Sophia Bel Joins the Pop-Punk Resurgence — Sort Of

"I was thinking about Blink and Good Charlotte and the tone that those singers took back then, and it just opened a can of worms," says the Quebec singer-songwriter

Photo: William Arcand

BY Ian GormelyPublished Sep 29, 2022

High school sucks, and most folks are happy to put it in the rearview. Sophia Bel was no different, until she started digging through her past to better understand her present. 

It was a seemingly simple question — "Why am I the way I am?" — that triggered her deep dive into the past, says the Montreal-based musician, speaking with Exclaim! in advance of her Pop Montreal performance and a fall run of Quebec dates. Digging through her adolescence not only helped her to better understand the building blocks of her personality — "my qualities, my flaws, or trauma" — but also led to a musical reckoning that deeply impacted this year's debut album, the tellingly titled Anxious Avoidant

Growing up in the suburbs of Quebec City, she had dreams of pop stardom, but also "a paralyzing fear of abandonment," she says. "Like, if I'm myself, or if I stand up for myself, people are going to leave." Self-described as insecure, shy and a people-pleaser in high school, she reflects, "I didn't really communicate and that's why I attracted, I think, the wrong people in my life."

With a move to Montreal to study jazz at Vanier College came an opportunity for reinvention. "I felt uncool, so I wanted to reject everything," she says. Out were the cathartic pleasures of emo, pop-punk and country pop that had defined her teen years; in were the more serious and complex R&B and jazz. Those elements, with a dark electronic throughline, are front and centre on Bel's early singles and the EPs Princess of the Dead, Vol. I and II. But the path to self-acceptance rekindled her love for Blink-182, Fall Out Boy, Avril and Alanis.

Perhaps inevitably, her musical explorations started filtering into her writing. While working in the studio with CRi in early 2020, the Montreal-based electronic artist announced that he wanted to write something with a guitar. Not knowing how to actually play the instrument, he handed one to Bel, who had not written on one since high school. "I just played a couple of chords and he was like, 'Yeah, that's sick,'" says Bel, referring to what would become her breakout single, "You're Not Real You're Just a Ghost," which now has over a million streams on Spotify. "The lyrics and the angsty, uptempo, angry punk sound just came to me. I was thinking about Blink and Good Charlotte and the tone that those singers took back then, and it just opened a can of worms." 

She ended up writing more than 20 songs, eventually settling on the 11 that make up Anxious Avoidant. Though superficially a pop record, ranging from the bouncy "I Don't Need My Space" to the low-key shuffle of "I Won't Bite," Bel wears her heart and perceived idiosyncrasies on her sleeve while showcasing her renewed love for pop-punk, folk, and writing on guitar. "I just can't be that nonchalant mysterious person anymore," she says.

She wasn't alone. On the backs of new artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly and older ones like Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne, pop-punk has recently made a roaring comeback. Bel's songs fit the current zeitgeist, but they still feel uniquely her own, placing her more adjacent to than actually part of the moment. "No matter what I do, it always ends up sounding pop," she says. "I think I just need to accept that." 

Though she's rearranged older songs like "Clover" to better fit the vibe of her current live set, the songs on Anxious Avoidant are less a break with the past than Bel coming full circle.

Emboldened by the positive response she's received, she sees her future less rooted in a particular sound than a more open and vulnerable style of songwriting. New single "Serotonin," out today via Bonsound, works pop-punk harmonies into an acoustic ballad in which the singer-songwriter opens up about her struggle with mental health, singing at the song's outset, "Honey, healing is only fiction / So go fill out your prescription."

In her own listening, she's already moved onto shoegaze and 2010s indie rock like Crystal Castles and Metric. Bel is noncommittal when asked if she sees herself incorporating those sounds into her music, but notes that, regardless, "When something feels real, people can feel that and connect with it."

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