Like many other musicians Sophia Rankin had more time alone than she knew what to do with in 2020. But rather than spiraling inward, the Tucson-based singer/songwriter used the isolation as an opportunity to finish half-written songs and tell the stories of others. The result: Too Close to the Riptide, Rankin's third album and the first with a full band. As the title implies, the album sees Rankin leaving her folky comfort zone and exploring the depths of rock, pop, country and electronic music, all while maintaining a core of poignant storytelling.
"When I first started writing the album, it was just little tidbits of my life. And with COVID, you know you're stuck in your room and the safest place you can go is your own four walls. So immediately I knew the songs needed to be finished," Rankin said. "A lot of them were started out unfinished, and it felt like everything was crashing down around us, and suddenly it felt like I understood them better because of what the world was going through."
Born and raised in Tucson, Rankin released her first two solo albums while attending the University of Arizona's School of Music. They're intimate recordings similar to the music she's performed at the Tucson Folk Festival. The title of her second album, Solace, was thought up as an answer to when her mom asked her why she wrote music. However, with this latest album, released by Sophia Rankin & The Sound, she says she learned how to make her music more personal, but not just about herself.
"I wanted the songs to feel like stories, whether they were first-person or about someone else. So I think half of the album is self-reflective," Rankin said. "I sat down and realized I am a folk singer through-and-through, but it just comes out in pop or blues or rock. Folk music in its essence is storytelling, whether it be about myself or someone else."
The songs range from "Starting to Pray," a deeply personal story about the role of the singer, to "The People I Have Known," explicitly about others and their moving, if brief, stories. Although from opposite perspectives, both tracks center on Rankin's smooth vocals, spiritual delivery and delicate guitar playing.
"During the year of COVID, as we so endearingly remember it, I had a friend who passed away from COVID before he turned 21, and another friend who passed away by accident. And I was sitting there thinking that these are stories that need to be told," Rankin said. "It's not that you need to know where they came from and where they went, but just that they were beautiful people and I wanted to remember them somehow."
One such story involved a man who approached Rankin after a performance and asked her if she'd play at his funeral, because hers was the kind of music he'd like to go to heaven to. She was so touched by the sentiment, and when her friends later passed, she realized she wanted to sing about other people and what they meant to her. In fact, there were so many stories about other people that for the first time she wrote companion songs to thematically link the album.
"It's how I knew this was going to be an album and that would be the song to end the album, because the whole thing was a story about what I went through, what my friends went through, what these strangers went through, and how we all came out of it at the end," Rankin said.
Leaving it there would make for a fine folk album, but a variety of influences and a full band further develop the album's sound. Eli Leki-Albano (bass and vocals), Connor Rankin (drums and percussion) and Noah Weig-Pickering (lead electric and acoustic guitar) form a cohesive sound, and production from local electronic musician Nocturnal Theory results in a melding of styles.
For instance, "Moon Song" opens with some quiet piano and vocals before whirring electronics and programmed drums give the atmosphere a distinctively modern feel. "Metal and Wine" dissolves with unexpected bass and a breakdown in the second half, and "The Fray" opens with some suspenseful lead guitar in a Tejano style that is replicated and replaced with electric guitar.
Rankin first collaborated with Nocturnal Theory on a single "When You're High" in 2020. She enjoyed his production so much, she soon asked if he'd be up to work on a full album.
"I love that he respected my ideas, but then put in a lot of himself," Rankin said. "I wanted him to put his influence into the songs, but rein it in if it's too much of him and not enough of me... So for a track like "Moon Song," I came to him with just me and a piano, and I wanted him to make it not just me and a piano. And he said 'I'm going to take it and run with it, and you tell me when to stop.'"
Ultimately, she says multiple songs took her out of her comfort zone, especially more synthetic tracks like "Moon Song." However, Rankin says during the recording process, she says she learned how production can be an artform itself, rather than simply capturing the acoustic performance of a folk musician.
"But it's weird saying it's out of my comfort zone, because it also sounds right," Rankin said. "When I recorded my first two albums, I wanted them to be something I could replicate live. But when I was working with him, I realized I was looking at recording all wrong. I was looking at it like a live performance, but recording is a little space where you get to explore new things, maybe things that you intentionally can't do live."