Last week Stockholm-based pop polymath Sophia Somajo released an intimate bleakpop reimagining of Tina Turner’s 80s behemoth Private Dancer, and in the coming weeks she’ll be featured on a fairly high profile collaboration with a song she wrote in the same way she’s written music for many massive pop artists in the past — she imagined someone else would eventually sing it, so she finished the song and moved on.
Ultimately the collaborator liked Sophia’s vocal so much that they persuaded her to stay on the track, and the timing of Private Dancer, the first new music from Sophia’s upcoming Freudian Slip II EP, is no coincidence. “I want Private Dancer to be something you can listen to if you want to know more about me,” she says, but she’s already released an EP and two albums of idiosyncratic, personality-packed original material so at first glance it seems strange to that she hopes to introduce herself to new listeners with a cover version. “I’ve heard Private Dancer a billion times,” Sophia explains, “and I’ve always thought: ‘What a great chorus, but what’s up with the saxophone?’ Then one day I listened to it differently.”
Sophia’s ears opened when she heard Tina’s version on the radio during a late-night cab journey. (Songs always make the most sense in late-night cab journeys and that’s just a pop fact.) “I realised that in my career and in life in general I’ve been dancing, quote unquote, for men,” she says. “I’ve come to realise that in a room where a man has the last word, which is almost every room except the rooms in my apartment, you have to dance, in a way, to be heard. You have to strip. Many times in my career I’ve had meetings with very powerful men where I feel like their interest in me has a lot to do with that energy. The possibility of… Something.”
Sophia spent her early years in Stockholm and lived in Paris for three years in her teens, before a spell in an American high school led to a school concert performance that caught the eye of a parent who also happened to be a record executive.
“I was signed to a development deal but didn’t put out any music because apparently I was ‘stubborn’,” she says today. “I wasn’t comfortable just being a ‘girl singer’, but I was quickly put in with teams of producers and songwriters, and they were always men, and they were always a lot older than I was. They would work nine to five, banging out hits. I’d been writing for years, but wasn’t invited in to write songs at that point, let alone produce. It was always a case of ‘don’t touch the buttons’. Being young and a woman I could only be a singer, and that was it.”
Sophia says that Max Martin, with whose team Sophia’s been working as a writer for about a decade, proved to be a rare exception. “Max is actually one of the few people that isn’t like that at all,” she adds. “He was the one giving me a voice, because he wanted my perspective. He is the one who gave me a chance and treated me like an equal. He gave me my first real honest shot and I’ve seen him use his position again and again to empower women’s roles in the industry, with artists like myself, Tove Lo and Laleh, and with backing The Equalizer Project. But elsewhere, it hasn’t been so positive.”
She talks about producers who’ll want to work with her, but really they’ll just want to meet in a bar over drinks. Then there are the recording sessions that happen to take place in hotel rooms, where she’s invited to stay over. It’s all fucking grim to be honest. “So anyway, “ Sophia says, returning to the theme of Private Dancer, “when I listened to the song in the back of that cab I thought: ‘Yeah. Keep your eyes on the wall, keep your mind on the money and just fucking dance, then go home and have a shower.”
There is, of course, the fact that Private Dancer was written by Mark Knopfler — quite literally, a man. “The whole full-circle irony is that he wrote that song,” Sophia laughs. “I think he did a good job but the irony is genius. It resonated with me. But it’s interesting that so often in popular culture when women relate to women, they’re actually relating to women as interpreted by men. Pop culture shapes us, we all accept that. We grow up listening to music and watching movies. When I think about a lot of my heroes in film, a lot of the time the directors and screenwriters have been men. It’s the same in pop: men write women from a male perspective and young girls shape their identities based on those perspectives.”
Sophia herself is familiar with writing in character. Search for her songwriting credits alongside Max’s team and you’ll only find a few examples, like Robyn’s Time Machine, but that’s because the vast majority of her work has been written under a number of pseudonyms — about ten, she reckons, “and I come up with different characters for each of them.”
One of those characters is Tiffany Amber. Tiffany wrote 3 and Criminal for Britney Spears, for instance, as well as Christina Aguilera’s Your Body. It’s fun to write as Tiffany, Sophia says, because Tiffany feels like she’s farthest from Sophia on the artistic spectrum. “Tiffany Amber does her nails on the regular,” Sophia decides. “She drinks everything through a straw and she’s written for Britney, Christina and Backstreet Boys — all her idols.”
“It’s nothing to do with me being ashamed of these projects,” Sophia says of the multiple pseudonyms. It’s more about managing expectations when it comes to her own work. “If you listen to my first album and think ‘Max Martin’, my music will come off as unfinished and unpolished and, well, just badly executed. If you listen from the perspective of ‘here’s a DIY artist with little or no budget experimenting in her bedroom and she has no professional training’, you can maybe hear something.”
She made a rare exception and used her own name on Time Machine by Robyn — “a Swedish artist who’s really paved the way for me and so many other Swedish artists.”
There are hints of Robyn’s vision, artistry and fearlessness in what Sophia’s been doing since 2008’s The Laptop Diaries but last year’s Freudian Slip felt like her most fully-realised moment yet so it seems reasonable to have high hopes for Freudian Slip II. In the meantime, Sophia’s forthcoming collaboration may introduce her back catalogue to some new ears. “It’s never happened before that I’ve written a song like that and thought, ‘ah, actually, let me sing this’,” she says. “It’s exciting. Maybe there will be a bit of noise around the collaboration, and hopefully my music will be exposed to a larger audience.”