Taken from our Winter 17/18 Issue, read the full feature with Grammy-nominated SOPHIE online for the first time.
In the age of social media, the idea that musicians need to overshare to be successful is more prominent than ever. SOPHIE doesn’t agree: “I still can’t even think of what I would post on Instagram,” she laughs. “I have no idea what people would find interesting because my brain just doesn’t work in that way – it’s just not my mode of communication.” Despite managers telling her at the start of her career that she should adapt to be successful, SOPHIE instead followed her intuition and quietly shared a series of singles online. It was in 2013 that her squelchy, electronic production and sunny soundscapes first garnered critical acclaim but, when journalists came calling for soundbites, she largely ignored their requests. “I’m not interested in doing interviews for the sake of it,” she explains. “I feel like I need to have something to talk about because, if not, it can actually confuse the message rather than help to explain it.”
In fact, this Notion cover shoot marks the first publication she’s ever done a photoshoot for. A truly collaborative effort, the images represent a real landmark moment in the career of an artist we know little about. Sure, she’s done short interviews in the past, but she’s largely refused interview requests and bucked the trend of giving lazy soundbites and boring biographical information. She lets her music do the talking and, frankly, her success so far has allowed her to be selective.
So, as I sit in my Malaysian hotel room FaceTiming SOPHIE in Los Angeles, where she has lived for two years, I’m not sure what to expect. I’m immediately pleasantly surprised. SOPHIE may be labelled ‘enigmatic’ and ‘elusive’ but she is actually quite the opposite. This is exemplified by her request to see her interviewer face-to-face – a rare stipulation which reveals an emphasis on human interaction hard to find in the fast-paced music industry. She even says she’s read my work in preparation, which is heartening to know – there’s a sense of trust which makes conversation flow much easier. She laughs often, pauses for contemplation before each answer and asks about my life and work as often as she talks about her own. “The irony is that my favourite thing to do is meet new people,” she chuckles. “I love talking to people and I’m genuinely interested in their lives. I talk to fans at shows as well – they can ask me anything, and it’s really the only chance I get to genuinely thank them for taking an interest in my work. I do that in person as opposed to online – I guess I’m a bit old-school really!”
More importantly, we actually have something to talk about, namely her ethereal new single, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, which places her voice front and centre for the first time ever. “It’s not so much that I see this new music as different, more that I’m continually investigating other parts of my musical world and my inner world,” she muses. “I don’t see it as a distinct shift. I still have the same perspectives as I have done all along, it’s just a different manifestation of those things.”
It’s only natural that SOPHIE has picked up a few new tricks since first blowing up with high-energy tracks like ‘BIPP’ and ‘LEMONADE’. In just a few years, she has already racked up an impressive list of collaborators which includes the likes of Vince Staples and Charli XCX. Even Madonna called on the producer to work her sonic magic, enlisting her skills alongside Diplo and Nicki Minaj on ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’: “It was always my intention to collaborate, because I find that way of working really inspiring,” she states. “I think, to some degree, the idea of that lonely bedroom producer sweating it out on their own, that whole ‘tortured artist’ stereotype, it’s quite outdated. I feel like you can dry up pretty quickly without external influences.”
These influences also came from within PC Music, a record label and artist collective which SOPHIE was closely affiliated with. Their pitch-shifted vocals, saccharine melodies and high-octane production shared some commonalities, but critics feverishly compared SOPHIE with the likes of A.G. Cook and Hannah Diamond, hailing PC Music as a new genre of electronic music. “I think that was a misconception really,” states SOPHIE thoughtfully. “I think a lot of the music made at that time was boiled down into a few ingredients which represented the sound, but if you listen to my back catalogue and the music my friends made, it’s very eclectic and touches on a lot of different feelings. Everyone that was part of that group had very different personalities and interests.”
This contemplative answer is characteristic of SOPHIE; she thinks before she speaks, goes into an impressive level of detail and, refreshingly, never gives linear responses. The way she visualises music is exemplary of this mindset: “I see sounds as sculptures,” she explains. “I have talked about it a lot, the way I try and synthesise sounds. 3D has always resonated with me a lot more than 2D – I love sculptural installations and experiential exhibitions, so I try and create that same effect with my music.”
This ethos also manifests visually in the recently-released video for ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, directed by SOPHIE and co-directed by Nicholas Harwood. The concept for the clip is simple but effective, relying on a juxtaposition between human emotion and an artificial backdrop. As SOPHIE’s face – fully visible for the first time in her career – twists and contorts to demonstrate a range of emotions, thunderstorms and explosions sporadically erupt behind her: “I was just thinking about tension and thunder, and how something as small as a breath can be like a thunderstorm,” she says. “In the song, you get these pockets of pressure which build up and suck the air out of breaths. It’s almost like this sculpting of tension followed by a release, so that made its way into the video in the form of explosions made out of these sort of doppler effects.”
Incidentally, this visibility has also shed light on speculation surrounding SOPHIE’s gender identity which has been swirling online for years. Offering further clarification, a recent Stereogum news article on the video stated with little fanfare that the artist uses female pronouns. In a world determined to either shame or sensationalise trans identities, the fact that SOPHIE is an artist first and foremost feels like a real breakthrough: “Friends of mine, who I care about a lot, find it upsetting to have their gender identity preface every single thing that’s ever written about them because they don’t really see it as necessary,” she says, describing society’s compulsive need to rely on labels, stereotypes and categorisation. “They want to be individuals. They want to be artists. I relate to that way of thinking – I want to put the work at the forefront.”
It’s hard not to think that this might be the reason she’s been so private in the past. Minorities often find themselves pigeonholed, subjected to invasive questioning and, as SOPHIE says herself, reduced to nothing more than their pronouns. She simply says that now the time just feels right – a concise yet beautiful answer which rejects politicisation and allows her work to be consumed without any preconceived notions.
This desire to create high-quality work without distraction also helps to explain her relationship with social media, and media more generally. The first piece of advice young artists are given is to build a following. Share your work. Build a brand. The fact that SOPHIE has been so successful without sticking to this blueprint feels both unusual and unintentionally rebellious – a sort of ‘fuck you’ to the men in suits looking to mould new artists into something they aren’t. “Well, I wouldn’t exactly advise my methods as a good marketing ploy,” she says cheekily before cackling out loud. “People tell me all the time that I could be doing better if I were on Facebook, or Instagram. Actually, as soon as I started to make music I was told that I had to do that, or nothing would happen. I guess I wanted to see if I could get my music heard without doing those things, because they just never really felt essential to me or what I was doing. I suppose I just always followed my intuition and tried to be honest, true to myself.”
The mention of honesty is interesting, especially within the context of the music industry. It’s no secret that the public have long lauded bearded dudes with acoustic guitars singing lovelorn ballads as ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’, labels which seem to exist only in opposition to ‘faceless’ electronic music. It’s a myth which still stands, best proven last year by Calum Scott, who stripped back Robyn’s ‘Dancing On My Own’ and charted higher than the original. His version was stripped of its original production and focused solely on his voice, but it was also devoid of the charisma, passion and pounding, electronic catharsis of the high-octane original.
Similarly, SOPHIE’s music whizzes by in a swirl of beeps, blips and other onomatopoeic sounds, but there’s a distinct sense of her own character in everything she does – even when she doesn’t use her own vocals. “I think my vision of myself and my music didn’t necessarily involve me,” she says of working with other singers on her music. “I wanted my voice to be something other than it is – and I still do. Really, it was just a case of me wanting to recreate what was in my head as precisely as I could. At that time, it meant going out, meeting literally anyone and just asking if they sang. If they did, then they would often come around and record. I would do things like that because it really couldn’t have worked any other way.”
She also calls bullshit on the insinuation that artists should consistently lay themselves bare to facilitate a connection with their fans. “A lot of the music I’m really interested is made by artists who you don’t know too much about, they really put their work at the forefront,” she explains. “I connect with that emotionally, and it seemed the most obvious way for me to present things – I was almost more honestly expressing myself through my music than I would have been able to through my image.”
Because she explains her influences so rarely, many critics have read into her work. Some believe that the synthetic sounds and saccharine melodies are a social commentary, leading to lengthy analyses which describe her work as a statement on branding, pop culture and the sugar-coated messages fed by advertisers desperate to sell. “Well, we are all engulfed by this vocabulary of advertising and marketing,” she says. “You can’t avoid it; it’s our everyday life. If you are trying to reflect the times you live in then it is important to be aware of those things, but I wouldn’t say my sole intention is to create that commentary. I think you need a bit more depth than that,” she laughs. “I think it’s more a case of seeing the culture around you and trying to embed different thoughts and feelings within that.”
Despite her intentions to fuse the personal and political, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ feels extremely intimate. The lyrics read like a letter of support, perhaps to herself, perhaps to someone else: ‘We’ve all got a dark place / Maybe if we shine some light there / It won’t be so hard / I want to know those parts of you’, she sings. Despite the reluctance to engage with social media, fans undeniably feel connected to SOPHIE. They fly to see her live, dissect her lyrics in forums and take inspiration from her music, often creating their own remixes: “It really is quite amazing,” she muses.“People record every single thing at the shows and they create whole new remixes of things. I would like to think that it’s because they like the music and that they hear something in it which inspires them.”
In an unprecedented move, SOPHIE recently deepened this connection further by choosing to debut new material – which still doesn’t have an official release date – live. “I would imagine it a bit like the days before recorded music existed, when people would go to a concert hall to listen to a new composition. You have no preconceptions and you’re in a focused headspace, whereas now people record everything and listen to it so much that, by the time it comes out, it’s boring and they hate it,” she laughs. “So I really wanted to give people that were there that experience – to paint more of a picture for them, I suppose.”
"It's Okay To Cry" by SOPHIE
It seems that SOPHIE is lowering the veil on her own terms, steering clear of the dull, biographical facts which usually dominate interviews and instead building genuine connections with the people she meets and works with. We’re getting to know her better, but there are risks which come alongside it. It’s no secret, for example, that mainstream media likes to politicise the identities of minorities whether they like it or not. SOPHIE isn’t worried, though: “I don’t really mind how my work is received by people because I know my intentions,” she says calmly. “It doesn’t bother me if my real intentions aren’t fully captured, but if they weren’t visible at all? That would annoy me slightly,” she laughs. This beautifully unapologetic sentiment is perhaps best captured by the video for ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, which feels like a true celebration. “It just felt right,” she says with a smile. “I’m having fun in my body, and I wanted to represent that, because before I wasn’t having fun in my body. I wasn’t using it to express the way I feel and who I am. Now, I am doing that.”
There’s something joyous about speaking to SOPHIE. She’s quick-witted, genuinely endearing and incredibly intelligent, making it easy to root for her success. “I don’t have any aspiration to be a pop star,” she smiles. “It was more about asking myself: could I contribute to the cultural conversation? Could I create valuable work? I wanted to push myself and find out.” It’s unsurprising that her take on success doesn’t necessarily match society’s general definition, and it’s inspiring to see an artist refuse to jump through hoops to achieve it.
“Record labels always try and push me,” she chuckles. “‘Oh come on, let’s just do a ‘coming soon’ clip!’ That’s a constant battle I have with whatever label I’m working with.” So, when can we expect new music? Frankly, who knows – SOPHIE works to her own schedule, and her work is all the richer for it. “I can’t stand the idea of teasing a release date,” she says. “I just want to put it out unannounced, release it into the world and let the music live its own life. I want to let it just be, you know?”