French actress-turned-singer-songwriter Stéphanie Sokolinski, better known as SoKo, writes no-holds-barred, unapologetic pop songs that touch on the darkest corners of love, death and intimacy. Her new album My Dreams Dictate My Reality finds the singer covering even greater emotional ground, set to tracks befitting of an ’80s popstar deep in the throes of a punk and New Wave obsession. We chat with the singer about insomnia, fears and Robert Smith.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Robert Smith, Morrissey… the gods of emotions.
When did you start writing songs?
When I was 20. I had always been writing [in] journals and [writing] terrible poems and I finally turned my thoughts into songs then.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
It was called “Central Park.” It was a teenage punk song! I wrote it in NY after a perfect day that reminded me of Lou Reed. It was about loving my time there with my friend Benny, who I was crashing with, and petting some bunnies in the park!
Which of your songs was the most difficult for you to write?
If a song takes too long to come out (more than an hour or two) I give up. It means it’s not good, or that my subject needs to mature, and I move on. I definitely have songs that are difficult emotionally. “Ocean Of Tears” has so much of me in it – all my fears of death, of growing old, all of my childhood trauma… but it was so easy to write. It came out so fast and easy but was very emotional. So was “We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow” because it talks about my father’s death and how I dealt with it and the scars it left.
How do you go about writing songs?
It usually feels completely vital and urgent. I have terrible insomnia before I give birth to a song! I spend night after night alone and up all night, pacing around like a lone, angry wolf looking for something to do… until BAM.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I write a little bit every day, whether it’s just one sentence, my dreams or some random thoughts. Usually those thoughts start becoming reccurant and it starts to feel like it’s about time to write a song. So I take that main idea and write down all the things that I want to say about that one subject, and most of the time, while I do that, the words’ rhythm sort of forms melodies, and soon enough, I feel the need to grab an instrument and put it all into shape.
Do you mostly write from a first-person perspective, or do you like taking on characters?
I can only write from the first person about what feels very peronal and self-reflective. I don’t know how to do it any other way or distance myself from situations in writing.
Your songs are often very direct and honest. Do you ever worry about that when releasing an album?
Oh my, I know. Some people try to tell me I need to protect myself more, bladibla… I don’t know how to write any other way. Writing songs for me is almost like taking a musical picture of what’s inside my head. It’s for me to remember what I was going through when I’m older and get lessons out of my patterns or mistakes. It gives me perspective, so I need to be 100% honest when I do so, otherwise I’d feel like I’m lying to myself. Once I’ve done it and it feels completely vulnerable and raw, I don’t worry much about releasing it because as long as you do things with your heart wide open and pure and with good intention, your job is done, and hopefully people connect to that part of me that isn’t scared of sharing all my secrets and doubts and self-loathing with them.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Life experiences, depression, wanting to better myself, accepting my past and dark childhood. I haven’t yet found a way to write from a happy place. Maybe one day. I mostly write from my troubled heart and wandering mind. I also write statements about myself. I have a song on my new album called “Peter Pan Syndrome.” It was almost like an apology for how unreliable I can be sometimes. I just disappear in dreamland/neverland and lose track of reality and never want to be a grown up!
Which of your songs are you the most proud of?
“We Might Be Dead By Tomorrow.” I think it was the first time I was actually putting words to my fear of death and talking about my father in a song. It definitely made way for many other [songs] to come and compliment these thoughts.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“I’m trying to kill the worst of me to be the best for you” on Keaton’s song. I guess it’s what I try to do with all my relationships – kill the demons from the past and better myself to be more lovable somehow.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I hate the word “bullshit” in songs, and I hate words about technology, like “text, facebook, tweet.” Yuck. I love “tears” and “fears,” the words, not the meaning… though I find that writing about that gives me a bit of relief.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Robert Smith, of course, though I just wrote a song with Ariel Pink and that was amazing.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Johnny Thunders. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” is such a great song.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“Unloveable” by The Smiths. I always feel like that song is about me. I wish I actually wrote it.