just released her first album and stars in two movies this spring
interview by CAROLINE GAIMARI
portrait by GIL LESAGE
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Where are you living now?
SOKO — My whole life is in storage. I just have a suitcase and my guitar, so I can live anywhere. I was living in LA for the last three years, doing music. But I’ve been back in France for a few months now, finishing my album, I Thought I Was An Alien, and starting the promotion for it. I’m living in Paris with my brother. We lived together in LA, too, and I helped him a lot with his music. I have been back to LA, though, to shoot a few videos with Matthew Gray Gubler. We directed one together for my single, “First Love Never Dies,” and I directed another one, which Matthew is in, too. We filmed them on an iPhone. We have friends in common, and I love his paintings, so I asked him to do a flyer for one of my shows. I’m also finishing up two films, Augustine and Friends From France.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Are you going to stay in Paris for a while then?
SOKO — No. After that, I’m moving to London, where I’ll be rehearsing with my touring band for our upcoming tour. I’m putting that band together right now. I was just Skypeing with my drummer/guitar/bass/trumpet player, who’s in Munich. We all play a bunch of instruments, and we switch around a lot. I love playing drums, but I can’t spend the whole show playing them. I also love playing bass and guitar. But I don’t play the trumpet.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Is this your first album?
SOKO — Yes, it is, and it’s finally finished! I recorded it over five years. I went into the studio years ago, but things just weren’t getting done, so I worked on it like a maniac over many sleepless nights, trying to find the key that would open the door and make the songs sound right. It took me a long time. I produced it in LA with Fritz Michaud, who was Elliott Smith’s sound engineer. But I did a lot of things by myself on GarageBand. I went to him with everything almost finished, but not quite. We worked on it together every day for eight months. Most bands go in the studio for, say, two weeks in a row — and that’s already a luxury — but it took me five years. Fritz gave me so much time, care, love, and attention. I couldn’t have done it any other way, considering the pressure and the money situation. It was awesome of him to do that.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Five years is a long time to work on one thing.
SOKO — The process of recording the album has been a long, lonely journey. I’m not saying that I have to force myself to write songs, but when I’m in the middle of the creative process, I tend to isolate myself. I’ve never been someone who goes out a lot. I prefer to focus on working and being productive and creative. I’m a workaholic — I always want to do more. But it has been a very lonely process, even if I did have a lot of help from my old and new friends.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Will the album be a mix of songs you recorded over this five-year period?
SOKO — I didn’t choose only my most recent songs. I wrote “First Love Never Dies,” which will be the single, five years ago. I wrote another one, “No More Home, No More Love,” in April, right when I was leaving LA and finishing up the recording. It ended up being included on the album at the last minute.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Your following really grew because of your Myspace page, with people discovering your song, “I’ll Kill Her.” Will it be on the album?
SOKO — No! I hate that song. I don’t even want to talk about it because it feels like so long ago. I haven’t sung it in five years. I’ve been lucky because I play a lot of free shows, so I can tell people, “You didn’t pay to get in — you can’t ask me to play anything I don’t want to!” When I do a free show, I play what I want! “I’ll Kill Her” was never even officially released — radio stations in Australia and Scandinavia just took it off of Myspace. It’s like being a baby and crawling around — everyone applauds you, when what you really want to do is walk and run.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You quit music for a while, at the height of all the buzz about you. Why?
SOKO — I got frustrated with there being so many expectations of me. I felt like it wasn’t my life. Suddenly, on Facebook and Myspace, there were 130,000 people who knew about me. I was really flattered, but it meant nothing. I’m nobody — I don’t deserve more attention than anyone else. It was very conflicting. Why did people like me so much when I hadn’t even made anything, not even one album? I felt like I didn’t deserve the attention. People should like people who have done something — not just hype. That’s why I stopped. I wasn’t even sure I wanted the album I was working on to come out, or to have any more fans. That’s not what drives me. Music is such a vital, personal thing — like therapy — something I have to do for myself. What I love best are the gigs and the touring: being on stage, telling my stories to people. That’s all that matters. Playing and playing and playing — that’s the most thrilling thing. Being in the studio is totally unnatural for me. Playing shows is the most awesome, rewarding thing. But if I want to keep playing gigs in Japan or Australia without losing money, I have to have an album out to support them.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You must be really excited to start touring, then.
SOKO — Yes. I really miss it. I’ve always played shows in a chaotic way. I never use a set list, and I always play my newest songs, even if I don’t even know the lyrics to them yet. I always have huge notebooks filled with lyrics on stage with me, and I’ll just open them up randomly. Sometimes, even after just three songs, I won’t be that into the crowd — other times I can go on for three hours or more. Sometimes I’ll play by myself, but other times I’ll ask some friends to join me on stage — I’ll make up a band on the spot. But now I’m finally able to play the songs like I intended them to sound. I’m going to start the tour in the UK, and then I’ll tour Europe, Australia, the US, and South America. But not everything is booked yet because I’m still shooting the film I’m acting in, and it’s hard to get everything organized.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Did you collaborate with many musicians on the album?
SOKO — Stella Mozgawa, from Warpaint, plays a lot on the album, and my brother plays some things. And about five years ago I recorded some stuff with Emanuel Lundgren from the band I’m from Barcelona. A bunch of my friends have worked on it with me over the years. I would go home at night and keep writing and recording on GarageBand. Stella left me her drum kit and her bass, and one night I wrote the first song on the album, “Just Want To Make It New With You.” I recorded it that night, and Fritz and I mixed it straight away the next day. But I’m not really sure I’m the best person to write with. I try, but I’m really bad at it. But since I don’t really feel like a musician, I have a hard time with the idea of jamming with people. I’m still really self-conscious. Music comes from a shy, vulnerable place in me.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Are there any musicians who you dream of working with?
SOKO — Well, I opened for Daniel Johnston, who’s one of my heroes. I also opened for Seasick Steve. He wrote me an email recently, which made my day. I like sharing the stage with people and experiencing musical magic. But I guess that most of my idols are dead, except for Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon — although it isn’t my life’s dream to be close to them. I’m not really a fan kind of person.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You have your own label now, right?
SOKO — I’m licensed to Because. But, yes, I have my own label called Babycat Records. But I’m a control freak. I do everything myself, just to make sure that I have total freedom. I can take as much time as I like, without anyone controlling me or telling me what to do.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You have a film coming out in 2012 where you play a hysteric from the 1800s, right?
SOKO — I’m playing the title role in Alice Winocour’s first film, Augustine, which is set in the late 1800s. It’s about the treatment a girl receives from Jean-Martin Charcot, the therapist who was Freud’s teacher. He did the first studies on hysteria. Vincent Lindon plays Charcot and I play his patient, Augustine. Hysteria makes your body do things that it wouldn’t normally do. A side of Augustine’s body became paralyzed, with no explanation. In the film they show an experiment performed on her — they stick a needle through her arm, without it bleeding, and without it causing her pain. Your body has its own truth. It all means that Augustine’s life was pretty tough. She gets hit in the face when she has hysterical crises. She becomes paralyzed and has her arm pressed up against her chest, and she can’t move one leg. This week I did a scene in which I have to run away from the photographer Albert Londe, who’s trying to hypnotize and rape me, and I fell into a nettle bush.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Sounds painful!
SOKO — I still have spikes in my hands and bruises all over. I can’t really move my neck. And I have to be back on set tomorrow. Not only that: in one scene, my character has to run after a chicken and catch it with one hand, although she’s still paralyzed. In real life I’m vegan, and in this scene I’m supposed to cut the chicken’s head off. They couldn’t fake it because afterward the chicken runs around with no head. I freaked out and had to leave the set. They had my double do it because I just couldn’t. It made me nauseous. I didn’t feel good about it, at all. I’m active with PETA. Even the thought of it is still painful!
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Did you always want to act?
SOKO — When I was a kid, I thought the only thing I wanted to be was an actress, and to really be able to tell stories. I dreamed of being in period films, having my dresses made to measure, and having long hair, like a princess. Augustine isn’t a princess, though — the whole thing is much more punk!
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You also act in Virginie Despentes’s latest film Bye Bye Blondie, which came out in November. Had you read any of her books before you met her?
SOKO — No. I have ADD, and I’m dyslexic. I can watch movies all day long, but I’m really bad at calming my mind. That’s why I quit school when I was 16 — I couldn’t sit in a chair for eight hours. I hadn’t read any of Virginie’s books, but when she wrote me an email about being the lead in Bye Bye Blondie, I sat down and read them. She’s amazing. It was inspiring just being around her. She’s probably the strongest woman I’ve ever met. I love the fact that she can suddenly turn the truth upside-down and make a whole new truth. She can make you see things totally differently from the way you saw them before — things about your whole life, but more specifically, things about feminism, the role of women, what we take on our shoulders — unnecessarily — and how men look at us.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — How did you get involved with Spike Jonze and Olympia Le Tan, on their short film, Mourir Auprès de Toi?
SOKO — Spike’s a friend of mine. I was going to be in his film, I Am Here, but I wasn’t allowed to, because I was only 23 at the time, and the minimum age of people allowed on the set was 25. But Spike and I stayed in touch, and when I was looking for people to record with, he introduced me to his brother Sam. I recorded some of the songs from my album at Sam’s studio in Echo Park. Spike asked me to do the voice for the character Mina, and Sam asked me to help with the music. When I did Mina’s voice, I hadn’t yet seen the images, just the end credits. Sam told me I had five minutes to write a really pop-y upbeat tune, and I told him, “You must not know my music! I can’t just write a happy song!” But he put a guitar in my hand and told me to just play something. So I did — and we got it!
CAROLINE GAIMARI — You’ll probably have to stop doing films for a while, because you’ll be on tour.
SOKO — Well, I don’t really feel like I’m an actress, anyway. But I’m not putting acting totally aside — I’d stop touring if I had the opportunity to work with Robert Zemeckis or Gus Van Sant. It’s just that I don’t feel as though acting is my real job and that I need to take every single role that comes my way. I just want to tell stories in good conditions. If the touring is going badly, then I’d rather tell stories in a different way, whether it be by directing videos or by acting in movies that have a story I’m particularly interested in. Now I’m directing my own videos and really loving it. It’s just a different way to tell stories. But maybe some day I’ll start feeling self-conscious about telling my stories — and I’ll stop.
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