Hear Sophie’s 12 Essential Songs

4 weeks ago

The producer and performer’s short but influential career had a profound impact on the way modern pop music sounds. She died after a fall in Athens.

On Saturday, the forward-thinking pop producer and musician Sophie died after an accident in Athens. She was 34. “True to her spirituality,” her family wrote in a statement, “she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell.” The story was at once tragic and beautiful, full of pain, shock and underneath it all an almost otherworldly yearning. It was like a Sophie song.

Sophie may not have been a household name, but over her short career she had a profound and transformative effect on the way modern pop music sounds. Since emerging with her frenetic breakout single “Bipp” in 2013, the Scottish producer, who was based in Los Angeles, went on to work with artists like Madonna, Vince Staples and Charli XCX. As a solo artist, Sophie’s pioneering music was perhaps poised for a larger crossover; her 2018 album “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” was nominated for a best dance/electronic album Grammy. Her influence can be heard in both the instant gratification of 100 gecs’ hyperpop and the energetic hooks of the K-pop boom.

Sophie’s production brimmed with ideas. Where others perceived shallow surfaces, she saw oceanic depths — in the musicality of hyper-feminized speech, in the augmented honesty of artifice, in the plasticky found materials of late-capitalist consumer culture. She had a keen, wry ear for the overlap between the language of desire and the language of modern advertising, and her songs sometimes sounded like commercial jingles from other planets: “If you need that something but don’t know what it is, shake shake shake it up and make it fizz,” went the infectious “Vyzee,” ad infinitum.

When she first arrived, shrouded in anonymity within the male-dominated world of electronic music, people wondered about Sophie’s gender. In late 2017, she announced, via interviews and the openhearted synth-ballad “It’s Okay to Cry,” that she was a transgender woman. Her early singles had reveled in the fluidity of femininity and masculinity, as well as softness and hardness, and suddenly it seemed that the aesthetics she’d toyed with in her music were related to the private process of becoming herself. There was beauty in that, and a palpable liberation when she stepped into the spotlight.

“For me, transness is taking control to bring your body more in line with your soul and spirit so the two aren’t fighting against each other and struggling to survive,” she said in an interview with Paper magazine around that time. “On this earth, it’s that you can get closer to how you feel your true essence is without the societal pressures of having to fulfill certain traditional roles based on gender. It means you’re not a mother or a father — you’re an individual who’s looking at the world and feeling the world.”

From her solo material and her production work for other artists, here are some of her essential tracks.

In June 2013, on the Scottish electronic label Numbers, “Bipp” emerged out of nowhere — from a void as blank and alive with possibility as its cover art’s white background. The track felt as much like a club banger as a mad-scientist’s laboratory experiment. Hyper-processed percussion and cheerleader-chant vocals pinged off each other as though they were both made of Flubber. “I can make you feel better, if you let me,” intoned a choppy, high-pitched vocal, inviting the listener to succumb to the song’s strange promise of ecstasy.

A year later, Sophie released a track as explosively fizzy as a Diet-Coke-and-Mentos cocktail. “Lemonade” dialed up the more polarizing aspects of her aesthetic: The surface sheen was even more synthetic, the vocals even higher-pitched and the rhythm — which careened from a trap cadence to a sped-up pop hook — was as erratic as it was exhilarating.

Electronic music sometimes has a reputation for being self-serious, but many of Sophie’s songs crackled with oddball humor. “Hard,” the kinetic B-side to “Lemonade,” was among them. It was at once a slinky, vividly tactile ode to B.D.S.M. — “latex gloves, smack so hard” — and a sly joke on the gender binary, as an ultra-femme, helium-like voice intones, “Hard, hard, I get so hard.”

By 2014, Sophie had become closely associated with PC Music, a buzzy Britain-based collective of electronic musicians and producers who blend the cerebral archness of the avant-garde with the earnest, mass-catharsis of pop musical product. QT was a short-lived project that united Sophie with the PC Music figurehead and producer A.G. Cook, along with Hayden Frances Dunham, who was “playing” a pop star named QT who also happened to be the spokeswoman for an invented energy elixir called DrinkQT.

The song is a jubilant sugar rush, but some skeptics wondered if Sophie and Cook were becoming too bogged down by ideas and irony, and in the process alienating potential listeners. Sophie confounded her critics even more, though, when “Lemonade” was used in a 2015 web commercial for … McDonald’s lemonade. “People were furious,” Sophie recalled in a Vulture interview a few years later. “But I don’t think that compromises anything in the music.” She added, “If you can do two things with it, give it meaning for yourself according to the perspectives you want to share and also have it function on the mass market, and therefore expose your message to more people in a less elitist context, then that is an ideal place to be.”

When she gave her 2015 singles collection the cheeky, Warholian title “Product,” Sophie was once again winking at the perceived chasm between art and consumer culture. But its final track — the wrenching and glittery millennial-pop heartbreaker “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” — was a preview of what was to come from her later solo material, and proof that as much as she indulged in ideas, she was also an expert conjurer of big, sincere emotions.

In 2015, Sophie’s innovative sound had trickled so far into the mainstream that even the Material Girl herself wanted a piece. “Bitch I’m Madonna,” the enjoyably brash single from the pop superstar’s 13th studio album, “Rebel Heart,” remains perhaps the most high-profile track that Sophie worked on. Though she shared a writing credit with half a dozen other collaborators, and though the chorus’s here’s-the-drop structure is audibly time-stamped 2010s Diplo, the plastic-affect verses, bouncy pre-chorus and spirited self-referentiality bear the distinct marks of Sophie.

Charli XCX proved to be an even more simpatico pop collaborator and muse. She and Sophie worked together on a handful of bubbly one-off tracks — “No Angel,” “Girls Night Out” — as well as the entirety of Charli’s experimental 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom.” This sleek and kinetic title track is built like a custom ride for Charli’s distinct musical personality.

Though Sophie worked more frequently with pop artists than rappers, she produced two tracks on the sonically adventurous Compton M.C. Vince Staples’s 2017 album “Big Fish Theory,” including “Yeah Right” (which also featured contributions from the Australian D.J. and producer Flume). After Kendrick Lamar sent along his guest verse, Sophie told Paper Magazine, “We edited the vocals and tried to overproduce the song. They wanted it a bit more raw, but then they left it anyway and people liked it. Vince was playing it all the time.”

The poignant first single from Sophie’s “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” was something of a coming-out party. Stepping from the hazy shadows of her early work, Sophie placed herself and her shock of carrot-red hair at the center of the project — singing lead vocal and starring in the song’s music video, which managed to be both vulnerable and vampy at the same time. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” she sang atop a glimmering synth arpeggio, “but I think your inside is your best side.”

Like the thrilling “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” was an “Oil”-era take on the harder, more industrial side of Sophie’s sound. The song’s chanted, deadpan vocals are something of a callback to “Lemonade,” but here the language of consumption and advertising blends even more subversively with reflections on identity and self-creation: “My face is the front of shop,” she announces, “I’m real when I shop my face.” In Vulture, Sophie mused, “That’s a running theme in this music — questioning preconceptions about what’s real and authentic. What’s natural and what’s unnatural and what’s artificial, in terms of music, in terms of gender, in terms of reality, I suppose.”

A deliriously catchy, knowing Madonna nod (“immaterial girls, immaterial boys”) that doubles as a meditation on the connection between body and soul — what could be more quintessentially Sophie than that?

In 2015, Sophie established a personal credo about remixes of her work: She wanted none, “unless it’s Autechre.” Five years later, the British electronic duo sent back their take on “Bipp” with the note, “Sorry this is so late. Hope it’s still of some use.” Just days before Sophie’s death, it was released along with a previously unreleased B-side of her own, “Unisil.” Slow and sparse, the remix is a loving homage from two of her musical heroes, and proof that even Sophie’s earliest work still sounds like the future.

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