Pure Michigan: Sophia Orensteen Pays Homage to U-M and Offers Coming-of-Age Tales on “AmericanGirl” Album


Sophia Orensteen wears a black strapless dress and sings into a microphone.

Sophia Orensteen examines past relationships on AmericanGirl. Photo courtesy of Sophia Orensteen.

Sophia Orensteen’s heart belongs in Ann Arbor.

While the pop-rock singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist hails from New York City, she’s ecstatic about attending the University of Michigan this fall as a freshman to study music.

So much in fact that Orensteen has written a song called “Michigan,” which pays homage to the school and serves as the aspirational opener from her debut album, AmericanGirl.

“This song turned into a way that I could express my love for Michigan even though I had never been there [before] or had never seen it,” she said. 

“I got in contact with the University of Michigan about using my song for their social media. I also sent in the song with my application, and I didn’t even tell my parents I was applying. And then I got in, and they said, ‘What?’”

Despite that surprise, Orensteen learned of her acceptance to U-M in February and has started planning for the fall. 

She shares that sentiment in “Michigan” alongside hopeful acoustic guitar and electric guitar while singing: “I’ve never been to Michigan, but I’ve heard it’s nice / You’re going away, going to college, gonna start a new life / You’ll remember me / When you see my name in lights / And you’ll say, ‘Wow, she was right.’”

“I’ve always loved the University of Michigan, and I wrote this in one of my supplemental essays when I applied there,” said Orensteen, who will graduate from New York City’s Professional Children’s School in June.

“I never told my parents or anybody that I loved the University of Michigan, but I’ve always followed the school and their football team. I never thought I’d go there or get into the school.”

Orensteen’s “Michigan” is one of 13 coming-of-age tracks featured on AmericanGirl, which includes introspective lyrics about life and love and spirited pop-rock and pop-punk instrumentation.

I recently spoke with Orensteen about her background and influences, her latest album and songs, her creative process for the album, her producers and collaborators, and her plans for the summer.

Q: How are things? What are you most excited about right now?
A: It’s been unreal, and it’s been the best year of my life. I’m a senior in high school right now, and I’m about to graduate. I had my first album come out at the beginning of 2024. It’s been a long time coming, and it's been six years in the making. I turned 18 in January … and then I got into my No. 1 school three weeks after that. I feel very lucky right now, and it’s all happening so fast, but I still have more work to do. It’s very rewarding to have people starting to recognize my music and the College Board recognizing how hard I work, too.

Q: How did your musical journey start while growing up in New York City? At what age did you start singing and playing piano and guitar?
A: I come from a musical family. My mom is an ex-recording artist, and my dad is an ex-recording artist executive. They’re both very talented in their own ways. From the time I was little, music was the main focus. Music was always playing, and the first memory of a song that I have is “Tell All the People” by The Doors. There’s also a video of me at three years old at karaoke singing “Here Comes the Sun.” My parents made sure to ingrain musical geniuses into my mind. My parents credit my cousin with turning me on to Hannah Montanaand that became an obsession.

I begged my parents to let me play piano when I was four. My dad took me to work for the day, and we came back and they were installing a bright Steinway piano in my living room. We did a six-month trial with the piano, and I became obsessed with it and started doing classical piano. I ended up doing classical piano for over 10 years. A year later, I was at Toys “R” Us with my mom, and I saw a toy guitar and I asked if I could get it and she said “Yes.” I started taking guitar lessons with our next-door neighbor’s son and then it flourished from there.  

Q: What artists inspired you while you were honing your musical skills?
A: Taylor Swift because she’s a prolific songwriter and just a perfect representation of what I wanted to be. Also, Lana Del Ray because I think her songwriting is unreal. I’m a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, and I was obsessed with Queen, Elton John, and Jeff Lynne of ELO. I got to see ELO in concert when I was in seventh grade with my parents at Madison Square Garden. I’m a huge theater kid, too, and my mom turned me on to Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler.

Q: How and when did you come to meet co-producer Robert Taube? How has he played a pivotal role in your music career?
A: My guitar instructor moved to LA, and I needed a new guitar teacher and he gave me Robert. He was the first person who listened to my little child songs and saw something in them and said, “This girl is hopefully gonna be a star.” I was eight years old working with him and writing these little kiddie songs and he respected me. He liked them and he wanted to keep working with me and kept nourishing my songwriting. When I was in fourth grade, I went to math camp, and they had a math song competition and I wrote a song called “Archimedean Tilings.” I had to make a recording of it, so I went to Robert’s studio and he helped me record it. 

A year later in fifth grade, my all-girls school had a feminist stance competition at The Met, and I wrote a song called “Feminist Stance.” Robert helped me record that as well and it was in an exhibit at The Met. Then my dad’s mother passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was 11, but I’m not close with any of my extended family. I didn’t know her at all, and I wrote a song about it called “I Never Knew You.” I think that was my first real song. When I played that for my parents and I played it for Robert, that’s when they realized there was something there. And then I just kept writing and writing, and I never stopped.

QAmericanGirl chronicles a young woman’s experiences with the cycle of relationships—meeting people, falling in love, having short and long-term romances, breaking up, getting hurt, processing heartbreak, and moving forward. What inspired you to reflect on all of those relationships, emotions, and experiences?
A: All of those songs are from real experiences … and I wrote all those songs as the situations were happening. I may seem like a very talkative person, but when it comes to talking about my feelings and personal relationships I don’t like talking about them. Instead, I express how I’m feeling about a person or a situation through my songwriting. I like being honest when I write my songs, and I feel like if you’re going to write a song about a situation, then why sugarcoat certain things? Whether it’s certain things that I did or he did, I think it should be very open. 

There are a lot of women out there who don’t feel like they can’t express themselves. As a fellow woman songwriter, I want people to hear my music and know they’re not alone in these situations. These are universal things that many women feel and go through. 

Q: Not only does “Michigan” pay homage to the school, but it also yearns to reconnect with someone you met locally during the spring break of 2023. How did a chance meeting with a guy from U-M inspire this track for you? Why was that relationship special to you?
A: Last year on spring break, I met this [guy] who’s a wide receiver on [U-M’s] football team and we chatted. I told him that going to Michigan was always a dream of mine and that I have no ties to Michigan either. I said, “I’ve always loved the University of Michigan,” and he said, “Why don’t you go for it and apply?” Then I said, “I’m not going to get in—there’s genuinely no point.” I liked him, and I thought we got along well during the few days that I met him. We still have remained very good friends to this day. 

Q: “I’m Sorry” reflects on trading one relationship for another and apologizing to someone for hurting them. What was it like to look back on these relationships and the impact that they had on you?
A: This one was hard to write. I like to think of “Michigan” and “I’m Sorry” as a duo. “I’m Sorry” is about what happened on spring break, and when I got back from spring break, I abruptly broke up with that guy. I had messed up on spring break … but I just texted him, and I was not being the greatest person. I wrote the song because I realized a few weeks later that I had handled that situation very badly. 

Even to this day, when I perform that song live, I will say, “I’m sorry.” We’re high school teenagers, and it’s not really that deep, but personally, it made me feel bad, and that’s why I wrote this song. A lot of women don’t write songs about them messing up. It’s usually more about the partner messing up and not a self-reflection of “OK, this is what I did.” It’s saying, “I suck; I’m sorry.”

Q: “Blue Eyes” revisits an old friendship that went sour and examines how to rekindle it. How did writing this track help you reconnect with an old friend and reconcile that relationship?
A: This song is actually about a friendship, and it’s about a boy I met in preschool. Our parents were good friends, and we ended up staying friends throughout lower school. He went to an all-boys school and that was the brother school to my all-girls school. We ended up at the same co-ed school the same year going into seventh grade. I had the biggest crush on him, and we had been going to Hebrew school together all those years.

He was a seventh-grade boy, and he was like, “Eww, girls. What are you doing?” I didn’t know what I was thinking, but we had a falling out as middle schoolers. His guy friend group had a falling out with my girlfriend group. Again, I didn’t handle the situation the best, and I don’t think he handled the situation the best either. We ended up having a joking conversation about it years later. We said, “What were we doing? We were so stupid.” It was a very retrospective song for me. The worst part was during our sophomore year he came over to my house and my mom played him the song. And then I shined a light in his eyes and realized his eyes were green.

Q: “Love U Only” admits to falling for another person and declaring your love for them. What was it like to write a song that’s so honest and vulnerable about your feelings for that person?
A: I wrote “Love U Only” when I was going into my sophomore year of high school. I had a major crush on this guy I was going out with and my parents hated him. He was awful. I was obsessed with him and thought he was the cutest person ever. That song came out of that, and I never actually told him any of that. A month later, “Was She Worth It” came out and it’s about the same guy.

Q: “The Girl You Love” addresses the struggle of not living up to someone’s expectations and dealing with a partner who wouldn’t commit. How did writing this track help you address those struggles and move forward?
A: I think there are a lot of female writers who put the blame more on themselves in some ways than the actual person who is the problem. I don’t think I do that very much when it comes to my songs. In “The Girl You Love,” I feel like I’m not attacking myself, I’m more attacking [the other person’s perception of me].

Q: “Dead Memories” revisits special moments from a past relationship and yearns for the one that got away. What was it like to revisit those memories and come to terms with that relationship?
A: When I sing that song now, that’s the emotion that I put into it. When I first wrote it, it was about [liking] the wrong person at the wrong time. One of my childhood best friends … had an older brother who was three years older than me and her brother’s best friend was four years older than me. It was eighth grade, and I don’t know what happened and how this all came about, but [I thought] her brother’s best friend, who was a senior, was really into me. As an eighth grader, I thought I was so cool, and I thought, “A senior likes me.” I was so delusional, and I thought he was so into me and that it was going to be this whole thing. He found out, and it was mortifying, but it was honestly for the best. 

Q: You spent six years writing the 13 songs for AmericanGirl, which features a pop-rock and pop-punk sound. How did those tracks evolve during that time? How did the pandemic impact the album’s creative process as well? 
A: I wrote “The Game” when I was 12, but I didn’t end up recording it until two summers ago. Same with “Dead Memories,” which I wrote when I was 12 or 13. I wrote “Blue Eyes” when I was going into eighth grade. Except for “Michigan,” “I’m Sorry,” “The Girl You Love,” and “Say You Love Me,” those are all more recent. I wanted to have the album originally done when I wrote those songs, and then COVID happened and things got stretched out. 

I think the album sounds pretty cohesive, but you can tell that “Michigan,” “I’m Sorry,” and “The Girl You Love” have a little bit of a different sound. That’s more how the next [release] is leaning. When I was writing “Was She Worth It,” “The Game,” and “Dead Memories,” I thought I was a punk rocker. That’s not my vibe anymore, and I’ve grown out of that. I still love those songs, and I love that now I can perform those songs how I want and if I want them to be more acoustic. But I still love punk music and all of that stuff. 

Q: How did co-producers Robert Taube, Ethan Bill, and Sam Palumbo help shape AmericanGirl’s overall sound?
A: I started recording the album with Robert during the winter break of my sophomore year of high school. He produced “3am,” “Blue Eyes,” “Haze,” “Love U Only,” and “Was She Worth It.” For two weeks, we recorded all five of those songs at his Groove Garden studio. Robert respects my musical capabilities … and then he’s a genius when it comes to vocal harmonies. He helped me with that, and it was an unreal experience.

Ethan produced “When It Rains,” “Enough of Us,” “Say You Love Me,” “The Game,” and “Dead Memories.” Sam produced “Michigan,” “I’m Sorry,” and “The Girl You Love.” Besides working with Robert, working with Sam was one of the best experiences that I’ve had. 

Q: What musicians did you collaborate with on AmericanGirl? How did they help take the album’s songs to the next level?
A: My bass player at that time was in California because of COVID and he sent all his parts in [remotely] for “3am,” “Blue Eyes,” “Haze,” “Love U Only,” and “Was She Worth It.” My guitar player [Hector Marin] was able to come in, and I played rhythm and he played lead. We had a hired gun for drums because my drummer [Victor Donahue] couldn’t come in from New Jersey, and it was a great experience. 

We ended up finding Conner Duke and he’s my bass player [now.] He’s a very smart guy and he went to Columbia [University]. Victor Donahue plays the drums for me, and he also studied with Robert [Taube]. Hector Marin is my guitar player, and he’s the coolest guy you’ll ever meet. He was in a heavy metal band, and he’s been with me since I was nine years old.

I always say Hector is my right hand, and I will play him all of my songs before I even play them for [other people]. He takes them musically to another level. They’re all so talented in their own way that they add their own style and their own flavor to the songs. I don’t play bass, and if I have a bass idea, I’ll play it on the piano or my guitar, and they’ll take that and run with it. For a lot of Hector’s guitar riffs, I’ll sing them out, and he’ll take them and run with them. 

Q: What’s up next for you after graduating from high school in June? Any plans to perform this summer or write and record new music?
A: This summer, I want to keep performing; I want to go out to LA and try and do some gigs there, and the same with Nashville. I also want to get back in the studio and I want to work really hard this summer. Once I’m in school, the only things I want to focus on are performing and promotion. 

Hopefully, a new [release] will be coming out in September. I want to do it with two EPs, so I have enough material to release while I’m at school. I’d like to have five or six songs at the beginning of the [school] year and then five or six songs at the end of the [school] year. I like the more acoustic rock sound—that’s definitely my vibe and that’s how this next [release] is leaning. For this next one, I’m going to work with Sam Palumbo and Robert Taube together. Sam is more of an engineer and Robert is more of a producer.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.