French musician Soko on honesty, selfhood, and “feeling her feelings”

By Hadassah Penn.

I’m calling Soko from suburban New Jersey, a place that is nobody’s first choice for long-term living. She’s on the opposite coast: California, among the redwoods. Literally, she’s outside, “so if you can’t hear me at any point, let me know,” she says.

I can hear her just fine, which is good, because Soko has a lot to talk about these days. Her new record was slated for release earlier this year but was delayed first due to COVID-19 and then out of respect for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, it’s finally here.

The title, Feel Feelings, is an invitation, the songs a sort of manual. The goal – the forever and always goal, for Soko – is honesty. “Feeling the feelings is the easy part for me,” she says. “What is sometimes hard is how people use a lot of sarcasm to disguise their true feelings, or jokes, or say one thing but mean another – that’s what the real struggle is with emotions. What really is important is to not lie to yourself.”

Celebrity and authenticity aren’t always an easy fit, but Soko says she’s never had a problem being authentic. She’s been in the public eye for over a decade now. She’s made records and movies, ad campaigns and interviews. But she doesn’t concern herself with image and artifice and public perception. She just lives. And makes art and spends time with her loved ones and tries to make sense of her surroundings as best she can. “It’s not that I don’t care about what people think, but I’m really okay with who I am,” she says. “There’s nothing I can do to control someone else’s mind or what they’re gonna take from [my work]. But if it comes from an authentic place then hopefully it will come across the way I intended it to.”

An image that Soko returns to often, both in her lyrics and her conversation, is that of the rainbow. Growing up, Soko didn’t know that two women could raise a child together. Now, she is in a queer relationship and raising her child, Indigo Blue (born in October 2018) together with her partner. Soko speaks of her “beautiful rainbow family” with unmeasured love and pride. “The beauty of being queer is that there’s so much more freedom in being. Being queer and being part of the LGBTQ+ community is definitely allowing people to be different, allowing people to be extra, allowing people to be shy. Allowing people to be colorful, or not. It’s just a lot more inclusive, and that’s how I wanted this record to feel.”

Feel Feelings
has several queer anthems (“Oh, To Be A Rainbow!” and “Looking for Love” are prime examples) but Soko just as often makes use of the rainbow’s other metaphorical meaning: the brightness of recovery after a period of darkness. Feel Feelings gets painful and vulnerable. Soko tackles abuse, loneliness, failure, aimlessness, and toxicity with disarming simplicity, but the rainbow – the hope – remains omnipresent. “I listen to [the record] being on the other side of it now … and I’m like, ‘oh yeah, there is hope,’” says Soko. “I am at a much better place than I was two years ago.” Feel Feelings is a storm with a rainbow at its core, molded by hard work, positive change, and the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting message for our times.

While we live in uncertainty, Feel Feelings is a comfort, a reminder that feelings ebb and flow. Songs like “Being Sad is Not a Crime,” “Don’t Tell Me to Smile,” and “Blasphemie” (her first song in French) exist in defiance of toxic positivity. “If you don’t have compassion or understanding for yourself, how can you have compassion or understanding for others?” Soko asks. “And how can they have understanding or compassion for you?” Soko is aware that constant positivity isn’t human. Sadness is, irrepressibly so.

Recently, Soko has found pockets of joy in slowing down and focusing on family time, including walks in nature, berry-picking, jam-making, and Trolls (“a rainbow show”) on Netflix with her baby Indigo Blue. As for the future, she’s not quite sure what’s next. Like many creators, she’s grappling with how to proceed. “It’s obviously a world-wide crisis, but for artists, there’s just no work,” she explains. “So, what I’m doing is working on being present for my family and thinking about how we are going to be able to find a sustainable way to live.”

“I’m very determined,” says Soko. And as for the rest of us? At least we have Feel Feelings to help us through.

Images and video courtesy of Mixed Media Works.