Photo courtesy of Sofía Valdés.
Sofía Valdés realized she wanted to be happy with herself around the time she was signed to a major music label. Emotionally speaking, April 2020 was a shaky time for the 20-year-old singer-songwriter—she was one month into the pandemic and feeling the effects of being forced to leave the musical boarding school she’d attended for the past two years to return to her hometown in Panama City. (The lockdown rules were fairly strict in Panama at the time—the government mandated men and women could, separately, only leave the house for emergencies on certain days of the week.) But four months prior, the link to her SoundCloud, where she uploaded songs she’d written for years, made it to executives at Warner Records; they were charmed by her soft voice, a striking songwriting ability, and an alt-pop sound at the intersection of Kali Uchis and Mac DeMarco. After meeting them in person in early January, Valdés received a DocuSign in her email. It wasn’t exactly the way she imagined getting signed, but it worked nonetheless.
“I was like, ‘That’s it?,’” Valdés laughs on a Zoom call from her bedroom in Panama. “I was happy, but I know under normal circumstances I would at least have a gathering of my friends at my house, making cookies as a celebration.”
Valdés still has plenty to celebrate. As of today, the musician has released her debut EP, Ventura—a patchwork of songs written over the past six years, from her days at the UK conservatory, on FaceTime with producers “for five hours” during lockdown, doing in-studio sessions, and even with her friends during lunchtime at school. Listening to Ventura is like hearing Valdés grow into herself in real time: she has a precocious breadth—she’ll write songs about typical teenage heartache (boys who aren’t texting her back, feeling rejected by the popular kids) with an incredible tenderness so universal that even I, a 30-year-old person, was moved by the lyrics on tracks like “Amsterdam.” (Valdés says she wrote “Amsterdam” with a friend at 17 years old, after the friend relayed to her a story about a guy she’d been dating long-distance, who suddenly dumped her after he met another girl who invited him on a trip to Amsterdam via private jet. It is one of her favorite songs on the record.)
“I see myself as more than a singer,” Valdés says. “I’m more of a songwriter, I just happen to sing my own songs.” For a long time, she adds, she wanted to write songs for others—and she admires writers like Victoria Monét for the very same abilities she possesses. “As a writer, I feel like she can do whatever she wants,” she says of the frequent Ariana Grande collaborator. “She literally has a song about how she works out and how her ass is pretty. And it’s a really well-written song.”
Musical tendencies run in Valdés’s family: her great-grandfather was the renowned Cuban singer Miguelito Valdés, while on her Panamanian side, her great-grandmother was “la reina de la tamborera” Silvia de Grasse. De Grasse was also married to the Dominican singer José Ernesto Chapuseaux, with whom she played in a band.
“I always heard almost mystical stories about them growing up,” Valdés says. “But because both my mom and dad had seen that a career in music could work and was a real thing, they never told me I couldn’t do it. They’d already seen it happen for other members of my family.”
Valdés is already at work on her next project, which she says contains more mature subject matter—for instance, one track touches on helping a friend who struggled with thoughts of suicide. This sense of growth is pretty typical for a person in their early twenties, but in Valdés’s case, it does stem from the moment she realized she needed to quit looking for self-worth in others. As she tells it, she spent her teenage years clinging to various boyfriends and friends for validation, isolated without many friends, and with little attention paid to her, socially speaking.
“The moment I suddenly had someone who I could talk to, who I could share with, I went insane. I got super attached to it and I got scared of it going away. I thought, ‘Why can I not be by myself?,’” she recalls. As she began to work on her self-described “clingy” attachment style, the DocuSign arrived in her inbox. It just so happened that the timing aligned, and alongside being signed to a record label, Valdés began to explore her own feelings.
Her plans for the future involve getting to know herself even more, which in turn will inform the music she makes. “It’s definitely been a process to really be comfortable with myself,” she adds. “But I’m proud of it, because it took a lot of work and understanding.”
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