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SOPHIE: An icon who made music a more fearless place

Harrison Brocklehurst remembers SOPHIE, the pioneering artist who shaped the worlds of pop and underground music and inspired a generation of LGBTQ+ club kids

  • Harrison Brocklehurst
  • 30 January 2021

Pioneering artist SOPHIE has died age 34. Harrison Brocklehurst remembers an icon who shaped the worlds of pop and underground music and inspired a generation of LGBTQ+ club kids

Today I feel deeply lucky to have had the opportunity to witness a SOPHIE show firsthand in 2018. It was a DJ set at the iconic Kitchen Street venue in Liverpool; a sweat filled grimy hole of a place that remains as beloved as it is dingy. The whole place was pulsating with life - the SOPHIE-produced and Pulp Fiction-quoting Charli XCX banger ‘Trophy’ blasting out of soundsystem as a cacophony of queer misfits and avant-garde music fanatics came together in a sanctuary of self expression and euphoria. When she took to that stage, the presence alone of an artist who could make a room erupt in screams with just a striking facial expression was something to truly behold. It was an incredible night of music – taking place just after the release of SOPHIE’s Grammy-nominated LP ‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’ – and it really felt like we were witnessing an artist performing her last intimate gigs before entering stratospheric global superstardom.

Born in Glasgow to music adoring parents, a love affair with electronic music began when SOPHIE’s father would play her tapes in his car, kickstarting a passion and ambition to be a DJ that lead to SOPHIE wanting to leave school to pursue producing full time. SOPHIE’s adult music career began with a stint in the band Motherland before becoming introduced to the PC Music label through Danny L Harle and A. G. Cook’s work. What followed was her pulsating and writhing 2013 debut single ‘Nothing More To Say’, a thumping dance call to arms that garnered critical adoration that only increased exponentially with the release of its follow up ‘Bipp’, a glitchy hyperpop bubble-under-water-sensation song, with vocals from SOPHIE’s former Motherland bandmate Marcella Dvsi, that pushed the Glaswegian producer to new level of critical success with ‘Bipp’ placing highly on numerous publications’ End Of Year lists.

Pop superstars were taking notice of this groundbreaking and unmistakable sound: in 2015, SOPHIE did some uncredited work alongside Diplo on Madonna’s raucous and unyielding ‘Rebel Heart’ single ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, a hugely pioneering moment for hyperpop in the mainstream and a nice full circle moment where she got to pay tribute to the ‘Material Girl’ superstar with the 2018 ‘OIL…’l track ‘Immaterial’ (‘Lemonade’ was also picked for a McDonald’s ad, further proof of SOPHIE’s crossover status.)

SOPHIE continued to drip feed singles following ‘Bipp’ building to the 2015 release of her debut project ‘PRODUCT’ - a record that garnered the same level of acclaim that she was fast becoming accustomed to. It was around this time that Charli XCX announced that she’d been working with SOPHIE on music for her upcoming third album, preceding the LP release with the infamous EP ‘Vroom Vroom’, four tracks created in full collaboration with SOPHIE. The impact that SOPHIE had on Charli’s sound as an artist, starting with this EP and continuing on in the rest of her critically acclaimed career, is a small scale parallel to mirror the way she had an impact on the world’s dance music sound as a whole.

2 years on from ‘PRODUCT’ in 2017, SOPHIE released the lead single and music video from ‘OIL OF PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’, the hauntingly beautiful and delicate ‘It’s Okay To CRY’. It’s important to note that up to this point in her career, the producer had remained out of the public eye, choosing to take an elusive approach to live shows and rarely doing interviews or photoshoots.

All that changed with the striking and raw ‘It’s Okay to Cry’, putting Sophie front and centre, singing with gently whispered vocals and showing the artist naked, raw and vulnerable. It was a profound moment, and one that signalled a new era of music that garnered SOPHIE a very well deserved Best Dance/Electronic Grammy nomination and one that solidified SOPHIE as a queer trailblazer and an icon and pillar of light for the trans community. When asked why she selected the name SOPHIE, she was quoted saying “it tastes good and it’s like moisturizer” - a statement that captures SOPHIE’s sensual grasp of language and repeated theme of product and materialism (also manifested in the QT pop avatar and energy drink that she devised with Quinn Thomas and A. G. Cook).

Once SOPHIE released ‘Its Okay To Cry’, she took herself from the position of elusive underground artist to an artist who told her fans that being trans was something to own, something to celebrate and something to be fearless with. The impact of this on her young queer fans is something that will be felt for years to come; as more and more young LGBTQ+ kids listen to her music and use that legacy to come to terms with who they are and self express their own way. When asked what transness is to her, SOPHIE told Paper magazine in 2018: “transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other and struggling to survive. On this earth, it’s that you can get closer to how you feel your true essence is without the societal pressures of having to fulfill certain traditional roles based on gender. It means you’re not a mother or a father - you’re an individual who’s looking at the world and feeling the world.”

"God is trans" - SOPHIE

SOPHIE’s influence on music over the last decade will be felt for decades to come, across dancefloors and in recording studios as producers create beats influenced by the pops, squeaks, glitches and ruptures that made up the glossy, hyper glistening sheen that defined the icon’s work. The genre known to most now thanks to a Spotify playlist as hyperpop, is both defined and curated by the legacy of SOPHIE’s music. Building on the work of A. G. Cook’s PC Music, in less than 10 years, she created a sound that had people listening to new releases and describing them as “SOPHIE-esque”. She will be remembered in the queer community as the artist who made LGBTQ+ people who felt they were too weird, too goth, too much of a misfit for dance events that they still had a valid place in rave culture. The artists who SOPHIE pioneered the way for and produced for are up there with some of the most acclaimed artists releasing today; Kim Petras, Let’s Eat Grandma, Vince Staples, Flume, Slayyyter. French superstar Christine and the Queens paid tribute on Twitter, saying SOPHIE was “a stellar producer, a visionary, a reference. She rebelled against the narrow, normative society by being an absolute triumph, both as an artist and as a woman. I can’t believe she is gone. We need to honour and respect her memory and legacy. Cherish the pioneers.”

Music in a post-SOPHIE world is a more fearless place. It must continue to be fearless, to be groundbreaking, to take risks, to use maximalist sounds and build on the legacy of SOPHIE’s discography to take the electronic genre to the next level. SOPHIE created every soundscape in her work from scratch, building up atmosphere to an extraterrestrial dimension, seen most vividly in ‘OIL...’’s mesmerising ‘Pretending’, a sci fi horror-esque odyssey of sound that really highlights how powerful this genre can be. Artists should continue to take inspiration from SOPHIE’s discography as the pinnacle of what it means to produce sound and blow people’s minds with possibility.

Paying tribute to an artist who still feels like they only just began to change the world is an extremely upsetting and daunting task. The song in her discography that’s having the most resonance as the world reels from this devastating news is ‘JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE’, an early 00’s sounding chipmunked vocalled bluetooth-me-that-at-the-back-of-the-school-bus finale that’s as danceable as it is lyrically heartbreaking. This is for you, SOPHIE. We’ll miss you.

"Oh, just like we never said goodbye,
When you held my hand that way,
Still got that glint in your eye,
Like you did the very first time,
Oh, it’s like we never said goodbye,
And it makes me feel, makes me feel, like everything that I could ever need,
And it makes me feel, and it makes me feel, like I don't ever wanna say goodbye"

Harrison Brocklehurst is a freelance features writer. Follow him on Twitter here

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