a girl. At this year’s Cannes the singer/songwriter/actress held her own among the international A-List and proved she’s an artistic force ready to claim any stage.
rench singer, artist and actress Stéphanie Sokolinski, more commonly known to her spirited international fan base as Soko, dropped out of school at 16 to move to Paris and took up acting classes with the famed actress and theater coach Eva Saint-Paul. After her bare bones music video “I’ll Kill Her” (2006) took the internet by storm, Soko set forth on a nomadic spirit journey, releasing two sequential albums that continue to reflect a deepening and complex maturity without sacrificing that signature poetic raw spunk that established her sound: the more intimate and personal I Thought I Was an Alien (2012), and the charging synth-pop My Dreams Dictate My Reality (2015) — both of which she toured on relentlessly. For many artists that would be a fulltime job but Soko thrives on superhuman productivity, and her Caesar Award-nominated acting career, largely rooted in French cinema, has been equally prolific with 13 films under her belt. She was a confident and commanding presence on the red carpet at this year’s Cannes, where she was promoting roles in two French films: Stéphanie Di Giusto’s biopic, The Dancer, where she plays the title role of Loie Fuller, and the Afghanistan war drama The Stopover by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin.
RUINS caught up with Soko to discuss the joys and the sorrows of unencumbered living, Peter Pan syndrome, and the ghost of Harry Houdini.
RUINS: You spend a lot of time on the road – what’s life like when you’re off it?
SOKO: Last year I was making my second record [My Dreams Dictate My Reality]. And that was it, and I didn’t do anything else. I was living in Venice with Ross Robinson, who was producing and had also worked with The Cure. I really wanted an early 80s /late 70s sound–raw and funky and gothy. I like straightforward guitars and fun bass lines. So I lived in Venice with him. He has a beautiful four-story house, beachfront, and a dog named Carl, that I love. We had such a good rhythm. We were supposed to record for two weeks, and I ended up staying for 6 months. We were just working every single fucking day. Which was awesome. We’d wake up, go to yoga, eat lunch together.
How did such a fortuitous collaboration come about?
I started recording in Paris with an engineer, and because I love arranging and I knew exactly what kind of sound I wanted, I thought, fuck it, I’m just gonna produce it. Then I ran out of money and I was like, “Oh, shit. I need someone. So I wrote a letter to Robert Smith to ask him if he would want to produce my record (laughs) and I really wanted it to sound like early Cure. More bare and more punk. I had the letter transmitted through Ross. Robert Smith never answered but then Ross called me and he’s like, “Hey, are you in LA do you want to come meet up? I’ve listened to your stuff, I really dig it.” And I went to meet him and he was like, “Do you want to start recording in 3 days?”
Sounds like the dream.
We have the exact same lifestyle so it worked out very well. He doesn’t smoke or drink or do drugs. He’s vegan and gluten free…and I’m the exactly same.
Are you usually an emotional roller coaster?
I am, but I’m also really hyperactive. If I go into something without releasing any energy, I will not be focused and have crazy ADD. Yoga helps have clear intentions, like “I’m here to make my record, that’s all I want to focus on.” I don’t want to have any distractions. I don’t want to see anyone. I don’t want to go out. I don’t want to drive anywhere. Six months of not seeing anyone. It’s the best.
Do you ever unpack?
For seven years I was living out of my suitcase. I have a crazy Peter Pan syndrome. I’m an eternal child. I have a problem with having too much responsibility. But at the same time, because I’m a musician and have a whole team working for me, so I have to be a boss—even though I don’t [always] want to. Sometimes I get bossy and I’m like, “let’s do this! and this! And that!” And am really efficient. Other times I’m like—“I don’t want to pay bills, I don’t want to find a house. I don’t want to buy a car by myself. I don’t want real life hassles and responsibilities. I just want to go on adventures and have fun.” It was so hard for seven years for me to not have a house and just couch surf, staying with my friends in their guest room, till they were like…”hmm..I think it’s time for you [to go]! What’s next?” But it never really got to that point because I was moving every two months. That’s the maximum I would ever stay with people. I’d also have to go on a flight somewhere.
How does your creative process differ in LA as opposed if you were an artist living in Paris. Would that album have been different?
I don’t feel creative in Paris. I write a lot because I feel like I don’t belong. And the weather makes me a little bit more sad. And then as soon as I’m in LA I’m creative and bubbling over with energy. It’s weird because Paris’s pace is really fast, but it makes me really sluggish. LA is really sluggish, but it makes me want to fight it and do my career non-stop, everyday.
Have you always been crazy workaholic?
I have. No, I definitely have, but I think LA really gets the best of me in that way because its so easy to collaborate with people and everyone is so open. When you have an artistic goal and you want to just bring in whether it’s like, “Oh, I need someone to DP my video, or I need a focus puller.” You post it on Facebook, an hour later, you’ve got your whole team to make a video. Or even like, finding anything, like whatever you can imagine, as soon as I post it on Facebook, literally the next minute it’s sorted in LA because everyone wants to help out. There’s a much better sense of community, like artistic community.
So you find social media rather useful, then.
I am the queen of social media. The power of social media is fucking insane. I use it in a way that feels so fun.
The walls that you come up against in Europe, is that a money thing? Do you find people are less likely to get involved because they think they’re not going to get paid for it?
Yeah, definitely. I find that in LA people are really charitable with their time. People in LA are really just there to make art, and they move there to be artists. And like, nobody has a day job and also rent is cheaper. So you have less money responsibilities.
Comparing yourself now to yourself say like 5 years ago, do you feel you’re a rebooted version of yourself?
I feel like I went through Satan’s return and it was a really fucking hard one and everyday I wanted to give up, but then I put all of my doubts and fears in my music and the whole time I was making this record, I was like, “I want this to be a transformative record”. And to be like lighter and sunnier, you know, feel happier and help me as a human like pass this sort of like sluggish sadness and depression and just be a happier person and live more in the moment and stop projecting myself and like having crazy high expectations and live in the moment.
What was the highlight of your last tour?
We went to an art school in Savannah, SCAD, and everyone was so young and beautiful and creative. We played in a record store called Grayface and all the people there looked like the most awesome, freaky, stylish, cool, out-there people. And hardcore fans. We were trying to save up on hotels, so we would crash with people. When we mentioned, “We don’t have a place to stay! Who can we stay with?” we ended up at Harry Houdini’s old house. It was amazing. Two stories, really big. There were no ghosts, but there was a safe that hadn’t been opened for a hundred years. It was built into the ground, and you couldn’t take it out. My guitar player thought he could crack it and we just literally barely touched it and it opened. Inside there were three gold metal locks for tricks and some screws, but barely anything.
Is it hard to hold down friendships with your lifestyle?
I hang out with a lot of international people. My two best friends are Latinas; one’s from Mexico, one’s from Argentina. Three BFF ladies.
How do you feel about interviews like this?
I think that everything interesting I have to say is in my songs, so doing interviews is always weird. Everything is in my music; all my failures, all my doubts, all my vulnerabilities, all my strength, passion or love. I don’t know how to do anything else, because it’s completely vital for me to do music. Because I need it! When something happens I immediately go home and then it comes– completely formed. Every lyric, every arrangement, every drumbeat. I used to carry diaries all the time, but my bags were always so heavy. My diaries are so big they look like magic books.
So, where people always think that relationships with others are the trigger points or inspiration for songs, I’m getting the impression that more often than people may realize, you draw on your relationship with yourself.
It’s a mix of everything but its funny because I put so much meaning into every single lyric. So every single sentence I pick, I could like take any sentence and tell you 3 stories about them that makes them relevant and so important and exactly why they’re so meaningful. Like even just the title track, “I Come In Peace” was so important to me to put it as an opening track because of my previous record being called, I Thought I Was An Alien.
So it was still an alien reference, but at the same time, really coming to peace with all my demons. Part of that song is reaching for someone who was a drug addict that I was trying to help out. But I had too many expectations and I saw him as this huge hero and I wanted to get engaged and like get married, and have babies and shit. And I was putting so much pressure on someone to be something that he was not.
I’ve been writing for people too, on their new records and stuff. And preparing 4 movies. I can’t procrastinate. If I go one day without creating stuff, I feel like I’m dead. I feel like boredom is death.
Have you always been like that?
Yeah, on my first record I had that one song called “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow” and this is really how I live my life. I really feel like if tonight is my last night and I die in my sleep like my father did, I want today to have been the best fucking day of my life. So everyday I try to see friends that I love and try to work and try to finish things.
Did your father die when you were young?
Yeah when I was 5. It shaped my life. For me there’s no love, there’s just proof of love and to me there’s no, “I’m working.” The only thing that matters to me is results. If you pretend you’re working but there’s no result and there’s no end product, you might as well just be doing nothing. So everyday I try to have something that’s finished.
What do you mean by that, there’s no love, there’s only proof of love?
No, I think when people say, “Oh I love you, I love you, I love you” then when you really need them, they’re not here and they can’t give you proof that they love you, and it’s just words. It’s meaningless.
Is anything off limits?
I don’t know any other way. Doing the opposite would feel wrong and would feel like I’m lying.
But even the holding something back – like you just love the unguarded moment. I mean, you just put it out there.
Yeah, I just don’t know how to build walls. It’s like embracing being vulnerable. If I want to be crying one minute and then laugh the next then you know I’ll fucking own my emotions and there’s nothing wrong about that and you’re not going make me feel bad about it. And I’d rather see people cry and then people feel good than like people be completely guarded and have absolutely no emotion and you never know what’s in their head. These people are like dangerous. [I] don’t know how to approach them.