If there’s anything that the music of Sophia Blenda could never be accused of, it’s of holding anything back. Die Neue Heiterkeit, the debut solo album from Vienna’s Sophie Löw, is one that sprawls and blooms and fills the room. Driven by piano, and production that perhaps places it in the territory of experimental, orchestral pop, the music on Die Neue Heiterkeit elegantly travels from the highs to lows, from moments where it cries out to those where it murmurs, blurring and fraying the edge of consciousness, songs that make an impact with their sheer ambition and scale.
Sophie Löw’s name and voice might already be familiar to you – she’s also vocalist, guitarist and songwriter in the rock band Culk, with two albums, 2019’s Culk and 2020’s Zerstreuen Über Euch under their belts in the last few years. Culk have enjoyed plenty of success in their time as a band, earning rave reviews and touring to enthusiastic crowds around Austria, Germany and Switzerland. But amid that success, Löw felt that her role in the band wasn’t always treated with the respect it deserved – which became one of the main motives for her to launch her solo project. “There were a lot of reasons [to start Sophia Blenda], of course”, she says. “But when it comes to Culk, I think it took years before people actually recognised that I was more than just the singer.
“I think a lot of female artists have to fight against this narrative [that female artists are only vocalists, and don’t write the songs]. Especially during tours, a lot of sexist situations happened. And I was reminded that I had to maybe fight against this narrative a little bit more. I felt I wasn’t taken seriously as a musician. So I think subconsciously I wanted to prove I could do everything on my own. Songwriting, lyrics, artwork, design, photography, recording, producing, everything”.
Of Intuition and Keys
Another motive came from stylistic reasons. Culk’s music sits firmly in the world of rock and post-punk, with guitar as their primary medium. With Sophia Blenda, Löw wanted to bring the piano into the centre ground – the instrument where her songs usually begin: “Most of my song ideas start on the piano, the Culk songs too. But with Culk, the melodies often ended up being translated onto the guitar. With the Sophia Blenda songs, I wanted to go fully with the piano. The whole sound of the album came very naturally, out of an intuition. I produced a lot of the songs, or parts of the songs, myself, and it was the first time I had done that. So tested a lot of things, without always knowing what I was doing, and the sound evolved very naturally from that, based on how I was feeling when writing and producing”.
Intuition is an interesting word to bring up in the context of Sophia Blenda songs. On certain songs, it does sometimes feel like the music slips into a blurry, hallucinogenic world, where convention falls away, and the songs are driven by feeling, rather than order. That looseness helps tease out their power – it allows for the towering surges of the epic Wo Bleib Ich, and lets the music swing and roll in line with Fun’s emotional oscillation between euphoria and isolation. Perhaps the best example of this is Fear Is An Empty Space, a heavy, murky, cloudy song, where Löw’s vocal floats and whispers around the listener, and the production sends rumbles and echoes skittering through the music. It’s a track that has a kind of spectral power to it, an ability to spook, to unnerve. The unconventionality of the song’s stricture came from the freedom of the writing process, both in the lack of an original target for what the sessions would become, and a willingness to follow the songs wherever they led her. “At first, I never meant to do a whole album”, says Löw. “So when I was in the process of writing the songs, I felt very free, and I never tried to force any kind of style or sound. With the song Fear Is An Empty Space, I had a very special songwriting moment. It came so quickly, and I dedicated the song to myself, like it was my own pep-talk song, or mantra. I think that’s why I don’t have the typical songwriting structures, especially in that song, because it’s supposed to be like a pep-talk, or a prayer. It didn’t need the typical structure”.
Anxiety, Community, Hope
Culk and Sophia Blenda, despite the stylistic differences, have a lot in common – the intensity of the music, and the lyrics that sharply interrogate sexism. The scope of Die Neue Heiterkeit dives deep into those themes, peering into sexism’s structural role, as well as how its toll manifests on the individual, in the form of anxiety and fear: “The songs are about different forms of anxiety. About living in a man’s world as a woman, and about the community and cohesion that comes with oppression. Somehow, they always come together. The lyrics can be quite dark. But it was important for me to add details, that give a feeling of hope. These three aspects – anxiety, community, hope – are the three main themes”. That community and hope manifests in songs like Schwester and Fear Is An Empty Space, Schwester with its message of mutual support (“Aber meine Hand nimmt deine Hand” – But my hand takes your hand) and Fear Is An Empty Space, with its personal evolution. Together, they bring a sense of catharsis to shine a light through the darkness. “I think with oppression, somehow, it also comes together with a sense of community”, says Löw.
“Any form of oppression will create a sense of community among its victims, a feeling of not being alone. I think that’s more powerful than the oppression itself. That’s the message of Schwester. [With Fear Is An Empty Space], something I’ve learned, which has helped me with living with anxiety, is that fear is always a decision. In every situation, you can decide to give in to your fear, or to not do that. It’s very hard not to give in, but it’s possible. In every situation I deal with anxiety in, I can decide to be stronger. That’s the message I wanted to give myself, with this song”.
The album ends on the title track, Die Neue Heiterkeit, a song that opens slowly, but that gradually and graciously grows in strength, like a bird taking flight, eventually swelling into something of earth-shaking force, both in its music and message (“kleine Schwestern werden große Schwestern sein” – little sisters will become big sisters). Heiterkeit is a word that comes with a little ambiguity in German – but generally tends to something like stable contentment – sustainable positivity. That makes it a fitting title for the album. Löw says: “To me, the title means taking responsibility for your own happiness. Accepting that things are the way they are, and asking what you can actually do about it. That’s my personal point-of-view. The title is addressed to my generation, and even younger people, who are facing global difficulties, which can lead to a lot of fear. So the title is about being able to adapt to that, and to look into a brighter future. It’s a different type of happiness. I think it’s part of our lives, to take the responsibility to not let fear and stuff like that keep you from enjoying your life”.
So it’s also a question of control? Of taking control of your own happiness?
“Yes. It’s not easy. The fight for this happiness is not equally easy for all of us. It’s harder for people who experience discrimination, they have to fight harder. But I believe that we can still choose in every situation, what our response to it is, or how we interpret it. That’s what made it a good title for the record, for me at least”.
It’s a good title for a record, and Die Neue Heiterkeit – a monumental collection of songs that create a spellbinding atmosphere, where darkness and light interplay – is a great album.
Die Neue Heiterkeit is out on August 19 on Siluh/ PIAS Germany.