May/June 2019

by Natalie Pease

Sophie Mashlan: Courting Disaster

by Natalie Pease

Sophie Mashlan: Courting Disaster

Fast emerging folk talent Sophie Mashlan released her debut album, ‘Perfect Disaster’, in April. Displaying a confidence that belies her delicate voice and slight build, the teenaged Auckland singer/songwriter has dogmatically pursued her own pathway to popularity in the challenging realm of lovelorn folk music. Natalie Pease caught up with her early one Sunday morning to discuss the new album, its influences and road to creation.

Sophie Mashlan is an accomplished guitarist, having been playing for more than half her 19 years – receiving her first guitar as a ninth birthday gift from her parents. Already somewhat of a rare breed as a left-handed player, she has embellished her learned guitar skills with a crystal clear voice that soars across the range, and songwriting ability most would envy.

“The only things I don’t do right-handed are brushing my teeth and playing tennis,” she laughs in that delightfully girlish, unaffected way she has, inadvertently revealing that despite an apparent consuming devotion to developing a music career she somehow finds time for other activities.

Her initial musical influences were from the classic rock canon, mentioning INXS and Eric Clapton, both originally discovered in her father’s record collection. But it was hearing Safe And Sound (the collaboration between Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars, from the Hunger Games’ soundtrack), that started Mashlan on the road to explore a different sound for herself. She immediately became enamoured with the tone and timbre of acoustic instruments.

“I heard that particular song, and all I wanted to do was to play acoustic guitar!”

That inspiration also led her to explore the work of artists in the alt-country/folk genres, Dolly Parton being a particular favourite. She recalls being absolutely astounded by, and impressed with the legendary septuagenarian’s adept finger-picking style, despite her unfeasibly non-musician manicure.
“I couldn’t believe that someone with such long nails, could play that well!”

Mashlan’s own nails are kept more normally neat, but she shares with Ms Parton a natural elegance, a bounty of golden hair, and facial illumination that endears her to audiences. Plus, it would seem, a driven determination to achieve success by her own path.

Having organised her first national tour at just 17 years of age, Mashlan has already been performing locally for a few years, receiving critical attention and praise for the engaging confidence of her fledgling live gigs. The attention translated into coveted opening slots for major overseas artists to date including Donovan Frankenreiter, Joshua Radin and Vance Joy. The opportunity to open for, and tour with such accomplished, well-established acts has been critically validating and an amazing educational experience.

“It was incredible to watch them play every night. I learnt so much”.

Just a few years into what increasingly promises to be a blossoming career, Mashlan has now self-released her debut album. ‘Perfect Disaster’ was recorded and produced by Ben Edwards, (Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams, Nadia Reid etc.), in his Lyttelton recording studio The Sitting Room. Recording over about a month meant the process was never rushed and due care could be taken on music that relies in the lilting intimacy of her voice and accompanying guitar.

“I never felt under stress or pressure. We were able to just take our time, which was wonderful.”

That time and care is apparent on first listen. Whilst mindful of not making it over thought or overdone, the album contains a series of intricately constructed and layered tracks, evidently created with attention to detail.

Sonically, ‘Perfect Disaster’ doesn’t stray too far from the traditional country-toned folk canon that Edwards has perfected. The album is underpinned by Mashlan’s gentle, ethereal singing voice and skillfully finger-picked acoustic guitar. This doesn’t mean it is lacking in variety or stuck within the potentially constricting parameters of one sound. Rather Mashlan displays a willingness to explore new ideas and genres, interspersing elements of alternative and pop-rock music, as well as utilising a diverse range of instrumentation. One such experiment was the layering of strings and vocals on Pictures and Other Tides, each tracked over and over again to get the desired full effect.

Lyrically the album is an accomplished rumination on loss and regret – as she says, the result of “…making mistakes, hanging around with the wrong boys.”

She vacillates hauntingly between a barely disguised anger on I’ll Never Know, and heart-breaking sadness and regret on 17 Days.

“The song Perfect Disaster is kind of like my way of telling myself ‘You’re okay,’ when I need it. It’s a very empowering song, but actually, this didn’t come from me being empowered or gaining self-acceptance or self-love or anything. It came more from the hope that if I wrote it I would gain those things! Playing it can be therapeutic at times, especially when I’m in a very critical attitude towards myself. It’s like a reminder to be kinder to myself.”

The ideas of loss, lost love, regrets of opportunities missed are not by any stretch of the imagination new material for folk lyrics to explore. But the fact that Mashlan is able to discuss them so succinctly at the tender age of 19, presenting them with such lyrical clarity, honesty and eloquence, gives her a uniqueness and surely points to her being an artist with a bright future. With that in mind, the choice of album title seems an oddly negative one.

“The whole concept of the ‘Perfect Disaster’ album ‘identity’ was to represent the learning experience I went through in order to create it. It was one of the song titles, but also very appropriately was the way I felt the whole way through the process – from the first day of writing as a broken-hearted 15-year-old, to the recording, to every extra shift I had to work to pay for the album. That’s why the idea of having a cover where I am falling immediately sprung to mind. The whole process is a total freefall.”

With self-funding a recurrent theme in these early years of her career, most of the YouTube content has been limited to date has been of her live performing live in a variety of low key environments.

Produced by Jonathan Zsofi and directed by Yonoko (Jolin Lee), a visually striking video for the album’s opening track, Let You Down, was released in December 2018. A second music video, for the similarly driving Not This Time, came a week after the album release. Again it was directed by Yonoko, who Mashlan warmly describes as “…a gorgeous and super talented (genius level) friend of mine”. Taking inspiration from the gritty rock-country vibe of the song the concept is based on old school western films and American imagery, done in a modernised kind of way.

Despite last minute drummer issues and the imminent arrival of winter, Mashlan is looking forward to embarking on a second national tour, this time seven dates, in support of her debut album’s release. And already she’s thinking about what’s coming next, toying with the idea of a concept album, perhaps with visual content for each new song.

It’s evidence of a desire to further broaden her musical horizons and continue exploring of different musical themes and genres – all the while still studying for a music degree. But for now, she’s focused on the release of ‘Perfect Disaster’, a mature and accomplished debut.