is Creating Music for the Artifical
If 21st century life could be pinned down to a single feeling, maybe it’s the one where you’re just overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all. Confronted by every last nanoparticle of the self-sabotaging Anthropocene: oil and plastic, uranium and latex, a huge floating garbage patch in the Pacific. A world stuffed full of manufactured shit. It’s funny, though, how we police the boundaries of the artificial; surrounded by synthetics, people are still quick to allege a fake.
Words by Chal Ravens
Photos by Renata Raksha
Last October, the Glasgow-born, LA-based musician known as SOPHIE made her first proper public appearance in the self-directed video for It’s Okay To Cry, one of three singles released ahead of her debut album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES. Singing straight into the camera, the formerly faceless producer becomes a frontwoman for the first time, stroking her enlarged cheekbones and flipping her curls under studio rain. But beneath the artifice, there’s a softness, a realness, as she exposes herself both visually and emotionally. “Was that a teardrop in your eye?” she sings through delicate breaths. “I never thought I’d see you cry.” The song is unlike anything we’ve heard from SOPHIE since she seized our attention with Bipp, Elle, Lemonade and Hard. Those four tracks, released on Scottish label Numbers between 2013 and 2014, painted an alternate pop reality in garish colours: helium-choked hooks, elasticated songforms, synthetic flavours and carbonated ecstasy.
“People tell me that the music has played a genuine reassuring role in their lives. Those are the people I care about.”
There was also the question of her gender identity. Though she had only ever offered the name “SOPHIE” in promotional material, without specifying pronouns, many listeners understood her to be a male producer working behind a female alias – a perception alloyed by interviews in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Watching the videos for It’s Okay To Cry and the next single Ponyboy, where a ponytailed SOPHIE thrusts and struts in unison with New York performance duo FlucT, it becomes clear that we’re witnessing a high-stakes reveal for a previously camera-shy artist. The third single, Faceshopping, makes the point explicit: “My face is the front of shop,” runs the hook, as spoken by Cecile Believe, also known as solo artist Mozart’s Sister, who appears throughout the new album and stage show. The verse speaks to the thrill of engineered enhancement: “Artificial bloom, hydroponic skin, chemical release, synthesise the real.” In SOPHIE’s cyborg universe, fake is no longer a category.
In person, SOPHIE is surprisingly straightforward. Softly but carefully spoken, and framed by a triangular wedge of auburn curls, her face is porcelain-clear and Pre-Raphaelite pretty; her cheekbones aren’t quite the prosthetic Everest’s modelled in the videos, but they’re not far off, either. We meet in Soho the day before she unveils her new stage show at Heaven, her first live performance in London.
“People have commented at shows that it’s a very young, queer audience,” she tells me, and it’s younger fans who seem to engage most deeply with her music. They don’t have the same hang-ups about sincerity, she thinks; their relative lack of context means they don’t hear her avant-garde sound design as anything other than pop. More than that, “people write to me quite often and tell me the music has played a genuine reassuring and life-giving role in their lives, or whatever they’re going through. So if I can do that, those are the people I care about, and I don’t care about the other people who are going to look at things in a bitchy, annoying way, basically,” she laughs.
The show is a juggernaut: elongated by platform boots and a swinging ponytail, SOPHIE becomes a mile-high fantasy object, shrink-wrapped in latex as she lip-syncs lyrics and wheels her synth on a hostess trolley. She’s flanked by Cecile Believe, who play-acts the ditzy karaoke diva, and FlucT dancers Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile, who accentuate the flesh-and-blood reality of their bodies by hoisting each other around the floor, mouths agape. It’s raw and sexy, but winkingly artificial too.
At one point, SOPHIE’s performance is interrupted by a sequence of lasers synced to synapse-scything electronics. It’s a harsh contrast to the show’s other memorable highlight, Immaterial Girl, a track as effervescent as anything she’s produced for British pop star Charli XCX, her frequent collaborator. The title flashes on the video screen, before shrinking down to “material”. In this slick gesture, SOPHIE telescopes her opposing obsessions into one: real and fake, human and machine, organic and synthetic.
“It’s tough when firstly you want to be seen as a woman, and you want to be seen as an artist and an individual. So to have something like your gender identity preceding everything that’s written about you is difficult. It can be humiliating to be singled out in that way.”
It’s a dramatic curtain-up on SOPHIE’s next phase as a frontwoman. Her sudden visibility is partly political. “If you really want things to be integrated, respected and accepted then you want to do a thing and get on with it and have your work acknowledged, rather than anything else,” she says. But there was an internal shift, too, “of just feeling like… the only way I can put it is having fun in your body. Seeing it as something you like and love and want to have fun with, and is going to carry you around and enable you to do things you want to do.” Like a material to be manipulated? “That kind of thing, yeah. It’s not like a weight you’re carrying around with you that’s fighting against you.”
Before now, she says, “I never felt that way, which is why I had to present things in the way I did. But my intentions have been clear from the beginning, in the way I wished to be referred to and the way that things should be presented visually. I did the best I could.” She picks her words with care. “It’s tough when firstly you want to be seen as a woman, and you want to be seen as an artist and an individual. So to have something like your gender identity preceding everything that’s written about you is difficult. It can be humiliating to be singled out in that way.”
Fundamental to every SOPHIE track is an interest in materials, their properties and interactions. She synthesises every sound from scratch, using an Elektron Monomachine and Logic to build up huge libraries of samples. “There always has to be a link between the lyrical ideas and the sound itself,” she says. “A sound will be the initial spark, a very physical response to sound that ties together some of the things I’m thinking about.” The metallic creak in Ponyboy, for example, “was like a mechanical animal of some sort that I was finding sexual,” inspired by thoughts of JG Ballard’s Crash.
Her fascination with the physical properties of latex, metal and silicon (her merchandise has included a dildo-like, but apparently purposeless, silicon “product”) aligns her with the kind of electronic avant-gardists whose track titles riff on maths formulas and chemical elements. “Autechre, particularly, have been my heroes for a very long time,” she says. “There’s something so fundamentally human about their music, and the way that it’s just describing a material world. It’s almost like you’re sticking your hand into a goopy material. Everyone can have some experience of that, it’s a very human thing. You’re literally just responding to materials and emotions through sound. So I don’t think there’s anything geeky about that – it’s really the framing of it that’s made it this exclusive thing.”
The framing of it as ‘intelligent dance music’ made by blokes with machines? “Exactly. Something that I wanted to do with SOPHIE music is to frame the understanding of how people can relate to sound in a human way – in a way that’s not blokey or geeky, and in a way that can live in people’s real lives.”
Despite her music’s cerebral appeal, her sights are set on the mainstream. Kraftwerk and Pet Shop Boys, artists who have balanced an uncompromising approach with a pop aesthetic, have been a huge influence. She finds “experimental” music to be exclusive and predictable: “It’s a look, it’s a sound, it’s a style. It’s not actually experimental,” she says pointedly. Mainstream music is much more appealing, “purely because it lives in the lives of so many more people. It’s not exclusive, it’s not elitist, and those are the standards that I want to maintain in my music.”
“Mainstream music is not exclusive, it's not elitist. And those are the standards I want to maintain in my music.”
While SOPHIE’s own music has the slippery ability to thrill and repel, she’s also made her mark through a catalogue of collaborations, with production credits for Madonna, Le1f, Vince Staples and teen pop misfits Let’s Eat Grandma. The best of them have sprung from her ongoing relationship with Charli XCX, whose Vroom Vroom EP in 2016 was solely produced by SOPHIE, while last year’s Pop 2 tipped perfection with the inclusion of the SOPHIE-produced Out of My Head.
“We work so fast together,” she beams. “When I’ve been in the studio with Charli it’s so powerful, what she does and the way she feels music… it’s just so aggressive and raw. And I think I can try and match her as a producer as well. We’ll do three or four songs in a few hours and we’ll be like, ‘next one, next one…’ It’s so invigorating.”
Her search for the “hardest, realest shit” feels like an urgent response to our bewildering moment of 21st century excess. It’s a Whole New World, as she frames it on a blistering new track – a magnesium-bright explosion that sounds like Autechre taking the controls of an animatronic Taylor Swift. Like her elaborate stage show, SOPHIE’s new music thrives on the faultline between artificiality and sincerity: a thrilling but terrifying place to be. It’s her reaction to “the complexity of the situation we’re in, as people living now,” she explains, halting as she extracts a thread from her spiralling thoughts. “You can have contradictory feelings about everything and things don’t make sense. The range of knowledge available to us is so confusing.”
“But also it’s surreal and it’s ridiculous,” she concludes. “I’m trying to get to a point where I can just embrace that feeling fully, as a human.”