Lockdowns weren’t about to stop Sophie May from reaching an audience of millions.
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Who remembers Sandi Thom? I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair) was Australia’s biggest-selling single in 2006. The song’s mischievous mangling of past musical metaphors was deliberate because pfft, who cared, grandpa? This was the future. Thom arrived on webcam from a London basement via a hot new vehicle called MySpace.
Now meet Sophie May. She arrived during the pandemic, streaming from her London basement via smartphone and TikTok. Her intimate, witty song fragments slowly primed followers for an EP, You Do Not Have To Be Good, now streaming to millions on Spotify.
“After creating a career in lockdown, it was a bit of a shock to suddenly be onstage singing songs,” says Sophie May.
One obvious parallel is the wow factor: canny indie artists using evolving technologies to cut through an overcrowded music ecosystem. Another is more old-school: the acoustic guitar confessional remains a remarkably durable genre for connecting young hearts and minds.
“I was lucky because it was not super early days of TikTok but it definitely wasn’t saturated yet. It felt kind of like this new place,” May says via Zoom from her parents’ home in Dulwich, south London.
Her mother, Kellie Jackson, is Australian; a fiction writer who grew up in Newcastle. The fact that Australians are among May’s most fervent TikTok fans is a happy coincidence that leads the 24-year-old to tour here this month.
“The song that broke me through was kind of funny. I’d just seen the film Reality Bites and it was based off a character on that, and I’d also seen on TikTok a lot of people praising American Psycho and not quite getting the irony,” she says. “I ended up writing this little story critiquing the businessman and it just worked on TikTok. It just connected quickly with people. I gained, like, 10,000 followers overnight.”
Businessman was not among the seven songs she eventually chose to complete for the EP. But the subject matter — an eye-rolling portrait of a smarmy suit masking a decidedly infantile male frailty — was very much in sync with the tone of her work.
With the Band, the opening track of her EP, goes harder, calling time on a toxic dynamic as old as pop itself: starstruck girls surrendering their senses to predatory boys leering from the stage. Sounding more like lived experience than idle observation, this is no comedy.
“For me it felt like a metaphor,” May says. “It doesn’t even need to be a rock star. A lot of the time when you’re a young girl, the older boyfriend is the rock star in your eyes. It’s inspired by some of my mum’s experiences as well…
“For so much of my teenage life, being a girl, you had this feeling of being ‘the girlfriend’. You’d be in a relationship and there would always be some type of power over you. With The Band just felt like a perfect example. I mean, I did date one or two drummers. That was not a good idea.”
“I am a bit of a nervous wreck”: Sophie May on stage in London in October.Credit: Getty Images
That and other similarly themed songs — Bad Man, Cadillac, Drop In the Ocean — resonated fast with May’s young audience. Her following took another giant leap when American teen idol Billie Eilish chimed in. Her single word response to Lover Boy — “Beautiful” — “blew up my phone for a good few days,” May says. “It was brief, but I hold on to it tightly. Who knows? In the future maybe we’ll cross paths.”
She means in the real world, which despite the effectiveness of cutting-edge music distribution technology, still inevitably beckons to those who sing and play acoustic guitars in basements. “I am a bit of a nervous wreck, to be honest,” she says of her first steps as a live performer. “But I do enjoy it once I’m up there. After creating a career in lockdown, it was a bit of a shock to suddenly be onstage singing songs. I was very used to being extremely relaxed and so I would put a lot of words into songs. And I realise now that it’s actually quite hard to breathe on stage…”
Other things are hard too, as Sandi Thom discovered. Her first album and tours naturally smashed it, but subsequent work has brought diminishing returns. Ironically, Thom has since made headlines rage-posting about the difficulty of survival in a business hooked on novelty.
But Sophie May is a new artist in a new time. Airplay from BBC Radio One to Triple J is welcome but like the major record label that snapped up Sandi Thom, far less important. It was May’s management company, Psychic Music, that flew her to Los Angeles earlier this year to “do some writing and meet some cool people”.
“I’m quite wary of going the old school route only because how I’ve done it so far hasn’t fit into that,” she says. “Obviously if some big label [approached] … it would be a hard thing to turn down, but … I’ve only been doing it two years and every six months it feels like I’ve got a new vision and I love being able to control everything … I’d like to stay independent for as long as possible, if not forever. Why not, you know?”
Sophie May plays Groovin’ the Moo nationally April 21 to May 6, Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club on April 28, Brisbane’s Black Bear Lodge on May 3 and Sydney’s Lansdowne Hotel on May 4.
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