“Dear Country Music”… A Conversation with Singer/Songwriter Sophie Sanders

Sophie Sanders © 2020
Sophie Sanders gears up to release her final song “Nobody Special” in the year of singles, and speaks candidly to Atwood Magazine about her creativity, looking at relationships through the Enneagram, and the deafening silence coming from mainstream country music in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

by guest writer Emily Algar

Stream: “Nobody Special” – Sophie Sanders




I think there’s just this unspoken rule that in country music, you are safer if you just sing your songs and don’t get involved.

Speaking up and owning your truth sounds cliché, but in a world so divided and hurting, sometimes the very worst thing you can do is to stay silent. Music is the most accessible form of art, and country music, known for its’ storytelling has given voice to the underdog, the marginalised, the beaten-down, and the outlaws time and time again. Music gives meaning to their struggle, and more often than not, legitimises it in the eyes of those who perhaps would have never noticed the struggle but above all, gives hope to the ones who have been left behind.

Sophie Sanders is a Nashville singer-songwriter. Sanders released her debut album ‘Steep and Shining Spaces’ in November 2018 and since March has been releasing a series of singles. Today (August 28th) marks the day of her final single, “Nobody Special”, which was written as a love letter to her fiancé through the lens of the Enneagram.

Nobody Special - Sophie Sanders

Nobody Special – Sophie Sanders

Sanders’ last three singles, the anti-Valentine’s Day anthem, “All My Friends Are Married”, the infectious “Dad Bod”, an ode to less toned men, and the shimmering break up song “California”, that takes a really shitty situation and thinking, ‘well, wouldn’t this be better if I was sitting on a beach, sipping cocktails and watching tanned surfers’.

Sanders’ new single, “Nobody Special,” begins slow and languid, mimicking that feeling of rolling over in bed and letting your eyes adjust to the light outside, and then suddenly soaring in the chorus. The song could be just as fitting for a friend as it is for a lover.

​There’s nobody special
no nobody special as you
and I’m gonna tell ya
‘till you’re telling yourself it’s true​.
 

Sanders spent 15 months in the Peace Corp. stationed in Indonesia. Whilst away from home Sanders fell in love with songwriting, following in the footsteps of her dad, country songwriter Mark D. Sanders, who has written for Lee Ann Womack (“I Hope You Dance”) and George Strait (“Blue Clear Sky”) among others.

Sanders can write both deeply introspective and poetic songs as well as tongue-in-cheek tracks about “dad bods” and preferring to be dumped on a beach so at least she can watch the surfer dudes walk by. Sanders recently took to Instagram with an open letter to country music via the song “Dear Country Music”, which calls out the underrepresentation of women and minorities, as well as much of the genre’s recent silence and lack of awareness regarding Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and the ongoing fight against injustice.

“Dear Country Music” came after absorbing months of endless news cycles about the election, the pandemic, and watching the Black Lives Matter movement blossom what it is today, all being met by deafening silence from mainstream country music. Apart from a handful of musicians like Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerina, Eric Church, Jason Isbell and Mickey Guyton, country music has just shut up and kept singing, all to the deafening background noise of police brutality, institutional racism both in law enforcement and the country music industry, and the still lack of female artists on country radio.

Atwood Magazine spoke to Sophie Sanders over Zoom last week. After fighting with the intricacies of Zoom and getting distracted by her cat Cannoli, we finally connected and talked about how she’d been doing during quarantine, her year of singles including her new song “Nobody Special”, and what had been on her quarantine playlist. We also talked about her impromptu song “Dear Country Music”, which Sanders wrote in a morning, recorded, and then uploaded to Instagram in the afternoon, raw and unfiltered.

I’ve noticed a lot of artists they’re not even saying pro-Trump things or ultra-conservative things, they’re just not saying anything…



A CONVERSATION WITH SOPHIE SANDERS

Nobody Special - Sophie Sanders

Atwood Magazine: What have you been up to?

Sophie Sanders: Well, ever since we got back from Michigan a few days ago I have been so tired. I’m so introverted and then it’s just been Grant and I for months, basically, so we have 7 days non-stop with a bunch of other people. I felt like I was doing pretty good there but ever since we got back, I’m like… I told Grant this morning, like every time I try to wake up in the morning, I just feel like I could sleep for like five more hours.

I listened to “Nobody Special” when you first sent it to me but I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and then I was listening to it again, and thought, the verses of the song sound quite similar to your album Steep and Shining Spaces and the arrangement is more country orientated than your last three singles. Where did that come from, was it deliberate, who came up with the arrangement?

Sophie Sanders: I don’t think that was deliberate, honestly. Paul Sikes who produced these singles… I am actually not even certain he’s listened to that whole record, so I think he just… He just has a really good ear for imagining things as soon as he hears the work tape and that was just the direction, he felt it going. I think my work tape was definitely more, not as upbeat when it hits the chorus.

The recorded version, I wasn’t sure it was going to have that much dimension or stay kind of low-down but Paul, and I’m glad he did this, he made it really open up and sort of get an upbeat feeling in the choruses.

Sonically the chorus reminds me of your last single “California”, very open and wide.

Sophie Sanders: I think that is Paul’s taste in sound also.

What is the inspiration behind “Nobody Special”?

Sophie Sanders: Are you familiar with the Enneagram?

In preparation for this interview I did actually take the test and apparently, I am type 4, which I think, is the same as you?

Sophie Sanders: That’s what I am. Well, it is really fascinating, honestly if you get a chance to delve into it. I sort of went through an obsession with the Enneagram last year. I started learning about it in my last relationship and we found out that it was really helpful for just, “oh this how you see things, this how I see things” and it can actually be so different, like the way people experience things or the internal monologues that people have.

So once Grant and I started dating I introduced it to him and he’s a type 9, which I didn’t know a tonne about before we started dating but one of the things that type 9’s tell themselves is, “I’m nobody special”. Not in like a super sad way, they just think of themselves as just like another person in the crowd, like why would someone pick me I’m just like regular. And a type 4, we tell ourselves deep down “I am somebody special”.

We’re different but also, we don’t fit in anywhere.

Sophie Sanders: Yeah, not in an egotistical way, more like, “why am I not like other people” way. So, we had been reading a lot about our Enneagram numbers together and that phrase “nobody special” just stood out in my head, and then I was, I can make a song of this.

I feel… you know in the chorus, “when you think you’re nobody special” and then it flips at the end to “there’s nobody special as you are to me”. I feel like as soon as my brain realises that there’s a little bit of word play in the phrase, I’m like “this has to be a song”. (laughs)

Sophie Sanders © 2020 2

Sophie Sanders © 2020

You recently released a song on Instagram called “Dear Country Music”, an open letter to country music in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the silence that is coming out of mainstream country music. I know we have spoken about this before when I interviewed you last year and I know you are very politically outspoken, and I wondered what was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ so to speak, that made you write it and release it in the same day?

Sophie Sanders: I think it was… I don’t know if there was one specific event, it was everything that had been going on all summer, all of the Black Lives Matter protests and everything with the election coming up, and just feeling… At least I’ve been feeling like I have to do something, I have to say something and the worse thing that I can do right now is just be silent.

I know I have been aware just of friends who are speaking up or people who are associated with country music that are speaking up, which I feel like there is a select handful of people but not a tonne of them. I think that title just popped into my head, “Dear Country Music” and my brain just sort of down this path of all the things I could say country music right now and then the whole song just came together. But I wouldn’t say there was one specific event, you know, like some news story about a country artist doing something that specifically that led to that song. It felt like it was two months’ worth of news and events compiled in my brain that kind of came to that song eventually.

It felt so timely that I felt like, I don’t even wanna email Paul (Sikes), you know, and see about recording this and then release it, I just want to make a recording of it right now.

We had been talking about the Lady Antebellum/Lady A incident and lawsuit, and also about other country artists who have said something versus the others who have remained silent. What is your opinion on why people are staying silent and what they should be doing or what would be helpful?

Sophie Sanders: Well, I think the country music world historically is associated with conservative politics, not all of it but I think all country artists are aware of what happened to The Dixie Chicks or now The Chicks, and aware of how not good for their career it can be to speak out against the USA or against conservative ideas.

I think there is just… Like I’ve noticed a lot of artists they’re not even saying pro-Trump things or ultra-conservative things, they’re just not saying anything and singing their songs, and I think there’s just this unspoken rule that in country music you are safer if you just sing your songs and don’t get involved.

The few artists that have seen saying things, like Maren Morris is pretty outspoken and Mickey Guyton has been speaking up, although you might argue that she’s still on the fringes also. I feel like they are the artists that feel safer with their fan base because Maren has a lot of progressive female fans and it’s not so much the same… and I think she thinks she can say what she wants but unfortunately that’s not the same feeling across all of country music.

As a country music and Americana fan, I have been looking closely to see what country artists are speaking up and what country artists are choosing to stay silent, and it seems those on the fringes of country music or those who are more under the Americana umbrella are more comfortable speaking up.

Sophie Sanders: Eric Church put out that song, I think it’s called “Stick That in Your Country Song” and he’s also mainstream but on the fringes at the same time. He’s kind of like the outsider.

We interviewed Lennon Stella recently and though she is more indie-pop, she does have country roots from starring in the show Nashville and I asked her about this and her losing followers due to her posts in support of Black Lives Matter, and she confirmed that yes she had but she had also gained followers, which feels quite shocking considering it’s both 2020 and over 15 years since The Chicks got “cancelled”.

Sophie Sanders: I feel like country music is a weird mix. The writers are divided too, I think there’s maybe more very liberal or progressive writers in country music than artists, so I feel like there’s this undercurrent of the writers’ views not necessarily aligning with the views of the people who are actually the face of their music. Like, my dad (the songwriter Mark D. Sanders) a long time ago, well maybe 10 or 15 year ago, because he’s super progressive and outspoken and he decided he was not going to write with anyone who was in the NRA (National Rifle Association) anymore, and he said he lost like half of his co-writers. But he had the same attitude, “Fuck it, I don’t care. I can’t handle these people. I can’t handle the NRA and this is one small thing I can do.”

Alternate Endings: Life and Music in Quarantine with Artist Lennon Stella

:: INTERVIEW ::

Have you had any feedback for “Dear Country Music”?

Sophie Sanders: I’ve more so gotten feedback from friends. I definitely had more people share it than I would have expected. I post videos occasionally of songs and usually I get some likes and stuff, but with that one there was some random people coming out of the woodwork messaging me about it or sharing it, and I was like “oh wow!”.

This is as important to some people as I think it is.

On Friday 28th all of your singles will be out in the world, so what plans, if any, do you have at the moment?

Sophie Sanders: I’m trying to keep writing more… writing has been difficult this summer, sort of. I definitely go in waves of feeling like I’m a productive writer and feeling like, “am I even a songwriter? I don’t have ideas or thoughts.” (laughs) But I’ve been through that wave enough times to know, “what you’re telling yourself is not true, you will have an idea again, just give it some time.”

I have a couple of co-writes scheduled next week. I guess it still remains to be seen if they actually happen because we’ve been pushing it back each month. I think for me part of the struggle this summer has just been when I don’t have a co-write each week, it’s all on me and my own motivation to think of ideas or I should try and write something.

It’s just been weird this summer with all of the open time and space and the world going crazy.

I was supposed to put out “Nobody Special” a few months ago actually, but there’s been so much going on that I’m like “is it a good time to put out a song?” should I be focusing on other things like all of the thoughts in “Dear Country Music”.

What have you been listening to during quarantine?

Sophie Sanders: Well, I have been listening to Taylor Swift. (laughs)

A Review of Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

:: ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ::

(laughing) As has everyone.

Sophie Sanders: I feel like mostly I have been listening to Taylor Swift and NPR.

That’s a good combination!

Sophie Sanders: Get some emotional motivation and then get my news fix. I have still been meaning to listen more to Lori McKenna’s album The Balladeer, but I got side-tracked that day because Taylor Swift popped up with that album.

folklore is such a sad album. It’s so quiet that you can just disappear into it.

Sophie Sanders: I know, but it feels like timely sadness. I feel like that is some of the beauty of it that it was so unplanned in a way… It was one of those albums she had to get it out of her and just put it out.

I love the song “August”. And “Exile”, I like to listen to it when I’m walking. I used to run but I kinda stopped like a year ago but if I’m listening to “Exile” walking, when it hits the bridge I just feel so motivated that I run just for like a minute and a half.

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Emily Algar is a journalist and writer who specialises in both long and short form features as well as interviews and reviews. She has written pieces ranging from the commercialisation of feminism and feminism in popular culture, critiques surrounding freedom of speech and the #MeToo movement as well as recently interviewing refugees from Iran. Emily also worked as an A&R intern on the Grammy Nominated Album (Best Folk Album) Front Porch by artist Joy Williams of The Civil Wars.

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