Sofia Schuster sat outside on a recent sunny afternoon in a quiet Summerland neighborhood with a view of the Pacific Ocean. She played her guitar, closed her eyes and released her emotions.
Sofia sang from her heart.
“I definitely gravitate toward deep and meaningful music,” said the San Marcos High School sophomore, who competed earlier this year on ABC’s “American Idol.”
For her first televised audition, she skipped the safer path of a cover and peformed her original pro-choice song, “My Body My Choice.”
“I’m not the type who loves the bubblegum pop kind of stuff,” said the 16-year-old Santa Barbara resident, who attends San Marcos’ AAPLE Academy for accelerated academics, leadership and community service. “I write songs that aren’t your typical teenage love songs that you hear other 15- or 16-year-old singers performing.”
Sofia sang during a News-Press photo shoot and talked about her passion for music, often gesturing to stress points during an interview outside the home of a friend of the family.
Sofia was born in Philadelphia with paralyzed vocal cords.
“I was never supposed to talk, let alone sing,” Sofia said. “For the first six months of my life, I never made a sound.
“Miraculously enough, there was movement in my vocal cords,” she said. “When I was 6 months old, my vocal cords started her working, and I let out my first cry.
“I started singing when I was 2 or 3, and I did it constantly,” Sofia said. “I think I was singing before I was even talking, actually.”
She lived with her parents outside Copenhagen. She returned to Philadelphia with her mother, Kerri Murray, at age 3 or 4. (Her father moved to Japan, and her parents got a divorce. Sofia said she has seen her father once a year.)
In 2009, the mother and daughter moved to Santa Barbara.
Sofia attended Montessori Center School in Goleta, then Crane Country Day School in Montecito, before coming to San Marcos. Sofia also went to The Adderley School for the Performing Arts in Santa Barbara and performed in 15 musicals such as “West Side Story,” “Les Miserables” and “Hairspray.” And she enrolled in 2012 in Girls Rock Santa Barbara, which six years later presented her with its Teen Impact of the Year award.
Sofia grew up with a love for everything from show tunes to folk-pop and her newest passion, Motown. She said she was influenced by singers/songwriters such as Bob Dylan.
At age 12, Sofia recorded her first album, “Golden Gate,” which featured four of her original songs covering topics such as women’s rights. She received help in the studio from Martin Gore of Depeche Mode.
Sofia donated the proceeds from her album sales to support scholarships for 10 girls at Girls Rock Santa Barbara.
She also has received mentorship since her early teens with Montecito singer Kenny Loggins.
Last year Sofia won Teen Star Santa Barbara.
“I think what led me to win Teen Star is just being true to myself,” Sofia said, referring to her risky song choice of “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson’s “Piece by Piece” (2015).
“A lot of people hadn’t heard of the song, and they didn’t think it would fit me that well. After I sang it, I think people realize it was a song that was honest to who I was,” Sofia said. “It’s about a father who leaves her daughter at a young age, which is something that happened to me when I was 3 years old when my dad left.”
“American Idol” producers learned about her Teen Star victory and contacted her to audition for them at their Los Angeles offices. Impressed, they sent her on to perform during the televised auditions before celebrity judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan at another Los Angeles site.
“The three days leading to my audition, I was trying to play it cool. ‘Mom, I’m fine, I’m fine,’” Sofia said. “I think it was an hour before my audition, when they get you ready, I was freaking out.
“I was going crazy. I was drinking so much water,” she recalled.
“I was so nervous, but the judges are really playful. They have a lot of personality, so they calm you down when you get in there,” Sofia said.
“Something that they tied into the audition was I’ve actually sang with Katy Perry before,” she said.
Sofia participated in an Adderley School choir that accompanied Ms. Perry, a Santa Barbara native and Dos Pueblos High School alum, during her 2018 Santa Barbara Bowl benefit after the Montecito mudslides. Ms. Perry sang her song “Firework” with the choir and mudslides survivor and Adderley student Lauren Cantin.
“For my audition, I brought a picture of her (Ms. Perry) and me hugging. That was really cool,” Sofia said.
Sofia impressed the judges with her performance of her original song “My Body My Choice,” which she previously sang at a Planned Parenthood Benefit.
“I chose my original song because it really projected a message that I wanted to share with the world and the judges, which was about women’s rights,” Sofia said. “I wanted to show the judges that I’m not just another 15-year-old singer who wants to be a pop song star. I really want to be a songwriter who connects my voice to causes I care about.”
The judges were impressed but expressed concern that Sofia, then 15, was too young to start a music career through “American Idol.” Ms. Perry told Sofia that she reminded her of herself at 15, but noted at that age, Ms. Perry wouldn’t have been ready.
“Lionel Richie said, ‘You’re very young, but you know who you are. You know exactly what you want to do,’” Sofia said, adding that Mr. Richie gave her an “A+” for songwriting.
Despite the concerns about Sofia’s age, the judges sent her on to the Hollywood Week rounds.
At that point, “American Idol” didn’t allow her to sing any original songs, but she did well in the first round with her rendition of “Teenager in Love,” a 2018 song by Madison Beer.
For the second round, Sofia was required to sing a duet, and her “American Idol” partner insisted on “Jackson,” a 1967 Johnny Cash and June Carter song.
“I never heard it before. I went for the risk, and it didn’t really work out for me,” Sofia said.
She was cut from “American Idol,” but said the “Jackson” experience taught her to speak up for herself and not be afraid to disagree with another singer.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sofia has taken online music courses. She also sang from her home with Mr. Loggins and others singing from their homes during the recent online Earth Day festival, presented by the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara.
Sofia previously sang with Mr. Loggins during a 2019 “Footloose” benefit concert for The Unity Shoppe and The Santa Barbara Youth Ensemble Theatre Scholarship Fund. She also performed on a Unity Shoppe telethon and the Teen Sing benefit and TV special, which raised $65,000 for survivors of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides.
Ms. Murray, Sofia’s mother and president of ShelterBox USA, a nonprofit aiding international relief efforts, talked to the News-Press about those who have helped Sofia, which includes Mr. Loggins, the Adderley School and Girls Rock Santa Barbara. “She’s been part of a community that hasn’t pushed her to be perfect. It has pushed her to be brave. She’s been really brave in her creative choices and music choices.”
Sofia, who completed a songwriting program last year through the Berklee College of Music, is working on her second album. She said it will feature six or seven songs and will be released in August or September. “I’ve recorded one of the songs, which is about beauty standards.”
She said she would love to have a career as a songwriter, a touring singer and a Broadway performer.
“I think what’s made me so successful has been hard work above all else, hard work toward something I’m passionate about,” Sofia said.
“I found my true passion in singing and songwriting. It’s just a beautiful way to convey emotion.”