Introducing: Sophie Strauss’s “I Was”

A new music video, plus a conversation with Strauss and her director Suzanne Jennett.

The music video for “I Was” came about when my friend and director Suzanne Jennett saw a photo I’d posted on Instagram of me and my lifelong best friend Kyra wearing matching dresses, holding hands like the Shining twins. Suzanne messaged me in a frenzy, so suddenly inspired by this photo to make a music video for “I Was.” She’d heard me perform the song at several shows and knew exactly the video she wanted to make: girlhood intimacy, a little bit Gay Jane Austen, all shot on camcorder at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Within a week we’d shot the video. We hardly had time to talk about what any of it was going to be about, but we didn’t need to. Suzanne and I had an unspoken, mutual understanding of the liminal spaces of girlhood queerness and I trusted her, more than anyone, to get that across in the video.

But now that the video is done, Suzanne and I decided to get together and talk about what it meant for each of us—what we wanted from it, and what we hope others are able to get from it. One thing became quickly clear: neither of us wanted to impose a narrative on anything. It seemed there are only two kinds of narratives we see about gay shit: One that totally erases the suffering of being gay and overplays the lighter stereotypes, and one that totally fetishizes the suffering of being gay. Neither of those simplified extremes reflected our experiences, so we created a new space for gray experiences like our own, and hopefully created some space for other gay girls’ gray experiences as well.

Here’s our conversation.

—Sophie Strauss

Suzanne Jennett: In writing this song, how did the concept of an “untouched narrative” manifest?

Sophie Strauss: Well, I wrote this song out of a place of being completely in love with a girl, but not about being completely in love with a girl. I was thrown into this memory spiral about girlhood that had been totally re-highlighted by the emotional state I was in. Different moments were suddenly standing out more than they had before. But I didn’t feel any need to tell a “story” about my childhood; instead all these images from totally disparate moments hung loosely together and I didn’t try to connect them artificially. The act of putting all these images next to each other in this song did the work of narrativizing it all for me, with a gentler touch than what I could’ve ever done myself.

Suzanne: For me the whole “untouched narrative” thing has as really specific flavor. Like a slow wind blowing across a meadow. Or a sailor’s wife waiting for her husband to come back from sea. What feelings and imagery do you associate with it?

Sophie: I think of letters or poems left in a box somewhere, found years later by someone with no idea who the writer was; no way to make real sense of it except for what’s right in front of them. I like the relief of saying, “It’s impossible to tie this all up in a neat narrative arc, so don’t even try.” Removing the pressure of a satisfying narrative means there’s so much more room for the truth or something like it.

Suzanne: What are the benefits of applying that kind of poetic practice to something so personal and so political? What are the pitfalls?

Sophie: It’s nice to be able to tease meaning out of nothing. It’s nice as a person trying to understand shit to be able to step back and look at an experience and reimagine it a little bit or use it as a filter for an emotion. I think taking concrete moments and using them for the emotions they conjure up is the most effective way to communicate feelings between people. It’s much more relatable than attempting to describe lofty concepts like Love and Loss in general terms. The biggest pitfall is that it’s too easy to declare something as “Meaningful” simply because you’ve poeticized it. There’s so much social pressure to make art that’s packagably meaningful and “Empowering,” but then it ends up having no meaning at all.  

Suzanne:  I feel like growing up with untouched narratives does a special kind of a disservice to people on the margins of the queer community.  How does your own experience with untouched narratives intersect with bi erasure and femme invisibility?

Sophie: (Full disclosure: I don’t identify as “bisexual” only in that it’s a term predicated on a gender binary I don’t believe in, so that’s why I typically identify as “queer” but for the purposes of this discussion I’m gonna go with it!)

It took me a long time to really acknowledge my own sexuality, especially given how many overtly sexual experiences I had with other women since I was a teenager. I felt like a liar, like I wasn’t really gay enough to say I was gay. And I want to be really clear, that was internalized. No gay women made me feel excluded because I’m “bi.” But I still felt it. Acknowledging I was gay thrust me into this amazing community with a whole new lexicon, but it also meant I always felt like an imposter. I hadn’t ever seen anyone on tv or anything who felt like I did represented in a way that wasn’t just a punchline (I’m looking at you: Ileine Chaiken). Men often told me it was probably a phase, that I’d grow out of it. And even though, intellectually, I understood how valid my sexuality was, it was and still is really hard to feel like it counted as anything.  Also, I’d never say I’m someone “on the margins” of the queer community, as I’m cis and I’m straight-passing and white and have a lot of things protecting me from the kind of oppression that people on the actual margins experience. But I do think there’s a tremendous amount of self-doubt I carry with me and sometimes find myself over-compensating for that. Had I seen more people like me growing up, I wouldn’t have to carry it all.

Okay now my turn to ask the questions! In making this video, how did the concept of an “untouched narrative” manifest?

Suzanne: I did not grow up with homosexuality = normal. So when I look back on my past I retroactively have to recolor what I do and do not view as “homosexual behavior.”  Like, during puberty…who was a crush? Who was I a little too close to? What might I have registered as attraction if it was safe to? There’s this liminal space you end up in. Where you look back and think, What was that? Guess I’ll never know. And you get a little struck by all the years you’ve left certain thoughts untouched or uncolored.

The video is all about painting that feeling. Questions you didn’t ask, that don’t have answers.

Sophie: What’s the benefit of leaving queer stories unexamined? What’s the detriment?

Suzanne: There’s this pretty melancholy in most WLW (women loving women) stories that I am both sick of and totally obsessed with. Sick because I’d like to feel a little less doomed. Maybe if there were no more sad gay stories we could just up and move on. Stop making young people feel like their life is going to be a tragedy. Obsessed because it is a real feeling. And I want to be able to unpack it. I want to be able to unpack it. I want Sophie to unpack it. I want literally anyone who is not a cis man to unpack it. Before we can drop the thought.

On a more personal level. Retroactively examining my intimacy with other women is an imperfect and sometimes problematic process. American culture has an intimacy problem. Girlhood is one of the few places in the American caste system that makes space for deep, non-sexual intimacy.

In re-examining my past I want to be able to notice what I might have colored as romantic in the moment if I had known homosexuality was a safe option. But at the same time I don’t want to erase intimate, non-romantic friendship.

Sophie: I feel like so many LGBTQ+ folks have had to retroactively create a narrative arc for ourselves and our sexualities because there was so much pressure to repress those narrative-building moments while we were actually living them as kids. What’s lost in attempting to build a story for yourself after-the-fact?

Suzanne: You live with a certain narrative for so long that introducing a new one feels like a lie.

It’s also hard to backtrack. When you tell stories about yourself as a kid/teen—when you retell the past—there’s room for hyperbole and editing while you zero-in on what happened and what it means. You aren’t allowed that same process as an adult. It’s also easier to tell those stories if they fit into the well-worn grooves of what’s already in the zeitgeist.

So for me what gets lost is the process any truth deserves in order to be articulate. And the sense of having a solid identity that comes with that. I am left feeling clumsy and lacking in my truth. And unable to concisely tell people about what my deal is.

Sophie Strauss is a musician from Los Angeles. At 24 years old, Sophie’s music is both warm and biting. She juxtaposes lush synths against sharp, organic percussion and her intimate vocals that bring you into her tense, glistening world. She is aggressively opinionated, girly, queer, shameless, and self-deprecating and her songwriting is as comfortable with discomfort as she is.