Remembering SOPHIE, the architect
A decade ago, contemporary music was stuck in a loop. Mark Fisher once told Kaleidoscope Magazine that dance music had entered a state of “flattened out temporality”. Increased access to the internet meant artists were liberal on references, but low on originality. Then, amongst the doom mongering, came SOPHIE.
Born in Glasgow in 1986, the avant-pop producer would go on to become one of music’s most dextrous and expansive collaborators. One who would unite underground music with mainstream pop, whilst pioneering a new genre and becoming an “icon of liberation” for the artist’s queer fanbase. SOPHIE’s vision was limitless, both in music and beyond, and it was with this vision that SOPHIE became one of the most influential, and vital, producers of our time. An artist who was so far ahead that perhaps we’re still catching up.
© Renata Raksha
SOPHIE’s idiosyncratic sound was like no other, whose creative process involved taking the fundamental elements of music and morphing them into something wholly new. BIPP – which Crack Magazine crowned as the defining track of the 2010s – was utterly bewildering upon its release in 2013. Writing for Crack Magazine, journalist Chal Ravens highlighted the track’s “emerging nostalgia for… the cheap-and-cheerful sincerity of 90s Europop.” But where Europop synths could be tinny and one-note, SOPHIE’s splashed and squelched across the track in off-kilter rhythms, as if the laws of physics no longer mattered. SOPHIE, sowing the seeds of what would come to be known as hyperpop, had created something that felt truly new.
But aside from sounding modern, SOPHIE wanted to achieve the “loudest, brightest thing” too. It’s with this approach that, in a short space of time, the producer was able to demonstrate a range that can’t be matched. SOPHIE could bring an otherworldliness to the woozy romance of Dev Hynes, and the peppy best out of pop star Kim Petras. Aggressive arpeggios were pinned to Madge’s famous snarl, “Bitch, I’m Madonna”. Across hip-hop and rap, SOPHIE’s industrial crank undergirded furious turns by Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples.
© Renata Raksha
Then, there’s the collaborations with Charli XCX, whereby SOPHIE accelerated the singer out of breezy teen-pop stardom and into a utopia of futurist clubbing with the abrasive Vroom Vroom. With one foot in the underground, SOPHIE lubed up Shygirl’s grimy seductions on SLIME and remixed SONIKKU’s Sweat to stratospheric proportions. But it was in SOPHIE’s own music that entire universes were constructed. A palette of sounds, from the snap of latex to the fizz of lemonade, were divorced from meaning, turned upside down, made strange. On the producer’s first and only studio album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides, the track Immaterial – the title! – took the sugar rush of BIPP and used it to declare a manifesto of gender euphoria: a “whole new world!”
SOPHIE was a pop star too, and the album’s lead single, It’s Okay to Cry, became one of the decade’s greatest pop moments. Like an intimate comfort to a broken friend, the synths twinkled, drums muffled like hot breath in your ear. In the video SOPHIE stood facing the camera directly, poised and naked, visibly euphoric as the song burst at its seams in the final seconds. It was a glorious act made all the more powerful by the desire, up to then, to pursue the boundlessness of anonymity – SOPHIE famously sent a decoy to perform in a 2014 Boiler Room show – rather than the limitations of image. Subsequently, when the transformational moment occurred, when SOPHIE-as-pop-star was revealed, it was on SOPHIE’s own terms, and above all, an expression of autonomy.
© Renata Raksha
“People tell me that the music has played a genuine reassuring role in their lives. Those are the people I care about” – SOPHIE
It is telling that SOPHIE rejected the notion of ‘coming out’, instead speaking of it as an explanation and expansion of past material. Echoing these words in a tribute, trans author Shon Faye commented that with SOPHIE, “transness was there at every moment”. SOPHIE dispensed with crude dichotomies of ‘before’ and ‘after’, brought dysphoria and euphoria together in the same sound, chose when to be visible and when to create in the shadows. For this, SOPHIE endures as an icon of queer freedom.
On the weekend of SOPHIE’s death, tributes piled in accordingly; from Nile Rodgers to Grimes, Arca to Sam Smith. The singular impact SOPHIE had on shaping contemporary pop and dance music poignantly accentuated. In 2020, the producer debuted new music and visuals, showing that there was more to come. Now, we’re left with a rich discography of crackly recordings and low-quality leaks, dispersed across the internet. In the wake of SOPHIE’s death, the sprawling PC Music subreddits, Twitter stan accounts and mysterious SoundCloud pages that collated SOPHIE’s works have become places on the internet to grieve.
© Kasia Zacharko
Whilst we can’t dance in clubs to the loss of a genius, a wondrous world-builder, an avant-pop star and an enigma, SOPHIE’s music serves as a reminder of the boundless possibility of sound, and the imagination, in these locked down times. For a producer who wanted to climb higher to see the full moon, who’s absent from streaming services, and who always wanted to go harder – brighter – SOPHIE was never to be contained. Death doesn’t mean the loss of the producer’s rich synthetic universe, but it will stop expanding now. How lucky we were to visit it.
© Renata Raksha