SOPHIE: Changing the narrative
Dedicated to breaking down cultural binaries and taking on the music industry juggernaut, SOPHIE has obliterated the lines between underground dance music and commerical pop. DJ Mag's Anna Cafolla meets her in Ibiza to talk artifice and authenticity, and a new era of live performance
It’s a blistering afternoon in Ibiza, and the sun feels laser-trained on the Hard Rock Hotel, where the International Music Summit is taking place. The lobby bustles with sun-splotched Balearic veterans, the mirrored sunglass lenses of industry heads glinting as they mingle in and out of panels and workshops on everything from diversifying line-ups to CDJ advancements. The hotel pool heaves with sprightly Ibiza revellers, posters for David Guetta and Calvin Harris residencies loom on the aqua skyline, and a syncopated beat thrums from the soundcheck going on for tonight’s shows. It feels like the epicentre of classic club culture and archetypal hedonistic raving, so it’s slightly jarring, then, to be meeting an avant-pop juggernaut like SOPHIE in among the scrum, and we tell her such.
“That’s one of the reasons I was intrigued to come here,” SOPHIE, the Scottish-born, LA-based musician and producer says. After a few attempts to find a quiet spot, we perch on a patio set outside some ground floor hotel apartments, and talk over iced coffees that she insists on buying for us. “I love the format of big room DJ shows, high-quality soundsystems and production values — there’s an experience like no other in the European clubs that makes you stay well into the next day’s afternoon. It’s definitely appealing to me as I consider my own work,” she tells us.
SOPHIE’s comfort zone is defined by the uncomfortable. She’s most dynamic when faced with contrast and new experience, which plays out across her creative and career trajectory. “I do tend to make those opportunities for myself where possible,” she says, laughing softly. She recalls her first real ‘SOPHIE’ gig, with about five people present, where one came up and put their middle finger in her face: “The right person was there to hear me though, so it was alright.” Whether navigating today’s ‘beefa’ experience, or early in her career, when she had to deal with dance music’s stale disdain for her and experimental label PC Music’s forward-thinking, pop-pranging sounds, SOPHIE has refused to yield.
“I first caught a very tiny snippet of a SOPHIE soundcheck in 2011,” says Andrew Thomson, head honcho at Huntleys + Palmers. The Scottish label released the artist’s first remix and debut release, 2013’s taut, glittering electro-house number ‘NOTHING MORE TO SAY’, which would have come out earlier and the wider world would have met SOPHIE sooner if, according to Thomson, distribution hadn’t been as slow. “It was enough to pique my intrigue,” he adds of his first SOPHIE experience, “and I promptly approached her for the remix, which subsequently led to a now-infamous beach party at OFFSónar later that year, where a completely unknown SOPHIE absolutely smashed it with a live set of fully-formed hits. Back then I was impressed with her confidence, and it came as absolutely no surprise that I would see her perform on the huge stage at the real Sónar in only a matter of years. To see her in the studio with Rihanna was more of an affirmation than a surprise — a matter of when, rather than if. As thrilling as it has been to watch until now, I feel like the best is yet to come, which is even more exciting.”
Dropping her bracing, carbonated pop sounds in 2013, which culminated in the celebrated ‘PRODUCT’ compilation album in 2015, SOPHIE led a new wave that obliterated all the old guard held dear — disorientating, saccharine tracks like ‘BIPP’ and ‘Lemonade’, paired with the unbridled ‘Hard’, blurred the boundaries of electronic music and its ideals. “When she sent us ‘BIPP’, I smiled for about a month,” says Calum, who plays as Spencer and runs Scottish label Numbers. Over a few months, they went back and forth on micro-edits. “When an artist has such clear and exciting ideas, it’s a pleasure to help refine them.
The collaboration on these records was built on respect and trust, but was also about doing something different, ignoring the old moulds of ‘dance music’, and instead focusing on being interesting, new and exciting. It wasn’t trying to be pop, but it was a huge influence — you can hear it. “The marriage of sound design, songwriting and hooks is so refreshing to me across all of her productions,” Calum continues. “At first, I thought she used to sound like equal parts Hudson Mohawke, Pet Shop Boys and Autechre in a boiling pot, but now, I’m unsure if there’s anyone that sounds like SOPHIE. We’re proud to be part of the family, and I doubt there will be another artist on our roster that we will drop everything to set up a silicone ‘product’ factory in the Gorbals [a Glaswegian neighbourhood] for.”
Urgent, spiky themes of consuming and the consumer play out in her meta-textual early world, transposed to real life with ‘Lemonade’ sound-tracking a McDonald’s advertisement. “There was an interesting dialogue at that time about authenticity,” reiterates SOPHIE. When she was less visible, and with little biographical info out there, questions loomed over her gender, and the intentions behind the PC Music movement she was an affiliate of, with its ad-jingle hooks and branded aesthetics. “It was valuable to talk about the authenticity of creators coming from various backgrounds to inhabit underground spaces,” she says. “The people of PC Music were really my people, and it was an informed wave that happened, something we cared about a lot.” The collective looked women-led — Hannah Diamond, GFOTY — and playfully stretched feminine caricatures: bubbly, hyper-commercial sounds, bug-eyed pop princesses posing against primary colours, twinkly voices over juddering beats. “We wanted to open up this space, and it definitely provoked a lot of useful conversations.”
Then came her ascension from a relentlessly mythologised, anonymous producer fronting a pulsating micro scene to the ultimate apex of pop, with last year’s ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ video. It stood as SOPHIE’s first appearance and vocal debut, and confirmation of her existence as a trans woman; a new era of SOPHIE that reached for vulnerability and transcendent beauty. “Is that a teardrop in your eye?” she asks in song, hands running through a halo of auburn curls in the stunning self-directed visual. “Becoming more visible was what felt comfortable to me at the time, as it felt like a challenge, opening up this new space for myself and others consequently to inhabit in music.” The narrative had formed around the musician that equated her anonymity with a calculated personal brand but, she tells us, that was never her intention despite the mythology constructed around her by others.
“Initially I was quite alright with letting the music speak for itself, but then the problem is, people start filling in the gaps for you,” she says. “In some ways I was happy about that — it allows you a certain amount of privacy. Then again, you might want to have more of a directive on certain parts.” With her press-frenzy inauguration and relentless rumination on her identity came dispirit, particularly at the “amount of nonsense” in how the media handles gender. “Much of the talk of trans issues by the press is serving other people’s agendas,” she says, getting the closest to fierce we’ve seen her. “I experienced how tightly bound that influence is on the public. With such narrow paths for identity and output, you’re funnelled down to represent these narrow issues. It became quite restricting, in what was meant to be liberating. It was exposing, having an image tied to an old circus. I have to re-contextualise and reconsider my art in other ways, to take back the narrative.”
Her creative metamorphosis continued as an ethereal amphibian-nymph, perched on a slab of granite by milky water on the cover of her 2018 debut album ‘Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’. It’s a record that challenges the binaries of what pop and underground music is, of gender, and what both our bodies and sonics can do, a record that topped DJ Mag’s albums of the year list too. “Artificial bloom / hydroponic skin / chemical release / synthesise the real,” ‘Faceshopping’ spits over juddering beats, celestial hooks sparring with abrasive pitch shifts. ‘Ponyboy’ is caustically sexual with its bulbous bassline, while effervescent pop banger ‘Immaterial’ and distorted, metallic ‘Whole New World’ encapsulate SOPHIE’s contrasting interests in artifice and the organic, the body and machine, identity and brand.
“I want to live in that strange, amorphous zone of discomfort, when it’s facilitating exactly what I want to make and achieve with my music,” she says, letting words form slowly on her rosebud lips. SOPHIE takes her time with each question, cupping her pointed chin, sharp cheekbones that rise across pearly skin in startling Ophelia beauty. Unafraid of long silences, she ponders and chooses her words carefully — budget airline planes power noisily through the sky above us, punctuating our conversation, but they don’t disturb her. She’s a Virgo, a star sign that she tells us defines many of the musicians and producers she knows and respects — observant, intense, detail oriented. “I think I’m in a weird place,” she offers, with confidence and playful curiosity, rather than the feelings of worry or confusion many would correlate with the ‘weird’. “My early music was quite rooted in UK dance music, and then it became more pop-focused after spending more time in the US, and now it’s ended up in a more experimental place that doesn’t fit comfortably in any existing system.”
SOPHIE’s work traverses slippery hyper-pop and experimental electronics, stretched apart and reworked by a latex-gloved hand. ‘Oil Of Every Pearl...' oscillates across curated, aerated eclecticism, pulling together SOPHIE’s impressive technical prowess — all of her sounds are made from scratch — and her knowledge of expansive, genre-refuting sonic scapes. It’s blazed across the stage of London’s Fabric and DIY spaces in Glasgow, European warehouses, US superclubs, and will tonight at an iconic Ibiza spot in a rare b2b with French producer Agoria. They’ve only met once at Coachella, but she’s excited to see what they can do together.
A keen collaborator, SOPHIE has transcended from her early pop avatar project QT with PC Music founder AG Cook to studio sessions with Charli XCX, Madonna and Rihanna alike, and signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in a major swing at the mainstream music industry. She is imminently releasing music with German pop-bop princess Kim Petras, a “dream partnership”. Speaking of their joint project, Petras says SOPHIE is "one of a kind... She’s driving a completely new genre that I think a lot of underground kids can really relate to. I think it means the world to them. Honestly, no one does it like SOPHIE.”
SOPHIE also tells us of the sprawling amount of collabs that have yet to see the light of day being kept under wraps. But for the time being, she’s focused on the next transfiguration of SOPHIE, ready to crescendo and climax into the next phase.
“I’m at a point now where I want to reassess what’s going on, and I’m interested to know how much I feel I would need to compromise on my values of how music should sound, what areas it should touch on, to fit into this kind of world,” she says. “I want to go into the clubs and experience it, have an audience’s perspective for the first time in a long time.” Her first experience of music and clubbing came early, rootling through rave cassettes of her half-brother’s and dad’s at just seven-years-old. “I would be transported to a new dimension,” she says fondly. “I loved sci-fi, I was obsessed with aliens, and those cerebral sounds of Kraftwerk and Orbital merged with that. I would play them on my toy keyboard until I could go see them for myself.” Age 10, she went to her first festival, a ravey event in Scotland, and as a teenager, she visited a half-sister — another raver, naturally — in Lanzarote, where she ended up DJing in bars and at a wedding.
Back in Scotland, SOPHIE’s life was more isolated. “I had to create my own experiences, build on the response I had rather than anything going on around me.” Music in her house had two contrasting experiences — her mother’s love of disco brought warmth to their home, but her father was distant through her childhood, only really connecting with her through festivals and clubbing. Going to art school to study sculpture, she found herself drawn to contemporary multidisciplinary artist Matthew Barney’s transworldly, body-centric aesthetics, and themes of the superhuman and depraved. “From when I was young, I was able to form my own loose fantasy, find my zone, and what resonated with me.” Music has always offered an escape, and offsets powerful, profound memories: “I remember falling in love, and connecting it to the Spice Girls’ ‘2 Become 1’. I was young, trying to flirt, though I didn’t really know it,” she laughs.
Her previous album felt like an interpersonal conversation with a younger self, getting in touch with her more intimate, sincere, human experiences. “I worked with my brother who I discovered so much music with,” she explains. “We had these conversations that referenced really obscure psy-trance tapes that were so important to us. We were able to touch on quite personal references, which I wouldn’t be able to share with anyone else. I’m allowing early rave stuff and those memories to be pretty influential for my new record.” Mostly, SOPHIE uses the Elektron Monomachine and Ableton Live to make music, building her instrumentals from waveforms, rather than traditional sampling, to form an expansive personal library. To her, it’s like sculpture, with all the materials, textures and forms at her fingertips.
“It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible. They shouldn’t be made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalised just through genre and categories. 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"
Her first sampler came from a friend of her dad’s in Spain, and it was bitty, difficult work that informed her developing production skills, using small sequences and writing music around them. She still uses her first mono machine, her “magic little black box”, says her girlfriend and manager, Tzef Montana, who is sitting nearby as we chat. “SOPHIE can turn anywhere into a studio.” “Not that that’s always to your taste!” says SOPHIE, the two exchanging a giggle and quick cigarettes, smoke wisping between them. “But seriously, an AirBnB, a bathroom, a hallway,” says Montana. “She’ll bring people into her studio or wherever she’s making do, and people in the know will always ask to see the black box, like her little party trick.”
SOPHIE has been slowly transposing her work method to exclusively use a Mac and accompanying software instruments, but will still find inspiration in the sounds of the natural world, before attempting to recreate them synthetically. “I’ve been working on a song recently that’s inspired by this swing I was on in Australia. It creaked a lot, and I could feel the resistance in my body with each swing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the sound, so I went back with my machine and tried to synthesise the effect.” That ethic illustrates itself in her back-catalogue — the puckering of latex, the rabid sigh of helium, a squelching patent heel on a sticky dancefloor. “We’ll be at the beach just chilling out, and she gets a stone, and throws it again and again, just to hear the ‘plop’,” says Montana with light exasperation.
Refusing to capitulate in any spectrum, SOPHIE is re-examining her live experience too. Her Fabric show last year was a monstrous, hypersexual cabaret of a live performance that saw SOPHIE flanked by dancers in latex and leather, whereas her DJ sets are mostly her original music — testing new, as-of-yet-unreleased material — pocked with leftfield choices, from hard dance to Kate Bush vocal snippets. “I’m still experimenting with exactly how I think an electronic music performance can or should be conducted,” she says. “I’ve tried a few different configurations, but I think I’m finally getting closer with the latest work I've done.
She says she “felt oppressed” by the strict format, as a performer, that a DJ has to navigate, tired of performing in a “standard DJ way”, behind the turntables. “I was envious of performers in pop or even old rock; taking their guitars to the front of the stage and having a real interaction with the crowd, free to move around, and use their bodies,” she says. “My challenge has always been moving away from the table, while having the same control, flexibility and stability in my sound. I can’t believe nobody else feels the same restrictions. Being hidden, rooted to the spot, with your body language un-engaging, looking down — that sucks.” SOPHIE points to EDM DJs such as Steve Aoki or Swedish House Mafia who get up on the tables, jumping, hands in the air. “I’m trying to find that perfect in-between.”
The questions and challenges SOPHIE continues to put to herself are present across our conversation, illustrated in a transparent, expansive thought process etched on her contemplative face. She talks of more pop collaborations and studio production, speaking frequently of the push-pull in compromising sound or message, of resources and the economic viability of self-funding to make her shows how she wants them to be, with frustration. “I’m here through persistence,” SOPHIE says with conviction, “through being really strong in my perspective, and being able to converse — arguing in conversations, or in the language of music, and letting it make its own point. I am about nurturing your music, protecting it, so it has a strong enough shell — when you bring it out into the world, if you’re playing it to crowds, it can fend for itself. My ideas have to feel strong enough in themselves that they can protect themselves in the outside world.”
In an IMS panel later that day on club culture, she highlights some of the issues around corporate investment, and the problems of budgets for artists wishing to work in a more avant-garde way in a commercial clubbing world. As her stratospheric rise continues, SOPHIE is well aware of the reckoning she has to do with the bulky industry machine. “I have to be specific about what I want, and navigate these tensions effectively,” SOPHIE says. “I need to somehow streamline everything, retake control over it, it’s something I’m working on every day. I think anyone claiming that they are limited in their ambitions to be underground is just selling themselves short,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I think if you are going into music, you aim to communicate with the largest group possible, and you don’t want to segregate people by exclusively appealing to a niche. Really, it’s a nice fantasy to do it all without compromising your core values, that’s the real challenge. “We’re in an era where we’re recalculating what’s considered mainstream and underground,” she continues. “Ibiza-type DJs — that is a mainstream route of its own now, a huge industry, a huge culture, a huge fan-base worldwide. The mainstream has pockets and nuances that sometimes get ignored. Everyone is trying to find the right formula to have enough control, and to not compromise on their values.”
Though it’s still a divisive topic in hot take-ridden dance music discourse — from Instagram-branded partnerships to corporate investments in festivals — commerciality is something SOPHIE continues to meditate on, looking to the poptimism and irreverence to underground traditional values that she sees in her fans for direction. “Young people don’t make that distinction between pop music and so-called underground music anymore,” she affirms. “I always just saw young people ignoring those binaries and being the most interested in what makes them feel a different way. We shouldn’t have to align with these seemingly polar opposite groups, make these alliances or niches. You can appreciate certain aspects of underground culture, and you can despise certain aspects. It’s yours to pick and choose.”
Becoming more pop prominent in the age of ‘stan’ culture, SOPHIE has garnered a passionate fandom that rivals even that of Peggy Gou’s. Look into the nebulous crowd at one of her shows and you’ll see a glorious celebration of today’s queer youth — drag babies, club kids, BDSM queens. It’s one of the reasons that she sees her mainstream success as bolstering as it is. “It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible,” she says. “They shouldn’t be made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalised just through genre and categories. 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.” With a dedicated fan-base that feels marginalised and unrepresented comes weighty responsibility that has, SOPHIE says, been emotionally corrosive.
“I have to constantly ground myself and realise I’m only really responsible for my own wellbeing,” she asserts. “You can’t take that weight on full time. Sometimes, it’s enough just to be yourself and be comfortable in you. Do I feel some kind of responsibility? Yes of course, but I try to ignore that and focus on what feels right to me, first of all. And I think only by doing that, can I actually be responsible for other people, for those queer kids coming to the shows or listening, wherever they are.” In a moment of shared, agreeable silence, she reaches down to fiddle with her shoe lace, running a pale finger across her ankle to unstick her sock from her leg in the Ibiza humidity. “And a tip for the trans girls out there,” she says in a coy aside, pointing to her shin-high combat boots. “Doc Martens.” In a current state of flux, SOPHIE has a backlog of a whole album and more’s worth of material, one that she has tested on her fans with shows, but feels she’s already outgrowing.
“I’ve toured it all without it being released — it gave great performance, but I’ve already gone too fast. I feel like I’ve definitely moved even beyond those ideas now.” But not to worry, there’s more — with her next epoch, SOPHIE hopes to tear down the industry-imposed deism on her image, and the narrative imposed on her as both a visible artist and a trans woman. “I’m moving past that feeling of being empowered in a revolutionary way on the last album. It’s something, for sanity’s sake, I needed to reel back.”
It’s all about staying grounded; amid the work with global pop stars, sound-tracking Gucci shows and February’s Grammy nomination, she’s getting back to keeping her artistry at large, rather than uber-image-focused, as she explores her next chapter. SOPHIE confirms hopes that this will culminate in a forthcoming album, one that’s a collaborative work with pop-affronting “eye-catchers” and “relatable” earworms. “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 now, and the me next.”