Sofia Valdés’ passion for music finds its origin in her ancestry. As the great-granddaughter of Cuban musician Miguelito Valdés and Silvia De Grasse, a singer who performed with Louis Armstrong, she acknowledges the debt she owes to her ancestors.
“I knew about my grandparents, but it was never in my house like ‘you have to be a singer’,” she tells me. “It was more like ‘oh, cool, they did that’. And then we would listen to his music and a lot of Cuban music because of him. I feel like my passion for music came separate from them and I think that, with time, I started learning more about their story and who they were as artists, and that really resonated with me.”
Valdés began her musical journey at just eight-years-old, when she was given the choice to leanr an instrument, but it was her willingness to study that helped her carve her own path towards professional distinction and a contract with Warner Records.
When I speak to Valdés, she’s back in her native Panama City, where she returned during the pandemic after spending her formative years in the US and UK – first, at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy in, and later at the Paul McCartney-founded LIPA. At only 20, she already enjoys a broader vision of her career, reflecting on the bigger ventures she launched into when she decided to leave her beloved Panama five years ago: “I had already done a lot of festivals and gigs here in Panama,” she explains. “They were like the biggest festivals in Panama and I was like ‘ok, what do I do now?’ because I had achieved that goal so I was like ‘what’s next?’
Being a non-native English speaker with ADHD and dyslexia meant the 20-year-old Valdés had to overcome some hurdles in order to achieve her academic goals: “You know how you go to school and they teach you English… But when you have to go on a conversation you don’t know how to do it but you understand it, do you know what I mean?”
Explaining her ADHD, she chuckles: “I think my ADHD comes out when I have to be serious and concentrate like if I’m in a school setting. [ADHD] helped me get a lot of friends because I was like ‘Hey! I’m Sophia! Hello! How are you?’. I was like a little labradoodle and I think because of it I was able to make a lot of friends really quickly.
“Everyone was very nice about it because the school was super international and there were kids from everywhere, so me not being able to speak English perfectly wasn’t crazy. People would just be like ‘Do you mean this?’, and they would just correct me and were very very helpful. I did struggle a lot with ADHD when it comes to studying in my first year because I’ve always been like ‘I have ADHD, I’m going to go with it’ and do the same thing as everyone was doing, and that has always worked for me but it means that I have to put in four times the work other kids do. In my first year I cared more about the music and I obviously wanted to do well when it came to my school but […] I would sit down and I couldn’t get it done. And it was so much work because it was a lot of reading.”
Valdés recalls ADHD made the endless school hours go by quicker thanks to her imagination: “I had to be in class sitting down for so long I would make up stories in my head. I remember I would make movies, but I would want to see the entire movie. It was really weird, and I think every kid has this, but I took it to an extreme. I remember when I was super young I was walking around the house and I had an imaginary friend, my mum was terrified of me because I was talking to no one for hours. At one point it got scary and my mom had to take me to the doctors,” Valdés says, amid laughs.
ADHD has also helped her focus on music and experience it from different perspectives: “I think I understand sounds really well and that’s how I’ve been able to communicate best,” she says. “When it came down to making music I just got it really quickly, whether sometimes I’d be reading a book and I was like ‘what am I reading’,” she adds. “For me that was music, like I would hear something on a piano or a guitar and I just got it. And if I was writing a song, I knew what to write and how to get super visual with lyrics. It’s kind of like obsessive focus. I would sit in my room… I wish I was joking when I say six hours or so, but I’m not.”