Annika Socolofsky Channels Queer Feminine Rage into Healing on “Don’t Say a Word”

Annika Socolofsky’s new album Don’t Say A Word (out June 23 via New Amsterdam) represents a journey of personal growth and rediscovery. The eight tracks that make up this beautifully haunting record are the result of a yearslong dive into the history and cultural context of lullabies, and a desire to redefine and reclaim how femininity fits into that music. After years of feeling marginalized as a queer person and a vocalist whose technique doesn’t fit into easily definable categories, Annika channeled her frustration and discomfort into a collection of contemporary lullabies that feature reimagined lyrics and original music.

Annika describes herself as an avant-folk vocalist, exploring the ranges and timbres of her voice that don’t project as well in traditional classical settings. “People would try to label me with a voice type like soprano or mezzo soprano, which never felt right,” she told me in our Zoom interview. “I was diagnosed as a soprano once, and I spent the rest of my life raging back against that.”

Parts of Annika’s resume read as a contemporary classical “who’s who” of schools, commissions, and awards; she holds a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton, her music has been performed by Sō Percussion and Bang On A Can, and she has won awards from ASCAP and BMI. But this doesn’t fully get at the heart of the musical language that Annika has developed for herself. Her dissertation examined the vocal techniques of Dolly Parton, and she dedicated years to studying Scottish and Irish folk music. Along the way, she fell in love with the work of the multifaceted singer, songwriter, and composer Savina Yannatou, whose lullaby arrangements Annika cites as an important signpost for her own work. “People would call me an untrained vocalist — no, I’m very trained. Just not in anything that [most people] are trained in.”

Annika Socolofsky -- Photo by Xuan

Annika Socolofsky — Photo by Xuan

Annika’s research also led her to the work of ethnomusicologist Andrew Pettit. She says one of the main things she took away from his research was the idea that “lullabies are the only safe performance space that we have as humans, because in that space, the melody is calming and serving a purpose to a child.” This concept provided the initial inspiration for Don’t Say A Word, which gave her a chance to reclaim feminine rage by redefining lullabies in a modern context. By challenging and deconstructing the messages in songs like “All the Pretty Little Horses,” “Hush, Little Baby,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” she not only found love again, but also learned to embrace her own authenticity. The album became an outlet for her anger, allowing her to navigate the complexities of her own identity and experiences.

Annika points to classic lullabies like “Rock-a-Bye Baby” as an example of the expression of darkness that she wanted to co-opt into a modern context. “Why are we singing about throwing babies out of trees?” she asks. In the echo of that question, Annika explained how the album “takes a hard left” from these old texts in order to confront the heteronormative and compulsory gender roles that are reinforced by traditional lullabies. One such example is her adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor,” a lullaby and fortune telling song that asks “What will my husband be?” (“Tinker, Tailor, / Soldier, Sailor, / Rich Man, Poor Man, / Beggar, Thief”). Annika’s version updates the lyrics to: “What if my husband is a wife? / Who am I to say? Who? / Tinker, tailor, soldier, failure. / Why?”

Don’t Say a Word is indeed made up of lullabies, but “not in the sense that they’re mostly slow, pretty, calming pieces,” Annika explains. “I think there’s one track in the whole album that maybe could lull someone to sleep, and that’s ‘Like A Diamond.’ But I would not encourage people to use this album as a calming tool for young ones.” Instead, the album focuses on the intimate spaces in which singers (often, in this case, mothers) are given the freedom to express darkness and sadness. “You can say whatever you need to say in that space… No one there is judging you or criticizing you.”

Though Annika is accompanied on each track by Latitude 49, a chamber ensemble of strings, woodwinds, percussion, and piano, she has crafted an album that is purely about the voice. Every lullaby is an exploration of its respective text, but it also serves as an exploration of vocal technique and timbre. Each musical idea in the voice is about carefully manipulated control over individual sounds; the specific warbles, scratches, crescendos, and vibrations in Annika’s performance have all been meticulously thought out. Latitude 49 primarily plays a supporting role, letting her take center stage most of the time. But the ensemble also acts as its own voice in dialogue with Annika’s — never overpowering, yet almost always present in sustained harmonies and motifs that directly complement the vocal part.

“Shy one, sweet one,” is the album’s concluding track and the only selection that features an original text by Annika that wasn’t adapted from an existing lullaby:

Shy one, sweet one, love your temper
Shy one, sweet one, love your tongue
Love what scares them
Then you’ve won

Annika sings an ode to assuring yourself of your unique identity, possibly in the face of adversity. “The idea is that these are lullabies for my adult self,” she says. “These are messages that I wish I could have heard when I was younger and I didn’t [hear] out in society. It’s not too late, I guess, to have that healing now.”


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