Sophia Bel

Photo by Will Arcand

Sophia Bel embraces vulnerability & turn-of-the-century sounds on her new album

We spoke with the Montreal singer-songwriter about Anxious Avoidant, the music she grew up on, writing a song inspired by the curfew and more.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It makes us romanticize a bygone era as being “simpler times” — especially when the music of that zeitgeist still gives us the same feelings it did in our younger years, and even more so when life has felt like nonstop misery nowadays.

Enter Sophia Bel’s debut LP, Anxious Avoidant, an album informed in large part by the Y2K pop punk, 2000s emo, folk, country-pop and trip hop she grew up on. Due out April 15 on Bonsound, Bel’s first full-length is a definite nostalgia trip, but it’s also an introduction to the Montreal-based artist’s youthful sound and brazenly earnest songwriting. Composed with only her guitar as a weapon, this album is also a departure from her earlier material, which tended to be more subdued and leaned more toward bedroom pop, electronic and contemporary indie rock.

The title — which was initially supposed to be the title of the song that became “I Don’t Need My Space”, before Bel decided it was even better as an album title — is a reference to the attachment style, as Bel started taking an interest in attachment theory. 

“It was something that resonated with me, because I was learning about how to be more vulnerable in my relationships and how to express my needs and my boundaries,” she says. “I was working on understanding my fear of abandonment, and where it came from… I took an interest in that, and realized that I felt like I was stuck between being anxious and avoidant, which are the two ends of the spectrum of attachment styles.”

Having moved to Montreal in 2013, Bel (whose mother is a Dutch-American native of Illinois) was born stateside, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before growing up in Quebec City — or Cap-Rouge, to be more specific. Her upbringing in a suburban bubble led to Montreal becoming an artistic awakening for her. Moving to this city, she met fellow creative types and felt like the move had opened her horizons with arts and culture. 

“When you grew up in the suburbs, you like paint your nails black and everyone thinks you’re crazy,” she adds. “But in Montreal, you can just do what you want and no one even gives you a second glance. So I felt much more free to experiment with who I was in terms of how I dress, what kind of music I make and what I listen to.”

There’s a clear and obvious influence from pop-punk and emo music from the late ‘90s and 2000s on Anxious Avoidant, as Bel grew up on bands like Fall Out Boy (her favourite), Good Charlotte, Blink-182, My Chemical Romance and Panic! at the Disco. It’s also an influence that Bel says came from a place of being “in touch with my inner child,” healing from trauma, and better understanding herself. All of this led to her circling back to the music of her youth.

“I think I had kind of rejected that part of my identity, because I never thought I was good enough or cool enough,” she admits. “Then I studied jazz, where there was this elitist mindset of, ‘Oh, pop is too simple and too easy,’ or whatever.”

“But when I decided to work on my self-love and accepting who I am and where I’m from, and how I became who I am, it’s through that acceptance of my roots that I decided to return to (those genres). When I picked up a guitar that I hadn’t played in almost a decade, it felt like it was a full circle moment —returning to how I learned how to make music in my bedroom (as a 16-year-old), looking at guitar tabs and starting to put my words to the chords I was learning.”

“All Fucking Weekend” by Sophia Bel

At least one song on Anxious Avoidant reflects the COVID reality we continue to live under, with the ballad “Lonely After Curfew” addressing feelings of codependency that are exacerbated with having to stay indoors after 8 or 10 p.m. If nothing else, the curfew taught Bel how to gain better control over her thoughts, despite admitting to having problems with rumination.

“Curfew was a breeding ground for my rumination, and my invasive, repetitive thoughts of always being stuck on something,” she says. “At the time, I happened to be thinking about a relationship that I was in. Normally you have so many other things to do in life. Curfew put all my attention on that. It was toxic for me, and it wasn’t good for the relationship, either.”

Despite the pandemic that has shuttered us into our homes for two years and continues to be an ever-present threat, Bel’s looking at life through a half-full glass.

“I’m at a point where I feel more gratitude for what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown than resentment for the whole thing,” she says. “It’s taught me how to be acceptant of what’s not in my control. It’s made me work on on being mindful, and taking control of what I can, and letting go of what I can’t.”

As she gets ready to play three launch shows for Anxious Avoidant (including one at Foufounes Électriques on May 25), Bel hopes that listeners will feel more comfortable with their vulnerability, one of the album’s central themes. “I feel like I used to hold back with what I wanted to say in my songs,” she explains.

“I felt like it needed to be a bit more elusive and not so transparent, like I needed to maintain this strong image… On this album, I really didn’t set any boundaries. As I was writing the songs, I was like, ‘Oh my god, the person I’m writing this about is for sure going to know it’s about them.’ But instead of being afraid of anyone specifically hearing the song, I was just like, whatever. It’s just a song and it deserves to be authentic, and I deserve to put whatever I want in it and not overthink its purpose.” ■

Sophia Bel launches Anxious Avoidant at Foufounes Electriques on May 25. For more, please visit her Bandcamp.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.