Note: Representatives of SOPHIE requested that the media refrain from referring to the artist and producer using gendered or non-binary pronouns – however, where interviewees have used she/her pronouns, NME has not altered their quotes.
On January 30, 2021, the music world lost an icon. Following a sudden accident in Athens, SOPHIE – the enormously influential artist, producer and DJ – died aged 34. In a statement issued to the media, the artist’s team paid tribute to an “an icon of liberation” – the perfect expression of everything that SOPHIE was. A true innovator, SOPHIE pushed boundaries constantly, forever striving to be bolder, harsher, softer, brighter, louder, and more colourful than anybody else.
SOPHIE changed the shape of music irrevocably over the course of a decade, both with staggeringly ambitious solo releases, and a huge number of collaborations with Charli XCX, Let’s Eat Grandma, Madonna, Shygirl and Vince Staples, to name but a few. The true extent of SOPHIE’s enormous impact on pop music may not come into precise focus for years to come, but the artist’s trailblazing is already apparent listening to the recent crop of hyper-pop artists breaking through.
“SOPHIE’s music was always fluid and moving forward,” says Calum Morton of the Glasgow label Numbers, which released SOPHIE’s ‘PRODUCT’ compilation album in 2015. “I think everyone is always playing catch-up.”
Hundreds of officially unreleased gems bear the wildly prolific SOPHIE’s name, some of which have already made their way online over the years (2016’s Charli XCX collaboration ‘Taxi’, for example, is already an established fan favourite). This month the Miami duo Basside released one such unreleased record – ‘Fuck It Up’ is a frenetic hyper-pop EP entirely produced by SOPHIE. They are donating all proceeds to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.
Que Lina and Caro Loka first met SOPHIE at the Miami party Booty Bass Bounce House in 2016, and shortly afterwards received an invite to the producer’s studio in LA. They remember rocking up at a sun-drenched studio in the Hollywood Hills.
“We’re used to being in a dark cave of a recording studio,” Que Linda says. “There’s something about the light and the brightness that made it so easy to work.” The entire process was beyond relaxed. “SOPHIE really figured out that you can get the best out of other people by making them comfortable”.
“I remember we went into the studio one day with this hook that we had recorded in the car on the way over, and she changed the melody immediately to something so much better,” Que Linda remembers. “She was so fast. Ridiculous”. Each day after wrapping up work, the collaborators blasted the results in the studio and danced.
The EP was recorded several years ago and although Basside have performed ‘Fuck It Up’ live, they held off from releasing anything while they made sure everyone involved approved it – a process delayed by various communication issues. When the duo bumped into SOPHIE at Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2019, SOPHIE shrugged off the logistics and told them to go right ahead.
The release was already planned for this month, and when Basside learned of SOPHIE’s death, they knew they had no option other than pressing on. “Everyone is mourning,” Que Linda says. “Everyone is sad. Why not give people something that they haven’t heard yet?”
For Basside, working with SOPHIE led to a drastic shake-up in how they would approach music in the future. “‘Fuck It Up’ is unreal compared to everything else that we’ve made before,” Que Linda says. This is an experience that seems to ring true with all of the artists that collaborated with SOPHIE, who seemed to open endless possibilities in artists’ creative imaginations, while staying true to their essence. But how did we get here?
Born in Glasgow in 1986, SOPHIE grew up listening to rave cassettes in the car and dreamed of being a musician. Starting out as an anonymous producer, the artist once sent a drag queen out on stage while hiding in the shadows disguised as a security guard. Later, with the strange, alien-sounding pop music at the forefront, SOPHIE appeared in the music video for ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ and tore down the construct of anonymity in a second. It was a remarkable moment – the mysterious creator of juggernaut dance tracks like ‘BIPP’ and ‘LEMONADE’ softly shimmering against a blue sky.
Calum Morton vividly remembers the moment that SOPHIE’s 2013 breakthrough track ‘BIPP’ landed in Numbers’ inbox. The independent label signed the artist on the strength of early demo, knowing they had a star on their hands. Thus began a creative relationship and friendship that continued for almost a decade.
“‘BIPP’ was a twisted pop song,” Morton says. SOPHIE explored varied collage of genres, but “it was always SOPHIE music,” he adds. “I remember precisely half the people we sent it to loving it – and then loads of people being shocked at how pop-sounding it was, and confused at what it was trying to do. That’s when you know you’re onto something. It was a sleeper hit: it took over six months to sell 500 records, but we never cared about that. It was always destined to be massive, and SOPHIE to be a star.”
Morton says that working with SOPHIE for the next decade proved a “pleasure”, adding: “We were just along for the ride with it.”
In the run-up to the release of ‘PRODUCT’, the label ended up setting up a makeshift silicon factory in Maryhill, Glasgow to manufacture custom bubble CD cases inspired by Pet Shop Boys’ special edition of ‘Very/Relentless’, as well as a range of physical products that formed part of the release. “Six months into it, there’s entire rooms covered in tinfoil, trying to keep rooms warm enough,” Morton remembers.
Unsurprisingly, getting to grips with the particulars of curing silicon was a steep learning curve, and SOPHIE’s creative precision and enthusiasm spurred everyone on. “This took months of trial-and-error, adjusting the curing processes along with a product designer, Martins Daknis,” Morton explains. “The silicon items become ‘PRODUCT’ special editions and sold out immediately alongside the liquid-filled UV filled puffer jackets, a pair of platform shoes and a pair of SOPHIE sunglasses.”
“SOPHIE figured out that you can get the best out of people by making them comfortable” – Basside’s Que Linda
Three years after ‘PRODUCT’, SOPHIE would release the transcendent debut album ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ via Transgressive Records and the artist’s own label MSMSMSM. It’s a fearless record that combines a knack for abrasive oddness with a warm, physical embrace. Often, SOPHIE dreams of limitlessness and a utopian world where queerness runs joyfully amok. The ‘Immaterial’ line “I could be anything I want / Anyhow, anywhere, any place, anyone that I wan” finds the artist breathlessly riffing on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’.
“SOPHIE was not restricted by boundaries or other barriers,” Morton says, tracing a sprawling and diverse set of influences, running from “‘80s Latin freestyle, disco and Italo” to harsher ’90s Detroit dance music, the electro-clash scene that followed in the early noughties, and “coldwave industrial music like Coil, Psychic TV, and Throbbing Gristle”. UK dance acts such as The Prodigy and Underworld and early synthesiser pioneers Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram also form part of this complex web.
When the Bristol-based queercore artist LYNKS heard that SOPHIE had passed away, they organised an impromptu Zoom party to provide a virtual space for fans to remember the producer’s immense musical legacy. “It feels tragic that there were no clubs open, because that’s SOPHIE’s space, and where SOPHIE’s music lives – in a really loud, dark, sweaty club,” they say. “There’s nowhere to really mourn the loss, and so it was amazing to see all those people there. Most people stayed for the whole time, sharing memories.
LYNKS distinctly remembers the first time that they heard SOPHIE’s music. LYNKS had an immediate reaction to ‘Hey QT’, SOPHIE’s 2014 collaboration with producer A.G. Cook of hyper-pop collective PC Music – garish and bold, it sounded unlike anything else.
“I wasn’t that comfortable with my sexuality,” they recall, “and my knee-jerk reaction was like: ‘This is blatantly queer, crazily queer, hyper-queer’. My reaction was, ‘I hate it – it’s so poppy!’ [But] I found myself listening to it on a loop for hours. It made me realise there was a side of my personality and queerness that I was repressing to try and assimilate. It helped me to break out of that.
“SOPHIE was a big part of me accepting that pop music is the most genuine form of music, because it’s purely about entertainment. And it was a big part of me accepting my queerness and being unafraid to be vocally queer, too, which has transferred into my own music.”
Basside feel similarly: collaborating with the artist and producer has empowered them as queer artists. “It was really refreshing to be able to share space with somebody and see the impact she had on the queer community,” Caro Loka explains.
“SOPHIE had the most amazing ideas and working with someone so talented to amplify their ideas was the pleasure,” says Morton. “She was a complete one-off, futuristic dreamer. Always fun to be around, an incredible human and always a laugh: beautiful, fashionable, softly-spoken but direct, hilarious with a fierce imagination.”
“My life was forever changed by having the opportunity to work with this person” – Calum Morton of Numbers
He adds: “SOPHIE would communicate about sound, new world textures and images in a uniquely SOPHIE way. It was about the building blocks as elements. The synthesis, the latex, the plastic, the silicon, the metal, the bubbles, the slides, the colours; all of this stuff was deliberate and came from SOPHIE. This singularity of vision and clear direction was always so fun to be around, both musically and visually.”
“My life is forever changed by having this opportunity to work with this person. I’ll forever cherish those memories.”
SOPHIE’s legacy will live on, both in the countless artists influenced by the artist and producer, and the treasure trove of unreleased work. There is much to come: SOPHIE’s collaborations on Lady Gaga‘s ‘Chromatica’ ultimately didn’t end up on the album, but executive producer BloodPop has stated they may be released in another form. Fans are still speculating about the nature of SOPHIE’s work with Rihanna – the pair were photographed in the studio together as the singer recorded 2016’s ‘ANTI’, but the results are yet to surface.
For now, though, we have the bold, brash and colourful ‘Fuck It Up’. It might have been recorded years ago, but Basside’s SOPHIE-helmed EP till somehow sounds like the future – and undoubtedly, all of this just scratches the surface of the immense gifts that SOPHIE leaves behind.
– Basside’s ‘Fuck It Up’ is out now. Main image credit: Ryan Buchanan