SOPHIE Could Make You Feel Better
However you’re feeling, I can make you feel better. On one of the very first songs she released, SOPHIE was already a salve. Her music wasn’t so much abrasive as it was astringent, like you were burning all the bad stuff away. She treated music as an escape and she wanted everyone else to have that same escape as well. If that’s what you want, then you know where to find me. SOPHIE’s music was always there for you whenever you needed it — and it still is, even after her tragic death. It is a lifeline, a bridge into a world where one could be cooler, metallic, full of possibility.
She was an icon long before we ever even saw her face. The sheer physicality of her music was a presence in and of itself. It’s rare to hear a song that completely changes your view of what music can be. Listening to that early run of SOPHIE singles as they came out is probably one of my favorite experiences as a music fan. Each time, I was confused, disoriented, and overwhelmingly excited by what the hell I was hearing. Her earliest US shows were ecstatic events, a mass of bodies and movement that was impossible not to be swept up in. She was one of a kind.
Occasionally an artist comes along that sounds so far ahead of everyone else, like they were dropped here on Earth from a spaceship with all the knowledge of centuries to come. It’s true that SOPHIE felt otherworldly, but maybe that sort of analogy is a disservice to the meticulous and exacting nature of SOPHIE’s work. Her music was playful but she was serious about her craft, a reminder that perfection does not come out of nowhere. You heard all that effort in her music. She wasn’t afraid to let you hear all that effort in her music. Every song she put out was bursting with new sounds and ideas. She was an artist whose scope and ambition won’t sink in fully for decades to come. SOPHIE’s music not only imagined but created a better future.
From a young age, the Glasgow-born musician knew she wanted to be an electronic music producer. In the same way that kids dream of being an astronaut or a firefighter, she knew that she could change the world through sound. She listened to rave cassette tapes passed down from her dad, got a keyboard and would lock herself in her room and not come out until she made something. “I had good friends, but music, I suppose, became my escape, like this friend I was looking for that was about the same stuff as me,” she said in an interview a couple years ago. “It takes a while, as you might know, to find your people.”
SOPHIE found her people, in the avant-pop weirdos of PC Music and the pop darlings forward-thinking enough to collaborate with her. She carved out a space for herself. She was never daunted, at least publicly, by what she saw as the responsibility and challenge of being an artist: to create something you’ve never heard before, to force the listener to think about the ways in which we can be better. “I think anyone claiming that they are limited in their ambitions to be underground is just selling themselves short,” she once said.
Her vision was personal but her aim was commercial. She had no qualms about wanting to make a product that people enjoyed. She did not want to settle for being autre or alternative. “It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible,” she said. “They shouldn’t be made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalized just through genre and categories. I think it’s really important to break down those binaries, and not feel that because you are making ‘weird’ music, that you are a ‘weird’ person. To create those bridges is possible, it’s one of the most important things for artists to do.”
Her music was constantly zipping and popping and folding back in on itself in a dizzying array of colors and textures. It was “weird” but it was compulsively listenable. She made sounds that you wanted to live inside, that felt good being blasted out of shitty earbuds and thumping out of car speakers and filling cavernous clubs. SOPHIE’s music was meant to be experienced in the world, to enhance an existence we were already living in. Her only studio album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, searched for clarity and peace through haunting sonic architecture. She exuded confidence and vulnerability and was always searching for new ways to express both. She was constantly evolving. Last year’s transcendent Heaven DJ set opened up more avenues for where SOPHIE could go — it was calming and meditative and had more space to breathe than her previous work. It felt liberating to hear that and it’s devastating to know she was only just getting started.
SOPHIE often talked about the new music she was working on in interviews, but it seemed like her objectives were always changing. She was a perfectionist — exhibited by the comparatively little music she’s officially released over the years — and she was constantly reacting to the world around her and channeling that into her music. “A lot of people are interested in re-creating an idea of the past, like the post-punk era or something, and would view this kind of thing as less authentic,” she once said. “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective — to find out what is authentically this moment.”
SOPHIE was completely authentic, even as her music plumbed the depths of artifice. Her music made you question what was real or fake, whether those distinctions even really mean anything. Her computer music felt physical, corporeal, harsh wav forms that forced themselves into reality. SOPHIE thought about the physics of sound — how and why a combination of notes triggers an emotional or physical response. SOPHIE’s music was reactive, or rather she wanted to provoke a reaction. Her songs were often bombastic, ear-splitting. She saw nothing wrong with demanding attention. She was seeking out a seat at the table, just by being herself. Slowly, as progress tends to go, SOPHIE’s goal to mainstream the raucous energy of her own music was taking hold, from hyperpop on up.
She was a commanding presence. I saw her live a few times over the years, most memorably a couple years ago a few months before the release of OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES. I was going through a rough time personally, stressed out by imminent changes that I knew were coming to my life and had no power to control, but I left that show buzzing with excitement over the future. She espoused a whole new world and it felt like for a few minutes on that crisp winter night I had entered into somewhere new. That kind of perspective-shift is the rush that SOPHIE wanted to accomplish with her music. To make a place where, if only for a few pop-song minutes at a time, you could feel better.
One of my favorite SOPHIE songs has always been PRODUCT closer “JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE.” It’s hard to listen to right now — it’s so filled with hope and anticipation about what’s coming next. It’s a song about young love and growing up while still remaining the same person and picking up old friendships right where they left off. “Your voice, exactly the same/ And it makes me feel like we never said goodbye.” SOPHIE was an artist that was in conversation with all of her past selves, a continuum of one person that was focused more on the mind than the body. We all exist on that continuum — a goodbye doesn’t have to be the end and SOPHIE has made a lasting impression.
SOPHIE is made eternal through her music. She was always looking to the future and to imagine one without her in it is gutting. It is an immense tragedy that an artist who dared us to reimagine what was possible will forever be left as a possibility. The loss is still hard to comprehend; it feels unreal. But as SOPHIE has taught us, the unreal can quickly become reality. I’m at least comforted knowing that we will be hearing SOPHIE for a long time, in music from other artists that will continue to enrich her influence. She wanted her music to provide an escape and it has for so many. She will cast a long shadow and she will be missed.