In early January I met singer-songwriter Sophie Sanders. Sophie had released her debut album Steep and Shining Spaces in November, a collection of poetic songs set against a sonically luscious ambience, which brings to mind front porches in the spring as the magnolia is about to bloom, hardwood floors at night, and open blue skies. This musical backdrop is just as beautiful and evocative as the lyrics, which Sophie crafts. Her voice is warm and quietly powerful, whether she’s singing about political injustices, empowerment, or vulnerability.
Steep and Shining Spaces is a hopeful record. Not in a happy-go-lucky way but in a way where you may be sitting in the dark, but that dark doesn’t scare you because you know the light is coming.
Sophie brings the light in the song ‘Ladder’, which pulls no punches in deciding which side of history she wants to be on.
If there’s one thing i know i don’t it’s what on earth this world/ is spinnin’ toward when/ some white man’s lord/ swings a sword at boys and girls/ of different colors with suffering mothers/ and innocent brothers.
I asked Sophie about the political and social state of the United States and if it is really is as bad as the news makes it out to be, and she said yes it was. “The day after the election we were writing a song and I just felt dead. At one point I went into the bathroom and just cried.”
‘Ladder’ is political when most artists won’t go political, particularly in their art, and particularly if they happen to reside in Nashville, a dot of blue in a sea of red. The beauty of the song is that even though it’s about the wall that embodies everything Trump stands for, a physical manifestation of his thoughts so to speak, ‘Ladder’ could so easily be applied to the personal not just the political.
doubt’ll say we can’t/ hope won’t let it matter
I asked Sophie about ‘Ladder’; where it came from and how it evolved over time.
That happened when all the stuff with the wall was happening, and I guess it’s still happening. I’ve forgotten what I had written down as the initial idea, but it had do with love building a ladder over the wall, and I remember I sat down with that idea for… I thought this is gonna come out way too cheesy or way too something, like this isn’t gonna work but I have to get it out of my system because I am hung up on wanting to write something about the wall.
So, I just sat down and started writing it. I think I wrote an almost whole different version of it or at least half of it because I just had this voice in my head that was like, “this be cannot that political or no one will listen to it or it’s not gonna work…” Sort of trying to skirt the issue and I don’t remember what it was I wrote but I lived with it for like a couple of days and thought, this is not what I wanted to say. So, then I was like, okay I’m gonna go more directly at the politics of this than that version.
One thing about that song. So, when I decided to go head on at the wall and politics of it, Felix the producer, who is actually listed as co-writer on that song, because when we were thinking about recording it, in the first verse when it says,“If there is one thing I know I don’t/ is what this world is spinning towards/ when some white man’s word swings a sword at boys and girls”and I had,“different colours/ with immigrant mothers and Muslim brothers/ why don’t we show each other.” And Felix (McTeigue) was like, “maybe we should just take the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘Muslim’ out of the first verse to make it a little less…” So, it wasn’t obvious trigger points.So, we changed the first verse.
Sophie spent 14 months in Java, Indonesia, volunteering as part of the Peace Corps. I asked Sophie how the experience had shaped her world view and if it had filtered down into her song writing, and, if getting out into the vastness of the world allowed her to find where she needed to go.
In some ways you realise, like what really are the universal emotions and things. I mean what really connects people underneath everything and things that everyone in every culture feels and goes through, through their own lens.
Probably the biggest function that whole experience served was making me realise that I wanted to be a songwriter, just because I had my guitar with me over there and I started to realise that I just wanted class to be cancelled so I could try and write a song (laughs). And I was like, “well this is strange to be over here dreaming what they do in my hometown.”
I feel like that experience also… I guess it gave me a little distance from country song writing and just that… Because as much as I do want to have a place in Nashville’s music industry which is obviously largely country and my Dad’s a country songwriter (Mark D. Sanders), and there’s some country music that I love, but not the kind where it’s all ‘girls in jean shorts’ and that’s so much its own culture but I think having lived in other cultures and having this love for the whole world and people, and not wanting to demean people.
I dunno, I just want to be able to bring a broader perspective to country music’s perspective, which has just gotten narrow.
Steep and Shining Spaces, though hopeful is not without its share of songs about the disintegration of love and relationships.
‘Sliding Glass’ for instance, there’s a sliding glass door in my apartment and that song feels very real to me. It’s not totally literal. I didn’t have this exact scenario in my apartment looking at the sliding glass, but I had that very specific feeling with an ex-boyfriend when you’re just in this room together and in this life together and you’re like, do we touch anymore? When it just feels like the intimacy is missing. So, I just transported the scenario and the feeling to my sliding glass door when I thought of that as a title and a metaphor.
you just keep on gliding by/ never try to touch me/ it’s like our lives are stuck in one frame on different tracks/ and love don’t love don’t work like that
‘Dna’, like ‘Sliding Glass’, is full of poetic imagery – i’m up with the sun/ you light up with the dark/ i like puttin’ things together/ you like takin’ them apart– but unlike the latter, it builds and builds until the sadness is palpable and the frustration is electric.
What makes both songs stand out from the usual break-up songs, is they are devoid of finger pointing or blame. There’s no anger but a pure resignation that a relationship isn’t going to work, that I think, is perhaps sadder, and as Sophie says, “I feel it is very realistic.”
and i don’t wanna fix us/ i know better than to try/ be like changin’ how our hearts beat/ or the color of our eyes
For ‘Dna’, that one was one of the ones that was co-written. This was before I knew of Kendrick Lamar’s song ‘DNA’. I just had a thought that Dna would be cool title and it was suggested that when I was writing with this guy called Struan Shields, and in my head, I dunno, I hadn’t fleshed out in my head what that song would be about, but we just started talking about different angles and arrived at that angle somehow.
Sophie wrote 7 of the 11 songs on the album, most of which were written on piano.For some reason, I write happier songs on the piano, something about it just lifts me, and I write the sadder songs on guitar, something about it just makes me go in on myself.
The album was recorded between November 2017 and March 2018 in Nashville. I asked Sophie how the recording process had unfolded during those months.
I tend to just… I feel as a songwriter you just have to go all in if it’s gonna touch people and feel real to people. Probably we had 20 songs and then narrowed them down. Honestly the whole record… Two years ago, it wasn’t even my plan to make a record necessarily because I tend to think of myself as a songwriter more than an artist. But because I write alone as much as I co-write, and I really enjoy that process too, at some point I just thought, “there are so many songs here why don’t we just make a record with some of them and me sing them, and see what happens or how it feels.”
Sophie’s father is the critically and commercially acclaimed country songwriter Mark D. Sanders (Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill), and though I am not comfortable placing Sophie in the shadow of her father in this interview, Sophie talked openly about the influence her father had on the record.
I am always very affected by my Dad’s opinion of my songs just because of he’s a writer, so there were certain ones that I knew he loved and then in my mind – and I am working on detaching this – but every time he says something really good about a song, I’m like “this one is the best one” (laughs). Like his opinion becomes my opinion. And then Felix who produced it was the best ‘other ear’ to bounce songs off of. So, I sent him a list of all the ones we were considering and really, we had narrowed it down in the studio the first day.
Steep and Shining Space has plenty of moments of vulnerability, but that vulnerability is never naked. It is always wrapped in a warm ambience, as if you are right there, wrapped up in the song. This atmosphere is perhaps as just as interesting as the lyrics themselves, which Sophie fittingly describes as ‘that feeling’.
Some of that was the first engineers that we were working with, Bobby and the guitar player Sam. So, the first day we started recording, it was Bobby, Sam, Felix and I, just in the studio together. And honestly, Bobby and Sam together made a lot of ‘that feeling’, which is kind of what we ran with.
Like any good writer, story is important, and Sophie took six months picking over the sequencing of the record. I got… I tend to get obsessed with tasks like that. And you get attached to one way. So, I cut out a little piece of paper with each title on it, so I could reorder them, and I mean honestly for months I would try listening through in a certain order and then I would be like, “this song can’t come after this song because they’re both have this one word that no one’s gonna notice. (laughs)”
But I rearranged it honestly hundreds of times and then finally Felix was like, “I know this guy who is really good at this kind of thing, let’s have him do it.” So, someone else did it. Someone I’ve never even met put them it that order. This is the best order.
The muse is a funny thing. You never know what it’s going to bring on its waves or even, when those waves are going to come. The late Mary Oliver features heavily in Sophie’s well of inspiration as does the simple act of just listening to the people around her.
I love Mary Oliver, which is mostly about nature but she’s probably my favourite. I also love Charles Bukowski, which is interesting because I don’t really aspire to be like him in my songs because he’s sort of vulgar but for some reason I love the brutal honesty of him.
I always love listening to people. Sometimes I just hear things that feel like a song idea and then… really just life experiences and whatever I’m feeling on any given day, and obviously relationships.
The love all things poetic is no more present than in the second to last song on the album, ‘Love Eludes Me’. A torch song about the self-destructiveness we all engage in when we keep going back to someone who isn’t good for us for the sake of a few sublime moments. Sophie has said she often has “to reign in my want to be overly poetic.” But with this song, she lets that rule fall by the wayside.
I really like the song ‘Love Eludes Me’. That’s one of those that is very personal to me and I just like how… I mean I love the part, “Love eludes me/ Lies next to me/ But it never is what it seems”. Just the image of it. Being right next to you but eluding you at the same time.