Music

The untimely death of the iconic producer SOPHIE brings to an end a spectacular career that reshaped modern pop. By Shaad D’Souza.

SOPHIE

Music producer SOPHIE.
Credit: Charlotte Wales

SOPHIE had little time for metaphors. Traditional ones, anyway. From early on, the Scottish-born producer and trans icon – who died in an accident last week at the age of 34 – was reluctant to work within the margins and common terminology of modern music.

In a few years, SOPHIE – who was known for a jarring, avant-garde sound that reshaped the conventions of modern pop – went from the British underground to producing for top-tier pop artists and rappers, including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna. The “SOPHIE sound” was everywhere. “The language of electronic music shouldn’t still be referencing obsolete instruments like kick drum or clap,” SOPHIE said in 2014, around the release of the breakthrough singles “BIPP” and “LEMONADE”. “No one’s kicking or clapping. They don’t have to!”

Neither structured nor named traditionally, SOPHIE’s early 2010s singles felt like pieces of sound art composed from the aural detritus of everyday life: “BIPP” the sound of skin against latex, a kettle whistling, an automatic door whooshing open; “LEMONADE” bubbles in a glass, a SodaStream overcarbonating; “HARD” and “VYZEE” pot lids falling into a metal sink. This insistence that electronic music does not have to follow the aesthetic or symbolic strictures of musical history – that a certain vibration does not have to be considered “bass” or “keys” or “kick” – is a small distinction with earth-shattering repercussions. Hearing a SOPHIE composition for the first time felt like your world breaking in two.

They were pop songs with accessible and unforgettable melodies, songs that could be repeated over and over. SOPHIE was a producer of few tools, and this intentional restriction bolstered the art, forcing creativity and minimalism in a pop landscape then largely dominated by maximalist producers such as Diplo and Max Martin. The early SOPHIE singles were composed nearly entirely on the Elektron Monomachine. There were few boundaries in how SOPHIE thought about music – melody could be percussive, and a percussion line could speak more than a vocal. In interviews, SOPHIE spoke about music like an architect: “I’ve synthesised ideas for latex, balloons, bubbles, metal, plastic, elastic, all on the Mono.”

SOPHIE’s music was rooted, fundamentally, in a kind of musical realism. SOPHIE’s songs were images of real life taken with a telephoto lens: the elements were all compressed, perhaps rubbing a little closer in frame than they would in real life, but realistic and real nonetheless. “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective – to find out what is authentically this moment,” SOPHIE told the writer Sasha Geffen in 2017.

Rather than seek to understand the world through metaphor or symbolism, SOPHIE sought truth and bracing reality. It is bold and dangerous to face the world head-on in such a way, and SOPHIE’s music was both, finding comfort and warmth within an aesthetic – the glassy, the metallic, the ultra-plastic – that ordinarily signifies late-capitalist inhumanity. As our world has become more obsessed with technological advancement at the expense of humanitarian advancement, art has been less and less able to properly interpret it; SOPHIE’s music, on the other hand, allowed us to see ourselves among a climate of excess and alienation. SOPHIE’s music was surreal and sometimes strange, but it was always truthful.

SOPHIE’s world view and philosophy was so striking and so fully formed on arrival that, although an early song such as “HARD” may have been “a vision of what pop could be” – a pithy referent used a lot when SOPHIE debuted – within a few years, it was simply a vision of pop as it was.

Some pop stars emerged as natural muses for SOPHIE, including Liz, Let’s Eat Grandma and, most notably, Charli XCX, for whom SOPHIE produced the 2016 EP Vroom Vroom, and with whom SOPHIE shared both a perfectionist streak and an obsession with the new and never-been-done. The record’s onomatopoeic title track is one of SOPHIE’s all-time best, an anarchic and thrilling car chase rendered as four minutes of vulcanised, scorched-earth pop. It feels generation-defining in its own time.

SOPHIE seemed to welcome the mainstream adoption of the sound, often denouncing the way “experimental” music is gatekept and arbitrated. SOPHIE walked the walk, too, making a deep catalogue of sounds and samples available on the sample library platform Splice. Fans adopted this mentality: production techniques and sounds were shared and discussed freely on Discord forums and Reddit threads dedicated to SOPHIE, and many fan-favourite songs were bootlegs recorded at live shows and DJ sets, then cleaned up with amateur software. These tracks became mythical and sought after, and many are among SOPHIE’s best: a version of Rihanna’s “Nothing Is Promised”, featuring Young Thug; the hallowed Charli XCX collaboration “Taxi”; the nihilistic “Burn Rubber”, featuring Sarah Bonito.

In 2017, SOPHIE released a single and accompanying video titled “It’s Okay to Cry”, the first single from the debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, and appeared on camera for the first time, naked and wearing facial prosthesis and make-up. The video is revelatory – not a coming out so much as a spectacular assertion of trans identity – and is soundtracked not by plastics or metals but by something akin to piano. SOPHIE’s penchant for synthesising harsh, tactile, realist sounds meant that the emergence of a “metaphorical” sound – in this case, something approximating piano, paired with SOPHIE’s real, unfiltered voice – was breathtaking, placing the song in a rich lineage of emancipated pop ballads. “It’s Okay To Cry” is laden with the weight and liberation of seeing someone be seen as they truly are for the first time. On the song, SOPHIE sings – perhaps to SOPHIE:

There’s a world inside you
I wanna know what it feels like
I wanna go there with you
’Cause we’ve all got a dark place
Maybe if we shine some light there
It won’t be so hard.

Although SOPHIE didn’t think of music in terms of albums, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES is a glorious statement, a self-portrait melting and re-forming in real time. SOPHIE resisted ideas that music had to be autobiographical in order to be truthful, and that tension resonates throughout the record, from its camp, bombastic bangers (“Ponyboy”, “Faceshopping”) to the bracing crescendo “Is It Cold in the Water?”, a crystalline epic of self-realisation.

Although the past two years suggested SOPHIE was moving towards an even more thrilling, house-driven style – last year’s quarantine livestream HEAV3N SUSPENDED and a remix of Sonikku’s “Sweat” are essential – OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES feels definitive, so ably does it capture a philosophy of art and life. It’s a record that drips with freedom, but it’s also the reason that it feels so simplistic to describe SOPHIE’s music as purely “liberating”: where narratives of liberation in music usually rely on subversion or reappropriation, SOPHIE’s music provided a new language of expression, and suggested that liberation is only a necessity if you live under a world view that isn’t your own, for anyone other than yourself. The idea is summed up most clearly on the best pop song SOPHIE ever wrote, “Immaterial”:

I could be anything I want
Anyhow, anywhere
Any place, anyone that I want
We’re just
Immaterial girls! Immaterial boys! 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Strange truths".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.