In honour of her passing, Ellen Duggan reflects on Sophie’s career and her musical genius
Perhaps a lot can be said for the power of presented transparency in virtuoso.
If this is the case, exposing the pellucid self-awareness present in underground music scenes and the penchant for conventional ‘niceties’ in above ground sounds was a tried and tested aspect of Sophie’s genius.
Through exposing us, kindly and gently, to musical ruptures, clamorous uncertainties, and electronic depictions of a frantic nervous system, Sophie evoked a desire for difference in our previously traditional listening experiences.
Following her sudden passing, she encourages us, posthumously, to recognise that our ears often need more than most musical producers possess the vocabulary to even suggest to offer us. Although her transparency lends itself to odes in her honour, it was more so her faceless anonymity that maintained her status as a genius. She cut a fearlessly experimental, precise and invigorating unknown figure.
Sophie’s emergence from anonymity, after years as a producer to the stars and collaborator of experimental label PC Music, coincided with her first-ever vocal performance on: ‘it’s okay to cry’ from her first album Oil of every Pearl’s un-insides. Upon learning of her death, this was the song I saw posted in her honour the most frequently and it is easy to understand why, as the title lends itself so naturally to grief - be it cultural or personal. Through the title alone, Sophie seems to say ‘it is okay to cry, it is okay to be upset’; but it is more that she grants us permission to be seen in this state of upset - the ending of her anonymity corresponding with the release of such a delicately vulnerable song, that feels particularly poignant.
Whilst grieving for celebrities may often take on the form of uncomfortable social media performance, Sophie seemed to commend us in a direction that would lead to the most healing: allowing ourselves to be transparent and united in sadness and celebration of an incredible musician.
The video for ‘it’s okay to cry’ displayed Sophie for the first time - her beautiful exterior matching every strand of her newly solo vocals. Delicate, glossy and commanding. She stares right down the barrel of the camera, encouraging you to touch your own face as she caresses hers - to explore yourself. To understand the importance of acceptance, to understand upset and grief.
Through borrowing the well-known language of popular music, Sophie channelled a famously glitzy vocabulary of unflinching confidence, perched on top of the musical undercurrent of unstable glitches and minor explosions of sound. Nothing is as it seems, and that is okay - she seemed to be inviting us to ponder.
"I hope you don't take this the wrong way/ But I think your inside is your best side," she sings.
Born in Glasgow in 1986, to parents who held an obvious understanding for their daughter’s musical needs, allowing her to accompany them to raves from a young age, she spoke about the enormous effect science fiction had upon her creative abilities as a Glaswegian teenager. JG Ballard and art film creator Matthew Barney’s work were credited as being on a loop in her mind, presenting her with an idea of encapsulating the future that did not involve saccharine nostalgia - only innovation.
Although a rare interviewee, she documented her young dedication to her passion; remembering telling friends as she exited the school gates that she was going home ‘to write an album’ with the small amount of music equipment her father had salvaged for her. Speaking on the importance of dialoguing with her inner child, an activity that seems to have lent itself to her audible playfulness, she spoke of how she would encourage herself as she sat, writing and producing for artists like Madonna on ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’ by thanking her younger self for all of the unnoticed and persistent dedication she provided; "I thank my younger self for putting in that effort and being persistent and keeping going even though nobody was showing any interest".
She sustained herself through her teen years in Scotland as a Wedding DJ. Despite having no keen interest in DJing - "no one understood" what she was "doing up there" in her room, people assumed that DJing must be it, and so began to book her.
Upon moving to L.A., keen collaborators and friends were created through the likes of innovators such as Kim Petras, Charli XCX, and Arca to name but a few. Upon her passing, messages that spoke towards her kind and contemplative nature and her unignorable genius were shared by these aforementioned collaborators, giving the reader a sense that this was not just a passionate career choice for Sophie, but a means for beautifully expressive connection.
If each musician’s work can be simply defined through one word, harmony would be Sophie’s. Although her music may be thought of as intense, or evoking a kind of visceral sustained aggression, heard in songs such as ‘Is it cold in the water?’, upon closer listening, it is as though the song opens out to you with every ounce of additional attention you gift to it.
It can become evident through this process of sustained attention, that music that sparks in us feelings of aggression, is in fact music that is more future-facing than we may feel capable to process-music created by artists who, it can be sonically perceived, trust the electronic instruments they utilise and see beauty and hope in the future of people and music. This kind of harmony is a gift that Sophie will never cease giving us. In her own words: "You can't speak louder than your music. You speak through your music".
This ethos spilled over into every aspect of her life, as an openly trans woman, when asked what transness means to her, she stated: "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".
A harmonious statement from an incredible talent, who reinvented pop and ideas of selfhood - all in her 34 years upon this planet.