Whole New World: Remembering SOPHIE
Reflecting on SOPHIE's legacy.
When speaking of favourite artists, I often tend towards hyperbole to convey my excitement and passion towards their music. Most times, the overstatement is not entirely warranted – perhaps the more I deify the creative figure, the more likely my friends will be to check them out. With that being said, I am not exaggerating at all when I say that the first time I heard BIPP, the A-Side of SOPHIE’s sophomore single, it felt as if the horizons of sound had been set on fire.
2013 was a strange time for commercial electronic music. It was only a couple of years after Skrillex’s seminal Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP, and everyone and their grandmothers had fostered an entrenched hatred for bass-heavy synthesised sounds and chipmunked vocals. Driven to a frenzy by the mainstream music press, the ‘is pop electronic even music’ debate gained more traction than such an irrelevant question ever deserved. Never before had it been more contrarian to enjoy trance leads and acid basslines.
To say SOPHIE merely ‘changed the game’ in 2013 is to use a phrase so often applied to producers whose output is consistently good; it is more accurate to say she completely crumbled the assumed boundaries of sound design and revealed a new sky. Almost an entire decade later, BIPP still feels like a miraculous artifact from a distant utopic future, revealing more of its impossibly intricate details on every spin. With textures and timbres gloriously contradictory in their construction – metallic clangs that evoked rubber, rubbery slaps reminiscent of aluminium sheets – listening to SOPHIE felt like the industry being shaken awake from a deep creative slumber. With every trypophobic pop and bubbly whoosh, SOPHIE posed two blunt questions to the music world: “Did you know things could sound like this? And doesn’t it sound so good?”
One of the most entertaining forum threads I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting and revisiting is the now 100-reply long ‘SOPHIE sound design’ post on Elektronauts – a discussion website for users of instruments by Elektron, a Swedish synthesiser company. Throughout her career, SOPHIE employed the Elektron Monomachine almost exclusively as her creative tool of choice: an early 2000s groovebox that, for the most part, was considered fairly impenetrable and difficult to operate. By 2013, the Monomachine was more or less a long-forgotten memory for most producers; its most famous cameo was its presence on early Autechre records and its most famous feature being able to sound like early Autechre records.
The thread opens innocently enough. With reference to the track L.O.V.E., user Mnroe asks: “How do I get her glassy and polished high frequency sounds?” Pseldolux quickly replies: “I’ve tried to replicate her sounds on the Monomachine but it’s difficult.” Xidnpnlss adds: “She’s wonderful, but she’s been at it for 20 years and works hard. That’s probably why it’s so hard to get those sounds on your Monomachine.” Psyclone001 wastes no time in trying to shut everyone else down: “That sound should have never existed in the first place. Terrible sound and it just keeps going through the whole track. I think that may go down as the most annoying sound I have ever heard.”
A quick flick through the myriad of reviews online available for SOPHIE’s 2015 debut compilation PRODUCT will reveal that it polarised critics more than any other electronic release that year. Pitchfork, everyone’s least favourite music publication, described it both as “a cluster of neon-coloured balloons ready to pop” and “depressingly skippable” within paragraphs of the same article. But a propensity to generate extreme reactions means that at least some of those reactions will be ones of awe, love and inspiration.
Despite the weak critical reception, the impact PRODUCT has had on artists is beyond seminal. Try as you might, it’s almost impossible to name any genre or movement in music over the past eight years that hasn’t been deeply affected by SOPHIE’s music in some way. Even if you just consider her direct collaborations and production work, SOPHIE has been responsible for the synthetic sonic landscape of tracks from both the world’s biggest pop-stars and hip-hop artists – Madonna, Rhianna, Charli XCX, Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples – and the most cult, underground producers like Jimmy Edgar and Doss.
Analysing her broader cultural influence, her indelible thumbprint on production characteristics is difficult to miss: a fervent embrace of experimental sounds in pop instrumentals, the re-popularisation of complex synthesis techniques like Frequency Modulation, a trend towards more artificial and clinically-clean timbres and textures, and a refreshing new perspective on techniques considered deeply ‘uncool’ like extreme autotune, chipmunk-esque pitch-shifting and sparse stereo imaging.
With the release of her debut studio album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides in 2018, SOPHIE cemented herself as a mainstream force to be reckoned with. Could we have ever imagined that songs as abrasive and challenging as Ponyboy and Faceshopping would have been charting successes? Or that an artist that so deliberately and unashamedly broke every rule in the pop playbook could be nominated for an award as industry-shilling as a Grammy? But even more impressive than how popular the record was, was how it was able to afford a kind of earnestness to avant-garde electronic music which so often comes off as misanthropic, dark and stand-offish. The core message of Un-Insides is one of love and defiance: a genuine and unabashed championing of human beings regardless of how they identify. Though I could never speak for, and don’t claim to be speaking for, the trans and non-binary experience, I could not even begin to name the countless number of artists and creatives that reacted in ecstasy towards the release of the album’s debut music video It’s Okay to Cry. With SOPHIE cast against an ethereal and heavenly blue-pink sky, every dramatic supersaw chord and glittery trance arpeggio punctuated her lyrics with violent happiness: “Cause 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.” It should come as no surprise that the album’s title is, in fact, an almost-homophone for the phrase “I love every person’s insides’.
A truly unique artist probably only comes around a few times every decade. And when these artists disappear from our lives, it’s so easy to spiral into unqualified and doomed mourning. No one could disagree that SOPHIE was just getting started, that she had so much left to do: her most recent large-scale release, the HEAV3N SUSPENDED livestream, set from late 2020, opened a window to a rawer, more minimal shade of production that promised big things to come. But when I think back over SOPHIE’s tragically brief career, it is ultimately a feeling of celebration that I land on.
Is it possible to be vulnerable through the artificial, man-made and ‘fake’? SOPHIE did not so much answer that question as make it totally irrelevant. She built the foundations for a brighter vision of pop futurism that artists today are still struggling to replicate and live up to. She crumbled the false dichotomies between the mainstream and the avant-garde world, inspiring reverie from almost every corner and walk of life – artists and fans alike. She showed that it was still possible to truly express yourself in an original way without enduring the terror of representation and comparison. And she did it all with such honesty and joy, in a way that never once felt contrived.
When I listen to BIPP in 2021, I still feel that rush of awe that I first felt when I was just 13. Perhaps the thing that I appreciate SOPHIE for the most is the optimism that her music inherently presents: that there are in fact sounds that we have not discovered yet, textures yet to be uncovered behind the knobs and faders of synthesisers that we thought we comprehensively understood, timbres that have not been imagined but that we can craft through fearless exploration. Every time I wake up and boot into Ableton, or turn on my instruments in the morning, it’s that optimism that drives me the most to create, and never stop creating.