Sophia Eris has put in overtime working in the Twin Cities music scene.
She's been a master collaborator within her old groups, including the Chalice with Lizzo and Claire de Lune and the recently disbanded GRRRL PRTY with Lizzo and Manchita. She's also the touring DJ/backup MC for Lizzo, Minnesota's exploding hip-hop star who got inked to Atlantic Records in March.
Now, eight years after she moved to Minneapolis from Dayton, Ohio, it's time for Eris to fly on her own. Her debut solo record, the self-released Sophia Eris, will enter the world July 19 and be celebrated with a show at Icehouse on September 17.
This album was a steady, drawn-out process for Eris. She worked alongside producer and longtime friend Prophis, whom she met while studying at the Institute of Production and Recording in Minneapolis.
"I was taking my time. It was my baby," Eris, 28, says of the record. "Prophis helped me capture the clearest moments of myself from the last three years."
Having just heard the finished tracks, Eris says she feels like a "brand new woman."
She didn't always envision herself in front of the mic, though. Eris spent her childhood dancing along to Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson music videos, but she didn't have the "stereotypical voice of a singer."
"I was raised on Whitney and Mariah, and I was like, 'That's singing,'" she says. "I would write songs for my friends and I would be the rap part."
Inspired by the 2002 Taye Diggs-starring film Brown Sugar, Eris wanted to be an A&R representative — the person who scouts out new talent for record labels. In the movie, Diggs discovers a rapper named Cavi played by Mos Def. That new dream, combined with a love of Prince, led Eris to IPR.
"I always thought I would be the one who discovered someone, and I feel like I did that with Lizzo," Eris says. "I was like, 'I want to find that person and help them change the world.' But instead of her A&R, I'm her DJ."
During her time studying music business at IPR, Eris came around to viewing herself as a musician, but there was one glaring thing holding her back: "It was so hard for me to get used to my voice," she says.
Determined to hone her voice, Eris sought guidance from her creative and emotional writing teacher — none other than Dessa.
Ubiquitous Minnesota music names like Dessa, Doomtree, and Rhymesayers were foreign to the native Ohioan. Still, when Eris' instructor introduced herself as a rapper, she was floored. She had never met another female rapper before.
Eris took Dessa on as a mentor, staying after school to pick her brain about all things music. Dessa told Eris to put her nose into the corner of a wall and start talking, singing, rapping, whatever — to get used to her voice.
On the last week of class, Eris teamed up fellow classmate Prophis to write and record her first single — "Rest Your Head Up," which she gave to Dessa as a gift. "I was like, 'Just so you know, I made this song, and you were a huge influence,'" Eris recalls telling Dessa.
The strong, assertive voice heard on Eris' debut LP was steadily built up from the foundation Dessa helped establish.
"When you listen to 'Rest Your Head Up' or even the Chalice, I'm a baby," Eris says. "You can tell I'm soft and timid, less confident, really. As far as being solo, I needed to grow."
Through years of rising and grinding in the Chalice, GRRRL PRTY, and with Lizzo, Eris' voice — both rapping and singing — is rock-solid and self-assured. She knows it's time to stand on her own.
"I've done all these different facets," Eris says, rattling off past experiences with groups and singing backup, as well as toying with design and video. "I know exactly where to use what."
The slow and bouncing "Aaliyah," the lead single off the eight-track Sophia Eris, is a namesake tribute to one of Eris' favorite musicians, the late Aaliyah.
"She makes me happy," Eris says of the pop star who died tragically in 2001 at just 22. "She's a precedent to me in so many ways — how I carry myself, how I write."
On "Aaliyah," Eris writes about forming genuine connections with her crew and embracing those closest to her. "As long as I'm staying true to everything going on in this song, I feel like I'm OK," she says.
Conveniently but not coincidentally, Prophis is influenced by rap production legend Timbaland, a frequent Aaliyah collaborator. Working with Prophis was the obvious choice for Eris. She calls his bedroom recording studio her "safe space."
Prophis says he aimed to make timeless new classics with Eris. "If we can bring back some of that good feeling in the music we grew up with, then that's justice," he says.
There's a hint hidden in the lyrics of "Aaliyah" that forecasts Eris' next move: "Last winter will haunt me in my dreams."
Eris is a military baby, and the eight years spent in Minneapolis is the longest she has ever lived anywhere. Within the next year, she hopes to move to Los Angeles.
"Minneapolis is the reason I am who I am," she says. "This is the place to get your training wheels on, and I'm ready to take them off."
Not only has her best friend, business partner, and frequent collaborator Lizzo recently relocated to L.A., but Eris feels the warm climate is where her heart belongs. She purposefully chose beats for the new album that "felt like summer."
With her training wheels off and her solo career just beginning, does Eris plan to stick with Lizzo?
"I never want to stop doing Lizzo stuff, especially now," she says. "But at the same time, I don't want to die as just Lizzo's DJ. I want to be Sophia Eris all around."
If solo touring opportunities arise, she'll listen. If a label approaches her for a re-release, she'll listen. But in the meantime, you'll still see her bouncing around behind Lizzo's DJ table, dancing alongside her, and performing their collaborative effort "Batches & Cookies."
"Whatever happens with [Lizzo]," Eris says, "I'm always going to be there."
But she'll also be Sophia Eris, all around, always.
With: Saint LaRon + Gym Kang, Ness Nite, Alabaster Jones
When: 10:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 17.
Tickets: $8-$10; more info here