Chanteuse Fatale: An Interview with Sophie Auster

Singer-songwriter Sophie Auster got her start at the age of eight, when a teacher spotted her potential, singled her “shaking little voice” out and gave her a solo in the school choir. At just sixteen years old, she had already collaborated on a record with musical duo One Ring Zero (using English translations of French surrealist poems and other famous literary works as lyrics) that was picked up and released in Europe. After that, it seemed, the writing was on the walls. Auster’s first full-length solo album, Red Weather, which she produced herself, is slated for released later this summer—the title pays homage to a Wallace Stevens piece, giving a nod to Auster’s literary upbringing (her parents are celebrated writers Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt). Though she has, inevitably, been dubbed an “It Girl,” the Brooklyn native (“I lived in Brooklyn when no one lived in Brooklyn, and I moved out of Brooklyn when everyone moved in,” she laughs) is not your typical 24-year-old singer/actress. Auster’s demeanor is gentle, poised, thoughtful, warm and quirky. Her TriBeCa apartment is filled with the trappings of an intellectual aesthete: books, paintings, photographs, guitars. She is well-spoken and well-read; a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied a mixture of philosophy and art history.

Auster’s stage presence is commanding, even disarming— she engages fully and passionately with her audience, baring her soul through a powerful physicality: Piaf-esque hand gestures, the soulful eyes and voice that have (not surprisingly) garnered comparisons to the likes of Fiona Apple and Dusty Springfield. Wary of being perceived as “too soft, strumming the guitar, dandelions in my hair and that sort of thing,” Auster explains that she gravitates towards grittiness and eclecticism in her music. She cites Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Antony & The Johnsons as some of her favorite lyricists; Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald as inspirational female vocalists; dreams and emotional states as sources of artistic fuel. It’s hard to believe that the steady, husky croon she has cultivated was once that “shaking little voice.” Auster’s hopes for the future? Just “to keep going.”

ANNABEL GRAHAM: Can you tell me a bit about your first experiences with singing and songwriting? How did you start out and how did you realize it was something you wanted to make a career out of?

SOPHIE AUSTER: Well, I started singing when I was eight years old in my school choir. I was always a kind of rambunctious kid, and I was always pretty creative, but when I was in my really early life, I thought I was going to be a painter or an illustrator or something like that; that’s kind of what I was gravitating towards. And then I really think that this one teacher helped me realize that I had this passion for performing. She singled me out and gave me a solo in the school choir when I was eight. I still have a recording of it, it’s like this… shaking, shaking little voice that… you can tell that there’s something there, but it’s quivering! [LAUGHS]

GRAHAM: Because you were nervous?

AUSTER: So nervous! I thought I was going to die. I had never sung in front of anyone before; that was really my first foray into it. So [the teacher] told my parents that I should start doing music, start taking voice lessons and all this stuff. It really started then, but then I didn’t really know that I was going to be a singer-songwriter until much later. So I collaborated on a record when I was sixteen, and I would record during the weekends and my summer holidays, and that record got… through a family friend, the record got picked up and released in Europe, just accidentally. It was very lucky, and kind of before the record business turned. I think it was then that I started realizing that I could really do this as a professional thing. And I think that record, because I was only collaborating to some degree on that, so I wasn’t writing everything myself, and I wasn’t… I didn’t collaborate on the music, so I just stepped in as a singer and contributed lyrics and that kind of stuff. So that kind of pushed me into trying to find what kind of sound I wanted to make on my own, and I think after that experience, that was when I started taking it very seriously. So I guess around my late teens, seventeen, eighteen, was when I decided what I wanted to do. I always knew since I was a kid that I wanted to do something in that area, in the arts, but I didn’t know… if I had Broadway aspirations, if I was going to sing and act and combine everything together… so I didn’t figure out that I was going to be a singer-songwriter, until a bit later.

GRAHAM: And you started writing your own songs around your late teens?

AUSTER: Yeah. I had always written poetry and kept a journal, so I was always writing and penning things of my own, but then composing music and playing and putting it all together came a little bit later.

GRAHAM: Can you describe your musical aesthetic and style? Influences?

AUSTER: I think that when I was a kid, I really gravitated towards female torch singers, and this is what I really liked. Even the video [for “Run, Run, Run”], I think there’s some of that, bringing it back. So I really liked Roberta Flack and Nina Simone and Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald when I was growing up, and I sang a lot of Gershwin when I was younger. So I think these things kind of influenced me, and it’s the base of a lot of things that I do, but then obviously it’s developed, when I started branching out and listening to different types of music. As songwriters, I really like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen… Antony & the Johnsons is someone I really like… so my style would be kind of… it’s definitely eclectic, if you hear the mini-record I just made, Red Weather, there are a lot of different influences on it. I think that I gravitate towards something that’s a little bit more gritty, so I always had this fear that I would be too… because I had a “pretty” voice, that it would automatically put me in this category that I didn’t want to be in… Feminine, too soft, strumming the guitar, dandelions in my hair and that kind of thing. So I think I always wanted to get some kind of dirty thing in the music. I wanted my voice to contrast some of the musicality of the songs. I mean, there are actually literally trash cans on one of the songs. So there’s that kind of contrast that I like. I think it’s always developing. I do think that I’ve found where I feel comfortable, and I don’t feel like I’m all over the place anymore. I was writing all these different kinds of songs and they were in such different genres that it was a little like, “Who am I? What am I doing?” But I think it’s come more into focus now.

GRAHAM: How has it been working on your new album, Red Weather? Can you tell us a bit about it?

AUSTER: It was very difficult, I have to say. It was a lot of fun, the experience was very empowering… but you know, there were just hours and hours spent in the studio trying to figure out what I wanted, what kind of sounds I wanted. I produced it myself, which I’ve never… I’ve never done anything like that before, so I was really there alone in the studio with the musicians and the engineer, and then also stepping in and doing the vocals and listening back. Your ears get so much better after a while that you start hearing things that you weren’t hearing before. So it was a great experience. Would I want to self-produce again? Yes, but maybe not the next step. I would probably like to work with someone next time around, and then go back. I do feel like it taught me so much that I can now, if I do work with someone maybe more established, or who’s been doing this for many years, at least now I can have an in-depth conversation with that person, so I’m not just coming in completely naïve. It’s a whole different ballgame once you get in the studio. It’s one thing to write a song, and then to produce it, make it come out, all the things that you’ve envisioned in your head, to actually put that together is a totally different game. I’m really happy that I did it, and even more happy that I’ve gotten something that I was happy with. That was the main thing. But there was a lot of trial and error, and just figuring out what I wanted. I would go and listen to songs that I really liked and try to pick apart why I liked them, what instruments, what’s going on in the track, so that I could use that as some kind of inspiration.

GRAHAM: You’re also an actress. Do you feel that acting provides a different sort of creative outlet than singing? What do you get from each?

AUSTER: Yeah. I think that for me, my main focus is on music, just because I feel like I have so much more creative control than I do when I’m acting. But I love acting, I love the kind of communal thing that goes on, and these little families that are formed within a set, or a play, and I’ve always really liked being part of a group. I think it’s probably because I was teased as an adolescent, so I love being a part of things, so I always gravitated towards being a part of a little clan, a little theatre clan, or something like that. When you’re working with really great people, it can be a completely different kind of experience. I think for me, like music, I get a lot of catharsis out of what I’m doing, so I channel something that’s going on in my life into the creative thing… I think they’re similar in one way, but I do think that some of the obsessive control I have over my music… it’s kind of nice to relinquish that control when I’m working with other people in an acting atmosphere, because I have to trust the director and then I can just kind of do what I think I should be doing. It’s kind of nice not to be the director of everybody, telling people what to do, also making my music and all this stuff… so as much as I like that, I also kind of like just being an actor in something too.

GRAHAM: How do you feel about the creative atmosphere in New York?

AUSTER: I’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit recently, and I always feel like it’s great to get away from New York, but it’s so good to come back. It’s this funny thing, because New York is so alive and there are so many different things going on that, you know, at any given moment, someone will be performing or having an art show… you’re constantly finding out about different things that are going on. Even the film that you and Sam were in… just that there’s this communal life in Brooklyn somewhere where all these films are going on… All these little subcultures are going on. So that’s a really nice thing, and especially that there are so many avenues for people to go. There are so many venues, so many things that you can do creatively… People play on the subway, people play in the street, people show their artwork everywhere. It’s a nice atmosphere for that.

GRAHAM: Do you think you’ll stay in New York?


GRAHAM: You grew up here, right?

AUSTER: Yeah. I grew up in Brooklyn, in Park Slope.

GRAHAM: How do you feel about Manhattan vs Brooklyn?

AUSTER: I always joke that I lived in Brooklyn when no one lived in Brooklyn, and I moved out of Brooklyn when everyone moved in. So, maybe just to be contradictory or something, I don’t know. [LAUGHS] I love Brooklyn. It was a nice place to grow up, I still like it, but for me I like being kind of in the middle of things right now. I think if I wanted to have kids and found someone I fell in love with, I might eventually want to move back to Brooklyn.

GRAHAM: If you wanted to have a backyard or something.

AUSTER: Yeah! I mean, I have been thinking about… I don’t know, in a few years, building a studio or something for myself and selling this place… I just don’t know where I would go yet. I like Red Hook, but there’s no transportation, so…

GRAHAM: Can you tell me about your musical-literary project, As Smart As We Are?

AUSTER: The musicians that I did my first record with when I was sixteen, they had a duo called One Ring Zero. The way we met was because they were doing a literary project using lyrics written by famous writers. So they got lyrics from my father [Paul Auster], who is a writer, and then made this project using different well-known contemporary writers. They came over to the house when I was in high school, and they were collaborating with my dad, who gave them some lyrics, and then we sat down and started talking about music. I think my dad told them that I was interested in music, and they were like, “Oh, why don’t you sing one of the songs on the record?” So I stepped in, sang a song, and that’s how that art project came about. They were like, “Oh, you’re a great singer, we should do something together just for fun.” So that record that happened just for fun actually turned out to be getting released. I found poems that I really liked, and put them to music with the guys, and also gave them a few of my lyrics as well. So that was a kind of novelty project that we did, and this record [Red Weather] is really my first record of all original lyrics and music.

GRAHAM: You grew up in a literary family. Did that influence your songwriting?

AUSTER: I think so, because I think that I had a big advantage because I grew up reading a lot, being around a lot of literature, knowing about a lot of writers that maybe a lot of people don’t know about. My mother also read to me for about two hours every night until I was about twelve, I think. I mean, we read serious books together, she used to read to me before I could read, and then once I could read we took turns reading to each other back and forth. But it went from The Secret Garden to, you know, David Copperfield. It was those kinds of leaps that really helped my writing a lot. I just think that the more that you read, the more you know, and if you have some kind of gift for language it just helps you even more.

GRAHAM: They say that if you want to be a writer, you should be reading a lot.

AUSTER: Yeah. And I think that a lot of writers don’t. A lot of writers have a few books that they gravitate towards, but they’re not devouring literature all the time. My parents are so well-read, they’ve just read everything. I have a lot of catching-up to do, but I did get a good background with that.

GRAHAM: Who are some of your favorite musicians?

AUSTER: Let’s see… I have to throw The Beatles in there.

GRAHAM: Who’s your favorite Beatle?

AUSTER: George Harrison, I think.


AUSTER: Because I like his solo stuff the best. The Who, David Byrne, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, I like Fiona Apple obviously… and… God, I have so much music going around in my brain.

GRAHAM: What inspires you?

AUSTER: For me… obviously there’s inspiration everywhere, but I find that emotional states influence me a lot, whether I’m really exuberant or really sad. I also find that I have very vivid dreams, and that usually finds its way into something that I’ve written. So I would say being an emotional person with all these different energies, as well as my subconscious.

GRAHAM: Any projects for the future?

AUSTER: I’m just crossing my fingers that I have a fall tour set up, and that I’ll start, you know, playing a lot. That would be what I’d really want right now. And that people buy my record and like it. Just to keep going… and make some money. That would be nice. [LAUGHS]

Visit Sophie Auster's website for more. Text and photography by Annabel Graham for Pas Un Autre.