By Yara El-Soueidi
The first notes of Sophia Bel’s songs evoke old memories of Razr phones, iPod Nanos, ultra-shiny bubblegum lip glosses, and heavily underlined eyes — a time when scene kids and preppy jocks shared high school hallways. The Montreal indie-pop singer explores unique sounds crafted from the music that influenced her when she was a teenager, the post-punk and pop offerings of the early 2000s. Her latest two EPs, both titled Princess of the Dead, refer back to the nickname her bullies gave her when she was a teen, an emo kid in suburbia. Her music and the EPs — including her more recent release, which dropped late last year — became a way for her to exorcise that experience.
“It's always nice to take from our bad experiences and appreciate what it has taught us,” she tells MTV News. “It's just nice and therapeutic to kind of take something that comes from so much trauma, and then flip it over to something positive and reappropriating the name because like, ‘Yeah, whatever. I'm emo. Who cares?’ It can still exist. We should validate ourselves. It's important to process our trauma and stuff. But it's also nice to kind of appreciate what it's taught us and how it makes us stronger.”
Bel’s music captures that strength and showcases it in other ways. Her single “You’re Not Real, You’re Just a Ghost” is a powerful denunciation of a former flame who ghosted her, while “No More” is a hot and sexy retelling of a high-chemistry relationship with a toxic side. She explores these deeply personal subjects, in turn connecting with listeners through universal themes of love and heartache. Her own experience, meanwhile, has always been unique. Born in Michigan to a Québécois father and a Dutch-American mother, she grew up in a suburb of Québec City and moved to Montreal to gain independence. After a year of working in cafés and playing music, she decided to go to school and study jazz composition as a way to connect with other musicians.
This and all her other stories build her inspiration and creativity. That’s how you get the relatable kiss-off of “You’re Not Real, You’re Just a Ghost,” told over sugar-filled pop-rock that will inevitably make you dance before a room of imaginary specters. Bel says she wrote the song to communicate her feelings about the complicated and precarious positions of love. “It's about being ghosted, ghosting, and the general difficulty communicating in relationships,” she says. “It's really hard to be vulnerable sometimes. For me, it was really about that aspect of things that I've been through, like, many times with many different people.”
Keeping those stories close to her, Bel is personally involved in every aspect of the creation of her music. From co-producing her album, which blends pop melodies and downbeat trip-hop elements, to her involvement in the edgy and colorful aesthetic she puts forward, every aspect of her artistry is imagined by her with the help of local collaborators and producers. She loves the control. Before she started producing, she often felt lost in other people’s visions, which felt inauthentic to her voice and ideas.
“I wanted to be able to express my vision even more precisely,” Bel says. “It's not about being completely self-sufficient and trying to do everything alone. I really like the craft. It's just something that I enjoy doing. It makes [listeners] feel better when I can put more of myself into it.”
Reflective of all of this is also her edgy style. Passionate about fashion and taking her aesthetic to heart, she describes her whole look as “dark and playful,” adding that she doesn’t overthink it when it comes to clothing, going with what inspires her in the moment. Just as her music can evoke a blade-thin flip phone, her style takes inspiration from her youth, including spaghetti-strap, mesh tops, and bell-bottom pants. That’s also thanks to her Montreal-based glam squad, composed of stylist Laurence Morisset and hair and makeup artist Roxanne Selleck. “I have to mention them when talking about my style, because it's really kind of like a really fun brainstorm all the time with those two,” Bel adds, giggling.
The conversation about friends, music, and style eventually drifts toward the pandemic and how she’s been dealing with its impact. She mentions having ups and downs in 2020, not feeling extremely inspired, but this static downtime was an opportunity to push herself to process her feelings, preoccupations, and face herself by learning to become more vulnerable.
“We have to face ourselves because we can't distract ourselves as much as before,” she adds. “So, yeah, it's still very introspective like everything that I do. It's always kind of related to my youth, how I deal with things in the present and how it's connected to everything.”
And in connection to everything, her French single, “Voyage Astral [Astral Trip],” approaches introspection and change through an ephemeral trip-hop beat, taking listeners on a journey through colorful clouds outside of space and time. That energy is reflected in its video, which was completely produced and self-shot through an old digital camera from the early 2000s. It has a quintessentially spiritual quality to it, an extension of the tarot and New Age practices she uses as therapeutic tools to spark conversations with friends.
“I feel like it always evokes whatever is going on in your life,” Bel says. “It is very much about how sometimes you see yourself in a new way that you've never seen yourself before, and then you question that and you evolve. So that's why I like bringing kind of the ethereal side to it, because it's kind of nice to just enjoy the ethereal sides of life.”
Maybe Bel will get more ethereal in 2021. She’s keen on being gentler and kinder to herself — which you can hear on the EP’s closing track, “Clover” — something she thinks everyone should do. A good place to start? Maybe someplace remote and unexpected, where creativity can flow.
“I want to go, when we're allowed to, in a cabin in the woods,” Bel says. “I want to make an album in the woods.”