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SOPHIE: an appreciation

When news broke about SOPHIE's tragic passing in January 2021, the music world was stunned. A visionary artist who released on Hutleys + Palmers, Numbers and PC Music, and worked with stars such as Charli XCX and Madonna, at 34, it felt like SOPHIE was just getting started. Anna Cafolla, who wrote DJ Mag’s cover story on SOPHIE in July 2019, pays tribute to the unique artist’s authenticity and artifice

When I met SOPHIE for DJ Mag in 2019, I was struck by the artist’s singular vision. In the chaotic fug of Ibiza, SOPHIE shone with quiet assuredness. It was a year on from the celebrated debut studio album ‘Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’, a work that obliterated the boundaries between underground and pop, questioned art and artifice, and built on concepts of futurist music with sonic volubility.

In the course of our interview, SOPHIE came across as someone who was unburdened by binaries — cultural and bodily — and liberated by explosive new music, cross-genre collaborations and an unbridled technological dexterity, intent on remaking music in the artist’s own image. “I was quite alright with letting the music speak for itself, but then the problem is, people start filling in the gaps for you,” SOPHIE told me.

Like many, I had admired SOPHIE as the anonymous, PC Music-adjacent Scottish luminary who once sent a decoy to a Boiler Room set, and was entranced by the fracturing of old guard dance music and future-facing pop. In this time, with the release of the saccharine juggernaut ‘PRODUCT’ on Numbers, we did not know SOPHIE’s face, but the music spread smiles and facilitated slick embraces on darkened dancefloors worldwide.

I think the genesis of any SOPHIE fan could be called the ‘BIPP’ moment — a belly laugh of gleeful confusion, hearing that disorientating avant-garde sound for the first time, as many of us did around the 2015 debut. I gasped when I saw SOPHIE emerge as an Aphroditian popstar in the stunning ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ video, and leaned hard into the euphoric world-building of ‘Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un- Insides’ with vocals and image centred. Modelled as an amphibean nymphette on the album artwork, it was enthralling to witness an artist who had been so intensely mythologised and critiqued taking control of the narrative as a futurist creator, a transgender person, and rapidly ascending queer icon.

With the news of SOPHIE’s tragic death at age 34, musical descendants, peers and ardent fans wept. That we couldn’t honour this great life in a sweaty club at the time setting was devastating. Instead, subreddits and stan accounts that fervently documented the artist’s demos and unreleased work were ablaze with memories, a queer harnessing of the semblance of life that SOPHIE surely would have loved.

“It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible, (to not be) made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalised just through genre and categories,” SOPHIE shared with me. “I think it’s really important to break down those binaries, and not feel that because you are making ‘weird’ music, that you are a ‘weird’ person. To create those bridges is possible, it’s one of the most important things for artists to do.”

SOPHIE 2

In times of strife, the softness of beauty is as important to acknowledge as the hardness of everything else — that feels pertinent amid a pandemic, amplified more so when examining SOPHIE’s legacy. The disjuncture between surface and reality both disturbs and delights — igniting souls, soundtracking coming-of-age stories, expanding minds. SOPHIE could pull from Chicago house to Atlanta trap and sunny Scandi pop to make something wholly new. As I wrote in 2019, the artist’s comfort zone was defined by the uncomfortable, a focus on always evolving. SOPHIE was most resplendent when faced with new challenges, largely self-set.

In the early days, SOPHIE shrugged off industry disdain and brought this micro scene to the apex of pop: percolating the industry with such impressive imagination and reach, never letting genre or production means constrain; a lemonade fizz became a euphoric coda, metallic screech a baying crowd’s reward. The collaborations spoke to SOPHIE’s strengths as a producer and visionary, coating a salacious Shygirl tune with sonic slime, revving up the machines to propel a Vince Staples track to its menacing climax, giving Charli XCX a buffed subversive sheen and a fruitful sustained partnership.

SOPHIE was the architect of pop curveballs from Arca up to Madonna, deftly fracturing pop melodies and vocals with playfully abrasive sounds and textures of the underground. SOPHIE’s music is genuinely avant-garde while navigating pop sensibilities, dodging commercial conservatism or subcultural egos in favour of something more expansive.

“Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live? / Tell me, where do I exist?” the anthemic ‘Immaterial’ asks. In cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life, he mourns 21st century music’s lack of “future shock”, an inability to make new, bold work. I believe had he been alive to witness SOPHIE’s stratospheric rise and libidinal energy to innovate all the way to the top, he’d have to reassess this.

As SOPHIE told me when we met, “I want to normalise myself and my ideas — I’m making music about connection, feeling good, it’s personable and down to earth: very simple themes are important to me right now. I needed music to serve that purpose, for the me of now, and the next me.”

And who will ask the questions SOPHIE did, of the worlds we inhabit or hope to make with our art? It’s comforting to see the artist’s amorphous living legacy in the mainstream charts as much as in the ever-expanding world of hyperpop, the lucid work of 100Gecs, Alice Gas and the PC Music comrades. Music is a medium where cultural malaise and unrest can be pinpointed, but what SOPHIE leaves us is an aural code for hope, a language as a generation’s gift from a true disruptor that has changed the course of music forever.

SOPHIE will live on in the risks others will take, the Reddit threads and excitable comments on YouTube radio rips, in the crescent of a celestial January moon that the artist was climbing to see. Contemporary music must nudge at the edges of the galaxy SOPHIE wove, fearless, intensely curious and with an innate sense of challenge.

Revisit our 2019 DJ Mag cover interview with SOPHIE here

You can follow Anna Cafolla on Twitter @AnnaCafolla