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Interview: Sofia Jensen (Free Range)

17 September 2023

Photo by Alexa Viscius

Sofia Jensen started writing songs when they were 14 years old, uploading to Soundcloud and Bandcamp knowing that these were merely sketches, quick thoughts in time and training for what would come. Jensen says that while they weren’t just throwaway songs, it was more of an in-the-moment expression, a passing thought. “It felt similar to posting on Instagram,” Jensen reveals, “‘This is what I did today.’” Even the earliest songs, released under the name Free Range, showcased a surprisingly mature singer/songwriter whose lyrics were primarily focused on relationships. From the very beginning, Jensen knew the end goal was to make a full-length album, something that seemed attainable after meeting producer (and Free Range drummer) Jack Henry, and the two began working in earnest on the 10 tracks that would make up the stunning debut, Practice, in 2021.

The indie folk songs on the album, released in February, are perfect come down tracks, slow burners anchored by Jensen’s gripping vocals. With Nick Levine and Max Subar lending their pedal steel talents to a handful of tracks, Free Range’s sound veers into alt-country territory at times adding another dimension to the already entracing songs.

As impressive as Practice is, Free Range’s live performance is that of a well-seasoned band. Opportunities that most bands would kill for over an entire lifetime have dropped into Free Range’s lap in 2023 – from supporting artists like Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and The Backseat Lovers to occupying early-in-the-day-slots at the Newport Folk Festival (headlined by My Morning Jacket, Noah Kahan), the Nelsonville Music Festival (headlined by Alex G, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price) and the All Things Go Music Festival (headlined by Lana Del Ray and boygenius). Free Range is currently opening dates on the Ratboys tour and at a recent stop at Rumba Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, while it was definitely the headliner’s crowd, the audience roared with approval after each Free Range song came to a conclusion and the applause was deafening as the band left the stage following their final song.

While Jensen is right around my own kids’ ages, they’re well seasoned when it comes to talking about starting Free Range, the songwriting process, enjoying listening to albums from start to finish, performing with friends and always losing things on tour.

As a songwriter, you’re very mature for your age. Does the album reflect your true-life personality?

SOFIA: I would like to think so. When they are written, it takes a while until you start recording them. We were making the album for so long and we sat on it for a long time. By the time it came out, I related to those songs less. They weren’t really what I would be doing musically now, necessarily. But, it seems like they are an accurate version of me at the time they were written. It’s my own version of high school drama though I was pretty removed from high school life. I just played music outside of school and stuff like that. The songs blend in my experiences as a really young person and having pretty trivial experiences in school and being relatable to people that are not in high school.

Would you say that high school wasn’t an awesome time for you?

SOFIA: I wouldn’t say that. I ended up at a good high school, as good as I could hope for and got a fine education. But, I definitely don’t thrive in a classroom setting. I feel like it’s hard to relate to people. Covid happened halfway through my junior year and then pretty much everything was remote. I was honestly totally fine with that.

The year above us, their prom got canceled and I remember everyone was really upset. I was like, “They are so lucky that they have an excuse. ‘I can’t go because it’s not happening.’” We ended up having a prom that was in our gymnasium and I didn’t go. I was definitely excited to be done with it.

Do you think your friends and teachers are surprised at where you’re at in life today?

SOFIA: I had music teachers outside of school. My first-ever guitar teacher that I had for two years reached out to me earlier this summer. The record was still pretty new, it had recently come out and he ended up coming to a show of mine. That was the first real experience of encountering someone who knew me before I had ever played guitar and he saw me at very embarrassing moments as I was learning.

I wouldn’t say that anyone was like, “Yeah, I definitely expected Sofia to be doing this.” I don’t know what they expected, honestly, but people are happy for me. Having my guitar teacher come to a show was super emotional for me and cool.

You mentioned the songs had been around a while before you recorded them. At what point did you know they were complete and ready to go on a record?

SOFIA: Pretty early. We went and mixed the record in Texas in December of 2021. It wasn’t like that long before that that I changed stuff like the songs on the record. The summer before that I was like, “I want to add three new songs.” We recorded two of them in the fall and then finished the third one in Texas. But, other than that, the rest of the songs were done when we started to record. I didn’t have a question of what songs I was going to choose because I only had eight songs. One of them ended up being not as good as I thought so I cut that one and added three more. But, the first seven, that we started in 2019, were always going to be the songs on the record.

You have the ability to upload music essentially the minute you’re finished recording to sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. For the seven that you wrote, was it always the intention of packaging them up together as an album or did you consider just releasing them one at a time?

SOFIA: I definitely wanted to put out an album. I would put out demos and stuff on Soundcloud and Bandcamp while we were making the record but I knew what my intention was. Putting songs out on their own was just very casual, it felt similar to posting on Instagram. “This is what I did today.” I knew that that wasn’t a culmination of a piece of art, it didn’t feel like a finished thing to me. I was recording myself so I wasn’t very good at it and it didn’t sound like anything that I would consider to be a finished thing.

The first goal I ever had from when I wanted to play guitar was to write one song. And then once I wrote one song, I was like, “Okay, I want to make a record.” That always seemed like an obvious first step to me. I didn’t really ever want to make an EP or just drop a bunch of singles. So much of my experience of music has been about records.

I heard an interview with Liz Phair where she said she knew she wanted to make a record but had no idea what the next step was after writing the songs. There was no internet at the time to look things like this up. Did you know what the next step was once you decided you were ready to make an album?

SOFIA: No, I had no idea what it meant. I met my engineer and producer and bandmate, Jack, through a mutual friend and I just knew that he recorded bands. We kind of did a song together for fun and that was the first thing I ever put out. That was very, very old version of “Want to Know”.

And then I found out Jack was moving back to Chicago from Minnesota, where he was going to school. I was like, “Oh, you record? We should make a record.” And that was late winter/early spring. I was like, “This will be great. We’ll have a record done by June and I’ll put it out.”

I was just going to put it out like I had with the first song where I had figured out how to find a digital distributor and paid $30 to get it out there. I understood how to do that. I didn’t know anything else.

Now it’s four years later and I’ve definitely figured out a lot of things in between that but, yeah, at the time, I had absolutely no idea. I was like, “We can do a song a day. That’s eight songs in eight days. Then we’re done.” Which, you know, is a possible thing, for sure, but not in the state that I was having never recorded music before in that way.

The early versions of the songs on Practice evolved and you’ve said that they are pretty different now. Was it the case of missing some sort of magic when you first wrote the songs that you were able to discover maybe as you met your bandmates?

SOFIA: The first version of “Want to Know” was with a totally different band. That version of Free Range was one I had when I was earlier in high school. They are all great musicians but we weren’t a band in the sense of being in a band now. We just wanted to play gigs on the weekends.

Were the people in the early version of Free Range friends or was it the type of situation where you know someone whose cousin is a drummer and your best friend’s older sibling plays bass so you just find people who can play?

SOFIA: I did after-school music programs and stuff like music school in high school and all my friends were from that. We would play music together in that setting. Anyone who wanted to start a band would just ask people there because we were musicians and in each other’s friends groups. I feel like a lot of people were in a similar position as I was where I didn’t really have close friends in the school that I went to. The people I connected with were the people in these music programs.

So, when putting together a band, it was like, “Who do I think is really good at their instrument and who has time and isn’t already in a bunch of bands?” That was how it happened. The majority of people I was playing with were my really good friends but it was never something that they really wanted to do as a career at that moment like I did. I was hoping it would turn into a career. And, I think we just wanted to play music with each other. That was why we all were there. We were all good musicians but weren’t playing together that well. I think that comes across on that recording.

The biggest thing for me is that my voice was changing so much in both the way that I was growing up and that my voice was actually changing every year. That was my first time ever singing anything in front of other people and so when I started doing it, and when we made that song, I had no style or technique. The way I was singing wasn’t very good and fleshed out. It was just ripping on other people’s singing styles. And Jack was a lot younger then and hadn’t recorded that much stuff yet. There were just a lot of things that made it a very average recording and pretty poor performance.

It just didn’t sound finished at all. I really stand by the version of that song on the record. But, even something like that, if I were to sit down and record the song again now, I would do it totally differently. When we play it live, I sing a lot of stuff differently and the arrangement is different, which is true for a lot of the songs on the record that we play live. Part of it is that I get bored of stuff really fast. I’d be out there playing these songs, the same songs, for a while and so I’m going to make them interesting for myself.

Also, I find different stuff in the songs that I find interesting. Like, I don’t want to accentuate this thing, I want to accentuate this other thing and push it more in that direction. That’s why performing live is really fun because you don’t ever finish a song when you play it live the way you finish it on the record. With the record, there’s a version of the song that exists out there and people will grow attached to the recording. That’s cool but, for me, when I play a song live, I think about it as the most recent version and that’s exciting to me. The song gets to continue to grow and sometimes it will feel like a new song again even though it’s old at this point.

I cut you off and didn’t let you answer about finding the missing piece to the music when working with new people in the band.

SOFIA: Yeah, with the previous band members I think there was a lack of musical and emotional chemistry because it was really just thrown together. Jack started recording my record and then he brought in his friend Bailey Minzenberger to play bass on the stuff. We ended up replacing old bass parts and started playing the songs together to re-record them and then became a band.

I had been playing music with people in a very specific way for so long that I just had to get out of my own bubble and find these new people. Jack and Bailey had been playing music together for a really long time and they grew up together. To enter that world, where they’re so locked in with each other and everything they’re doing is about musical chemistry, it opened my eyes to what it means to be connected to the people you’re playing music with and it totally informs and changes the music.

So, there were a lot of missing things but the biggest one is that I didn’t have the right band.

Does it ever catch you off guard when you’re playing live? Like, you look around you and think, “Wow! They are amazing!”?

SOFIA: Yeah! It’s crazy. They’ll do stuff that is so over my head in terms of their rhythms and the way that they lock in together in a way that I shouldn’t be locking in with them. There are moments when they’re just so solid and doing something crazy and I can just kind of glide right over it.

I would very confidently say that, technically speaking, they’re much, much better players than I am. I’ve always felt like I wanted to be surrounded by people that I felt were better than me. I think we balance each other out in a lot of ways but they’re very good.

There’s an old saying that it takes your entire life to write your first record. Do you feel any pressure to make a second record?

SOFIA: I don’t really have much of a struggle writing new songs because it really is what I spend most of my time doing. Thankfully, I haven’t felt any pressure to make a second record. I’m ready whenever everybody is, you just have to have the pieces fall into place for it to happen. Since I never stopped writing at any point while we were making the record, songs are starting to back up.

I think the pressure that I feel – I was just talking with the people that I work with and they all know how many songs I have – is that I have all these songs I’m sitting on but they’re not crazy good. They’re fine but it’s all about finding a way to put something together that I feel proud of. So much of the stuff I have is still in the voice-memo phase and not demoed or played with the band so I feel a little bit of pressure. The challenge for me is to be able to look at all these songs and try to imagine all of their potential and if that is worth chasing down. I feel like some of these songs, they’re great as demos because I can go anywhere with them, but if I were to actually go down an avenue with this song and maybe it’s not what I thought it could be, then it’s a dead end. I just have to hope that I don’t pick the wrong songs.

That’s a skill, to be able to work on a song and then decide to abandon it because it’s leading to a dead end. I don’t know that I’d be able to give up on a song that easily. Is that a difficult thing to convince yourself of, that you should give up?

SOFIA: I’m more of the opposite in that I can quickly move on from something. I’m restless and distracted so if something is not immediately exciting anymore, I know what to do. It’s like, “I have a new idea and this one will be so much better.” That was always my method of working. If it wasn’t perfect, I would just start over. I would move on.

I tend to write about the present but it’s hard to write about things when you’re in the middle of them. That tends to be difficult for me because I can’t really see what has happened until I’m past it. So, I guess I write about things retrospectively. I’m trying to not write about the same thing so I have started writing songs about stuff that goes deeper than things from my childhood or about my family or whatever.

I would say a lot of my songs are about the same thing, just from a different perspective or written in a different way. Relationships take me a very long time to move on from and I think there’s a comfort and familiarity with a situation or an emotion or part of my life that I’m now really kind of good at writing about and it’s kind of keeping me stuck in this moment. It’s easy to keep writing about it and dwelling on it and I think I have that problem.

The new songs are from experiences I’ve had in the past three years.

When I talked with Aaron from Fust, he said that he writes from the Fust character’s perspective and that that perspective can often be different than his own. Do you write that way?

SOFIA: Yeah. I would hope that people are not thinking every single line is from my life. It’s always been easier for me to write autobiographically, but sometimes I’m writing a narrative about my life. It’s a song and, ultimately, it’s a piece of writing. Sometimes the story needs to go somewhere and it’s like, “Maybe my life in the past year hasn’t actually been very interesting.” So the narrator in the song is going to go do something that I haven’t done before. With the stuff I’m writing now, I’ll make up a lot of stuff and characters. The idea of having recurring characters and songs, that’s something that’s always been fascinating to me. I like trying to play around with that.

I think a lot of people have experiences to be able to write songs but you can use this voice to write a story and it doesn’t have to be about your life. You can create a story or a narrative out of whatever part of your mind that you want to. A lot of times, the narrator of my songs are like this imagined and worse version of myself or my nightmare version of myself. A lot of the time I will write as a person talking to myself. The other person in the song is actually just me and I think that is a thing that people don’t always understand. They’ll assume that I’m writing about some other person but ultimately I’m mostly writing about myself or the things that I make up.

I definitely wouldn’t take all of the stuff that I’m saying in the songs as directly translating to my life in the same way that you wouldn’t think that a fiction author is writing about themselves even though they’re drawing from their own experiences.

”Growing Away” is a great song. Was it a conscious decision to open side B with that song knowing that, for some people who aren’t paying attention and put side B on first, it’ll be the first song they hear?

SOFIA: The tracklist is done with the intention that people will listen starting on side A. I kind of forget that there are people that will start with side B. I was with people the other day and they asked, “Can I start the record on side B?” I was like, “I mean, sure, it’s my house.” Like, you can, but why? I don’t really understand. If you like the whole thing, why not just listen to the whole thing in the right way? But, yes, it was very intentional to open side B with “Growing Away.”

We picked the sequencing and thought about it all a lot. “Growing Away” being the first song on side B was a thing where I was like, “I’m going to move this around so this track can be track one of side B and that’s going to make it all come together.”

I think about that stuff a lot because I listen to old records and new records. When people come out with records now, it still matters to me because I’ll probably buy the record. And, it’s a super important moment when you flip a record. It’s silent for a second – it’s like two acts in a play where you don’t want the acts to feel disjointed.

Do you think people should listen to the album in order, from track one to track 10?

SOFIA: There’s not a narrative story that’s being told in order on the road. I think people should listen to music how they want to, and there’s so many ways to do it now. There’s nothing I can do about the fact that the majority of people like Spotify users, or whoever is listening to music on playlists, are adding songs that are popping up with their algorithm and putting them on playlists and that’s how they listen to music. I have no problem with that, but it’s not really what I do.

I would like people to listen to the record in order because it’s a whole body of work to me and I thought a lot about the order. But, I would hope that nothing is lost when the songs are taken out of context because I like to think that they all would individually stand on their own. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters how they listen.

You contributed a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” to the Big Hug compilation. Were you a fan of the song or did someone ask you to take a crack at it?

SOFIA: I grew up listening to Gillian Welch’s music and David Rawlings music because of my mom. I love all of her music but that song, for me, when I was in middle school, was the greatest song in the world.

And, in middle school, I met someone who is now my best friend and her name is Gillian. In music school, I walked in and everyone loves rock music, like classic rock and punk and metal. And, I just listened to folk music before I got really into rock music. I met this person and she was like, “Hi, I’m Gillian.” And I’m like, “Gillian? Like Gillian Welch?” and she was like, “I was named after her.” That was such a crazy moment for me. It wasn’t that she just liked Gillian Welch, it was passed down from her parents and it was so important to her. Gillian Welch was a really big part of her life, probably bigger than mine.

My mom took me to see David Rawlings and Gillian Welch when I was in eighth grade. I was super tired and remember that we were walking out the door before the show was over and then they came out for an encore. They started playing “Look at Miss Ohio” and I wasn’t expecting because they were playing mostly his songs that night. I was like, “I know I just asked you if we could leave early but we have to stay.” I was absolutely sobbing. There’s just something about that song.

When we were on tour in the spring, we played at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and that was our last show of that tour. I had been listening to that song a lot for the first time in a while and had the idea to play it at that show. We just learned it during soundchecks for the few shows leading up to that one and we brought out a member of the band we were opening for (The Backseat Lovers) to play guitar on it.

I really wanted to do something special for that show because it was such a crazy moment for me. It just felt like I couldn’t be any closer to country and folk music. We were in Nashville and she lives in Nashville. It was really fun to play so we kept doing it.

We played the song on the tour that we did, sort of a short run that we did over the summer. We played the Nelsonville Festival in Ohio and then played the Newport Folk Festival and we did that song at both of those, which felt very fitting. Then we got asked about the comp and I thought it would be really cool to make a recording of that song.

You mentioned playing the Ryman, and Nelsonville, and the Newport Folk Festival. You’ve done more in 2023 than many bands get to do during the course of their entire career. Does it all feel like a whirlwind or have you had a moment to sit back and reflect on all the cool things you’ve done this year?

SOFIA: I feel like the way that stuff has been spaced out has been nice because when we’re out and doing stuff, it does feel really overwhelming. It’s hard to process things as they’re happening to you. It’s worked out that, after these runs or these experiences or shows, we will come home and I usually have a moment to catch my breath. I was pretty exhausted after coming home from the Newport Folk Festival and have had a lot of the month of August to really not think about music. I mean, I think about music but in a business way. I feel like I’ve been able to take a breather and just focus on living my life, being outside and biking and stuff.

It can be very overwhelming and I can be slow at processing stuff. I feel like every experience we have is really crazy to me and it doesn’t hit me right away. This tour that we’re about to go on opening for Ratboys is not going to hit me until we’re on stage at the first show. That’s the only way my brain can deal with it or process it because it’s too crazy if I were to really think about it all the time.

With all these experiences, this may be a tough question, if not impossible, to answer. But, if you could go back and play one show all over again, without changing anything, just get to have the same experience, is there a show that comes to mind?

SOFIA: The record release show we played here in Chicago in February was easily my favorite show that we’ve ever done. I feel like I was struggling with releasing a record and then being at home and knowing people were listening to it but not being able to experience it with them. I’m at home, checking my phone too much and then feeling like I did everything wrong or thinking that nobody cares about the record. It was a weird thing to release music into a digital abyss.

I was just thinking, “I put all of my energy and soul into this and I really hope people like it.” I couldn’t feel much satisfaction about the record until the release show which was a week after we put out the record.

It was crazy. It was one of the first real headlining shows that we ever did. You know people are going to come but it sold out. A lot of my friends were there. We did a last song that was sort of an encore type thing. We did the song “Burned” which is a Neil Young song, but, technically, it’s a Buffalo Springfield song that he wrote. I know it because Wilco has a cover of that song on Alpha Mike Foxtrot which I’ve been listening to since I was a kid. I was like, “This is a really fun song that I’ve always loved. I think we should cover it.”

Then I had the idea that it would be a really fun thing if I invited people up on stage from the other bands, who are all my friends that I asked to open. I felt like I had been participating in the Chicago music scene that I am a part of now for two years at that point and I had just seen all these people and was in such awe of them when they played shows. And they’re coming up on stage, these people who are my idols in a very hometown-kind of way. All of a sudden it felt like everyone was on stage, all these friends and it wasn’t just people from the other bands, it was a lot of friends who came up on stage and sang the song with us. I think that’s easily the most musical experience I’ve ever had.

You’ve toured across the U.S. Did you do a lot of traveling when you were younger or is this all new to you?

SOFIA: I did a lot of traveling growing up. It’s a big part of my parents’ life and the thing they did for fun. My mom has always been the person that if she has money to spend, she’s not really going to buy nice stuff. She wants to go somewhere.

I don’t have any family other than my parents that live in Chicago. The majority of my family is in Scandinavia, and then I have some family in and around Boston and Seattle, but mostly in Denmark and Finland and Sweden. My dad is from Denmark so from the age that I was able to go on a plane, going overseas and doing road trips and stuff was part of my life. And I’ve always loved it a lot. I’m a very restless person.

I like to be on the road. Being in a new place will make me happier. And I think that I’ve since learned that that is not really how problems go away and how things work. But there is still something to be said about being able to put yourself in new environments that is stimulating and feels necessary for my brain.

I like to see new cities and just stare out the window. All of my favorite memories from tour are not musical. They’re the traveling part of it, being in the van and looking out the window for long periods of time.

Have you visited any cities that you’ve thought that you could move to and be happy?

SOFIA: I’ve had a lot of moments in my life where I get this idea in my head that I’m like, “This is where I’m going to move.” The first tour I ever went on was two years ago. I was playing guitar in another band. We did a lot of stuff in the south in September and October – North Carolina, Tennessee. It blew me away. I was like, “I have to live here.” For a while I was saying that I was going to move to North Carolina, like to Durham. And I remember when we went and mixed the record in Texas, it was this very rural, middle-of-nowhere place, on a huge prairie. It was December in Texas and just perfect. I called my parents and said, “I’m going to move to Texas” and they were like, “No, you’re not. That’s crazy.”

That’s just the part of me that is restless and interested in new places but ultimately it’s very hard for me to find real reasons to leave Chicago. Touring is really fun because I see a lot of places that I really love but then I will come home and I’ll be like, “Those other places are not the same.”

I truly feel like Chicago is just the perfect city for me and it’s my favorite place. I don’t think I would really be happier anywhere else. I’m my happiest when I’m here.

With all the traveling and touring you’ve done, any tips or hacks you can share?

SOFIA: The biggest thing is having a portable charger because my phone is always dead, especially in the summer when I’m playing festivals. It’s a nightmare.

The biggest struggle on tour is keeping my clothes not wrinkled. And so I bring a steamer with me on tour usually even though steamers are really annoying to use. I’m still trying to figure that out.

I still travel with a giant duffle bag and that’s just idiotic. But, I have a really nice duffle bag that I’ve always used for touring.

Bailey has done some touring with bands that are a little older than us and have been doing it longer. They’ve gotten some hack from those bands, like better ways to pack with those smaller, hardcover suitcases and ways you can split the two compartments and then just roll everything up. They have it dialed in and I’m still not there.

I also lose everything every time I tour. I had this really crazy thing happen on the last tour where I lost my wallet. That sucked so much. I had bought a new wallet and then lost it the next day with all my stuff in there. That just has made my life so annoying in so many ways. Then I got a message on Instagram last week from someone in Ohio claiming to be an Ohio police officer and being like, “Did you lose your wallet?” This was two months after I lost it. I was convinced I was about to get scammed by someone. He gave me a number to call and I called it and it was a police station. They had put my wallet in a package and shipped it to me a couple of days ago. I’m still waiting on it.

My bandmates know that every time we get home from tour, I have a long list of stuff I’ve lost along the way. I lost my Birkenstocks on tour in the spring. That was probably the worst thing I’ve ever lost.


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