A squeal that sounded like some sort of feedback ripped out of my phone as SOPHIE thanked me for calling. Our 30-minute conversation last week was adorned with so many (accidental?) sound effects, I felt like I was inside one of the LA-based (via Scotland) producer’s songs. After 16 high-pitched beeps, I made a comment. With a chuckle, SOPHIE replied, “Phone communication systems need to get a bit more hi-fi I think.”
As a sort of follow-up to the SOPHIE profile Jezebel ran in April, the plan was to discuss her first proper album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. It’s a thrilling 40 minutes of music that runs the gamut from synth-balladry to amorphous ambient designs to the kind of frenetic, almost slapstick, sideways pop that SOPHIE is best known for (via internet hits like “BIPP” and QT’s “Hey QT”). Throughout the album, SOPHIE revels in gray areas of genre and identity—the record’s catchiest song, “Immaterial Girl,” renders a legless, hairless, immaterial narrator (a virtual creation whose existence is confined to her song) whose pitched-up vocal enthuses, “I can be anything I want” to a plastic thwack of percussion.
“Faceshopping” presents the notion that, “I’m real when I shop my face”—a clever play on the multiple meanings of “shop” (as in marketing, and also Photoshopping) and the suggestion that technology’s increasing options for self-presentation (like Facetuning) enhance our ability to express our identity, as opposed to taking away from it by obscuring the reality of our physical flesh.
In a plainspoken, efficient manner, SOPHIE’s music explores transhumanism, the notion that technology can enhance our humanity. SOPHIE considers transhumanism and transgender identity to be connected—that she talked about being trans at all shocked me, given her previously expressed allergy to the label in multiple interviews. She surprised me throughout our chat—candid, but guarded, specific and then vague. She had no interest in discussing those who had misgendered her (prior to her public acknowledgment that she was trans in 2017) and accused her of appropriating femininity. (Grimes famously said in 2015, “It’s really fucked up to call yourself SOPHIE and pretend you’re a girl when you’re a male producer [and] there are so few female producers.”) “There’s more exciting shit to do than bitch about other people,” SOPHIE told me.
“I’m losing a bit of my subtlety these days. I’m trying to get it back,” she said, sounding ambivalent of having to explain herself in interviews, and not just let her music do the talking. From my perspective, though, there was much exciting territory to explore. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: I know you have said in the past that you aren’t much into the medium of the album, but The Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides plays like such a cohesive statement. Were you envisioning these songs ending up on an album as you were making them?
SOPHIE: I don’t really think in terms of albums at all, but then I realized I had to make an album because the music industry still thinks albums are cool and the way to do things. You can’t be on the front of a magazine if you haven’t got an album out. I was like, “All right, well, I’ll make an album.” But then over the course of making it, I got into it.
There’s a sense of playfulness on this extremely varied album. Were you having fun?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Making jokes, having fun the whole time. What’s your favorite track on it?
I like “Immaterial Girl” a lot, but my favorite track is “Pretending.” I love ambient music—I’m so impressed by people who can make tracks that are gauzy and seemingly formless but still make sense to the ear. What are the sounds that comprise that song?
“Pretending” was made from a song I wrote called “Pretending,” which was a full song with lyrics and vocals and everything. And then I just thought it was a bit too literal. When I really manipulated it and extended it, I felt it kept the sentiment of the song without being so literal. I suppose that’s what I try to do, generally speaking.
“Faceshopping” is pretty literal, right?
Oh yeah, because we need hard words, but also words are weapons.
The notions of authenticity and questioning what is real run deep on this album. One of the lyrics in “Faceshopping” is: “I’m real when I shop my face.” To you, what does “real” mean in that context?
“I’m real when I shop my face...” What is real? Being trans.
I read that you weren’t really interested in the trans label. Has that changed?
The label’s got some issues surrounding it, I think. There are misconceptions about what that is and what that means. I don’t really know. Nobody really knows. But I try to talk about it through my music.
It seems like what you’re talking about in the music goes beyond gender. I wonder if that’s part of the point.
Definitely. That’s what being trans represents, yeah.
Is “Faceshopping” more about transgender identity to you, or transhumanism?
I think it’s all connected, really.
When “It’s Okay to Cry” came out, a lot of outlets framed it as your coming-out as trans. It seemed like the press maybe didn’t get the whole story given your lack of an explicit explanation.
Well, I mean, why would I? It’s not to be explained literally. Everyone’s different. Everyone’s an individual.
A lot of discussions about presentation focus on visual aesthetics. I wonder if this album is an opportunity to express your identity in sonic form, essentially tapping into a virtually untouched aesthetic realm. In other words, is the music itself an extension of the way you present your identity to the outside world?
Yeah, I think you touched on something really important there...I don’t know, I mean, I’ve always found expression through music. That’s my chosen method of communication. I can speak through my appearance a bit as well, but the medium I’m more experienced with is music.
Was part of not talking about trans identity much in previous interviews a response to feeling boxed in by labels or having those labels precede you?
Totally, yeah. That’s a huge problem. When you meet someone, you don’t just get their words. You get: what do they smell like, what do they feel like, what do their eyes look like. Are you in love with them? Those are missing components.
Are you saying that people think about all of this too narrowly?
It’s not for me to say if people think about it too narrowly. They’re welcome to think about it in whatever way they want to. But I can certainly suggest what I think feels real to me.
You’ve talked about the question of genre being stupid—in multiple arenas, you’re dodging the limitations imposed by labels.
Definitely. I had to. There are a lot of traps there, but when I have friends around me that understand me, people that I love, we find that we think similarly about these things. That’s where I learn everything, from my friends. Just being around people. That’s important to me.
When you released “It’s Okay to Cry,” it received a rapturous response from where I was sitting. Did you feel that? And was it meaningful to you that the song and video were so embraced?
No, because it should have been a No. 1 song, and the problem is that things are being embraced on a superficial level in some ways.
When you say “superficial” are you talking about people performing on social media?
I think there are news outlets and publications that really support, and I appreciate that. There’s also a lot of people working in an older system, which I’m not appreciative toward. Do you know what I’m saying?
Could you explain the difference?
I don’t know. I think it’s emerging universally. It reveals itself.
Do you feel tokenized after releasing that song?
A little bit, yeah. I just felt like, do you have to sing a ballad crying for someone to take notice of something? Is that what emotion feels like to people? It doesn’t feel like that to me. I want to make dance music. I want to make electronic music. That feels important to me.
Then why did you do the song in that style?
Because I can.
You have cited disco as a big inspiration. Are there specific producers or tracks that influenced this album?
My favorite disco/boogie producer is Leroy Burgess. Do you know him?
I do. I think he did “Over Like a Fat Rat” by Fonda Rae.
He did do “Over Like a Fat Rat.” He did “Let’s Do It” by Conversion. He did a lot of amazing music with the band Logg. Also Universal Robot Band. The atmosphere of that music, that feels good in my body. That’s what I like to listen to in the kitchen dancing.
I wouldn’t necessarily pick that up just by listening to your album, but the fact that you can make something that is inspired by that is very much in the house music tradition. Early house producers were trying to replicate disco, but it came out in its own, idiosyncratic form.
Exactly, that’s why they’re brilliant. That’s why they’ve paved the culture that informs what we’re doing now. Everyone who’s worked hard in those club spaces brings a sense of liberation to people. Those people should be rewarded for their hard work. They’re not rewarded as much as they should be. They should be rewarded as much as Adele and Sam Smith are rewarded.
Because you express so much in your music, does talking about it in an interview like this one feel redundant?
I’m enjoying talking to you now. It’s fascinating to talk about this stuff, but it’s more fun to dance.
SOPHIE will play the Ladyland Festival June 22 in Brooklyn.