Cabaret tricks

Sofie Royer is both the sensitive Pierrot and witty Harlequin
By J.L. Sirisuk | Music | 22 September 2022

We’re each the star of our own coming of age tale, often accompanied by the nostalgia of an imagined soundtrack. With her second album Harlequin, out via Stones Throw, Sofie Royer presents a tragicomic evocation of memory – straddling that hazy line of transition between adolescence and adulthood; not so much in search of answers, more tales.

“I just think this existence is a perpetual state of being unresolved,” Royer shares below as she takes us through a world both bizarre and alluring, rooted in a passion for Viennese traditions, cabaret, and early 00s punk subculture – all the while exhibiting the playfulness of a court jester guiding us across the sonic terrain of nine beguiling pop songs.

Royer started playing the violin at the age of four and attended the Vienna Conservatoire – subsequently bouncing between LA, New York, and London. It was in LA that she began to DJ and became an original member of Boiler Room. With her sophomore album, Royer scores her story, exploring places visited and places within dreams – sprinkled with characters including the murder–suicide pact of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and chanteuse Jane Birkin– all the while paying homage to the likes of Éric Rohmer and Andre Tarkovsky.

In tracks like Klein-Marx, we encounter a sardonic sense of humour as Royer desires to throw herself off a bridge, however the bridge is not high enough and the river too shallow. In the video for Schweden Espresso, directed by filmmaker Eugne Kotlyarenko, we see Royer play the slot machines, dance through casinos, and get married. With Harlequin, we experience a waltz between the sensitive Pierrot and witty Harlequin in a dancehall of mirrors, reflecting a montage of  adolescent memory.

J.L. Sirisuk: The album is so vivid in its construction, through real and fictional places, I’m interested what triggered your imagination from an early age?
Sofie Royer: I’ve been playing violin from the age of four. I was just encouraged by my parents largely because they hadn’t had the opportunity to pursue music, and so on. I liked a lot of classical music, I liked a lot of radio music like 10cc, however I didn’t have a TV growing up, so a lot of movie references were really lost on me. I remember one of the first movies that my parents let me watch – weird choice, I know, was Death Becomes Her. That was one of the first movies I got to see, then The Virgin Suicides was on TV and I remember being mind blown by the music. It was already halfway through the film, but it was the music that got to me. I grew up an only child with no TV, so my biggest path of finding inspiration and creativity was through books.

JLS: Did you have a favourite book growing up?
SR: I have a lot, but something I recently read that I enjoyed was Laughter in the Dark by Nabokov. That was really good, but my favourite short story of all time is A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger. I like that whole collection of short stories largely because they’re all within the same playing field of characters. [A key influence for me] was Austrian literature, Arthur Schnitzler plays and so on. I played in the young philharmonics and we would play Mass at churches, next to the concert halls here in Vienna. Those kinds of experiences I’d say were the most poignant.

“I just want to make beautiful pop songs.”

JLS: This is your sophomore album after Cult Survivor – what was the seed for this project?
SR: To fulfil my record contract [laughs]. Cult Survivor is really just an album of demos, the very first recorded instance of these songs are the album. I never recorded the song twice. Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself or courage as a songwriter. Even though I’ve produced for other people and have always been making music, never really as a solo artist. I was like, “Oh, god. Eyes closed, rip the band-aid off, here are the songs.” I just want to make beautiful pop songs. It’s not like I can turn it off, in the sense that I really do enjoy writing and composing music in whatever form, knowing, “Here’s a song structure that’s coming to me,” or, “Here’s a particular instance or experience I’d like to sing about.” The second record really ended up happening a lot faster. The songs were already there; I really did take my time with re-recording them, throwing a bunch of old stuff out. The single that just came out, Klein- Marx, was written as late as February. It’s a really cool record for me because the time difference between the songs being written and released is not so long.

JLS: Earlier you mentioned Salinger and his stories. This makes me curious about your experience writing the collection of songs for this record compared to the previous one.
SR: The songwriters I’m most inspired by are always telling some kind of story, whether it’s Todd Rundgren or Bob Dylan. I honestly don’t think that much changed. These songs, much like Cult Survivor, are a means of me expressing existence. Perhaps like dealing with or trying to process – I think trying to process is an accurate way of looking at it.

JLS: The opening of Court Jester reminded me of the French band Elli and Jacno’s soundtrack for Full Moon in Paris. You pay homage to Tarkovsky and Rohmer on this project – in what way did their influence add to your album?
SR: There’s a high level of relatability for me in their films. There’s one song where I reference The Green Ray and then Tarkovsky. It’s more just me saying thank you; the whole record is pretty reference heavy.

“[Klein-Marx] is supposed to be fun and humour-filled, it’s supposed to be a smile with the tears, like the happy face-sad face.”

JLS: You mentioned that you were thinking a lot of about adolescence to adulthood. Did you tap into specific moments?
SR: I feel permanently stuck in a coming-of-age. Especially having moved back to Vienna and no longer having the life I had when I was working two jobs full time, and being able to exist as an artist. I almost feel like having moved here… maybe it’s because I spent my time as a teenager here, but I almost feel like I regress. I’m not a teenager obviously, but there are these elements of regression in my life I’m noticing. Like I would not want to be in my early twenties again, looking back is like hell. I don’t know when the transition is supposed to happen, like in a coming-of-age movie. Even a classic Arthur Schnitzel tale always ends when some type of resolve is supposed to happen. I’m just waiting for that end or that resolve, but I guess that probably only comes when you die. I think this existence is a perpetual state of being unresolved.

JLS: I’ve had Klein-Marx on repeat and it makes me want to dance. The song is in German – what can you tell me about this track?
SR: Court Jester also has German lyrics, I wanted to sprinkle it in there, but I think I would probably alienate people if I made a whole German-speaking album because I’m fluent in German, and essentially it’s my mother tongue. My mother is Austrian and I grew up speaking German. I just felt it was appropriate to sing this type of song in German. A lot of Viennese original music was like pop music and had a history of cabaret tradition. Austria has a very morbid sense of humour – it’s my little Austrian suicide song. But the whole joke is that the Klein Marx bridge isn’t very high. I mean obviously I woudn’t do it, but I would probably break my legs [if I did]. The song is supposed to be fun and humour-filled, it’s supposed to be a smile with the tears, like the happy face-sad face.

JLS: You mention cabaret and the tears, which brings me to the theatrical element. How does performing in make-up impact your performance?
SR: I really enjoy plays, theatre and the opera, and I think unless you have a crazy stage show… I’m just so tired of the indie musicians jamming on stage, forlorn, at some venue that smells like beer. There’s no decorum to live music anymore, unless you have crazy money. It’s so underwhelming, and I was like, “What would I enjoy seeing?” I was like: a Pierrot style figure could be something really funny, versatile and easy. A lot of THE original white make-up came from Greek theatre, where they would mask their faces so they could be seen from further back. There’d be so much more expression registered on the face, and playing with that type of stage dialectic and musician setting is interesting to me. It’s a way for me to divide myself versus whatever I’m doing on stage, but it’s not like I’m scared of the stage. It makes all the trepidation of being a failing pop artist worth it.

“There’s no decorum to live music anymore…”

JLS: It’s a part of the digging into history and different parts of theatrics.
SR: Like Marcel Marceau School of Miming in Paris – they had to do everything – they had to do ballet, they had to do boxing. With so little, they had to be so expressive, nimble and interesting. To me that’s honestly not much different from any pop artist working with a choreographer coming at it from an angle that’s a little different. I’m not reinventing the wheel, and it’s interesting because as a character, Pierrot has been played by men and women, in this cool, non-binary icon type of way. It’s fascinating that this semblance of a character can exist transculturally and over generations.

Harlequin is out 23rd October via Stones Throw
Follow Sofie on Instagram.


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