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Immaterial Girl: How SOPHIE expanded the horizons of pop music

Speaking with Irish artists and SOPHIE devotees Dark Mavis and Fomorian Vein, Jake Hurley reflects on the producer's legacy as both a sonic innovator and a queer icon
The iconic producer on the Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides cover. Cover Art Credit to Soapworld

The music industry and trans community lost a pioneer on 30 January. The 34-year-old critically acclaimed producer SOPHIE died following an accidental fall in Athens, Greece – leaving behind a legacy of adoration from fans, friends and collaborators. 

It’s difficult to forget hearing SOPHIE’s music for the first time. When BIPP first appeared on the radar of music listeners in 2013, it sounded like a dystopian future filtered through a nostalgic past, garnering widespread acclaim and speculation as to the identity of the reclusive artist. Rising to prominence alongside London’s PC Music collective, the acclaim would only grow more unanimous as SOPHIE’s elevated artistic and sonic vision cemented the Scottish producer’s place as one of the most forward-thinking musicians of the 2010s.

For Dublin based experimental-electronic producer Dark Mavis, the unforgettable introduction into the world of SOPHIE came initially through the song Hard, as it played in the Boiler Room set of label mate GFOTY and subsequently in the unlikeliest of places, the stockroom at his former workplace. 

“After I heard that SOPHIE track at work, I became obsessed. I listened to every release, every set, everything I could get my hands on,” says Dark Mavis. “I think that was back in 2017 so I was a bit late getting into the music, but I’ve been a huge fan ever since,” he continues.

“It’s something that’s so difficult to emulate because SOPHIE had a truly unique talent for manipulating sound”

Dark Mavis

Kilkenny’s self-described purveyor of ‘occult digital hardcore’ Fomorian Vein too recalls a memorable first encounter with SOPHIE’s track Lemonade whilst reading a blog article in 2014. 

“The overt influences from Eurodance, hardcore techno and noise music stood out immediately along with SOPHIE’s own distinct production, tracks like this were unheard of at the time and it was a much-needed breath of fresh air,” says Vein.

An uncompromisingly singular beatmaker, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact influences from which SOPHIE crafted the sound.

Where genre descriptors fall short, SOPHIE’s music is most often likened jokingly or otherwise, to the physical materials such as metal and elastic that the producer meticulously sought to recreate through software synthesis and digital manipulation. 

For Dark Mavis, this was a particular source of inspiration: “Both the found sound element of the music and how SOPHIE imagined and designed sounds that may not necessarily be real is hugely inspirational,” he says. “It’s something that’s so difficult to emulate because SOPHIE had a truly unique talent for manipulating sound in that way, but it’s something I would love to incorporate into my own music.”

SOPHIE was also adept at expanding the sonic world of collaborators, pushing them into realms they may have been initially reluctant to explore. SOPHIE played a crucial role in the musical development of close collaborator Charli XCX, who traded in the radio-friendly pop-rock of 2014’s Sucker for the ambitious soundscapes of the Vroom Vroom EP. 

“The kicks, the snares and the acid bassline come together with Charli’s vocals to make perfect pop music,” says Mavis. “You hadn’t really seen anything like it in mainstream pop music, I still don’t think people are ready for it to cross over into the charts,” Mavis continues.

On Yeah Right, SOPHIE adorned the voices of west coast rapper Vince Staples and superstar feature Kendrick Lamar with booming bass and harsh percussion.

SOPHIE even collaborated with personal hero Madonna on the critically divisive but endlessly memed 2015 track Bitch I’m Madonna.

With the release of official debut Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, the once reclusive SOPHIE (who preferred not to be addressed by any pronouns when discussed by media outlets) presented extremely personal and deeply emotive work which revealed and explored the artist’s trans identity. 

SOPHIE presented an extremely personal and deeply emotive work which revealed and explored the artist’s trans identity

The success of the record and its accompanying videos secured SOPHIE a well-deserved spot in the pantheon of queer icons and its exploration of gender identity remains a major inspiration for LGBTQ+ artists across a variety of mediums. 

“Oil as an album is a massively empowering statement on personal identity and sincerity that shakes a lot of people’s perceptions on what even seems possible within music,” says Fomorian Vein.

“The opening track It’s Okay To Cry had such an immediate, enormous and much needed impact on not just electronic music or pop music, but also how musicians in the public eye could learn to present themselves,” Vein continues.

SOPHIE’s life and career as a hugely innovative transgender music producer stands as testament to the empowerment and liberation of casting off restrictive gender and sonic constraints. The refrain of one of SOPHIE’s most beloved songs Immaterial reassures the listener that “you can be anything you want” – a fitting chorus for a song that will continue to soundtrack the self-discovery of young queer people for decades to come.

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