Sophie May: “I woke up after a big night out to see Billie Eilish calling my song ‘beautiful'”

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. The Londoner's early material shows flashes of both Joni Mitchell and Sam Fender – her performances at low-key, unannounced open-mic nights may not last much longer

Sophie May followed the old adage: always leave them wanting more. Have a quick scroll through her TikTok account and you’ll see just how desperate her 200k followers are for more than the 60-second folk-pop tasters that dominate her account. The songs featured were written during lockdown on the app, and soon enough, her comments were flooded with requests from people asking her to write songs about their experiences.

Her lyrics resonated profoundly and in little under a month, her debut release, double A-side ‘With the Band / Bruises & Scratches’, gained her hundreds of thousands of streams, and a dedicated audience on her lovingly-curated playlists. “It’s been really fun,” she tells NME over Zoom. “I’m enjoying having something out in the world. Now I have an answer for people who ask what I’m doing… I can say it’s out there!”

And yet, music wasn’t always the plan. Before teaching herself to play guitar aged 19, she hoped she’d go on to study something like English literature. A brief stint at BIMM’s Fulham campus – Europe’s largest music university – put her in a “music mindset” and quickly cleared all doubt that she should be doing anything else. Bored in lockdown, she turned to posting her songs on TikTok “just for something fun to do”, and then caught the eyes of fans, her eventual management team, and, er, Billie Eilish, who called her unreleased song ‘Lover Boy’ “beautiful”.

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“That was so weird,” she says, shaking her head. “I woke up after a big night out to see the top comment on my video was Billie Eilish. I was like, ‘That can’t be her.’ I got a wave of Billie fans following me after that, which was nice.”

Little wonder her song moved Eilish. May writes with genuine honesty, drawing from her own “stories and experiences” to make sense of her unfolding life as a young adult. With a Carole King-like rhythmic ease, her melodies loop in your head for days, while her intricate harmonies show a follows in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell and her knack for emotional vulnerability and detachment. There’s also the influence of indie-rock, laced into the construction of her songs, beating unobtrusively beneath her sound. It distinguishes her from traditional folk singers; for every moment of Mitchell, there’s a simultaneous jolt of Sam Fender’s softer side waiting to erupt from her acoustic guitar.

Much like Wet Leg, Holly Humberstone, and Joy Crookes, May’s songs are meditations on navigating the cusp of adulthood, where everyone is “still just an idiot, running around and questioning if they’re a good person,” while also being presented with “all these abstract ideas about life.” She approaches the youthful naivety of her 18-year-old self with sympathy; her perspective as a 23-year-old moulds her into both distant narrator and oblivious subject, thoughtfully attempting to make sense of her future and former self.

‘With the Band’ examines the twisted power dynamics between a rock star and a young female fan, extending into a metaphor encompassing all shitty relationships. “The groupie never gets that good a story,” she says. “I often felt like a groupie in my own relationships: just grasping at straws with the dudes I’d date, who were all just in love with themselves anyway.” ‘Bruises & Scratches’ is a “fun version” of a similar story, this time the love interest taking shape as a stoner skateboarder. Its tumbling, earnest melodies has its roots in ‘00s indie; it’s no wonder Spector’s Fred Macpherson is credited as a co-songwriter on the material.

May considers herself a “lyrics-first” artist, and credits her teenage obsession with slam poetry for teaching her about rhythm, metaphor and performance. The breadth of her influences – spanning from the likes of Lauryn Hill and Frank Ocean to Leonard Cohen and Alex Turner – ensure a poetic sharpness, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by other artists in the industry. Already, she’s worked with the BRIT award-winning singer Celeste, who invited her into the studio after hearing one of her demoes.

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“I really admire her, so I was nervous. I’m not used to writing with other people, so I wasn’t sure how much to contribute, but we got into it and it was really fun. We started writing the beginning of a song together, which was cool.”

Social media has been pivotal in May’s rise to success, so does she feel under pressure to be constantly creating ‘content’ to keep followers interested? She shakes her head. “You can put that pressure on yourself, but I don’t. I don’t try to jump on trends or anything – I’d find that a bit numbing.” Her approach clearly works, and has allowed her creative freedom and control over her work, with management fully trusting her vision. She self-directed her DIY video, and is hands-on with production, producing ‘Bruises & Scratches’ by herself entirely (‘With the Band’ was co-produced with FKA Twigs’ producer Joe Hartwell-Jones). “It wouldn’t make sense to change what I’m doing to look more professional. It wouldn’t connect as much, and it wouldn’t be as enjoyable. I do whatever comes naturally.”

A lockdown career launch has curbed any opportunity to perform live, but she’s itching to get out there. May finds herself suffering with impostor syndrome, and to combat the anxiety she’s been secretly performing at open mic nights, obtaining fans in the older chaps that frequent the bars. Despite the pressure and the nerves, though, she’s quick to remind herself of her own ability: “I know that no one else can write these lyrics, because they’re coming from me. And I’d much rather be doing this than my old pub jobs!”

Sophie May’s debut release ‘With the Band / Bruises & Scratches’ is out now

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