French actress, musician, singer and songwriter, Stéphanie Sokolinski, known as SoKo, is finishing up her 14-date European tour in support of brand-new album My Dreams Dictate My Reality, her second LP, with a couple of UK dates. Tonight is the turn of The Ruby Lounge to host her show, so I take the descending flight of stairs and choose a spot in front of the central pillar that helps prop up High Street’s shops above this basement venue.

Whereas on her 2012 début album I Thought I Was an Alien she gives her autobiographical, sensitive songs an intimate, quiet and dreamy presentation, the faster pace and fuller sound of the new record, with its new wave and synthpop influences, lends itself to a full-band show. The smoke machine has gone into overdrive as five musicians appear on stage to kick things off with ‘My Dreams Dictate My Reality’, the title song that’s heavily influenced to my ears by SoKo’s favourite band, The Cure.

Cutting a diminutive figure on keyboards in the centre of the stage, SoKo, straight-edge, and a self-proclaimed ‘white goth’, is flanked by her long-haired brother on guitar, and by a bassist/cellist and a second guitarist, both female. Behind them are the male drummer and, more unusually, a man capturing the performance from various positions with a video camera. The eerie keyboard and smoky fog are pierced by the chime and chug of the guitars as a tensely energetic SoKo sings of being frightened and of hearing people dying. I expect the lyrics refer to the dark times she went through after putting out her 2007 EP Not Sokute, which culminated in her declaring herself “dead” in 2009 and quitting the music industry.

This opening song feels like a cathartic way to begin the set because SoKo in 2015 seems transformed. Although the songs remain introspective, a confidence shines through on the new album, and once the smoke has cleared a little more, we see that her bleached-blonde hair is now Smurf-blue, matching, as the show proceeds, the overall sense of fun brought by the joyful, wild dancing, big smiles and comedy voices between songs.

SoKo switches from keyboards to bass guitar ahead of self-deprecating yet hopeful love song ‘I Just Want to Make It New with You’ before explaining that Manchester being one of only two UK tour dates is no coincidence: most of her favourite bands are from here, and she even jokes that she was tempted to make the set consist entirely of an extremely long version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Audience members being invited on stage now becomes a regular occurrence as, first, following a request from SoKo for someone to make up some bad poetry as an introduction to ‘Bad Poetry’, a brave girl volunteers some lines involving bananas and sultanas, all before a bunch of willing audience dancers join the band on stage to show us all how to dance like aliens during ‘I Thought I Was an Alien’, a song that could almost have been written by Eels for their album Beautiful Freak.

Soko - My Dreams Dictate My Reality

Soko – My Dreams Dictate My Reality

Then, inspired by a #FreeTheNipple campaign that has apparently been trending on social media of late, SoKo invites girls from the crowd onto the stage to join her in going topless. The take-up on the offer is pretty good, so we end up with perhaps sixteen jiggling boobs on display for the performance of ‘Who Wears the Pants??’ Then SoKo does a topless stage dive. What a wild young woman! I love it!

SoKo collaborated with Ariel Pink on a couple of the songs on the new LP, one of which is the seductive duet ‘Lovetrap’, and for the live performance of the tune she makes us laugh by manically playing back samples of the non-present Pink’s spoken-word wooing of her, lifted from the studio version. Vocally, though, it’s on the quieter, slower songs that SoKo impresses the most. Her sweet, whispery vocals and gentle guitar on numbers like ‘For Marlon’ require hush from the crowd, and admirably, given all of the stage antics and excitement, she manages to persuade almost everyone to keep quiet for the delicate ballads, helped by a promise that we would all receive a Swedish treat after the song. Intriguing…

The treat when it comes is well deserving of the name. It turns out that a friend of SoKo’s, none other than Klara Söderberg of First Aid Kit, lives in Manchester and is present at the show. Söderberg comes up on stage to play a quite beautiful version of ‘Random Rules’ by Silver Jews. SoKo and her band all sit silent on the stage, looking up at the Swedish singer, before Söderberg and SoKo, very affectionate towards one another, then perform SoKo’s ‘Visions’, the “most personal song” on the new record.

Not only does SoKo play keyboards, bass guitar and 6-string tonight, but during the encore she shows proficiency on the drums too, playing solo a drums and vocal version of ‘Nervous Breakdown’. We are told that free hugs are available after the gig, but even without such welcome freebies, as the night’s music concludes with the softly-played ‘We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow’, what excellent value the crowd has had tonight during a near two-hour show.

This last song is quite fitting because we all know the Carpe Diem advice to “live each day as if it was your last”, but watching SoKo perform is like seeing a woman who actually, truly believes that today is her last, having the wildest fun on stage whilst there’s still time. It’s a joy to behold. SoKo seized the day, the night and our hearts.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.