Los Angeles is too sunny for Sofia Mills.
Sure, there are benefits: LA offers more career opportunities for a budding singer and songwriter like Mills than she found in Rockport, the North Shore town where she grew up. Yet for a lyricist who is drawn toward self-scrutiny and catharsis on “Baby Magic,” her first full-length album, out Friday, all that nice weather can be a drag.
“How am I supposed to write a sad song, an introspective song, when it’s beautiful out? The outside doesn’t ever match how I’m feeling inside,” says Mills, 20, who moved to California in March 2021, after a semester at Belmont University in Nashville. “In Massachusetts, it’s the perfect environment for writing sad songs and for reflecting on those negative feelings.”
Rockport is where she wrote and recorded “Baby Magic,” a nine-track collection of smart, quietly catchy pop songs by turns wistful, arch, and lacerating, with musical arrangements built around acoustic guitars and piano. Plumbing the twists and turns of her romantic relationships, her sexuality, and a struggle with mental health that resulted in hospitalization, Mills writes from the heart, and sometimes the spleen.
The original name of the “Baby Magic” song “drunk/tired” called out someone she dated by name, with an expletive, before Mills’s manager suggested she consider a more oblique title. “I don’t really filter any of it out,” Mills says. “Everything in my songs, even if it’s a metaphor, it’s something that I’ve experienced.”
Many of those experiences happened in middle school and high school, when Mills often felt out of place, like “the girl that people didn’t like.” A poet since the second grade, Mills was 14 or 15 when she realized that songs and poetry had a lot in common and began channeling her feelings into music. The second song she wrote was called “Coffee Breath.” After recording it herself, she posted the song on the streaming platform SoundCloud, and then on Spotify in 2018, where it has been streamed nearly 106 million times.
The song essentially launched her career, and gave Mills a taste of financial independence for the first time. That was a big deal for someone who says a panic disorder made it nearly impossible to do the usual jobs that teenagers work.
“I’ve always worried that I’m going to end up mooching off of my parents for the rest of my life because I can’t work a solid job,” Mills says. “I never realized that this would be an option. You know, I’ve been making steady income from ‘Coffee Breath’ for a while now. I still worry about it, but it’s very reassuring that this can be my life, and that this can be my job.”
Mills grew up surrounded by music: Her father is a musician who listened to jazz and R&B at home, and her mom has a fondness for “strong female artists” including Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac. Mills sang in a church choir and took piano lessons when she was little, then got a ukulele and a guitar.
As she grew into her own musical taste, Mills found Taylor Swift, who she cites as her biggest influence. As a young woman looking for a way to voice sometimes turbulent emotions, Swift’s penchant for expressing anger and sadness in her songs without apology resonated with Mills.
“I think that’s so tangible and amazing and inspiring,” Mills says.
After releasing the five-song EP “All My Pals” in the summer of 2020, she began work on “Baby Magic” with the LA producer and musician John Mark Nelson. Mills says she’s not adept at using technology, so Nelson guided her by video chat through recording basic tracks on a computer in a shed in her backyard in Rockport, and then fleshed out the songs at his studio in California, with contributions including strings from the in-demand arranger Rob Moose.
“I was really captivated by the sophistication in the songwriting,” Nelson says. “As much as I love the recordings and the way everything turned out, it’s Sofia’s songs that just shine.”
As pandemic restrictions eased, Mills has been fighting through her tendency to panic by performing live. Each time onstage is a little easier, she says, though it’s still a scary experience.
“I write about, like, hating my body and being in a psych ward and being vulnerable and being an idiot when it comes to boys,” she says. “And even though I’m trying to own that and wear it on my sleeve, it’s still embarrassing to sing it to a group of complete strangers.”
Her more immediate concern is adapting to the LA sunshine enough to be able to write songs there, which has been tricky so far.
“You need a certain level of comfort to enter that vulnerability that comes with writing songs, and I just don’t feel that familiarity yet in LA,” she says. “Whenever I’m talking to my parents back home and they say, ‘Oh, it’s raining here,’ I’m like, ‘Can you send me videos?’ ”
Follow Eric R. Danton on Twitter @erdanton.