It’s getting late on a Thursday night, and the sweaty, packed crowd at Elsewhere, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is growing antsy. A couple of latex-clad students are doing poppers close to the stage, whipping their high ponytails to the music blasting on the speakers. Not far from them, a young man has arrived at the venue wearing what might soon be the look of the summer: a tangled string of lit, red Christmas lights wrapped fully around his body. The venue’s holographic lights, in sparkling strips of hot pink and blue, move across the crowd.
Suddenly, the venue goes dark, and pulsating strobe lights flood the room, which probably could have used a seizure warning. Brooklyn dance duo FlucT appear on stage, grasping each other throughout the night in sensual dance movements that look more like wrestling. Then comes SOPHIE, in a full-length black rubber gown and thigh-high boots, the words “WHOLE NEW WORLD” flashing behind her on a large screen, while she repeats the phrase in a creepy, digitally altered growl.
In early March, SOPHIE and I meet in a radically quieter setting for tea on a particularly miserable, snowy day in New York City, to talk about her music. “I want it to literally shake people up, you know?” SOPHIE tells me. Whereas her live show is a loud, kinky spectacle, in person the reserved London producer speaks barely above a whisper, twisting a string of pearls hung around her neck, over a long-sleeved, magenta satin top. “At theme parks, when you’re a child, you’d have this visceral experience of being human and I want music to feel like that,” she says. “A rollercoaster [ride] is a similar length to a pop song, and just the way that rollercoasters tend to be designed—with the tension and the release and feeling those nerves and being locked into the seat—I feel like pop music could take you on that sort of journey.”
When SOPHIE’s song “Bipp” landed on SoundCloud in 2013, it sounded like a hit designed to give you whiplash: a bizarrely pitched cartoon voice singing, “I can make you feel better, if you let me,” over an arrangement of bubbly synths and bass. Emerging alongside, but not part of, London’s polarizing PC Music collective, SOPHIE quickly became a sought-after producer and writer, collaborating with artists like Charli XCX, Vince Staples, and even Madonna. Her music, full of squelchy, artificial sounds and a melding of ’00s bubblegum nostalgia and aggressive EDM, became instantly recognizable.
But nobody really knew who SOPHIE was. In minimal, early interviews, she proclaimed that the genre of her music was “advertising,” which she admits now, with a small smile, was “a bit snide, because genre is a stupid question anyway.” At live performances, SOPHIE stayed to the back of the stage or off it entirely, at one show enlisting a drag queen to perform in her place. Journalists and critics also assumed she was a man because of this approach, not only referring to her with he/him pronouns but criticizing SOPHIE for “appropriating” femininity.
SOPHIE says she made herself a mystery because she didn’t think people knowing her biography was relevant to understanding or enjoying her art. “It’s important for me to talk about things I care about, for my music to be heard,” she says. “I express myself primarily through my music, and so I just wanted to talk about what’s real in that sense.”
It was almost shocking then to watch her first music video, “It’s Okay to Cry,” and realize that the video’s star, with her cropped red curls, was actually SOPHIE in the flesh, singing in her own voice, against a background of cloudy skies. The song was a departure from the producer’s typically hyper pop. “I can see the truth through all the lies,” she sings. “And even after all this time/just know you’ve got nothing to hide.” It was also clear that the press had gotten SOPHIE’s gender identity all wrong, with her announcing that she was “now using the personal pronouns she/her.” She approaches gender like most musicians approach genre—uninterested in tidy labels, including “trans.” She’s content to just be who she is.
Asked how she feels now, looking back on the assumptions journalists made about her gender, SOPHIE prefaces her response with a long pause. “Other people’s bullshit gets exposed over time, you know? People are about bullshit,” she says. “All I can do is just keep on doing what I feel is right and be around people who I know understand me. With other people, I have faith that those things will become apparent.”
The ways in which SOPHIE approaches her music speaks volumes in an industry that often demands unwarranted intimacy from its performers, particularly those who identify as anything other than being a straight, cis man. Feminine music is frequently mistaken as being confessional or auto-biographical, and it has become the expected norm, as of late, for women in pop to not just write great songs but narratives that speak directly to their personal lives and relationships. To deliberately be anything else is seen as making lesser, inauthentic art. An album like Lemonade is dissected to death for how it expounds on Beyoncé’s personal life, a break-up song like “Green Light” is seen as a progression for Lorde’s career, and artists are critiqued for making music that doesn’t reflect their life story.
SOPHIE takes issue with this idea of celebrated so-called authenticity. “[With] things like body augmentation, you can find something that’s actually more real, which was my experience with electronic music and synthetic materials,” SOPHIE says. “That’s something I always want to try and communicate, deconstructing this idea of authenticity which you see so much in music industry especially. An acoustic or electric guitar is meant to signify authenticity, but it’s like, what’s the real relationship? It’s a symbol more than anything.”
Your so-called “authentic” self can be one you create yourself, on your own terms, SOPHIE’s music suggests. A love song sung in a digitally altered chipmunk voice, created using a laptop, can be just as meaningful and earnest as a folk song. The voice that you’re born with, the body you’re born with, doesn’t have to limit your expression and identity.
This deconstruction was clear throughout the live show in January, comprised of entirely new music. “I’m real when I shop my face,” sang Montreal musician Cecile Believe, dressed like a Barbie doll in a hot pink nightie, on the new song “Faceshopping,” a reference, SOPHIE says, to when people said, “You’re not showing your face, therefore you’re trying to hide something.” A number titled “Immaterial Girls” sounded like if Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” was reimagined for cyborgs: “With no name and with no type of story, where do I live, tell me where do I exist?” sings Cecile Believe, who collaborated and sings on much of SOPHIE’s forthcoming album.
While SOPHIE’s music may be a reflection of the ways in which artificiality is disparaged in society, she’s not as interested in the critical analysis her weird music often invites.
“I think I was a little bit naive when I first started doing music. I thought I could just go straight into it and communicate to the larger music world straight away,” she says. She explains that she often hears that children love her music, but most people are thinking too hard about it. They feel like they can’t enjoy it because “it seems to be a bit like pop music.”
“I definitely have become more aware of how much more work it’s going to be, to realize my ideas and make music that goes straight to the senses, straight to the body, and stop this whole critical sort of engagement with it,” she continues. “I want people to listen to music and hear music as the 5- or 6-year-old version of themselves, without context. Just how does that make you feel? Is it fun and furious?”
Currently, SOPHIE is performing and perfecting her live show in a few different cities. Her next album—if you can really call it an album—is due sometime in the spring; her latest video, “Faceshopping,” premiered on Wednesday (video below). “I don’t really see a lot of value in the album as a musical statement,” SOPHIE says. “But the industry seems to find it very important. If I want to get my music heard, which I do, it’s kind of crystallized as an album.” She also says she’ll be ultimately releasing a “double remix” version of the record with remixes from her and friends.
There is some “bigger pop stuff” in the works—collaborations with artists she refrains from naming. She’d rather not jinx it. SOPHIE loves working with other people, she says, because “I don’t want to be on my own all day and all night.” And the people she collaborates with often speak to her own artistic interests. “I think it’s quite clear if you look at my discography what my views are of the world, the voices I think are important.”
At the moment, SOPHIE wants to focus on her own music and perhaps create a whole new world in the process. “Music can really change the way people feel and if I have the ability to make music I want to use that to try and inject a sense of optimism into the world,” she says. “You can say that’s a privileged perspective, but I think the power that anyone has as a musician is that you can try to bring something positive to this moment.”
“Life is malleable and fluid,” she adds. “That’s what gets me through the world, is the idea that things can change, I suppose.”