The Austere Intimacy of Sophie Kyle Collins

Illustrated by Cleo Maloney

In the midst of lockdown, working as a babysitter and getting over a break-up, Sophie Kyle Collins (BF ‘23) suddenly decided to purchase recording software. They wanted to make music, but they didn’t think they’d be recording much. The audio interface they ended up choosing, while functional and decent, was limited in a way they didn’t anticipate. 

“I only have two inputs,” they said to me, playfully exasperated. “Write that down—I only have two inputs in my interface. It’s extremely frustrating, because I didn’t know when I bought it that I’d be doing this so much. I thought, there is no way I’ll ever need more than two inputs. And now I’m like fuuuuck.

But the sonic minimalism that Sophie describes as a frustrating limitation is one of the first things that drew me to their work. Collegiate music often feels divided between the refined yet uninventive, and the inventive yet unrefined. The kind of singers I love most, those who pair sentimentality with a strange edge, are hard to find on campus. Sophie is among the rare student musicians who fall into this group, and it is largely thanks to their tracks’ instrumental sparsity. Since the very first song they uploaded on Spotify in December of 2020, a simple guitar and tambourine tune called “Letters,” Sophie’s minimalistic instrumentals have created space for the fullness of their intricate vocals to come through. Sophie, who now sings for the a capella group New Blue, took vocal lessons for only a year in high school, but their voice sounds strikingly assured in its timbre—an intensely expressive soprano with a somewhat unsettling flutteriness to it (reminiscent of Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell, both artists who Sophie cites as sources of inspiration and confidence). There is an oddness to Sophie’s voice, but rather than obscure it with instrumental clutter, they place it at the forefront, allowing it to reach its full, captivating potential on the mix. 

The lyrics of Sophie’s songs are as entrancing as the voice singing them. Sophie’s writing is consistently rich. Tracks like “Summer Song” contain expansive narratives that spiral across a series of scenes and subjects, and more straightforwardly structured ones like “Love Is a Wound” rarely repeat the same refrain without some clever alteration. Sophie’s lyrics, confessions of romance and heartbreak, feel particularly impactful in their intimate sonic space. Furthermore, their minimalistic set-up allows their backing instruments to respond to the stories they tell. There is a wonderful interplay between voice and instrumentation throughout their songs—the way the backing instruments follow Sophie’s voice and become strategically sparse to emphasize the most cutting lines on “Summer Song,” or the way guitar and vocals slow together in the last leg of “George,” the song itself seeming to melt into honey. The austerity of Sophie’s tracks, and the conversation this allows between voice and instrumentation, makes their music sound as if it’s being played right next to you in a small room, their secrets being whispered in your ear.

Sophie’s latest single, “That Narrow Bed,” epitomizes their unique musical style. The instrumentals are the barest of any of Sophie’s songs to date, nothing more than a bass repeating the same phrase with improvisational variations toward the end of each verse. Over this nocturnal background, Sophie’s voice opens the piece with the question: “Do I really miss that bed?” The rest of the song weaves a dreamlike series of sketches surrounding the central motif of a former lover’s bed. It is depicted as an uncomfortably vulnerable place, a “tiny little box of room” in which Sophie’s “head is nearly sticking out onto York Street.” Hilariously,  every voice on the street seems to go right up to and through the window. The bedroom as depicted in the song should not be charming or appealing, yet Sophie is irresistibly drawn to it. They find comfort in that they find it almost embarrassing, expressed strikingly in the image of Sophie standing outside the building and imagining their lover just before they suddenly pop their head out of the window and catch them looking. The intensifying vulnerability of each of Sophie’s verses is mirrored by the murmur of the bass in the background, the phrases always beginning sadly and sentimentally, then sinking lower as if the melody itself is being seduced by the memory of that space. Both lyrically and sonically, the song attempts to answer its initial question (“Do I really miss that bed?”). 

By the end of the song, I believe that question is answered with a resolute Yes. Sophie does not say so explicitly, but the answer is heard in the chilling delivery of the song’s last line, “A narrow place to lay…,” as it crescendos into a sustained, hauntingly beautiful final note that contains all the bliss of finding such a place. Though I hear previously mentioned influences like Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell on this song, the unabashed passion of this final moment reminds me most of Björk, particularly on Vespertine, the album which synthesizes her sentimentality and oddness into a moving whole. “That Narrow Bed” begins with a sense of bitterness towards a past lover, but ends on a note of such earnest longing for what has been lost that, as a listener, you cannot help but feel heartbroken. It is like listening to a friend tell an urgent secret, sharing it with you and you alone, and feeling the full force of their sadness suddenly overtake you.

It is a pleasure to find an artist as simultaneously skilled and odd as Sophie Kyle Collins. They tell me their recordings from the past year will soon be put on Spotify in album form, a release I will definitely be looking out for. And, on the down-low, there is apparently new music in the works too. As long as Sophie sticks with their trusty two-input interface, I’ll be eagerly awaiting it.

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