How SOPHIE’s Music Inspired a Generation of Underground Artists

Sasha Geffen
·10 min read

From the earliest singles, SOPHIE’s music had an electric pull. Luminescent, visceral, and delivered with impeccable comic timing, songs like “BIPP” and “HARD” cleaved open an irresistible niche within electronic music and avant-pop. In collaboration with vocalists like Charli XCX, Quay Dash, Cecile Believe, Vince Staples, and even Madonna, SOPHIE sharpened synthesis to a propulsive edge, spurring the voice into ecstasy. The voice moves freely in SOPHIE’s work—snapping, collapsing, mutating, blooming against fantasies built from tactile, lurid sound.

SOPHIE played among the futurisms spawned from the past 50 years of electronic music, drawing innovations from Detroit techno, Chicago house and footwork, and UK bass into a field equally inflected by chart-topping bubblegum pop and hip-hop. The artist’s death at the age of 34 last weekend leaves an abyss in the world of music, which SOPHIE touched at every level, collaborating with underground icons and A-listers alike. Here, contemporaries including intercontinental hip-hop experimentalist Mykki Blanco, Seattle drag performer and musician Michete, Montreal horrorcore rapper and producer Backxwash, Chicago techno producer Ariel Zetina, and Berlin vocal sculptor Lyra Pramuk reflect on SOPHIE’s incisive synthesis and sound design, and the worlds the artist broke open with them.

Mykki Blanco

I first became aware of SOPHIE’s music through PC Music, which always seemed like this chemical version of pop music—pop music at its most bare bones. I’ve always been attracted to minimal production, but this was minimal production that had been through a blender or a paper shredder. I’m always inspired when I meet someone who’s really committed to their aesthetic and their vision. I could tell that the PC Music kids were crafting this very distinct sound that also went into the aesthetics. One of the best things about being an artist is world-building, because then that creates something for other people to step into.

A lot of my admiration for SOPHIE came from the fact that there was someone who was super talented and produced her own music. Usually, queer people are behind-the-scenes, doing art direction or styling, or being the performers. And SOPHIE was a performer, too. But most of the time in my career, the people behind the mixing boards, who were actually running the programs or producing the music, were always cis-heterosexual men. I remember when I was really understanding that [production] was also part of SOPHIE’s skillset—I found a lot of power in that. SOPHIE’s talent put her into these really big rooms with really big names. I always found that really fucking amazing—it’s you holding the reins, it’s you pulling the strings. I had so much respect for that, because in doing that, she didn’t compromise anything at all. When you’re in that kind of position of authority—that, to me, as a fellow queer artist, was super inspiring.

If there’s the Matrix and then there’s a world outside of the Matrix, SOPHIE’s sound reminds me of the force field around the world. It would be like getting outside of the Matrix, realizing one day that there was this other invisible, magical thing that your hand reaches out and buzzes. And you’re like, “Oh, wait. There’s another place to go.”

Michete

When I moved to Seattle and started clubbing around 2016 and 2017, I would hear SOPHIE songs in DJ sets. I remember hearing “Queen of This Shit” by Quay Dash [produced by SOPHIE] in a lot of sets back then. I started seeing drag numbers to SOPHIE songs—to “LEMONADE” or “VYZEE” or “Hey QT.” I’ve probably seen a drag number to most SOPHIE productions at one point.

SOPHIE’s sound permeated so much nightlife. It also directly fostered relationships. My main producer, Yufi, we became good friends running into each other at parties and sharing a lot of the same taste—liking a lot of Charli and PC Music stuff, that left-field hyperpop sound that wouldn’t exist without SOPHIE. Now, the music I make with Yufi is not only sonically informed by SOPHIE’s work, but that relationship wouldn’t even exist without SOPHIE’s impact on music and nightlife culture. That’s huge, when an artist can bring people together in that way.

I remember the “It’s Okay To Cry” video came out like a month after I started HRT. I was terrified about what it was going to do to me, and then I remember seeing that video and being like, “No matter what happens, I’m going to be fine.” So much in SOPHIE’s music isn’t just a simple affirmation about trans people being real. It’s more of a conceptualization of transness as another medium of self-actualization. A song like “Immaterial” goes so much deeper than saying, “Trans women are women!” My personal relationship with gender is a lot more complex than that. I find it much more validating for someone to tell me I can do whatever I want and change and mutate in whatever direction rather than just telling me, “You’re a real woman.” The core lyric of “Immaterial” is almost saying, “You’re not a real woman, and neither is anybody else.” Immaterial boys and immaterial girls, none of these things are real. That’s a much more freeing way of thinking about transness—as this limitless thing that you can continually evolve, that you can customize to whatever degree you feel.

Pretty much every trans woman I know in music has been influenced or inspired by SOPHIE in some way. I think it really is our job to use this as motivation to continue creating, to see where we can take it. We have a very rare opportunity to ignite thoughts in people’s minds, to make people question things and inspire in a unique way that only trans women are capable of doing. SOPHIE dying makes me want to work harder. It makes me want to live more.

Backxwash

I first encountered SOPHIE through Quay Dash. I found “Queen of This Shit,” and I was like, “Whoa, that production is wild.” It didn’t sound like a lot of what I’d heard before. I started digging more into SOPHIE’s work, into the earlier stuff on PRODUCT, and that incredible album she had [OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES]. It was all extremely instrumental in defining the PC Music sound.

It was just remarkable how she was able to have this abrasive sound that still had enough space on it. If you look at something like “Faceshopping,” there are moments in there with no instrumentation at all. But when the instrumentation comes back, it comes back so abrasively. It’s a trippy listen. Just the sound design of it: These are synths that I’ve never heard anybody design before, not even people who have been in the game for so long. It just drew me in.

I never got the chance to see her live, I always wanted to. But I remember hearing SOPHIE’s music played at La Plante in Montreal, at a lesbian dance night. People were electrified by it. It was just extremely energetic, extremely dope.

I used one of the subs [from SOPHIE’s sample pack] on my album God Has Nothing to Do With It, Leave Him Out of It, on the first track. My next project has SOPHIE drums on it—SOPHIE drums and SOPHIE sound effects. I like SOPHIE’s hip-hop-inspired work the most. The way she utilized space and the layering of the percussion, I thought was extremely cool. The songs she did with Shygirl last year, and “Yeah Right” with Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar, are some of my favorites. SOPHIE was a legend, an extremely important legacy.

Ariel Zetina

Around the time that “BIPP” and “LEMONADE” came out, I was just starting to DJ and I realized I needed more specific sounds in my sets. I started producing. A lot of my early stuff is extremely PC Music. The whole Chicago scene—all these different musicians and drag artists—has been so influenced by what SOPHIE did. PC Music led me to collaborate with all these different performance artists, all coming from theater. We were like, “Let’s fuck around and make stuff with our voice and also make stuff that in seven seconds can be insane kicks and then the next seven seconds can be full synth.”

The ability to morph and to travel not in a forward line, but in multiple ways, that was really what popped out about SOPHIE’s music. On “BIPP,” the sound design of the production played so much with silence—it’s so minimal, but also so effervescent, and then mixed with this vocal that is so over-produced but extremely raw. There’s so many layers and dynamics in her music. Musical theater is so much a part of why I love music, and I feel like “BIPP” has that musical theater quality, where it’s like, “I’m calling attention to myself!” But it’s also deeply emotional.

I remember reading the original SOPHIE Pitchfork interview. I wanted to know everything about her. She talked about onomatopoeia, and that’s a huge part of my production. [My song] “Eyeshadow Fallout” incorporates cartoon kicks. I was interested in things like: How do you make a cartoon kick sound beautiful, and not like an annoying cartoon kick? How do you get those elements that really contrast with each other to work together? That’s her influence on me.

I saw her live in New York when she was playing a rave with Jimmy Edgar. I think she maybe played “LEMONADE” at the end, but that was the only SOPHIE track. The rest of it was just techno with SOPHIE synths over it. It was exactly what I love about her: when she’s commenting on and inserting herself into an existing dance style. Those are the moments where I really connect with her.

Lyra Pramuk

I’ve been thinking of SOPHIE as very high voltage. We’re all cyborgs in terms of how we interact with technology, but the heavy, thick electronic aspects of the sound, the bass, the speakers, the sheer power of her music—and I’m talking circuits and hertz—I think she was very aware of that whole ecosystem of energy.

Sound materiality is so important to me. SOPHIE understood that so well, that everything could be material. The production is so precise and so colorful. There’s this animism to it, like inanimate materials coming to life and doing things of their own accord. Her use of vocals also really inspired me, just the sense of many voices in a track, a sense of collectivity among voices. SOPHIE’s vocals, even when they’re pitched or shifted to sound brighter, still sound super clear and human. I really value that, because my core belief about any song is that it wants to be a vessel for communication with an audience. She was always communicating so much, and it was always so generous.

In all of SOPHIE’s music, there is this sense of euphoria and total bliss that just feels insanely free. In its wildness, its complexity, we become more human. This is the quality of her work that I hope all who knew and loved her music will harness. Her music is our moment, all of us like blissed-out children squirming and giggling and laughing and crying to her brilliant, unforgettable tracks. It’s this great beacon of possibility, and I feel it’s our duty now to embody the intimacy, the radical joy of SOPHIE’s work. We need to carry her with us.

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork