You're listening to Zofia Allyne, frontwoman of Epicene and their cover of LCD Soundsystem's Dance Yrself Clean. She launched Neon Gold Records out of her dorm room at New York University with the assistance of her twin brother, Dominic. They carved out a niche for themselves by specializing in limited run, 7 inch vinyl singles, and helped launch the early careers of some of the biggest indie pop acts of our generation, Passion Pit, Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, Haim, Tove Lo, and others. Zofia juggles two roles -- she's a business woman and an artist. She is wildly versatile, wildly kind, and navigates both worlds on her terms. Learn how she does it here.
LILY KWONG: I think everyone loves the LA fantasy for a couple of weeks -- and then if you stay that third week, you're like, I can't live here.
ZOFIA ALLYNE: Yeah, I -- yeah. I lived there for exactly a month last year, and that was it. Like, there were other factors that played into me leaving Los Angeles, but like -- like, LA itself was not a non-issue. I mean I like LA as a city, as a place to visit or perform, but like living there .... it's not really my personality? I'm too cynical for how chill people are there. And like, I don't really like being asked about my star sign more than my professional accomplishments? Like, I'm a total fucking Scorpio, I get it.
KWONG: You grew up in London, right?
ALLYNE: This accent is from London, yes.
KWONG: Londoners are even more cynical than New Yorkers, right?
ALLYNE: I mean, I'd say that most of the world ... doesn't really have the optimism of the United States, but yeah, absolutely. There's a really cynical darkness to me.
KWONG: She says grinning from ear to ear.
ALLYNE: I've grown out of it a little bit.
KWONG: Spoken like a true Scorpio.
ALLYNE: AHHHHH. [Laughs] And that takes us back to LA. I guess? Yeah? It's becoming the hub of music, so much more than New York, lately. Like, really, drastically. In the past two years, at least.
KWONG: Before we get into that, why don't you give us an introduction?
ALLYNE: I'm Zofia Allyne, that's, uh, that's a Slavic spelling of Sophia, I'm 27 years old, I'm in a band called Epicene and I run Neon Gold Records, born and raised in London but I've been in New York almost ten years now and waiting to be fully granted my New Yorker status.
KWONG: And a total fucking Scorpio, in your own words.
ALLYNE: In a lot of people's words.
KWONG: It does explain a lot. [Clears throat] So what's happening in LA? Why do you think the music scene is gravitating to the west coast?
ALLYNE: I ... I think New York will always have a music scene, it'll always be a hub. But I really don't know. Maybe everyone's been too sick of the winters and roughin' it, so they decided to move for the sunshine?
KWONG: The weak ones moved out there.
ALLYNE: You said it, not me. It's just become a big hub for producers and writers, though, so people must be following that talent. But like I said, New York will never not have a scene, and I especially feel like -- Neon Gold is so entrenched in New York and there's such a great community around them. It's not for me, though, staying west. I hate to drive.
KWONG: So you're in this amazing band called Epicene, which is a duo and your other half, Max, he's in LA.
KWONG: Since when?
ALLYNE: I think it's been about a year ...... a year and a half? He waited until we finished up our second album, but he was miserable in New York, I think. He's also a producer and a writer and works with other musicians, and he was having a really hard time connecting with other artists here, you know, with the migration we talked about, and even when he did -- he was sort of getting sucked into the Zofia Allyne Neon Gold orbit, and I think it was important to him to do other things and work with other people. It's actually nice for me and him to have that distance, cause we spend so much time together on the road and we really are like siblings now, and we still have our own spaces.
KWONG: Is it difficult though? Cause ... I don't know anything about making music, but I'd think it would be an intimate process, and not being in the same physical space, are there drawbacks?
ALLYNE: We haven't really experienced the challenges yet -- we haven't really written anything yet, while we've been in different spaces. It's still untested. I don't know how the third record is going to go, but I tentatively assume we'll both have some commuting to do? We have a little bit left in the How Does It Feel era, though. We're about to go on tour in Australia for two and a half weeks.
KWONG: Australia to Kansas City, yeah? That's amazing, what is that like -- to go on the other side of the planet and just the, like, the frenetic pace of touring and the different character of cities.
ALLYNE: It's been an adjustment, for sure, but it's been like ... unbelievable. It took me a while to enjoy touring, the first year or so where we were starting out, I honestly found it so hard to deal with. I always hesitate to talk about it because I don't want to sound ungrateful but in the interest of full disclosure, the first year we toured, I hated it. I missed my friends and my life back in New York, and it was such an antisocial experience, in a way - you miss all kinds of things, it's you and the same five boys every night in a cramped van, you drive all day to the venue, you sound check, play the show, drive to the hotel, sleep two hours, get up, drive, repeat.
KWONG: You wrote a song from that experience, right?
ALLYNE: Yeah, that's what Painted is about. But I grew to really appreciate it, now I love tour. I love getting a chance to hit up other cities, I love getting to see our shows grow and connecting with our fans, I think performing live is like the ultimate rush.
KWONG: What are some things you've put into place to make it feel more homey?
ALLYNE: I just think you have to surround yourself with the right people, because it's never going to be fully homey. I mentioned like, like Max and I are like siblings, yeah, but I feel that same way about my other stupid boys and our tour managers. I think you become like a family on the road, but there's like two types of family -- and we're the kinda family that gets along and supports each other.
KWONG: And the fans make it worth it.
ALLYNE: Absolutely. Like, when I say I hated touring, I ... absolutely want you to know, I hated the grind of touring. I've always been grateful to our fans. Even in the beginning, people would come up to me and be like, this song speaks so much to my experiences and I'd be like [fake crying] I understand you, let's hug it out. [normal voice] It's been really exciting to experience Epicene through that lens, in person - like the label can tell you how many units sold or you can see how many plays on a youtube video, but those are just numbers you have no concept of. But at shows someone will be like, this is my 9th Epicene show or like, come up to you at a festival and be like, I've never heard of you, I just wandered by and stopped and thought your show was great, and it's a real person.
KWONG: So first, you founded the label Neon Gold, in ... college?
ALLYNE: Yeah, so the label was before the band.
KWONG: Neon Gold has launched the careers of some of the biggest indie acts of our generation.
ALLYNE: That's really nice of you to say.
KWONG: Like you guys had a hand in the success of Ellie Goulding, Haim, Gotye, Charli XCX, so many --
ALLYNE: We helped them, I never like to take credit for anyone because they're all very talented, but we helped? We were a platform.
KWONG: Fair. How were you able to identify again and again such culturally relevant artists without this huge A&R department and all the data and analytics that go into the choices of bigger labels?
ALLYNE: Well, like I said, the talent was there. And I've talked about before how Dom and I, our youth was an asset, not a hinderance -- in getting these artists to trust us, because we were already aware of what was hip. But even now, with like joint ventures, first with Columbia and now with Atlantic, we'd never use data and analytics to decide to work with an artist. Especially because I think if we had relied on data and analytics with the first ... the early Neon Gold artists, the data probably would say they weren't profitable, because the pop landscape didn't really sound like that at the time. It does now, though.
KWONG: So what's your process?
ALLYNE: We like who we like, and we want to see them succeed.
KWONG: Where did you find them?
ALLYNE: Uhhhhh, Passion Pit, I think Dom found going to a show at Boston College. I think Passion Pit was opening for Girl Talk and Dom called me the next day ... from the drive back, from Boston to New York, like, ZOFIA, I SAW THIS BAND PASSION PIT, THEY HAVE THIS SONG SLEEPYHEAD, I DON'T THINK I'VE EVER HEARD A SONG THIS GOOD THAT WASN'T SIGNED. THIS IS OUR CHANCE.
KWONG: How old are you guys at this stage?
ALLYNE: Nineteen, twenty.
KWONG: So you guys were juniors in college at that point, right?
ALLYNE: Y.... es. Yes, we were, sorry, I forgot.
KWONG: How do you convince this unsigned band to take a chance on juniors in college, who at this point, haven't released anything?
ALLYNE: It was definitely a chance. Basically what we did was, like ... at this time I'd interned at Frenchkiss Records, and I'd become friends with Syd Butler who founded it, and we played Passion Pit for them and he loved it. And cause we brought it to him, in good faith, we were like -- we can't really sign this band properly, but it sounds like you want to -- in return, would you let us start our label and release the first 7'' with this song? And like from their perspective, they were like, yeah, what, a seven inch? Please? Who even cares? Because like, Neon Gold was inspired by the same model from Chess Club and Young and Lost, which wasn't really big here in the states. So they didn't .... they weren't threatened.
KWONG: But now vinyl sales are through the roof.
ALLYNE: And now, yeah! People love vinyl. Someone once called it a novelty to my face, though, and I was so offended.
KWONG: When you were starting out?
ALLYNE: No, like two years ago. I mean, when we were starting out, no one understood what we were doing, our own parents were like, and how are you going to make money off this? But now bands release vinyl pretty regularly, including 7 inches.
KWONG: Do you feel at least partially responsible for that?
ALLYNE: I don't think so, but I think we are a part of that shift. The same way I hope -- I think -- there's been a shift in the sonic landscape of like, what can be mainstream pop. We're part of the conversation but we didn't start that discussion, you know what I mean?
KWONG: Sure, you're definitely known as tastemakers in the industry, but there's a lot of contributors.
ALLYNE: Yeah, and it's exciting to me that you can hear almost all of our artists on the radio now, that's so cool. Though for Dom and me, it's never really been about the money, it's been about like, helping our friends succeed, basically.
KWONG: What would you say Neon Gold artists have in common, if anything? Because they're all technically pop, but they all sound so different.
ALLYNE: Um, I've always said, pop is a really diverse and abstract genre. I will fight to death for pop music. But like, I think our artists have a really strong sense of themselves, and are always willing to push the boundaries of like ... themselves and pop music. And I feel like Marina and Ellie, like, set these new canons of what it means to be a woman in pop music, in a way that wasn't especially represented yet. And our roster of women are continuing that distance from archetypes.
KWONG: How do you think Ellie and the others set the tone? Do you think they defined themselves as women in pop a certain way?
ALLYNE: I think they just didn't conform to the way that ladies of pop had been presented for a while. Like, Marina for example, has always had a very strong sense of self and a clear vision, and immediately went out of her way to connect with her fans in a way that like -- take Lady Gaga, Lady Gaga is someone who does this so well, like one of the best examples out there, but at the time, there wasn't this sort of engagement of fans, or acknowledge them as like an army and give them a voice and be a reflection of their voice.
KWONG: What about you? How do you fit?
ALLYNE: It's not uncommon for artists to eventually start their own label, but I think it's rare for that to be reversed, like you start as a label person and then go into music, and I certainly can't think of other women who have taken that path. So for me, I think it was really important to establish myself to, break down the expectations people have about women in the industry. Because it's still such a boys game, on both sides of the sound booth so to speak. But being an artist coming from that path meant that no one was going to take advantage of us for being so green or try to control any aspect of our art. And Columbia got that, they knew they couldn't dictate things to us that we weren't comfortable with or didn't agree with.
KWONG: How are the challenges different for being a female business woman and a female artist?
ALLYNE: Ooh, good question. I mean, it's pretty similar in that regardless, you don't get any fucking respect. [Laughs] I'm sort of joking, but I'm not? But it's ... being a woman in the music industry, where I first started, which was ... eight? years ago, when we first started, well, even in my internships, I think the men interning with me often got a lot more chances to actually learn the industry, whereas I was like, a glorified coffee getter. But like when Dom and I were first looking into partnerships, I'd be the only woman in the room and I wouldn't be acknowledged, often at all, but sometimes if they did stop talking to my brother long enough, it'd be to treat me like a secretary. And I wanted to get mad and be like, no, this is my vision, this was my idea, but I was so afraid of seeming irrational and burning bridges at the time. Thankfully, Dom noticed what was going on and was like, fuck them, we're not working with them.
I'd say there's definitely more women working in A&R and in labels themselves; part of the reason I was so excited when we eventually partnered with Atlantic was because of Julie Greenwald. But to be a female artist, you're always being overly sexualized -- I mean, generally speaking. I think there has been that shift, and I think for me, having control of my image has sort of made it where I can toe that line of like --
KWONG: Of like, I'm hot but this isn't for you.
ALLYNE: Right. Because no one's trying to add sexiness to my image, and I pick my own clothes, and sometimes I go on stage wearing like, magnificent jumpsuits with slits all the way up the legs but also I wear full on Addidas tracksuits or like, once wore a pair of pajama pants and a shirt that says Balls.
KWONG: I mean, that does it for me.
ALLYNE: [Laughs] But I know that's like a rarity, too. I know we're like really privileged, and that we have this level of control because of my experience -- I like to talk to other women, like the ones starting out on our label, and trying to assure them that they can take control more than someone might let onto them, or want them to realize. Because it can be really overwhelming, I'm sure, and I'm not blind to how predatory this business can be.
KWONG: What other pieces of advice do you have for the artists on your label?
ALLYNE: I think ever since being in a band myself, I have a lot more of a realistic perspective for them, I can sit down and be like, listen to me, you're going to do like ten shows where the audience is not going to know who you are and they're going to be looking at their phone, and you're going to meet some shitty people, and tour will drag you down - but look, you're going to see returns here, here, and here, and it'll pay off. That's how it worked for us, anyway. And it's nice to have that sort of camaraderie, because I learned a lot from the artists I knew when Max and I were starting out, musically. Anyway, the relationship Dom and I have with our artists is very fraternal, I think, like most labels have professional boundaries but we're friends with every single artist we represent.
KWONG: Now, I noticed you talk about Epicene being with Columbia, but Neon Gold has been an imprint of Atlantic since 2014. Before that, they were with Columbia, too. Was it important for you to maintain some sort of distance?
ALLYNE: Definitely, yeah. We signed with Columbia right after we graduated university, Dom and I, I mean. Which was great and incidentally, like, Passion Pit had ended up there, so we took it as a coming full circle sort of sign. When Epicene started happening, the music sort of fell into their laps through A&R because we were anonymous, so they didn't know I was a part of it and had to tell them, eventually, and they were really cool about it and assured us we could definitely have a home there if we like. It just got complicated and messy to have both operating through Columbia, though. Like ..... through no fault of their own, but it was messy. It put me in a weird position where like, I knew about opportunities as a musician but knew those opportunities weren't coming to one of our Neon Gold artists. And not only were people speaking to me and relating to me differently, but they started struggling in communication with Dom, too, because they knew that would only come back to me. So it just made sense to find another way to operate in both worlds.
KWONG: What have you learned about relationships in general through your experiences in business?
ALLYNE: A lot about compromise, a lot about articulating what it is you want, and some about leaning on others when you need help, although probably not as much as I should know, because I'm very stubborn.
KWONG: How did you break the news to Dom that you were in a band? Cause he's sort of taken over Neon Gold, especially when you're on the road, right?
ALLYNE: Yeah, we have help and I still am part of it, but he's the captain of the ship now. I sort of waited, I waited too long and Andy, Andrew Hwang, who writes our blog posts, he ... blogged about one of our tunes, and I was like, oh no, that's going to look bad, and he was like, why? And I was like, well ... uh .... that's me. But Dom was really supportive, he -- like, he wants everyone to be happy, but I'm his sister, so me, especially. And he was willing to make it work.
KWONG: Logistically, what did that look like?
ALLYNE: Well, it meant sort of taking a backseat and trusting the company into Dom's hands, and also the very capable hands of our office managers -- hiring interns, breaking those interns, hiring new ones. But I'm still involved, I still listen to everything, I still help our artists with campaigns and shit like that.
KWONG: And handling the same with Epicene?
KWONG: Have you ever experienced a lack of control or pressure from the label regarding Epicene?
ALLYNE: Not really; they make suggestions sometimes, we disregard them, we don't get suggestions for a while. Everything you see or hear comes from us, and I'm not willing to be flexible on that.
KWONG: You and Max have talked before about how you style yourselves -- that's rare.
ALLYNE: Yeah, definitely, but we both really love fashion and our sense of fashion has definitely grown in the last five years. For photoshoots and such, of course we have people on deck, but we take a lot of pride in our sartorial choices.
KWONG: Epicene's biggest breakout song, Hurricane, has been viewed 6 million times on Youtube; the song perfectly encapsulates Epicene's flirtation with the dark and surreal. The song received Best New Track from Pitchfork and rose to #1 on Hype Machine.
KWONG: One of the ways Epicene has excelled, even pioneered, was your use of social media.
ALLYNE: Definitely. I think there are a lot of downsides to social media, and the way it's utilized and the damage it can inflict, but I also think there's something amazing about the global connection it offers us. From a purely business standpoint, I think a lot of artists are finding it to be a useful bargaining chip when they're starting out about asserting themselves - they don't need this big label to be heard anymore, they can put themselves out there on their own terms. So I tend to trend positive on social media.
KWONG: You have this super angelic voice -
ALLYNE: Thank you! I think I sound pretty mannish.
KWONG: No, not at all. Your voice is so sweet and angelic and you have this bubbly personality and you love the color pink, but visually and musically, Epicene is so dark and intense. How do you reconcile those different versions of you?
ALLYNE: I think everyone has that spectrum within themselves and I think, for me anyway, embracing both sides makes the other side possible. But also for me, I struggle a lot with expressing my emotions but through music, especially when we were writing and recording Secondhand Rapture, it sort of allowed me to be the most dramatic, fucked up version of myself without being self-conscious. So it's there, it's always there, but you temper it to exist in the real world.
KWONG: Do you think it makes people who have heard your music respond to you differently?
ALLYNE: It ... I've never seen some people more uncomfortable.
KWONG: Why do you think that is?
ALLYNE: I don't know! I don't know, maybe it's cause like ... they get this version of emotional intimacy that they wouldn't normally have, with me. They get a flesh and blood so-called troubled woman, and they don't know what to do with that, even though I'm obviously not spilling all of my shittier feelings at them.
KWONG: Is there anything that's too personal to write about or too afraid to put out there?
ALLYNE: No. .... Well. I'm afraid to put all of it out there, but I think it makes better art. For example, my friend Alex Winston released her first album a few years back and she was afraid of the emotional intimacy of writing about her own stuff, so she wrote about other people's stories, and it's a great album, but the album she's been working on ... she's confronted those fears and the stuff she's written and recorded so far has been mindblowing. So good. And one of the nice things about putting yourself on the line is when you do put it out there and people tell you what the song means to them and you don't feel alone in your experiences.
KWONG: How do your fans share their experiences with you and how does it feel?
ALLYNE: I am really not used to it, but I mean that in a good way. It's been a really awesome experience to see that effect on people. Sometimes you meet people with your lyrics tattooed on your body and you're like oh god, that's permanent.
KWONG: You have several tattoos, any of them lyrics?
KWONG: If you had to get a lyric tattooed on your body, what would it be?
ALLYNE: I don't know! There's so many songs that mean a lot to me, but I can never decide -- hence why I have no lyrical tattoos.
KWONG: Will your future material be in the same vein as your two albums, Secondhand Rapture and How Does It Feel?
ALLYNE: We haven't really started talking about album number three yet; we are a pop band, though, definitely. I think the first with more lo-fi and DIY, given our own limitations and we went balls to the wall pop on How Does It Feel. Between those, we wrote half a R&B album that we ended up scrapping. So for us, we really want to experiment with our sound, otherwise what's the point in making another album? We love pop, and we love big, atmospheric, cinematic sound, but there's so many directions that can go in. But I think we're going to take a breather, too. There's no need to rush the next album ... we've spent nearly six years touring, and we've only made music with each other, we're looking to experiment and try new shit. Max already has produced music for other people and that's something he enjoys, I think. So we'll see.
KWONG: What are some of the huge shifts and changes you've seen in the industry, and where do you predict it's going to go?
ALLYNE: Like, I really think the boundaries of what is considering mainstream or marketable has really shifted, that's a big shift. You see a lot of artists really controlling their own narrative now, from like Ione James or like Beyonce managing herself or like, literally everything Janelle Monae has ever done, or us, and that's cool -- I think social media is making labels, most of them, fairly obsolete, or more like banks now, even for up-and-comers. So I think eventually, labels are going to have to find new things to offer, the way we have, or they're going to become even more obsolete.
KWONG: All the questions I have are done, do you want to do a lightning round?
ALLYNE: Let's do it.
KWONG: Okay, just answer with whatever is off the top of your head first -- what was the first CD or tape you bought for yourself?
ALLYNE: Cardigans, First Band On The Moon.
KWONG: What was the name of a mix you made for someone when you were a kid?
ALLYNE: If You Wanna Party, after the All Saints track, which incidentally didn't even feature on the mix.
KWONG: What is the most creative time of day for you?
ALLYNE: Dead ass middle of the night.
KWONG: Most embarrassing moment on stage?
ALLYNE: Oh god, there's ... four? All of them happened at festivals. So like, real quick - the time I flashed my boobs at the crowd at Reading to get them to flash me, well our drummer because it was his birthday, and no one did it, the time we were on death's door levels of hungover at Glastonbury and it turns out Prince Harry was at our set, the first week of Coachella we played and it streamed and I had lipstick on my teeth for part of it, and most recently, when we played Osheaga when I did a hair flip and accidentally threw the mic right into the audience. I'm a walking boob.
KWONG: What do you do before every show?
ALLYNE: Dedicate the performance to Beyonce.
KWONG: What's a professional goal you hope to achieve?
ALLYNE: Sold out show at Madison Square Garden.
KWONG: What's your approach to love, based on Epicene lyrics?
ALLYNE: Hmm .... oh, my body will follow if you hold my mind.
KWONG: How would you describe yourself, using Epicene lyrics?
ALLYNE: Sharp as glass and twice as bright. HEYY.
KWONG: HEYYY. You're a freakin' rock star. Thanks for talking to us, Zo, I wish we could talk more - we're going to end this episode with Painted, from Epicene's second album, How Does It Feel.