Sophie May on confronting TikTok-fried attention spans and setting Leonard Cohen-style arpeggios to slam poetry

Sophie May
(Image credit: Dani KM)

During the 2020 lockdown, singer/songwriter Sophie May was really churning out the content for her newly minted TikTok channel (200k followers, 3.8m likes, both rising fast). 

At one point, she tells Total Guitar: “I was almost tricking my brain into writing a hook or a verse, and then I would be finished. TikTok can shorten attention spans in that sense, but I see it almost as a writing exercise. I try not to take it too seriously, and that helps me just write and feel free, not trapped by the format.”

That short-form platform – and Instagram too – has served the 23 year-old Londoner well. With stars including Billie Eilish and Celeste dropping likes her way, May’s compact, pithy songwriting style is informed by her teenage love for slam poetry. She got the music bug late-ish, at 19, when she bought her main axe, a Squier Classic Vibe Mustang, although she barely knew one chord.

She progressed quickly, though, turning to YouTube, absorbing the music and guitar techniques of Laura Marling, Paul McCartney, Jeff Buckley, and Leonard Cohen: She says of the latter: “His most famous songs have those rolling, tumbling [arpeggio] patterns, which work well when you want to let the lyrics shine through.”

May’s own striking, beautifully sung stories light up her debut EP, You Do Not Have To Be Good, out now through Psychic Music. The songs are despatches from the front of the age-old battle of the sexes, as seen through Gen-Z eyes, and are populated by female characters who, in spite of themselves, are in the thrall of flawed men – ego-fuelled wannabe rock stars (With The Band), car boys (Cadillac), plain wrong ’uns (Bad Man, High Life) and flat-out narcissists (Drop In The Ocean, about a creepy ex-teacher).

“A lot of it is dramatised,” she says, “with plenty of metaphors. It’s looking at a lot of my female friends and their relationships, and packing in a lot of those experiences into one song.”

For her forthcoming live shows she’s been eyeing up a new guitar, a Gretsch. She’s only done two gigs to date – including one at London’s Groucho Club – but more are planned, in Hackney in September and, in 2023, Australia (she has dual nationality). “Here in the UK I’m just starting out playing lots of little gigs,” she says. “We’ll announce a few days before and see who can go, and I’ll get some practice in...”

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Grant Moon is the News Editor for Prog magazine and has been a contributor to the magazine since its launch in 2009. A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, Big Big Train - Between The Lines, is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.