SOPHIE, 1986 – 2021: the “icon of liberation” who changed pop forever

The hugely acclaimed producer, who pioneered new sounds and was an inspiration and source of hope to music fans worldwide, has died at the age of 34. RIP

An icon who changed the worlds of both pop and electronic music forever, SOPHIE – who has tragically died at the age of 34 – was nothing short of a musical visionary. Constantly pushing the boundaries of sonic experimentation, the musician and producer’s futurist creations, decades ahead of their time, are without parallel.

Announcing this morning that the Glasgow-born artist had suffered a tragic accident in Athens, SOPHIE’s team hailed “a pioneer of a new sound” and an “icon of liberation”. In a tribute, Christine and the Queens called SOPHIE “a stellar producer, a visionary, a reference, adding that the artist “rebelled against the narrow, normative society”. Bring Me the Horizon frontman Oli Sykes, meanwhile, described SOPHIE’s work as “incredibly stimulating” and “pure proof that any genre can still be pushed in untapped ways”, concluding: “It was impossible not to be stimulated by Sophie once acquainted.”

Indeed, here was a musician who redefined what pop and electronic music can be while helping countless people around the world to discover their identities. In SOPHIE’s (the aforementioned statement requested that media outlets “please refrain from using pronouns” when referring to the trans artist) reality, no sound was off-limits.

SOPHIE
SOPHIE. Credit: Press.

SOPHIE rose as a prominent part of the massively-influential pop production team PC Music in the mid 2010s, and the pinging, elastic production and instantly infectious vocal of the musician’s early track ‘BIPP’ helped to usher in a whole new world of dance music. A mind-blowing composition that still sounds as innovative in 2021 as it did when it was released in 2013 on Glaswegian label Numbers, the track turned the electronic underground upside down (and became an undeniable club banger) ahead of SOPHIE’s thrilling 2015 debut album, ‘Product’, which showcased an artist unafraid to break down barriers.

In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, SOPHIE explained: “I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing.” It’s a sentiment that rings especially true when you listen to that first record: from the gloopy trap of ‘ELLE’ and ‘MSMSMSM’ to the fizzing synth explosions of ‘VYZEE’ and ‘Lemonade’, SOPHIE thrived on challenging listeners.

‘OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES’, SOPHIE’s Grammy-nominated second album, released in 2018, demonstrated a more vulnerable side to the musician’s artistry. While ‘Faceshopping’ and ‘Ponyboy’s tough sound design went harder than ever, with the sounds of metal and rubber jarring against each other, the crushing ‘Is It Cold In The Water?’ – full of emotion and hope – was heartbreakingly beautiful. “Crossing boundaries of pop music and chasing transcendence,” read the NME review, “SOPHIE achieves the rare feat of making abstract, difficult electronic music that hits you straight in the heart.”

 

The album’s impossibly moving lead single, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, was also the first track to use SOPHIE’s own vocals, and its music video saw the artist, who had previously remained anonymous, appear on camera for the first time. This was widely seen as the musician’s coming out as trans, a fact that SOPHIE confirmed in later interviews. “If you think about any of the people who have been really influential like Madonna, Bowie, Prince,” the musician told PAPER magazine, “people like that have shifted culture in this way that gets us as far down that path as possible. We’re all thinking, feeling beings in a very complex world, and we should be using every technology and information around us to adapt us in this world. It’s an evolutionary thing.”

That SOPHIE’s equality-championing creations and artistry would go on to inspire an entire generation of LGBT artists and allies is integral to the musician’s influence as a cultural figure. From behind the scenes, SOPHIE’s experimental sound design has been subtly infiltrating mainstream pop culture for years: ‘Lemonade’ soundtracked an American McDonald’s advert in 2015, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ formed the finale of Louis Vuitton’s Paris Fashion Week show in 2019 and, just last year, the poppy ‘VYZEE’ featured on an advert for social media network VOXI. In 2018, SOPHIE suggested to Crack magazine that “mainstream music is not exclusive; it’s not elitist. And those are the standards I want to maintain in my music”. It’s an ethos that’s present in all of the artist’s collaborations.

SOPHIE performing at Coachella in 2019. Credit: Getty

In the years since ‘Product’, SOPHIE worked with global megastars Madonna (on ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’), Rihanna (the pair were pictured in the studio together) and Lady Gaga (as a collaborator in the making of ‘Chromatica’). As a producer, SOPHIE also expanded the sonic universes of artists as varied as rapper Vince Staples, alt-pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma, experimentalist Arca and pop queens Kim Petras and Charli XCX. It’s a testament to SOPHIE’s singular mind that the musician worked with such a diverse range of artists from across the genre spectrum.

It’s also important to note that, without SOPHIE, there would be no hyper-pop, the fast-rising global scene of internet-connected artists that was shaped by SOPHIE and PC Music’s future-facing output and is now influencing the glitchy sounds used by hip-hop artists such as Playboi Carti and Future.

More than anything, though, the feelings of euphoria and joy that come from listening to SOPHIE’s cathartic yet emotive music are most powerful when experienced with others as a community. The artist’s live performance at legendary London venue Fabric in August 2018 remains one of this writer’s fondest gig memories, as hundreds of people jumped in unison while screaming the lyrics of fan favourites ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ and ‘Immaterial’ together in uninhibited, carefree elation.

It was even more moving because, until that point in SOPHIE’s career, the artist had remained in the shadows when DJing or performing. On that night, however, SOPHIE was centre-stage, smiling, dancing and holding hands with fans. The adoration the crowd showed for those few hours was just one example of the immeasurable impact SOPHIE had on so many people’s lives.

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