NEW YORK – Oh, the wonderful naivety of being 16. That first job as a waitress. The first time you dared kiss a boy. And, if you happen to be Sophie Auster, recording your first album for a French label. Born in 1987 to authors Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Auster’s eponymous debut album comprised lines her father had translated from French poets like Tristan Tzara, Robert Desnos and Paul luard. The songs, recorded during a summer vacation, turned into an album after a family friend sent them to Nave Records in Paris. Two years later, Auster launched her musical career with a concert tour of Europe and the United States.
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Over the past decade, the singer/songwriter has ventured into other creative areas. She has appeared in eight movies, including 2007’s “The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” directed by her father, and the independent drama “Stealing Summers” (2011). More recently she had a small role in Amazon’s hit series “Mozart in the Jungle.” In addition, she has featured in Spanish fashion chain Mango’s catalog and was photographed naked for the cover of Spanish Rolling Stone.
In an interview conducted recently in Greenwich Village, not far from her apartment, Auster spoke at length about her thirst for music, fashion, literature and cinema. She says with a smile that she doesn’t like to define herself, since we live in an age in which there’s great openness to different kinds of creative pursuits.
“I would say that, mostly, I’m a singer-songwriter. But in this day and age, there is more of an open form to doing different things within a creative field,” she observes. “For example, the collaborations I’ve done with fashion companies have always been based on performances I’ve done, so I’ve always been featured as myself and not as an anonymous model. I think that in its high form, fashion can be an art and a [form] for self-expression, just like acting or music. But 90 percent of the time, I only focus on music. I started singing in a choir when I was 8, when a teacher got me really involved in the world of music.”
She says that as a child she wanted to be singer-songwriter Roberta Flack. “I thought she was amazing, and I used to listen to her records a lot,” she recalls. Auster also loved Carole King and Fiona Apple, but also developed a surprising obsession with Neil Sedaka. “In general, I was more connected to older music and less interested in contemporary recordings,” she says.
Following the success of her debut album, in 2011 Auster released an EP called “Red Weather,” featuring her most popular song, “Run, Run, Run.” The video for the song premiered on the Paper Magazine website, where it garnered flattering comparisons to Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey.
Last June, she released a new album, “Dogs and Men.” Befitting the varied influences she acknowledges, it contains songs that flirt with jazz and cabaret (the outstanding “Our Mistake”), potential indie rock hits (“Bad Manners” and “Find That Girl”), and quiet, contemplative ballads (“With You”).
In addition to singing, Auster also plays guitar. In recent years she has collaborated with British producer Barry Reynolds, who previously worked with Marianne Faithfull, Grace Jones and Lou Reed. Reynolds met her when she was 18, says Auster, and took her under his wing. “Square Moon,” which was released in 2012, is her interpretation of a song that Reynolds and Antony Hegarty wrote for Grace Jones.
Auster plans to take a break from concerts in the coming month to participate in a fashion show by Chloe in Italy, and to model at other fashion shows in Europe. Alongside modeling, she plans to dedicate the coming year to recording a new album and doesn’t rule out more acting roles.
Amy Winehouse once said that success at a young age is a curse.
“Nothing in my career has been premeditated. I’m not Amy Winehouse whatsoever, and I’m not a worldwide phenomenon being chased down the street. I live a very quiet life and I still feel that I’m doing my best to have the kind of career I truly want. I feel whatever little success I had earlier hasn’t affected me in a great way. Going to college when I was 18 has helped me develop myself and made me more aware of what I want and how to be in control of my own life and career. Whatever future successes I hope I have, I’m happier that they’re happening now rather than at 11 or 16.”
Considering that Auster was born to a couple that had published – together and separately – dozens of books, poems, essays and short stories, it’s no surprise that she declares writing to be the great love of her life. Similar to her father, who’s had an obsessive writing routine for decades, Auster Jr. is an industrious and productive writer. She says the only way to create is to work nonstop, which is what she does one way or another. She says she has over 100 songs and is always writing lyrics.
She started reading her father’s books when she was 16 or 17, beginning with his 1987 novel “In the Country of Last Things.” She recalls really loving it. “Since then, I have read almost all of my parents’ books.” Still, she notes, she never thought about writing prose.
Although her father is Jewish, she says that for some bizarre reason her Jewish identity was more important to her Christian mother: “I have a very big Protestant family on my mother’s side, and a much smaller Jewish family on my dad’s side. When I was a little girl, my mom felt I didn’t have enough Jewish background, so she pushed me into Hebrew school and I ended up having a bat mitzvah at 12. I took it very seriously and studied the bible. I had an advantage because I was a singer and have a good ear. I didn’t really learn how to read Hebrew. I do feel Jewish because of that, but I’m not a religious person. I spent a month in Israel when I was 9. It was amazing and strange. It was a long time ago.”
Auster says she would love to appear anywhere where there’s an audience that wants to hear her songs – including, politics aside, Israel.
“My dad is a close friend of David Grossman, and I have my own feelings about what’s going on over there,” she says. “I’m very aligned with Grossman, and I know he has always been a champion for peace. I feel similar things, but don’t feel comfortable discussing politics.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, her family ties opening so many doors, Auster is well aware of the dark side of success. She says she’s had “really mean things written” about her, “although it’s less about my music and more about me. The thing is that everyone’s a critic now, everyone has ways to voice their opinions on the Internet, and sometimes it’s very nasty and sometimes it’s unavoidable to look at, even if you try,” she notes. “It will smack you in the face. It feels a little bit like the mean girls in high school picking on you,” although she adds that most of the reactions she receives are kind and supportive.
Auster doesn’t like to talk about her parents, although that debut album was based on her father’s translations of French surrealist poetry. “I had no idea what I was doing at 16,” she recounts. “I’d been reading surrealist poetry and was very immersed in French culture. When my dad offered his poems, I loved the idea and was just doing something for fun. Putting myself out there was just something I had an opportunity to do, and I got lucky that way. There is something magical about being a teenager, but you don’t have a sense of responsibility. We tend to lose this feeling when we grow up – but if you get too careful, it will prevent you from expressing yourself.”
Watching Auster perform live, it’s obvious she loves being on stage. She flirts with the crowd and does a great job entertaining them with her androgynous look, and different outfits and personas. She can appear in a wide, masculine suit with her hair bunched back, or wear a revealing undershirt and glittery lipstick.
Your mother sometimes writes from a male perspective. Are her books a source of inspiration to you?
“My mom loves that I wear suits and really appreciates the gender-bender playful side of me. She’s a strong feminist presence in my life, and I grew up identifying with that. It’s nice to have your own stylistic signature, and for me it was a way to have a bit of toughness on stage. It’s a way to show different sides of yourself.”
Auster takes some time to respond to a question about whether it’s harder for women to break into the music industry. “It’s interesting,” she says. “I think women are up against discrimination in many fields, including music, as was recently the case with Kesha [who sued her producer]. Women have to deal with things that will never happen to men. But I don’t think the music industry is inherently sexist. A female singer-songwriter can be as successful as anyone else. The creative world is more open to different backgrounds and ways of expression.”
Your mother once said that if she could be reincarnated, she would gladly be born as a “brilliant man.” What would you want to be reincarnated as?
“I can’t steal my mom’s answer ... so I would say I would like to be reincarnated as a child, and then grow up again. The idea of doing it all over again with the knowledge I have now is really exciting.”