When Scottish electropop surrealist Sophie first broke through in 2014, she joked to Billboard that she characterized her genre of music as “advertising.” She discussed this quote with Jezebel earlier this year, saying that she made that comment because “genre is a stupid question anyway.” This is an unsurprising response from an artist who’s spent her entire career working directly against the very notion of genre. Ever since “Bipp,” Sophie’s critical breakthrough single, dialed up like a mid-’90s computer, she’s been creating a sound that’s as jarring as it is unique, using hyperkinetic synths, pitched-up vocals, and industrial beats as sonic reference points. As her network of collaborators has grown, Sophie is on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream and shaking up a pop world monotonously dictated by a shrinking number of producers. But can a sound so contradictory to the established structure of pop music reach a wide audience?
“I could be anything I want,” sings the pitched-up voice of Montreal vocalist Cecile Believe on Sophie’s “Immaterial.” “Anyhow, any place, anywhere, anyone, any form, any shape, anyway, anything, anything I want.”
The desire to tear free from contention and be anything you want is a classic pop cliché, often involving the overcoming of some sort of vague obstacle (think: Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” or Katy Perry’s “Roar”). Sophie is no stranger to reinvention (“Immaterial” is centered on the hook, “We’re just … immaterial boys, immaterial girls,” reimagining Madonna’s “Material Girl”), but there’s something deeper at work here. “Without my legs or my hair / Without my genes or my blood / With no name and with no type of story / Where do I live? / Tell me, where do I exist?” asks Believe elsewhere on the song. What if we could literally be anything we want and transcend our bodies to exist formlessly?
It’s the most joyous moment on Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, Sophie’s official debut album, released in mid-June of this year. Sophie knows the constrictions our physical bodies put on us, and longs for a world where everyone can live free from them. When asked by Paper magazine about how being openly trans has impacted her life, she said, “An embrace of the essential idea of transness changes everything because it means there’s no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end. Traditional family models and structures of control disappear.” Though gender isn’t the only mold she’s hoping to break; she told Vulture late last year that the recurring elements in her then-upcoming music included “questioning preconceptions about what’s real and authentic, what’s natural and what’s unnatural and what’s artificial, in terms of music, in terms of gender, in terms of reality.”
The prospect of living unbound from matter is something to be celebrated, rather than frightened by—although that fear exists in Sophie’s music as well. On “Is It Cold in the Water?”—another cut from Oil—she’s looking over a ledge, contemplating a jump into the unknown, but questions of what lies below hold her back. On the harsh, sinister “Faceshopping,” she considers bodies distorted by artificiality, wondering what makes identities real.
Disassociation from structure is a theme that permeates Oil, but could also apply to Sophie’s career as a genre-deconstructing producer. In her seven-plus-year career, her work has been largely utilized by alt-pop experimentalists like Charli XCX, GFOTY, Hannah Diamond, and Liz, all of whom work directly with or are adjacent to PC Music, a London-based label-slash-collective founded by producer A. G. Cook that Sophie is heavily affiliated with. But these left-of-center pop artists are no longer the only ones to use her production. As her work has gradually moved onto a larger platform, and her potential as the next big pop producer has become closer to reality, the question is not whether her sound is palatable for the general public, but whether music can catch up to her by shedding its constrictions.
The hurdle to Sophie achieving mainstream notoriety is the disruptive nature of her music and its almost adversarial relationship to the form, tradition, and structure we desperately crave. It’s a fear she touches on in her work. This explains why she’s only just now on the verge of reaching a wider audience and is doing so through the boldest mainstream artists.
In research compiled by the Pudding, the past decade has seen a decrease in musical diversity among hit songs. The top 10 producers in number of hits (think Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Shellback) were responsible for 43 percent of top five Billboard hits from 2010 to 2014. The figure was less than half of that 30 years ago. The number of people making songs played on the radio has gotten smaller, so why stray from a tried-and-true producer? But if pop is looking for an antidote to its growing uniformity, Sophie is standing right there.
Sophie’s work with Vince Staples on “Samo” and the Kendrick Lamar–assisted “Yeah Right,” both from Staples’s 2017 release, Big Fish Theory, marked the first time she received a stamp of approval from a mainstream hip-hop artist. It’s not surprising that Vince would be the rapper to take a chance on an underutilized and unique artist—his other recent collaborations include electro house duo GTA and 16-year-old goth-pop prodigy Billie Eilish—but “Yeah Right” is one of the best tracks in both Staples’s and Sophie’s catalogs.
Although Sophie coproduced the song with Australian Grammy-winning DJ Flume, her influence is all over it, with metallic beats similar to the sound of two steel pans smashing together in disjointed rhythm over menacing bass booms and synths glitching in and out of focus. Hearing Staples and Lamar trade bars over a top-notch Sophie production is something I’m still not prepared for when I play the song now, over a year after it was released. It was my favorite rap song of 2017 and one of my favorites in the past half decade, at least. Hearing how well Sophie’s sound works in this context, it’s baffling that it took four years after “Bipp” for a high-profile rapper to work with her, but considering how radical and nuanced her work is, it’s encouraging that it happened at all.
In early July, Sophie confirmed to a fan that a collaboration with Lady Gaga was in the works. And Gaga, who has often explored similar themes of personal fluidity (“Born This Way” is basically the anthem for living outside of structure), is a perfect entry point for Sophie to penetrate the collective pop consciousness. Plus, Gaga, like Vince, isn’t afraid to toy with expectations of what her sound should be, and after the lukewarm response to Joanne, she’d benefit from a sonic reinvention.
Though she maintains greater ambitions, Sophie’s aware that people are closed-minded to hearing something so far outside of what they’re accustomed to. When asked by Paper about the importance of production, Sophie said, “I think it’s everything. It could be even more though. As soon as people’s ears open up and they are ready for it, then you can take it in very weird places.”
Sophie has been taking her own sound to weird places recently, even by her own standards. While she typically works with maximalist, abrasive textures, Sophie has recently produced minimalist bangers, like Charli XCX’s “Out of My Head,” and added poignant, sweet synths, like Let’s Eat Grandma’s “It’s Not Just Me,” one of this year’s most gorgeous and affecting tracks.
Her own album is sprawling and moving in a way her music has never been before. “It’s Okay to Cry,” Oil’s lead single, is a twinkling ballad that builds to a stunning emotional climax and features Sophie’s own hushed whisper beckoning a loved one to open up to her—the first time she’s used her own vocals on a track. “Is it Cold in the Water?” explores desperation over staccato synths that are slightly muted, like they’re playing just under the surface of the ocean. And Sophie’s not done. With Charli continuing to release long-awaited singles featuring Sophie’s production, and Sophie herself teasing three more full-length releases for this year, we’ll certainly be hearing more from her in the coming months.
It’s shocking to see Sophie’s artistic growth when you consider how her 2015 release, Product, a collection of singles from 2013 to 2015, still sounds unlike anything in music three years later. Then again, maybe that shouldn’t be surprising when an artist doesn’t let genres and constructions hold them back from being anything they want.
“Life is malleable and fluid,” she said in that Jezebel profile. “That’s what gets me through the world, is the idea that things can change.” Music, especially in Sophie’s case, is malleable too, but the industry at large is still steeped in traditional sounds and structures. Change can’t happen without a radical and progressives closer to center accepting that radical. As Sophie continues to innovate, and her wider acceptance continues to expand, hopefully music will unbind from molds in favor of something new, deconstructed from what we already know.