Patsy Thayieng – Marquee Topper
After a whirlwind two years that included support stints for acts from Paramore to Wilco, 22-year-old Sophie Allison, pictured here performing at Amsterdam Hall in St. Paul, Minn., has come into her own.
Three years ago, Sophie Allison’s intimate indie-rock songs were floating around Bandcamp. They’ve now blossomed into full-fledged anthems – and are reverberating through the rafters of some of America’s most vaunted theaters, sheds and arenas.
Allison, the 22-year-old musician who hails from Nashville and records as Soccer Mommy, set the blogosphere abuzz with the release of her hushed mini-album Collection in August 2017, and continued to conquer the rock world with her proper debut, Clean, which arrived in March 2018 and made the year-end lists of Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, The New York Times and more. Her ambitious second album, Color Theory, which refracts ‘90s alt-rock touchstones through lenses of contemporary pop and rock, dropped Feb. 28 and seems destined to grow her fandom further.
But for Soccer Mommy and its team, guided by manager Mac Cregan and agent Wilson Zheng, of indie powerhouses Brilliant Corners Artist Management and High Road Touring, the road is as crucial as the record. Allison’s slots opening for a range of artists – Paramore, Wilco, Vampire Weekend, Kacey Musgraves, Stephen Malkmus and Liz Phair, to name a few – along with the headlining tours she’s held down have helped fuel her speedy rise from the DIY spaces she played as a New York University student in 2016 to the prominent rooms she’s now dominating.
“Before Clean came out, we didn’t really have a steady band,” Allison says. “We weren’t even that tight yet, playing live together. Then Clean came out and it was this huge thing, where these tours were getting really big and we were getting really big offers for opening slots, too, just constantly.”
Soccer Mommy’s dedicated, omnivorous live approach has quickly paid huge dividends. But, as most anyone who works with Allison explains, the music enabled it all.
“I was pretty blown away, even by the early demos,” says Zheng, who was initially exposed to Soccer Mommy’s music in 2016 through an A&R rep for Fat Possum, the label that would ultimately release Collection and Clean.
At the time, Zheng was in the process of moving from San Francisco to New York, and upon arriving in the Big Apple in February 2017, he connected with Allison, who was then attending NYU and playing solo shows at tiny Brooklyn rooms like Shea Stadium and Silent Barn. Zheng soon started to help her nab more gigs, even before they inked their professional relationship in May 2017.
As her live opportunities multiplied, Allison put her NYU coursework as a music business major on hold and hit the road, opening for Jay Som, The Districts and Luna. When Zheng’s boss and High Road founder Frank Riley needed an opener for two dates on shoegaze pioneer Slowdive’s tour in November 2017, Soccer Mommy took the slots – and Zheng built a small headlining tour around them, booking gigs at a handful of clubs including Philadelphia’s Everybody Hits and Washington, D.C.’s DC9.
“We had a little bit of momentum,” Zheng says. “Clean wasn’t out yet, but people were talking about Soccer Mommy.”
One of those people was Cregan, who signed on as manager shortly after he was introduced to Soccer Mommy’s music in late 2017.
“You could tell just by listening that Sophie had something really special and was a really special talent as a songwriter,” he says. “There was a bunch of good groundwork already done, and it felt like with how great the record was, that if everything went the right way – you never know, but there just was so much potential for it to take off. Obviously, that’s what happened.”
In the month before Clean’s March 2018 release, Soccer Mommy was opening for another breaking indie-rock artist: Phoebe Bridgers, who had dropped her own acclaimed debut in September 2017. Cregan, who had only been managing Soccer Mommy for a few weeks, recalls frantic demand for the tour’s two shows at Brooklyn’s 650-cap Music Hall of Williamsburg, owned by AEG regional partner The Bowery Presents, Feb. 22-23, 2018.
“I remember trying to plead with the Phoebe camp to let us get our guest list expanded, because there were so many people trying to come out to the show, industry people,” he says. “They had a million people trying to come out to see Phoebe, too.”
A wave of critical accolades for Clean followed, including Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music designation.
“It gained a whole ‘nother life of its own,” Cregan says. “It was crazy, but we both learned a lot from that experience, and it hardened us very quickly to the realities of what was going on.”
Ten months later, Soccer Mommy would return to Music Hall of Williamsburg for another two-night stand – as the headliner.
Before then, however, Soccer Mommy would play venues unthinkable for an artist who had only graduated to headlining 250-cap Brooklyn club Baby’s All Right months earlier – as part of that string of shows Zheng organized around the Slowdive dates – and who, according to Pollstar Boxoffice data, had fallen short of selling out the room when she did.
Immediately following Clean’s release, Soccer Mommy did brief stints in Europe and at South By Southwest, and then staged its first bona fide North American tour, hitting clubs like Chicago’s 200-cap Schubas Tavern and San Francisco’s 325-cap Bottom of the Hill. The band ended the run with an early May return to Brooklyn, where Zheng booked a show at the 250-capacity Rough Trade NYC. He held a second date at Zone One, the 200-cap secondary room at Brooklyn compound Elsewhere; when both that and the Rough Trade gig sold out, Zheng moved the Zone One booking to The Hall, Elsewhere’s 675-capacity main space, which also sold out.
The strategy was simple: “I’ve always felt like, if we just get Sophie in front of people, she’s going to be able to turn a lot of those people into fans, just by the quality of her music and her live show,” Zheng says.
As critics and listeners caught on to Soccer Mommy’s music in Clean’s wake, so did promoters and other artists. Allison became something of a headlining rarity in the subsequent months, but not for lack of touring – she’d secured plum opening slots.
“We never put the headlining touring on the back burner,” Cregan says. “They just did a ton of touring. Any time there was a gap between our headline dates, there was always something that would come through that would be some amazing support opportunity.”
The stars seemed to consistently align for support opportunities, and Zheng deftly negotiated with promoters so that Soccer Mommy could double-dip in many markets, booking opening slots despite already having headlining gigs slated for later that year.
In May, Soccer Mommy opened for Speedy Ortiz, and in June, she shared bills with seminal songwriter Liz Phair. Next came the Big Kahuna: supporting Paramore on its June shed tour. Only months removed from Brooklyn’s DIY scene, Soccer Mommy was now warming the stage before paying crowds of several thousand each night. The Paramore tour’s highest sold-ticket count was 9,509, for a show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that grossed $687,710 on June 26, 2018.
Paramore’s fans “responded pretty well” to Soccer Mommy, Allison says, and the gigs were a catalyst for its live act.
“Playing to a 200-cap room in San Diego is a lot different from opening up for Paramore at Merriweather Post Pavilion,” Cregan says. “They quickly realized how to expand their sound to play to a bigger audience.”
Soccer Mommy’s opening stints, which were followed by a support tour for Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks in July and August, proved invaluable, with the band learning how to win over skeptical crowds and observing how successful vets managed road life.
“When you’re playing a headlining show to all these adoring fans, your band is the star,” Allison says. “Everyone’s there for you. It’s great. But I think when you’re doing it too long, sometimes it can start to feel a little – it still feels great, but it’s just a little easy, almost.
“It’s really cool to do this big headlining tour and then go open for someone like Paramore or Vampire Weekend or Kacey Musgraves, and no one knows who the fuck you are and they don’t care who you are,” she continues. “You have to try really hard to get people to like you – and if you can it feels really rewarding because it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s genuine.’”
Allison’s zen outlook impresses even her team.
“I’ve never really seen her get fazed,” Cregan says. “I can never tell if she’s nervous. She has a confidence that a lot of people would kill to have.”
Zheng admits that “opening is not the easiest gig,” because “there’s going to be nights where people don’t care or they’re talking or they’re not even there or they’re in line buying booze.” But “for a lot of diehard music fans, that stuff” – who opens – “absolutely matters,” he says.
Even support acts can transcend and, “at the end of the day, it all comes down to Sophie’s music,” Zheng says. “If people weren’t interested or didn’t like her music, she wouldn’t get any of these tours.”
Opening for so many major acts – which continued in 2019 with stints supporting Vampire Weekend, Wilco and Kacey Musgraves – fit Zheng’s philosophy, shared by Cregan, of getting Soccer Mommy before as many fans as possible. And the stylistic diversity of the artists Soccer Mommy supported generated exposure not just to large audiences, but to varied ones.
“I’ve always felt like Sophie’s music has had this ability to connect further than just the super indie Pitchfork world,” Cregan says. “There’s young teenage girls that are super obsessed with her, and there’s 40-year-old middle-aged guys that love it. The music has this adaptability where she can open for Paramore and then open for Stephen Malkmus the same summer. … The people that are going out to the Paramore shows aren’t going out to the Stephen Malkmus shows. We’re able to get in front of all these different audiences by doing this support stuff.”
That translates to larger fan bases in markets when Soccer Mommy plays its own headlining shows – which will be larger than ever when it brings Color Theory on the road this spring.
After relentlessly touring in 2018, Allison says, the band was “really tight and knew how to play off each other and knew how to improvise a bit more live.” Today, Soccer Mommy’s sound is “not just better, but more unique to us,” says Allison, and she wanted Color Theory to reflect that. The band’s touring unit has also expanded from four to five members, lending earlier tunes additional heft. Says Allison: “Since we’ve added that, especially playing bigger rooms, it’s just gotten so much better.”
In 2020, Soccer Mommy will headline American clubs – shows at New York’s Brooklyn Steel, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club and Chicago’s Thalia Hall have already sold out – before touring Europe, and Zheng says the team is eyeing South American markets and a return to Japan. Despite rising popularity, support slots are also still in play – Cregan just says Soccer Mommy will “be more picky” going forward. To wit: On Feb. 23, the band played an opening set, albeit of a different sort, for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a Houston rally.
“The main reason people are attending is to see a speech, so the vibe in the crowd isn’t your normal rock show,” Cregan says of the event, which Soccer Mommy received about two days’ notice to play. “Lots of people are probably hearing about your band for the first time. That said, Sophie said everyone was really receptive, and they had a great time.”
With the gig, Soccer Mommy joined the ranks of other marquee rock acts to open for the Vermont politician this cycle including The Strokes, Jack White and Vampire Weekend. It seems unlikely to be the last time Soccer Mommy keeps such esteemed company.
“My faith in Sophie as a songwriter and performer, there’s just no limit to it,” Cregan says. “She can really go as far as she wants.”