Music Features

Remembering SOPHIE

Art’s true innovators are often so far ahead of their time that they have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up before being seen as the trailblazers they truly are. The Velvet Underground & Nico was famously a poor seller on release, yet its influence continues to be felt today. We all know the story that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, yet there are now museums dedicated to his work. And songwriters like Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley may have been respected during their living years, but it’s only since death that they’ve had notable commercial success. To that list, we can add Scottish producer SOPHIE though; unlike those names mentioned above, SOPHIE’s work was so singular, so outré, that you’d never heard anything like it before. SOPHIE didn’t compromise to fit into the mainstream; the mainstream changed to accommodate SOPHIE.
No artist exists in a vacuum and, of course, SOPHIE had influences and inspirations. As a child, SOPHIE was taken to raves and was exposed to the dance music that informed much of what we now know from SOPHIE’s discography. Also, while not officially a member of the PC Music collective that became known for their dedication to kitsch hyperpop, SOPHIE was affiliated with many of the artists on the roster, and their impact on one another can be heard in many of their releases in the middle of the last decade.
To listen to a SOPHIE track is to learn new things about what sound can do. Yes, vocals are often pitched up and yes, some of the noises will initially strike you as weird, but what’s truly remarkable about a SOPHIE record is the qualities that those unusual sounds have. There’s something unmistakeably tactile about them, as if SOPHIE has somehow teased out characteristics —elasticity, plasticity, shininess—that are normally only associated with physical materials.
Aware of the unchartered aural frontiers that were being explored, SOPHIE’s earlier solo releases were aligned with visuals and titles that alluded to products. Indeed, SOPHIE’s first collection of songs was even named Product, and was originally released in silicon bubble cases in 2015. The previous year, SOPHIE had teamed up with performance artist Hayden Dunham and, under the name QT, released the single Hey QT which accompanied the launch of a fictitious energy drink. Rather than being artifice masquerading as art, SOPHIE’s work is a commentary on late-stage capitalism, and challenges the listener to reflect on their own relationship to brands and susceptibility to marketing.
It was around this time that SOPHIE’s burgeoning reputation grew to the point that more established artists were beginning to take note. Some of these initial collaborations forced the world at large to pay more attention, and it became clear that they weren’t ready for SOPHIE. Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom EP, mostly produced my SOPHIE, attracted mixed reviews but proved a bellwether for the direction Charli’s career would take, with subsequent releases (Number 1 Angel, Pop 2, Charli, how i'm feeling now) pushing the boundaries of what radio-friendly pop music could achieve. In fact, a noted music publication recently saw fit to publish an article revisiting their dismissive review of the Vroom Vroom EP, retrospectively noting its quality and importance. SOPHIE even worked with Madonna in 2014 on the Nicki Minaj-featuring single, Bitch I’m Madonna. Here, SOPHIE wasn’t the sole producer, with Diplo also getting in on the act. Listening now, Diplo clearly isn’t on SOPHIE’s wavelength, and the result is a track which sounds like two completely separate songs clumsily stitched together.
When it came time for the debut album proper, SOPHIE surprised everyone by breaking the final taboo: the revealing of true self. The album’s first single, It’s Okay to Cry, featured lead vocals from SOPHIE, personal lyrics, and an actual appearance from SOPHIE in the video. This effectively marked SOPHIE coming out as a trans woman though it’s since been noted that SOPHIE “preferred not to use gendered or non-binary pronouns.”
The album in question, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES, is a bold and thrilling tour de force that manages to combine the hallmarks that made SOPHIE such a unique artist alongside more personal elements. As well as It’s Okay To Cry, tracks like Is It Cold in the Water? and Infatuation are as candid as SOPHIE ever got. However, there are still tracks like Immaterial, Faceshopping, and Whole New World/Pretend World which demonstrate the SOPHIE that people had come to expect: innovative textures, examinations of consumerism, and abrasive sounds.
As SOPHIE’s career progressed, artists continued to bend to SOPHIE’s will. British pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma worked with SOPHIE for their second album’s lead single, Hot Pink, which proved to align with the group’s open-minded experimentation perfectly. Basside, the Florida group whose music owes a huge debt to Miami bass, collaborated with SOPHIE for their Fuck It Up EP, and Basside’s hedonistic, sex-obsessed rhymes meshed with SOPHIE’s maxmimalist approach to produce an addictive, trashy masterpiece. Plus, SOPHIE continued to inspire Charli XCX with the two working on a handful of releases following the Vroom Vroom EP.
SOPHIE had let us peek behind the curtain on OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES and the world was finally catching up to the thrilling cacophony; SOPHIE’s star was truly in the ascendency. However, it wasn’t to be and on 30th January 2021, aged 34, SOPHIE died following an accidental fall in Greece. Of course, all premature deaths are tragic but, for the music industry, it felt like a visionary had been lost, someone who had torn up the rulebook and could potentially set the agenda of what pop music should be for years to come.
In a 2015 interview, it was stated that remixes of SOPHIE tracks were not allowed “unless it’s Autechre:” the seminal electronic two-piece that were an influence on the burgeoning SOPHIE. Just two weeks before that untimely accident, the final track of SOPHIE’s lifetime was released: an Autechre remix of BIPP, the track that first brought SOPHIE to wider attention back in 2013. The remix was accompanied by a “sorry it’s late” note from Autechre but, given subsequent events, it inadvertently provided a fitting final chapter in SOPHIE’s arc. From starting out as an artist so far removed from what we’ve come to expect that no one knew how to react, to shaping the music we hear today and being remixed by one of the groups that was a key reference point along the way, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be lucky enough to see another artist quite like SOPHIE.