Remembering SOPHIE, 21st Century Pop Pioneer

Karl Smith, a long-time fan of SOPHIE, looks back at the life and work of an inimitable, sky-scraping talent taken from us too soon

"I can make you feel better, if you let me."

This was the promise SOPHIE made to fans on ‘BIPP’, back in 2013. A promise on which the musician consistently and increasingly made good over the course of the next eight years, until a tragic and untimely death on January 30, 2021, following what has been called a "sudden accident." It was imprinted, written in capitals, on the DNA sequencing of everything the artist ever created for uS, and shared with us, over those years. Every song, every image, every idea.

"I can make you feel better, if you let me." An easy thing to say, really. But a much harder pact to keep in practice, over time.

Yet, what’s most striking about this promise, particularly today – as I sit here writing this, hours after first hearing word of that terrible news – is that SOPHIE never told us the music would, or even could, make us feel good. We were never promised it would only ever be joy that the music brought to us – or that it would all be okay in the end. All we were ever told, honestly and sincerely, was that we could be made to feel – or, at most, feel better.

If you let the music.

And when SOPHIE couldn’t make us feel good, when even the music couldn’t break whatever malicious spell you were under completely, this music could always be counted on to make us feel something. Some kind of way. And, often, that was as worthwhile and necessary as anything, any feeling more named or knowable.

Whatever you needed – whether that was catharsis, euphoria, or just to experience something so seemingly simple yet so elusive as a few minutes of pure, unbridled, capital "F" Fun – SOPHIE was more than capable and more than generous enough to provide it.

Whether you were coming up hard, spiralling downward at terminal velocity, or just drifting – listless and numb – somewhere in the middle, it felt like SOPHIE had your back. A companion who wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to.

For my part, I can’t count the times that SOPHIE provided the backdrop against which so many sweaty, waiting-for-the-sunrise kinds of nights – some glistening and euphoric, others bleak and clammy – were played out. I can’t imagine them any other way.

Sometime in November 2015, at the Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavík, I was introduced to SOPHIE by a friend. The artist was at the festival in an official capacity as part of the hyperreal energy drink avatar pop project QT (because these are the kinds of things we say without even thinking when we talk about SOPHIE, and as much as anyone can do that in an "official capacity") but was out that night to see my friend DJ at a local bar and say hi. SOPHIE was, as you’d expect, gracious, shy and open-hearted even in the quietness created.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, or what passed between us during that brief conversation, only that I imagine it was something that seemed stupid immediately afterward. Something like, "Thank you." Now, though, that seems fitting enough.

After all, what else is there to say?

Born in Glasgow, in 1986, to parents who fostered and nurtured young SOPHIE’s musical inclinations, coming to first aspirations as a DJ via the tape deck in the family car, a young SOPHIE dropped out of school to pursue music full time: first, as the keyboardist and principal songwriter for the band Motherland, then – having been introduced to the contentious but pioneering label PC Music – under the mononym that the musician was carried with so eruditely from the underground to the mainstream.

Having – like so many artists in recent years – come across the work of A.G. Cook and Danny L. Harle, SOPHIE, neither for the first nor last time, found a renewed sense of vision in the work being created, adopting some elements of the PC Music label’s tone of voice – most notably a staunch refusal to disguise the electronic elements of production, or to even distinguish them from what could be considered the more "human" parts – and pushing it further still. Shunting and juddering toward a more abrasive yet somehow kinder-feeling, happy hardcore and Eurodance-adjacent sensibility that blurred the boundaries of "real" and "unreal," SOPHIE preferred instead to gyrate with gusto in the neon realm of the hyperreal.

With the release of a first solo track, ‘NOTHING MORE TO SAY’ – an almost Justice-esque dance romp – and its follow-up single, ‘BIPP’, SOPHIE literally and figuratively put capital letters back into a dance music scene which had, all too often, decided that being intelligent and being fun were for some reason mutually exclusive. You could have brains or you could have vibes, was the conventionally drab wisdom of the time. But that kind of wisdom exists exclusively to be challenged. To be broken and shattered into tiny, jagged pieces, reflecting full spectrums of light in every direction.

Intentionally or not, SOPHIE accepted that challenge. And, in doing so, not only shone a light on the gaping, dismal holes that perforated that entire way of thinking, but also cut new personal holes.

In this sense, those of us who were lucky enough to have been familiar – intimate, even – with SOPHIE’s music over the course of the too-few years that we shared together, knew the musician first and foremost not as the mega-star-adjacent avant-pop icon SOPHIE would become, but as something of an underground iconoclast: an enigmatic producer of confrontationally emphatic dance music that made you, if not exactly sure how you were supposed to, desperate to move your body in some way or another.

The slow-drip of outsider dance-pop singles that would eventually make up the 2015 compilation PRODUCT are also what would, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, begin SOPHIE’s steady ascension to pop stardom. These tracks not only caught the ear of one Charli XCX – clearly in the market for reinvention, and who only now sounds the way she does thanks to a relationship with SOPHIE and the PC Music label – leading to their collaboration on the 2016 EP VROOM VROOM, but also of another iconic mother of metamorphoses.

In 2015, SOPHIE also got the call to work – albeit uncredited – on ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’, from the album Rebel Heart. Two mononyms, forever entangled, on a track that actually slaps the hardest if (forgive me) you cut out Madonna and Diplo altogether. That should tell you all you need to know about the kind of force that we, they, and the music world at large were inviting into our lives.

From there, SOPHIE would go on to push the boundaries of what we can expect an underground electronic music producer from a relatively obscure label to achieve, collaborating with the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Kim Petras – dividing time and talents between household names and those in which were glimpsed, almost always correctly, something truly special.

In truth, though, it was finding a personal voice that will likely prove to be the most powerful and enduring legacy. With the release of ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ in late 2017 and the reveal of a debut full-length, Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, in 2018, SOPHIE walked out from the shadow of those towering capital letters and into the warm, pulsating light which had been self-created over all those years.

‘It’s Okay To Cry’ took away the blips, ticks and metallic clangs which had dominated SOPHIE’s work and, instead, pushed the vocals and the personality to the foreground; hushed, raw and set free from underneath the electronic shroud SOPHIE had luxuriated in for so long. And, while the mononym remained, we were introduced, also, to Sophie Xeon; a fallible human being, whose wavering vocal uncertainty was matched only by a spirit of conviction.

The SOPHIE we had come to know, love, and revere for a glitchy and incredulous sound was far from gone though – the SOPHIE stamp remains all over Oil…, on each and every song in ways we couldn’t have expected until its release – having simply found a way to coexist with other elements of the artist’s personality that could now flourish alongside them.

While SOPHIE had been a consistent favourite in the queer community for an outsider approach to pop and dance music – a sound which naturally appealed to those who also found the notion of being defined by simple, limiting and misunderstood terms to be an affront to all that they are – Oil… established the producer as something more.

Rightly called a queer icon and a trans icon, variously, it’s perhaps the artist’s team who, in their statement on SOPHIE’s tragic death, best expressed everything that made SOPHIE so special to so many, invoking "an icon of liberation." Transgressive, the label that released Oil…, further shared the sad news that Sophie Xeon had died from a sudden accident, climbing up to see the full moon.

It’s such a cruel thing to happen to someone who clearly had so much left to give – such a split-second moment, seemingly so innocuous yet with such hideous and lasting repercussions. But it’s also, in a way, everything that we came to love about SOPHIE. After all, the artist spent an entire life climbing up to better see the light of the full moon, passing it down and around to those of us who couldn’t or wouldn’t do it for ourselves. A true pop Prometheus.

In what now feels like an ever smaller space of time than the eight years we had the music, SOPHIE managed to create a library so defiantly emotional that it could carry you through any moment. Cruelly, that same breadth of emotional scope and generosity of spirit is now the soundtrack to our loss.

The outpouring of grief from within the music community since the news of SOPHIE’s passing has been as telling as it is heartwarming; the different corners from which artists and critics alike have come to gather and discuss what the music meant to them is a vindication of everything that the vision and the work, stood for and the ways in which SOPHIE encouraged us to think. What’s more heartening still, though, is the number of people who had apparently never heard of SOPHIE before this week and who have, by all accounts, seemingly been blown away by what little they’ve managed to hear so far.

For a moment, I could almost be jealous – how lucky they are! But that wouldn’t be right at all; it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the legacy which SOPHIE has left for all of us – not just for those of us who knew or felt like they knew the work and who have already lived alongside it. No, instead, I’m happy for what they have to come – excited for all the joy they have yet to experience, and all the moments in their life which will become so entwined with this unmistakable sound.

Moving forward, it’s hard to imagine a world where new music doesn’t directly benefit from SOPHIE’s talent and boundless vision — or, of course, in which there is no new music from the artist. It’s hard to imagine a new day in which those who need SOPHIE most will have to be content with those words left behind.

Yet, what has been created for us all, the ripples and reverberations this work has sent juddering through the musical landscape over a too-short time in this world, will leave a tangible imprint on so much yet to come. In some ways, like we never said goodbye.

This article has been edited to remove all personal pronouns for SOPHIE in accordance with the wishes of the artist’s team

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