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SOPHIE performing at Coachella 2019

Often the word “genius” can be used a little too sparingly – but in the case of SOPHIE it’s the only word that applies. Since releasing debut track ‘Nothing More To Say’ in 2013, the Glasgow-born producer has been bending sound into strange and beautiful shapes ever since, and influencing some of pop’s biggest hitters in the process. It’s safe to say that, without SOPHIE, pop music might sound completely different and altogether less interesting.

READ MORE: SOPHIE, your music helped me to find a kind of sanctuary. Thank you

The groundbreaking artist, who tragically died this month, leaves behind a rich legacy of mind-bendingly experimental music. Whether you’re arriving to SOPHIE’s (the musician preferred not to use gendered or non-binary pronouns, according to a representative) universe for the first time, or revisiting the producer’s vast innovations, these essential tracks – a combination of solo projects and production credits – are a great place to begin.

SOPHIE, ‘Bipp’ (2013)

If there’s one gateway moment that perfectly encapsulates SOPHIE’s bright, garish and thoroughly alien production style, it has to be ‘Bipp’. Upon its release in 2013, most people’s immediate reaction was a variation of, ‘What in fresh fuck is this!?’ It sounded beamed in from a distant future light-years away, and truly sounded like nothing else out there. Underpinned by a rubbery, amorphous synth-splutter, SOPHIE took crucial elements of pop – brightness, polish, euphoria – and moulded them into an alien dance track, dangling the promise of an enormous drop, but never going there. Instead, it puts forward an insistent message of hope. In pitched-up, helium vocals, SOPHIE’s former Motherland bandmate Marcella Dvsi puts forward a message of hope on the infectious lead hook: “I can make you feel better, if you let me”. 

SOPHIE, ‘Lemonade’ (2013)

Though it’s difficult to pin SOPHIE’s music down to a single genre, the artist once had a crack in an interview with Billboard: “advertising”. When ‘Lemonade’ – SOPHIE’s bizarre and effervescent third single – ended up featured on a McDonalds advert, critics skeptically wondered if the producer’s whole faceless schtick was simply an attempt to get filthy rich. In hindsight, it was more sophisticated than that. Listen to the gurgling, gasping introduction to ‘Lemonade’ and it certainly feels like a nod to Suzanne Ciani, the US electronic music pioneer who created Coca-Cola’s ubiquitous ‘Pop & Pour’ sound effect and was consequently able to self-fund her own experimental works. As it turns out, SOPHIE possessed a similar skill to Ciani – the ability to magnify an everyday sound or object, and zone in on its basic feral essence. ‘Lemonade’ somehow sounds like downing an ice-cold glass of the stuff – it’s that vivid.

QT, ‘Hey QT’ (2014)

Thanks to a shared knack for playing on pop music tropes, advertising and consumerism, SOPHIE quickly became associated with London-based collective PC Music, and collaborated with them frequently. Founded by A.G Cook in 2013, the label’s goal was simple – instead of wasting time on traditional marketing campaigns and physical music releases, PC Music would use the limitless and low-cost possibilities offered by the internet. This even extended to inventing virtual pop stars – like QT.

The creation of A.G. Cook and American performance artist Hayden Frances Dunham, QT existed to market a fictional drink similar to Red Bull and called DrinkQT (later, PC Music would later manufacture cans of DrinkQT and hand it out at a Red Bull Academy showcase). A fictional one-hit wonder, QT released just one song. Produced by SOPHIE, ‘Hey QT’ sounds like a parody of vacuous pop, but somehow feels loaded with sadness and meaning – lyrically, it’s quite beautiful and speaks to immense yearning. And no doubt that tension is down to SOPHIE’s masterful involvement.

SOPHIE, ‘Somebody Like You??’ (2014)

Though SOPHIE’s career was cut cruelly short, the artist packed a great deal into just eight years – and beyond mixtape ‘Product’ and debut proper ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ SOPHIE was also responsible for a gleaming haul of unreleased tracks. A treasure-packed Rinse FM mix from 2014 featured four of them: ‘Kitty Cat’, ‘Good Good Thing Going On’, ‘The Way I Am’ and ‘Somebody Like You??’. It’s well worth going back and giving each one a spin, but ‘Somebody Like You??’ is possibly the best entry point. Essentially a turbo-charged, sherbet-fuelled love song, it’s a song that celebrates infatuation and newness: “life can be a fantasy / And you prove that it’s true / Every time that we’re together”. A continuation of what SOPHIE achieved with ‘Hey QT’ – OTT pop loaded with a sincerity that catches you off guard – it also feels like the logical precursor to SOPHIE’s ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ and Charli XCX collab ‘Girls Night Out’

Madonna, ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ ft. Nicki Minaj’ (2015)

Often, there’s a misconception that music must be challenging, emotionally complex and hard-to-access in order to be worthy of greatness – a fairly boring and distinctly joyless way of measuring quality. Meanwhile, SOPHIE often played with ideas like brightness, gloss and polish – words often used as shorthand for lowbrow inauthenticity – and pushed them to the extreme. “I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing,” the artist once told Rolling Stone.  “That, to me, is an interesting challenge, musically and artistically… just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally.”

And all these ideas come to fruition on 2015’s ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ – one of SOPHIE’s earliest collaborations with the pop big-leagues. Appearing on Madonna’s 2015 album ‘Rebel Heart’, the producer succeeded in making a star long associated with reinvention sound fresh all over again – the tenacious and synth-laden track, which also features Nicki Minaj, is both the strangest and most interesting track from that particular era of Madge’s career.

Charli XCX, ‘Vroom Vroom’ (2015)

Before she revved up the engines of ‘Vroom Vroom’, Charli XCX was experimenting with different sounds and hadn’t yet found her feet – her debut album ‘True Romance’ fed off moody, ‘80s synth-pop, while 2015’s ’Sucker’ flirted with French yé-yé and punk-pop. They were solid enough as records – particularly the latter – but when Charli XCX met SOPHIE, she finally seemed to find herself as an artist. Together, they made the ‘Vroom Vroom’ EP – and the gloriously silly title-track is the moment that turned Charli into a hyper-pop icon. A highly polarising, heavyweight slab of avant-pop incorporating piercing mechanical squeaks and guttural engine sputters, it felt completely out of step with the increasingly predictable artists dominating the charts. Six years on, the go-hard-or-go-home maximalist approach of ‘Vroom Vroom’ is an obvious influence on some of pop’s brightest new faces, from Bree Runway and Shygirl to 100 Gecs and Ashnikko.

Charli XCX and SOPHIE, ‘Taxi’ (2016)

Most of the time it’s not a hugely positive thing when legions of audience members start yelling “taxi” in the middle of a gig – unless you’re Charli XCX or SOPHIE, it probably means you’re being heckled. An unreleased fan favourite, first performed by Charli at Exchange LA in 2016, fans’ tenacious requests to “play Taxi!” live plagued both artists ever since, and eventually evolved into a kind of niche pop meme. Even if it never sees the light of day, ‘Taxi’’s rare surprise airings (and repeated videos of SOPHIE wittily shutting down show requests) make the journey more than worthwhile.

SOPHIE, ‘Burn Rubber (ft. Sarah Bonito)’ (2016)

Another unreleased gem, ‘Burn Rubber’ is less of a rarity than ‘Taxi’ – SOPHIE indulged fans by playing it on quite a few occasions, usually at shows with Charli XCX around 2016 onwards. Squealing percussively like a tyre screeching across hot tarmac, the track features Sarah Bonito of Kero Kero Bonito on lead vocals. Lyrically, it explores the seductive appeal of a life of crime – dreaming of robbing banks, chucking 20,000 pencils in the bin and wearing black leather gloves – before delivering the delicious putdown: “People say I’m drab / I don’t care, I burn rubber / Please throw some water on yourself, I burn rubber”.

SOPHIE, ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ (2017)

Though SOPHIE has always explored queer themes and gender – the waterslide space-bacon on the front of ‘Bipp’ borrows its colour scheme from the trans flag – the artist deliberately stayed faceless until 2017 and declined to elaborate on gender identity in interviews. This led some people to cynically speculate that the project existed to satirise women – until 2017, when SOPHIE released ‘It’s Okay To Cry’. The song itself speaks of a pure and soaring expression of identity, and the relief that can bring: “we’ve all got a dark place,” SOPHIE sings, “maybe if we shine some light there, it won’t be so hard”.

As well as releasing the first track from debut album ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’ SOPHIE came out as trans. And though this does not define SOPHIE as an artist, it’s certainly true that the producer’s music expresses something very important – in life, queer people forge our own path, undefined by what heteronormative and cisnormative society would prefer.

SOPHIE, ‘Ponyboy’ (2017)

It says a lot that SOPHIE chose to release the visceral ‘Ponyboy’ directly after the intensely emotional ‘It’s Okay To Cry’ – together, these two songs show the two extremes of ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’. As the producer explained in an interview with V, the song is inspired by a Detroit-based group of Nitro car souper-uppers who called themselves Pony Boys. “It’s a playful song, but it’s a bit hard. It’s bodily and sexual,” SOPHIE said. “It also plays a bit with characters in the same way that you might do in certain sexual dynamics. I wanted to give it that feeling to people.” And propelled by juddering bass, robot elephants trumpeting, android seal yelps and pitched-up vocals from singer Cecile Believe, there’s something both playful and unsettling about it.

Vince Staples, Yeah Right’, (2017)

On Vince Staples’ experimental second album ‘Big Fish Theory’ contrast was king, as the rapper collided dark subject matter with bright, high tempo beats inspired by an avant blend of rave, Detroit tempo and house. This tension summers at the heart of one of the record’s stand-out moments, ‘Yeah Right’, which features Kendrick Lamar and production from Flume and SOPHIE. Atop harsh, dissonant bubble-gum trap, the two rappers question if artists’ boasts of wealth, fame and excess match up to the reality behind closed doors. And meanwhile, SOPHIE’s production goes in hard – the ideal match.

Let’s Eat Grandma, ‘Hot Pink’ (2018)

From early on, Let’s Eat Grandma took inspiration from fantasy-scapes and twisted fairytales – and attempted to mould this with infectious pop on their slightly-too-sludgy debut ‘I, Gemini’. It was certainly a weird record (‘Sax and The City’ honks along like Carrie Bradshaw lumbering down 5th in a pair of broken Manolo Blahniks) but sometimes this strangeness came at the price of impenetrability. Cue SOPHIE, who produced the duo’s 2016 comeback single ‘Hot Pink’. This resulted in a dramatic shift in sound, though SOPHIE did not not alter or mess with Let’s Eat Grandma’s core creativity. Instead, by making every single aspect of the band sound hyper-focused, over-saturated and larger than life, the producer brought their inherent weirdness into clearer, more immediate focus.

SOPHIE, ‘Immaterial’ (2018)

It’s incredibly difficult to distill everything that SOPHIE embodied down into a single moment, ‘Immaterial’ comes close with one potently simple lyric: “I can be anything I want”. Whether the artist explored this idea through early faceless anonymity, or amorphous dance songs that sang of transcendence later on, SOPHIE’s music often imagines a world of limitless possibility – broken free from the imposing pressures of cisnormativity and heteronormativity. And on ‘Immaterial’ SOPHIE riffs on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, and puts forward life as a blank canvas to be painted on at will.  “Without my legs or my hair, without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live? Tell me, where do I exist?” sings Cecile Believe.

SOPHIE – ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ (2018)

Closing SOPHIE’s ‘Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides’, ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ is a brutal yet hopeful juggernaut of a track that welcomes in a utopian future founded on deep connection and being seen clearly. I looked into your eyes,” sings Cecile Believe, playing upon the melodies of classic noughties pop, “I thought that I could see a whole new world”. Jarring realness against artificiality, it sounds like a battlecry delivered by a mechanical swamp beast.

Shygirl, ‘SLIME’ (2020)

Released last year, Shygirl’s debut EP ‘ALIAS’ pulls off the feat of being both gleefully horny and hugely menacing – and its standout ‘SLIME’ was co-produced by SOPHIE. Influenced heavily by trap, UK grime and ’00s R&B, the production sounds enormous – and, typically, the gloomy, inky murk hits in clean isolated shards. “Bad bitches always have to keep their hands wet, we’re too slick,” says Shygirl, with half-mumbled spoken delivery, “I like to glide, figure skate on a bitch.” It’s filthy brilliance – and look out for SOPHIE in the lyric video alongside the likes of designer Mowalola and musicians Arca and Ms Carrie Stack.

The post 15 essential songs from SOPHIE, the artist and producer who changed the course of pop appeared first on NME | Music, Film, TV, Gaming & Pop Culture News.


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