L.A. daughter, Oxy student, Sofia Wolfson lets her music lead the way

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Wolfson performing in Brighton, United Kingdom. May 2019. Photo courtesy of Chris Almeida.

Before going on stage to perform, Sofia Wolfson (junior) was convinced she had stomach flu. Wolfson said when she was 15 or 16 years old, she was set to play a solo gig, but could not shake the feeling that something about her was horribly off.

“I just got to the venue and I got so freaked,” Wolfson said. “Everyone around me kept saying, ‘I think you’re just nervous.’ And I said, ‘No, I think I’m really sick.’ And then I did the show, and I was fine.”

As a musician and student at Occidental College, Wolfson has learned to navigate these anxious moments. She started performing in ninth grade, and her music — a blend of Americana, folk and blues — garners thousands of streams on Spotify and reaches fans across the world. But at the same time, Wolfson said she faces her own personal challenges along the way, whether dealing with her anxieties or working as an independent musician.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Wolfson said she grew up immersed in the city and its music. She said she lived in a very musical household — her father Steven, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, plays guitar in a band called The Motion, and her mother Julie, a journalist, is a big music lover. According to Wolfson’s father Steven, music was a big part of life at home, between his musician friends at the house and music from the likes of The Band and Joni Mitchell on constant rotation. Julie said she constantly exposed young Wolfson to a wide variety of music.

“When Sofia was a newborn baby I played the Carole King album ‘Tapestry’ often. It felt like just the right music for a new baby and an example of such a talented and successful female singer-songwriter,” Julie said. “When she was a toddler I discovered that she liked country music. I would put country music stations on in the car and she loved the Dixie Chicks album ‘Fly.’

Wolfson said she started taking private guitar lessons at age 6 after she asked her parents for them, but even before that, she loved to sing and perform.

“I’m a lot of an introvert now, but when I was younger I was [a] singing all the time, wanted-to-be-in-every-elementary-school-performance extrovert,” Wolfson said. “So I feel like the music kind of started [in], like, preschool.”

Wolfson said she also learned dulcimer and bass guitar, but considers guitar to be her main instrument and tries to challenge the idea that female guitarists focus more on vocals than their playing.

“Being a girl and a songwriter, there’s a lot of emphasis on like, ‘Oh, you just play enough guitar to accompany yourself and singing as your main thing,’” Wolfson said. “But I’m trying to get more used to saying, ‘No, guitar is my main instrument.’ I feel very confident on it.”

While attending Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA), Wolfson opted to study in the school’s theater program instead of its music program. However, Wolfson said she continued to take musical electives while also acting in plays. She said the jazz department was always a favorite of hers even though she was not directly involved in it.

Wolfson said she never really decided to pursue music; there was no single defining moment where things suddenly clicked for her.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna just do music and it’s gonna work out,’” Wolfson said. “But I started writing funny songs about my friends, and they got a little more serious in middle school.”

After a few years of learning music and writing on her own, Wolfson said she played her first solo gig in ninth grade at Genghis Cohen, a Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood. She described the show as “surreal,” saying it was the first time she had played her own material to an audience. According to Wolfson, her parents were confused but supportive of her performing.

“I remember my parents just being like, ‘You’re really gonna do this?’” Wolfson said.

Julie recalled how anxious Wolfson seemed during the gig.

“A friend asked me if I thought she was nervous. I know I would have been,” Julie said. “I told my friend that Sofia was either going to knock it out of the park or vomit on the front row.”

Wolfson finished the show without throwing up. She recalled how an audience member came to tell her afterwards how her music had resonated with them and how rewarding that felt to her as a teenager.

After that first show, Wolfson began playing monthly throughout high school, performing at gigs that would allow 15 year olds to perform. She said she would often perform where the age limit was 21 while she was still 18.

Sofia Wolfson (junior) at Occidental College. Tuesday, Feb.18, 2020. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

Wolfson first attended college at Tufts University in Boston, MA before transferring to Occidental in 2019, her junior year, to study English. Now back in her hometown of Los Angeles, she said she continues to play throughout the city. Wolfson appreciates being back in the LA music scene. While she said she could be productive musically in Boston, she did not connect to the city as much as she did to LA.

“I never really found people. I never got to play a lot of shows,” Wolfson said. “You kind of fall into either like, traditional folk or underground punk in Boston, and they did not know what to do with me.”

According to Wolfson, her music pulls from a wide variety of genres and sources. Wolfson lists The Band and Joni Mitchell as major influences, in addition to contemporary acts such as Big ThiefMadison CunninghamFrances Quinlan and Margaret Glaspy. She also considers the writers Raymond Carver, Joan Didion and Sally Rooney to be influences and personal favorites.

Wolfson’s music reflects her sonic influences. Songs like “Nothing’s Real” and “Hotel Room” reveal her folk and Americana influences, featuring intricate guitar combined with her own style of effects. Songs such as “Probably Paradise” up the tempo and approach into rock and blues territory. Wolfson’s lyrics reflect on personal relationships, anxieties and the struggles of young adulthood.

Grace Gallagher (junior), a student at Sarah Lawrence College and a friend of Wolfson’s since middle school, said she loves how Wolfson expresses nostalgia in her music.

“I think one of my favorites of her recent releases is “Johnny Cash” because it really beautifully captures growing up as a creative in Los Angeles and the inevitable changes that come with it,” Gallagher said via email.

To date, Wolfson has released one album and two extended plays (EPs). She recorded her first record “Hunker Down” while in high school, funding the project with an Indiegogo campaign. While Wolfson said she can no longer stand to listen to the songs, she appreciates what she accomplished.

“It was cool that I had the ambition to do that and that I was a little more extroverted then,” Wolfson said. “That was probably a good marker of, ‘Okay, I think I really want to do this in some capacity, even if I’m also doing other things like being an English major.’”

Wolfson followed “Hunker Down” with two EPs, 2017’s “Side Effects” and 2019’s “Adulting.” Wolfson recorded “Side Effects” during her senior year of high school, and “Adulting” was released while she attended Tufts. Her most recent single, 2020’s “Party Favors,” came from the same sessions as the “Adulting” EP. However, she said she felt the song did not fit with the EP and held on to it. Wolfson instead chose to release the song to coincide with a string of shows in January 2020. Since its release Jan. 8, the song has received more than 20,000 streams on Spotify.

Behind all of Wolfson’s music is a profound love for guitars and gear. Her eyes lit up as she discussed her current set-up, prefacing everything by declaring herself “the biggest gearhead ever.” Wolfson currently favors a vintage 1960s Teisco, but said her main guitar is a “Frankensteined-together” Fender Telecaster customized by its previous owner and sold to her uncle. Wolfson is also partial to her Dark World dual channel reverb pedal from Chase Bliss Audio, which she loves for the wide variety of sounds it can create.

Wolfson recently had the opportunity to bring her music to a new audience with a tour of the United Kingdom, with shows in London, Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow. She said the tour was a great experience — she played her first sold-out show while opening for Frances Quinlan — and that U.K. audiences enjoyed her style of music.

“People really come to the shows and listen, which was really heartwarming and awesome,” Wolfson said. “And then it was a bit of a culture shock when I had to come home and play to everybody talking over me.”

According to Wolfson, performing is not as easy as just showing up and playing. She said the stomach flu show sticks out to her as a reminder that her anxiety can impact how she performs. Wolfson can also be critical of her own material; while she enjoys writing songs and performing, she finds it difficult to identify work she is particularly proud of and frequently deals with imposter syndrome.

“I still judge myself a lot when I perform. It’s very rare that I finish a show and I think, ‘Wow, that went really well,’” Wolfson said. “A lot of it is embodied in me getting off stage and you know, making all these jokes about how bad I thought it was, even though that’s actually what I think of it all.”

Wolfson also said she is not signed to a record label, so she self-publishes her work. Since she is unsigned, this means she generally has to book shows and tours herself.

Despite a busy schedule between music and school, Wolfson makes time to have a life beyond the two. One of Wolfson’s greatest sources of joy and inspiration is her dog Gulliver. Wolfson’s family adopted him when she was 13, and he has been with her ever since.

“It was just like the perfect situation,” Wolfson said. “We wandered into this rescue that we had been volunteering at and he just walked up to us. It was like, ‘I choose you,’ and he just would not leave us alone. There’s something very special about the dog, especially for an introvert.”

While Wolfson says it sounds cheesy, she considers Gulliver her best friend. The two go out frequently for walks and hikes. Steven said the two have a special bond and that Gulliver loves Wolfson’s music.

“If he was a little more trained, he could be the best therapy dog ever,” Wolfson said. “He really helped me kind of reestablish calm. There’s no songs about him though.”

In addition to Gulliver, Wolfson said she handles her anxiety through social media breaks and spending time by herself away from other people. Wolfson is an avid fan of the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, making frequent visits through the College Card program, a discounted membership for college students.

“It’s really changed my life because it just feels like another planet when you’re there,” Wolfson said. “It’s just like a place I can detach from my phone and just walk around and wander around. I get really inspired when I’m there.”

Wolfson jokingly said balancing music with academics is impossible, but she manages to do so regardless.

“It’s just like having a job outside of school essentially, as pretentious as that sounds,” Wolfson said. “It’s like sometimes you have to not do your reading because you have a gig.”

Steven said he faced a similar balancing act when he played with his band in college. However, he said he thinks his daughter does a much better job at it than he did.

In addition to making time for school, life and her own music, Wolfson said she tries to go to concerts as frequently as possible, usually between two and five times a week, going out of her way to see acts that might differ dramatically from what she does.

“I think it’s really important to go to shows with people you’re interested in and want to see,” Wolfson said. “That’s the only way that you’re going to get better yourself, is that you see what other people are doing and draw inspiration.”

When Wolfson looks to the far future, she has yet to make up her mind about whether she will continue to pursue music. But at the moment, music continues to be central to who she is. Wolfson said she plans on slowly easing into recording new material soon, in addition to returning to the U.K. in September.

“[Playing in the U.K.] is just fun for me, as long as I’m able to do it,” Wolfson said. “It’s very surreal. If I told myself a couple years ago, ‘U.K. people are gonna show up? — f**k that. That’s not gonna happen.’ So it’s just been really fun.”

Steven, a self-declared “proud rocker dad,” said he is incredibly proud of his daughter for how far she has come as a musician, from her first show in ninth grade to a recent gig where she played in front of several hundred people. Similarly, Gallagher said she admires how hard Wolfson works and finds her to be a source of inspiration when she becomes stuck with her own work as a filmmaker.

While Wolfson remains unsure of where her career will go, she said she will follow it where it takes her.

“I don’t even know if I have decided yet,” Wolfson said. “I am doing as much as I can, so I’m just there for the ride, right?”