I Can Make You Feel Better: SOPHIE was a singular talent

The production visionary and trans icon transformed the pop landscape

03.02.21 Words by: Felicity Martin

In an interview with The Face from May last year, SOPHIE was talking about Depeche Mode’s 1981 track ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, one of the inspirations behind the producer’s work. “The record sounds amazing and it makes you feel good, and they did it at such a young age,” SOPHIE said. “I think it’s just an amazing achievement, to do something that set the format in a way – it established one part of the sound of the decade that followed.” That wording could easily be applied to SOPHIE’s own work as a producer: someone who set the format for pop.

When the news of SOPHIE’s tragic, accidental death broke over the weekend, fans and artists began sharing their first experiences of hearing the artist’s work. Where were you when you first heard the pinging, carbonated synths of ‘Bipp‘? The rubbery, ricocheting drums of ‘Hard‘? Those early releases that emerged around 2013 (‘MSMSMSM’, ‘L.O.V.E’, ‘Lemonade’) sounded squeaky clean and ultra-polished, full of E-number highs that felt so good they should only be consumed in small doses. ‘Hard’ was Dummy’s favourite track of 2014, with then-editor Selim Bulut stating: “Not since hearing Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’ for the first time has something felt so unfamiliar yet so exciting.” Like many boundary-pushing artistic works, the releases didn’t earn unanimous praise at the time, with some journalists left scratching their heads at what they were hearing, noting the ‘un-danceability’ of these seemingly dance music tracks.

Latex, balloons, bubbles, metal, plastic and elastic; the textures SOPHIE worked with were innovative and brilliantly new, taking the physics of sound to new heights. “I try to imagine a hyperreal world of sounds that we’re sometimes used to from blockbuster films and that sort of things,” SOPHIE said in 2018. “Sounds which cartoonise and exaggerate naturally-ocurring organic sounds and phenomena, and materials that don’t exist at the moment. An example would be there’s a piano that’s mountain-size high, and imagining what the sound of that piano would be if the string was that large. You have the possibility with electronic music to generate any texture, in theory, and any sound – so why would any musician want to limit themselves? You want to work with the most powerful tools you can work with. And in the past that may have been piano or guitar, but now I think it’s the power of software synthesisers is something that all musicians – I would think – would want to harness.”

Born in Glasgow before later moving to LA, SOPHIE took a keen interest in electronic music aged seven after rooting through old rave cassettes belonging to SOPHIE’s father and half-brother. Sourcing a keyboard, production became a studious and solitary endeavour, and SOPHIE would feel “isolated in my interest in those things”. It took the producer meeting the PC Music crew to find people who shared similar interests. In an interview we published in 2015, PC’s Danny L Harle said: “I thought it was amazing that [SOPHIE] manages to sustain whole songs – whole sets – where there’s pretty much a maximum of two things happening in it, musically. You’re told this in any school of music – not just classical – that you’ve got to make your ideas clear and concise. But no one says to make them so clear and so concise. It’s quite a modernist aesthetic, to take it to such an extreme.”

In the mid 2010s, SOPHIE would become a key part of the PC Music contingent, a collective well known for its winking use of advertising and marketing jargon. SOPHIE and A.G Cook collaborated on the QT project, including a faux advertisement for an energy drink that was as much a playful attack on capitalism as a banger. ‘Face Shopping’, a track about identity and personal branding, also played on Western society’s rampant consumerism: “I’m real when I shop my face.” SOPHIE once described the genre of SOPHIE music as “advertising”. When McDonalds started using ‘Lemonade’ in an ad promoting their strawberry lemonade, it felt like we were living in a simulation.

When SOPHIE’s music was first released by Huntleys + Palmers, SOPHIE worked anonymously, causing wild speculation about the artist’s identity – and gender. An artist who was first presumed to be male using a female moniker sparked outrage among certain circles. In late 2017, SOPHIE’s ‘It’s Okay To Cry‘ video emerged, with the artist presenting as a trans woman. It was the first proper glimpse that the public had of the producer, who danced around amid lashings of rain and lightning with unashamed glee, also introducing us to the undistorted voice of SOPHIE. From that moment on, SOPHIE was more present – physically – in live shows, more choreographed routines than DJing in the shadows of the back of the stage.

SOPHIE has described feeling dismayed that the public needed a face to embrace the music. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous that you need to do a video that’s a close-up crying in the rain for people to know that you’re a real person,” SOPHIE told Lenny. In another interview, SOPHIE linked gender norms to the way we consume music. Asked why society was still so conservative about gender, SOPHIE replied: “I think it stems from people’s desire to understand something through its commonly believed social and political connotations. It’s an automatic tool for understanding the world around us, and therefore people want to use the same toolkit to understand music or artistic works. It’s like when you go down the street and someone is dressed a certain way and you make an automatic assumption about what that person is like based on their appearance. People want to try to do the same in music, to understand it and base an assumption about that music on its appearance, gender, background etc. When you take that away, people are forced to use other tools, or they just write the whole thing off as ‘not real’.”

As well as exploring the idea of what it means to be a consumable ‘product’ in the music industry, SOPHIE was also responsible for some of the best merchandise ever released: a custom-designed £50 sex toy, a “liqui-UV transparent plastic soapy puffa jacket” and a clutch bag for the remix album of debut LP ‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’, complete with pockets for CDs. That album received a Grammy nomination (although in a red carpet interview SOPHIE said, in deadpan delivery, “as my grandma told me, though, the nomination means absolutely nothing.”)

SOPHIE collaborated with artists like Charli XCX before being eyed by the wider world of pop and mainstream music and coming to produce for Madonna, Diplo and Vince Staples. “Ultimately, I think the best music will always be created through collaborations – pooling together skills to create something bigger than any individual,” SOPHIE once said.

SOPHIE was ultimately dedicated to freedom of expression and helping others achieve that goal. It seems fitting that the only image on SOPHIE’s Instagram was – and will remain – an infographic for donating to the Black Trans Protestors Emergency Fund. Paying homage to the producer, Vince Staples said: “I’ve seen Sophie around a dozen sessions, around different kinds of people, different genres, different races, different backgrounds, and she was never afraid. I never saw her once afraid to be who she was, to wear what she wanted, to say what she wanted, to play what she wanted. Not once. I think that’s the most important takeaway: You don’t have to be afraid. Producers, musicians, trans people, people all over, no matter who you are, to be honest – I don’t care who you are, that’s something you could take something from. You don’t have to be fearful. I haven’t once seen fear on Sophie’s face, no matter what.”

The future-facing, often-referenced production of SOPHIE will leave a long legacy. Without SOPHIE there would be no 100gecs, no hyperpop. Finneas, the brother of and producer for Billie Eilish, tweeted about how much SOPHIE had inspired him. When (if?) Rihanna’s album ever drops, it may well have SOPHIE’s production on it. And SOPHIE was forever evolving. On the “non-stop remix album” of ‘OIL…’, SOPHIE reshaped the tracks drastically, giving them completely different sonic qualities. A recent 20-minute live set comprised of new material teased exciting new musical directions with stabbing techno basslines and synths glistening like glass prims. SOPHIE’s work will be felt in generations to come.

Note: In a release shared by SOPHIE’s team about the artist’s death, the media was asked to refrain from using any pronouns when describing SOPHIE. Quotes from other artists about SOPHIE have remained unchanged.

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