“Music makes the people come together” sang Madonna as we crept into the 2000s, a period in life where a new generation would witness the total factuality of that statement.
Music has long been known for its binding qualities, grabbing like-minded listeners by the throat to celebrate beauty of form through a unique sensory experience. However, the integration of music with the popularisation of social media created something groundbreaking that would at last benefit those marginalised from the real world: a digital family.
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The initial curiosity that surrounded SOPHIE stemmed from the anonymity she kept at the beginning of her adult music career. Whether it be doubling as a security guard at your own Boiler Room set or voice manipulating your BBC Radio 1 interview, there was a seemingly whimsical yet challenging approach to how she introduced herself into the music scene. Prime offerings ‘Nothing More to Say’ and ‘Eeehhh’ released through London-based Glaswegian label Huntleys + Palmers boasted mesmerising synth work that felt like pulsating multi-coloured lights penetrating their way around every inch of your body. It was this magicality that would robustly sit at the core of her artistry and the extraterrestrial universe she would create years later.
After discovering the PC music label through A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle which shared the same vision of making pop music the absolute loudest and shocking it could be, she welcomed a series of singles that deconstructed dance-pop into a tangible ‘PRODUCT’ that both stimulated reaction and encouraged unapologetic movement. The reaction and movement in itself were irrelevant, though. If you loved it, great. If it made you want to claw your ears off, even better. Who said music had to provoke specific feelings set out in rule? Surely the idea of music itself is to immerse yourself in a world that triggers an emotional response regardless of the outcome. Tracks like ‘Vyzee’ and ‘Bipp’ are showcases of mainstream pop formulation but instead constituting the typical drum, bass, and vocal patterns with a hyperkinetic sound you’d hear in a world where humans are robotic computers who only communicate through dance. SOPHIE’s fresh perspective consequently pricked the ears of big-name producers like Diplo, who soon reached out to her for production work on ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ as part of Madonna’s ‘Rebel Heart’ album. For someone of SOPHIE’s subtle notability during this time, to have her distinct sound smudged across a global superstar’s single seemed both telling and to be the beginning of something groundbreaking.
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I distinctly remember witnessing SOPHIE for the first time at Reading Festival in 2016. I’d been an avid listener of hers up until then and had listened to the usual tin-can recordings of her previous sets that were floating around on YouTube in an attempt to grasp how this type of energy would be translated into one of the UK’s largest music festivals. Patiently stood front row, the elusive figure that was SOPHIE casually appeared from behind a curtain to the side of the sound booth and proceeded toward the decks in total poise. After a minute or so of knob-twiddling, a high-pitched screech rippled through the tent like one of those microscopical flies had just flown into the ears of every person in the crowd. “L-O-V-E… JUMP!” pummeled through the speakers, coarsely wrapping itself around the brain of everyone in attendance. SOPHIE was opening the set with perhaps her most brash and left-field production ever. As I turned around in suspense, I was met with an array of confused faces, fingers-in-ears, booing, and to be fair, I could see where they were personally coming from. It was an entirely different environment to what a BBC Radio 1 dance stage had ever seen before. But wasn’t that the point?
After the first couple of minutes of jaw-shattering bass and balloon deflating synth manipulation, she touched all areas of her then-current sound through an immensely infectious set of staggering bass drops and glitchy synthetic pop takes. To cause an emotional reaction whether it be startling for some was the notion she was blatantly trying to reveal and confront. SOPHIE was utterly fearless and authentic in her attempt at using sound to spark an element of response and this vision is what propelled her to become one of the most important innovators in music. It didn’t make a difference if she was sound designing in the comfort of her own home or stood on stage at a music festival amongst a crowd of unfamiliar ears. Through creating each piece of music like it was a one-off limited-edition gift, she became a pioneer that dissected every possible emotion attached to create something that set the groundwork for decades to come.
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Up until 2017, SOPHIE had made a conscious decision to refrain from the public eye as much as possible. It wasn’t until the raw release of “It’s Okay To Cry” that she transformed from a name that was gradually infiltrating through the underground club scene into an artist that wore her identity with defying pride. Between the years of ‘PRODUCT’ and her debut, she caught the eye of several talents that were infatuated by her musical sensibility and bona fide sculpting of sound. It was through these collaborations, notably Charli XCX, that SOPHIE managed to accumulate a community of LGBTQIA+ listeners who not only enjoyed her hyper-real take on music but more importantly related to it. The shows became more frequent. The crowds suddenly got bigger. SOPHIE had been struggling with identity prominence for years, and the community she had attracted were now watching the unfolding of a talent whose sole being manifested itself into a musical and cultural force. SOPHIE created a common denominator in a community through repressed innate feelings of liberating expression with vibrations and a magnetic force which ultimately unified. Playfulness, freedom, and stimulation. SOPHIE understood the absolute fundamentals of every LGBTQIA+ individual and found a way of formulating them into a universally shared medium, music.
Live performances were a pivotal way in which SOPHIE was able to translate these multidimensional ideas into real life. As you elevate into a euphoric realm of sheer experimentation and free-spirited movement, you’re presented with a glimpse of the art behind the mind. Not to mention, you’re experiencing these moments with strangers who somehow all feel like friends anyway. This circle eventually translated its way to online; compromising devoted Soundcloud users and forum-browsers who pedestalled unreleased tracks like their own child. It was these rare, one-off shows that made it so special. “What is she going to play? I hope she drops the ones with Big Freedia!” Every moment spent was unique and you never quite knew exactly what you were going to get. And understanding SOPHIE’s attitude towards music, to advocate experiencing the present moment was most likely the goal the entire time.
What was captivating about her music industry presence was how everybody in it seemed to be completely aware and in awe of her boundary-pushing abilities. For the Notion 78 cover story, she admitted that she sees sounds as sculptures: “3D has always resonated with me a lot more than 2D — I love sculptural installations and experimental exhibitions, so I try and create that same effect with my music.” For someone who, at this point, barely had a debut record under her belt she sure seemed to have collaborated with various artists that spanned different sound styles and cultures: Madonna, Rihanna, Vince Staples, MØ, Namie Amuro, Quay Dash, Cashmere Cat, to name a few. Her unorthodox yet quite logical perception of the parameters to which music should exist was already luring the attention of those who were in a position of mainstream projection. Despite these notable and quite honestly brag-worthy contributions to music, she still held on to her relatively underground status — as if she was quietly watching music slowly transform into what she always envisioned it should be.
The earth-shattering triumph of “Oils Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” in 2018 marked her as the first transgender artist to ever be nominated for a Grammy and is praised for its stunningly beautiful and immersive soundscape. A product that most importantly resonated with transgender people on a global scale, the record encouraged self-acceptance and used textured layers to guide listeners through a journey of unapologetic expression. Whether she was performing at Coachella or in an abandoned flat in Shoreditch with boarded-up windows that required a word-of-mouth password to even get past the front door, the purpose behind everything was connecting through sound. And, she mastered it.
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Obvious or not, the impact SOPHIE has had on music can be seen in every aspect of modern music. Not just through literal sound but in approach and bravery to deliberately make something stand bolder than the rest, regardless of reception. The outright solace for an artist that was only at the very dawn of her career is proof in itself that her presence and input touched the lives of many and will be remembered for decades to come. SOPHIE’s influence will undoubtedly remain present as we progress into the future, for it will be the future she unwittingly paved whilst the rest took notes in the present.
Thank you, SOPHIE.