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Remembering SOPHIE

Jimmy Brewer looks back at the iconic artist SOPHIE's career, sound, and SOPHIE's sense of self.

CW: Transphobia, Death

On the 30th January 2021, at around 4:00 in the morning, the world suffered an unjust tragedy. The artist SOPHIE fell accidentally from a balcony, and died. Like many musicians taken too soon – Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tupac Shakur – SOPHIE’s career was at a stage rich with promise. Having released in 2018 the most daring and powerful album yet, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, SOPHIE could only have gone on to bigger and better heights. SOPHIE’s legacy, though maculated by tragedy, is an inspiring one nonetheless.

Sophie Xeon, stage name SOPHIE, grew up in Glasgow. When asked in an interview what sort of images SOPHIE gravitated towards growing up, the innovative artist displayed typically avant-garde sensibilities: ‘I got really into Matthew Barney and Cremaster Cycle and the distortions of form and gender and material and shape’ SOPHIE says. Named in honour of the muscle that raises and lowers the testes in response to changes in temperature, the Cremaster Cycle is a challenging and highly-praised collection of five avant-garde films exploring, among other things, aspects of human reproduction. SOPHIE also recalls a childhood featuring a father taking Sophie to raves from a very young age: ‘He bought me the rave cassette tapes before I went to the events and would play them in the car and be like, “This is going to be important for you.”’ This striking parental technique is remembered fondly by SOPHIE, and the artist remarks on the creativity of SOPHIE’s father’s musical tastes: ‘Not someone that’s like, “Sixties, ’70s, this is the real rock and roll.” He was always like, “That was rubbish. Electronic music’s the future.”’

After an adolescence spent locked away in a bedroom producing music, and jobs as a wedding DJ, the first significant critical attention SOPHIE received came in 2013. SOPHIE’s single ‘Bipp’/’Elle’ topped music magazine XLR8R’s year-end list and placed 17th on Pitchfork’s. Following this, SOPHIE’s debut full-length album Product came out in 2015. Among a release that included the production of accompanying silicon sex toys, Product was received with mixed feeling; some critics praised its eccentricity while others dismissed it as shallow. SOPHIE was working hard during this period – in 2015 SOPHIE co-produced the Madonna track ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’. SOPHIE also had a heavy hand in the production of Charli XCX’s Vroom Vroom EP. The EP helped to shape the sound of Hyperpop, a genre characterised by busy, abrasive electronic production and bold, catchy choruses.

With 2018 came the most defined piece of work SOPHIE would make, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. This is my favourite SOPHIE album, by some margin – it is sublime. Gone are sounds of acoustic instruments, and with them any tether to the physical world. The album is a river and you are swept along with it: alternately buffeted amongst its rapids, then soothed by delicious sections of calm – made all the more poignant by the contrast. Individual tracks also stand out: ‘It’s Okay to Cry’, for its empathy and luxuriance; ‘Immaterial’, for its uninhibited danceability. The closing ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ begins with synth stabs so intense that they deserve a place amongst the clanging hammers and buzzing saws of a steel foundry. The album is breathlessly forward-thinking. Both listenable and challenging, it teases the listener of their prudishness (‘Spit on my face/Put the pony in his place/I am your toy/Just a little ponyboy’) then consoles them that ‘It’s Okay to Cry’. To accommodate these lyrical contrasts, the music is effortlessly malleable: it melts into lush soundscapes, then tightens into rigid synth hits in seconds.

The music video for the album’s first single, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ featured SOPHIE, semi-naked in front of a backdrop of clouds. This was a clear, powerful gesture of self-acceptance – and for many prompted the realisation that SOPHIE was transgender. When asked about choosing the moment to ‘reveal herself, both literally and metaphorically’, SOHPIE replied that ‘I don’t really agree with the term ‘coming out’.… I’m just going with what feels honest.’ SOHPIE had previously battled critics’ accusations of ‘gender appropriation’. They falsely assumed SOHPIE’s gender identity, and proceeded to attack the artist for using a typically ‘female’ stage-name and projecting a stereotypically ‘girlish’ image. In the face of these hurtful, ignorant and transphobic vilifications, it is truly admirable that in the music video SOPHIE made so bold and public a statement of self.

SOHPIE’s tragically early passing froze music in time. What stands, crowned by Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, is an impressive but truncated body of work. While we lament SOPHIE’s untimely death, we can also enjoy the music and celebrate the legacy left behind. SOPHIE continues to inspire – both as a person and as a musician – and stands as someone we all can look up to.

Image Credit: KateVEVO/CC BY 3.0

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