A couple weeks ago I got an email out of the blue from Sophie Chernin of Brooklyn band Madam West. Little did I know at the time that I was just part of her daily ritual—send one press email, one booking email, and one studio or engineer email every day. In fact, the more I found out about Sophie, the more I was impressed by her very systematic approach to making her band stand out from the flock. If making it in this business is about putting in the work, Sophie and Madam West shouldn’t have any issues.
And that was before I’d even heard her music. Madam West doesn’t have a full-length album out yet, but the stuff I was able to hear on their Bandcamp page, I was totally into. It’s definitely a little unrefined, like something that’s still coalescing in a soup of soulful vocals, jazzy instruments, and electro-pop, but I’m really interested to see where it goes from here. Sophie’s voice is interesting, at times bright, at times warbling, at times electro, at times atmospheric, at times coquettish—I found myself reminded a little of Ellie Goulding, of Little Dragon, occasionally even of Tune-Yards.
We recently met at Building on Bond in Brooklyn for a beer and chatted about her favorite musical moments, some of her biggest challenges as a musician, and her obsession with Facebook.
Tell me a little about Madam West.
We’re a five-piece psychedelic soul band. We use a lot of electronics. We’ve been together for three years, and are slowly adding members.
What gets you going most right now in terms of music?
I started off in folk music, doing singer-songwriter stuff. I knew nothing of jazz and soul. Then I met the co-founder of our band, and he really introduced me to this whole new world. One thing I particularly like about soul is that the goal of pretty much every soul song I’ve heard is to uplift the audience. I grew up listening to Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, and more that kind of stuff. But when I think about why I go to a show, it’s because I want to get pumped up, I want to rock out, I want to have a good time. And that’s something I think soul music just does so well.
I think definitely a huge part of our sound is everyone’s influences merging. My guitarist and I used to play in a folk band together, but he also got into psychedelic music, like Animal Collective and that whole world, while we were in college, and I think that definitely influences his obsession with pedals and his musical ideas. Then our drummer played a lot with Todd the keyboardist in Arizona where they went to school, and they’re both very jazz, hip-hop, R&B-oriented. I think there’s an element of that in our music, a very jazzy nerdy thing.
Our bassist also has a jazz background, and he recently wrote the first song that wasn’t written by Todd and me, and it’s really cool. It’s the hardest song I’ve ever had to sing. I have to jump up a seventh on an eighth note, and it’s really hard. But it’s cool when everyone challenges each other. I think that’s what it’s all about. Every member of the band has a different perspective and pushes each other.
Was there a favorite show that made you realize the power of this sort of music?
Recently, I went to see the Snarky Puppy show at the Brooklyn Museum, and that was one of those moments where the air was just crackling with electricity, Everyone was so in sync, but not in a robotic technical way. It was so tight but so free at the same time. It made me want to practice for 10 years and sound a tenth that good someday.
What is your most memorable musical moment?
We had a show at this art space Nola Darling, and I’ve been so used to playing in venues where nobody is listening, maybe we’re at a bar or you just feel like you’re screaming for people’s attention. But this was the most generous audience I’ve ever played for. I looked up from my pedal and suddenly there was just this room like 20 people deep and they were all listening to us. I didn’t see anyone making out or chatting. It was one of those things that made me think: “wow, I’m creating something that people are ok with listening to.”
I mean, I really want to stay away from being the type of performer who is addicted to validation, but I think it feels really good to know that what you’re making means something to people and affects them in some way. That’s kind of the point; otherwise you’re just throwing music into the void.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a musician today?
I think it’s always going to be marketing to a wider audience—finding people to get to your shows, figuring out who the major players are, who you can actually get to listen to a demo, whether that’s a booker, a venue, a label, whatever. Especially in the crazy market that is New York City where everyone is doing this. Finding what it is about you that rises above the masses—I think that’s the hardest part.
I think my biggest achievement to that end has been just showing up and meeting people, because you’re a lot more likely to get a response from someone who’s face you recognize. You can add them on Facebook, and they’re like: “oh yeah, you’re that chick who talked to me about Hiatus Kaiyote.”
I’m an obsessive Facebook add-er. I would say that I probably have at least 1,000 friends that I met once at a bar or know marginally or Facebook suggested to me because they know 20 other musicians. It’s awesome because it’s a library of information. I’m kind of like a loving stalker in that way. It’s a great way to find out what blogs are covering local bands, what venues are booking bands that have a similar sound to ours, where people are touring, what colleges seem to get good turnouts for tours, etc. I mean, there’s just a multitude of information.
Ninety percent of press coverage we’ve gotten is because I read about some other band that I sort of, kind of know, and I email the blog and say: “hey, we’re playing the same areas on the same level as this band who you covered. Check us out.”
I think a lot of people see the music scene as a very adversarial, competitive scene, but I think there are a lot of ways you can create a loving community and really help to lift other musicians up—and allow yourself to be moved along in a positive direction in the process.[Editor’s Note: for a lot more tips like this, take our Touring on a Shoestring course for free now live!]
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to market a show or album?
I always have a really intense pang of fear when I blind message someone. I did it to get the Palisades show coming up on April 1st. I met the booker for Palisades once at a friend’s show six months ago and once on Halloween when I was wearing a blond wig, and there’s no way he’d recognize me. But I friended him on Facebook, and messaged him: “hey, we’re going to send you a booking email, just a heads up.” My heart was just pounding in my chest like: “he’s going to think I’m some crazy, random stalker.” But we got booked immediately.
I don’t think I could go as far as pulling a publicity stunt. There’s this guy in this band called ONWE, and he created this fake Facebook persona and added all these friends and got all this press coverage and then started this intense war on Brooklyn Vegan with himself, just using weird rhetoric to antagonize everyone who was commenting on the show thread.[Editor’s note: we checked this out—it’s totally crazy. The comment thread is just full of people ripping on the music, which is almost definitely the band itself… Check it out!]
Some part of me feels like being that persona would be lying—that whole thing that needs to create mystique and be like Daft Punk and wear masks. I don’t think I could do that because that’s not me. I’m way too earnest. But I always admire people who can do it. Now ONWE’s signed and touring, a total master of the marketing game. In 6 months his band went big. I have no idea how he had the guts to do it, but it’s awesome.
What’s music going to sound like in the apocalypse?
We’re going to see an end to all electronic music, like the rave scene, the dub scene, that whole thing is gonna die. People are going to go back to caveman era and start banging on hulls of broken down cars, slushing around in radioactive waste, screaming down vacuous shells of buildings, that sort of thing. Hopefully, there’s some sort of recording equipment still around, maybe old tape recorders or something like that. But I think it’s going to be analog to the max.
What do you think alien music sounds like?
I think it’s probably above our threshold of pain. Or it’s like that thing where dogs can hear it, it’s at such a high frequency, but we can’t. I think it’s possible that, like dolphins, they communicate through sounds, through music, so maybe it’s sort of like a sine wave.
If Madam West were making music in the 1600s, where would you fit in the scene?
I could see myself in some sort of parlor playing a harp. We have a piano player already, maybe timpani for drums, I don’t even know what the percussion was like back then. We’d be like the original chamber music pop band. We’d have all the chicks dancing around, loosening their corsets so they can actually move.
Any advice for other musicians today trying to make it?
Get a day job. There are exceptions, but I think in general, for longevity, for being able to actually stay in the city and make connections, just be humble and realize you might not be able to spend every hour of the day doing music. And you need something to fund paying the publicist and the engineer and equipment, and it really shouldn’t be your parents because you have more self-respect than that.
And you know, just be friendly, meet people, go to shows, don’t burn bridges, that would be my number one piece of advice.