Sophie vapes. Maybe this doesn’t seem notable — after all, we’re in Los Angeles, where vape clouds punctuate the juice bars and yoga studios that spring up on every block, vape clouds pour out of cracked car windows, vape clouds coil up to the sky to mingle with the undying smog. Two days ago, in an artisanal ice-cream shop in Santa Monica, I saw two college-age kids wearing vape pens on lanyards around their necks as casually and dorkily as if they were toy whistles. But there’s something about the image of Sophie, vaping, that clicks. Her music is to most music what vaping is to lighting up a hand-rolled cigarette: clean, futuristic, ringed with humor, and a little surreal. So, when she darts out of the Italian restaurant in Los Feliz where we’ve met to get the vape she’s forgotten in her car, returning with a device the size and shape of a USB drive, but slimmer, it feels right.
She vapes more discreetly than anyone I’ve ever seen, cloaking the pen with her hand when she draws and exhaling thin tendrils between carefully planned sentences. She has a disarming habit of looking somewhere over my right shoulder while she contemplates her answers to my questions in total silence, sometimes pausing for 10 or 15 seconds before she speaks. A former smoker, she switched to the Juul pen she now uses because she didn’t want to smell of cigarettes during long hours in the studio.
Since 2013, when she started issuing her first statically electric, rubberized synth-pop singles, Sophie has racked up a production CV that includes work with Le1f, MØ, Charli XCX, Vince Staples, and, most notably, fellow mononymic pop auteur Madonna, whose single “Bitch I’m Madonna” she co-produced alongside Diplo. Her work, under her own name and for other artists, bears a singular stamp derived from the labor-intensive process of raw digital synthesis. Instead of drawing on samples or gently tweaked presets, Sophie sculpts her own sounds — from the bubbles that pop across “Lemonade” and Liz’s “When I Rule the World” to the go-kart revs on Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” to the metallic scrapes on Vince Staples’s “Samo” and “Yeah Right.” Her sound world is visceral, tactile — you feel it like you feel your knees vibrating after you’ve launched a video-game avatar into a massive jump. It’s made from software, but it ripples through your body all the same.
Sophie’s work with pop and hip-hop heavyweights, as well as rising artists like Bronx rapper Quay Dash, has pushed her solo music into new exploratory zones. Studio sessions move fast, and often they take her places she wouldn’t have discovered on her own. “The most exciting thing for me is going into somebody’s environment and coming out with something at the end of the day that I could not have imagined in the morning,” she says. “That is such an exciting thing. That gives me a lot of energy and pleasure and satisfaction. When you collaborate with someone, you have to go very deep very quickly. There’s not many other situations in life where that’s possible — where you just have met someone for the first time and you’re suddenly talking about love and concepts and ideas. You have to get there very quickly. It’s an amazing experience. I get a lot from that.”
We’re at the Italian restaurant in Los Feliz to talk about Sophie’s new live show, a multimedia debut of new songs presented as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s month-long music festival in L.A., which is unfortunate because, due to venue permitting issues, it was canceled just hours before she was scheduled to take the stage. She’s disappointed, to say the least, and she’d rather not talk about the show, or the music she’d have premiered there, without my having seen it. She’s been conceptualizing this performance for almost a year; her friends and collaborators who flew out to L.A. to perform with her have already flown back home. “There’s literally nothing else in the world I want to do right now,” she says, chewing ice from her water glass.
It’s a little strange sitting across from her, because for the first four years of her solo career, the only readily accessible photos of her were snapped by fans and journalists at the handful of sets she’d play. Her website, decked out in a curly typeface designed by New York artist Eric Wrenn, declared in all caps, “HI MY NAME IS SOPHIE.” That was the extent of her public biography. When tasked with doing a Boiler Room set, she asked a friend to lip-sync her songs in her place so she wouldn’t have to be videotaped. Photos were prohibited at SXSW’s PC Music showcase in 2015, which didn’t stop people from taking them, but for a long time, Sophie’s existence as a real human person felt conditional, based only on her presence in the same room as you. She offered no concrete details about herself, gave few interviews, and, until recently, didn’t use third-person pronouns in her press materials, leaving just enough space for most of the music media to assume she was a man.
In October, a week before her RBMA show was scheduled to take place, Sophie manifested. She released her first music video alongside a new song, “It’s Okay to Cry,” the first Sophie song to feature her own vocals (she hints that she’s sung on other projects before, but won’t specify which). The video, from which her first-ever press photo was taken, sees her lip-syncing along to the new track against a rapidly shifting stormy sky, bright red lipstick on, in the nude. “What else are you going to do for a first video?” she says, smiling.
It’s surreal, then, not only to meet her face-to-face, but to learn what she likes on her pizza, which is arugula and prosciutto. “Are you vegetarian?” she asks unprompted, and I am, but I tell her she should go for it. “No, I will not go for it,” she retorts, my Americanism comical repeated in her English accent. Insisting that we will share the pizza, even though I’ve ordered my own entree, she rescinds the prosciutto.
“I’ve always wanted to do a music video,” she says. “The pop-music video is one of the most powerful communication tools we have. Most people have access to a phone, and you can click a video and absorb it in three minutes. If it’s potent enough, you can take in the message or have some sort of experience in multiple dimensions, the music with the image. I’ve always viewed what I wanted to do in that way, but before, I never had the resources.”
“It’s Okay to Cry,” a dreamy ballad with a frayed percussive breakdown at the climax and perhaps the most traditional pop song Sophie has ever released, will be the last song she performs at her show once it’s been rescheduled at the Teragram Ballroom the following Monday. She’ll stand onstage alone, singing or lip-syncing (she tells me later the show used both prerecorded and live vocals, but in the moment it’s tough to tell which is which), a rainbow yawning on the projection screen behind her. This is as close as she gets to broaching concepts like “queer” or “trans,” words that have become buzzy in the past few years in news programs and band bios but which she’s never used to describe her own work. The ideas are there, though, if you listen — there’s something ineluctably queer about a feminine voice singing the words “I get so hard” on her 2014 kink-o-ramic single “Hard,” and her synthesis itself falls into a sound-warping tradition established in part by pioneering electronic composer Wendy Carlos, who came out as trans in the late ’70s. The loosening of gender boundaries feels central, not incidental, to Sophie’s music, which is maybe why she doesn’t feel the need to talk about it. Anything she could say she’s already recorded.
Sophie moved to Los Angeles from London about two years ago. The change in environment has energized her; she feels freer to move around here, both socially and in terms of actual mobility. She drives now instead of taking public transit, and she loves it; she’ll demo new songs on her car’s stereo while zooming around the city. “It’s a bit like … what’s that TV series? Westworld? The toy world. I think of [L.A.] like that because it’s too perfect to be true,” she says. “I think you feel more liberated in a foreign country. You’re more open. You understand less about the social constructs that exist in a certain place, so you take people more at face value, and you’re also taken more at face value, which makes you more able to be yourself.”
For someone whose chipmunk-pitch vocal treatments and comically timed percussion has earned her some suspicion among certain listeners and critics who think she must be joking or at the very least satirizing contemporary pop music, Sophie is especially invested in the idea of being yourself — of authenticity. She rejects the notion that songs must come laden with literal autobiography in order to ring true, and asserts that her music is as true to her own experience of living in the world as she could make it.
“A lot of people are interested in re-creating an idea of the past, like the post-punk era or something, and would view this kind of thing as less authentic,” she says. “I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective — to find out what is authentically this moment.”
To Sophie, carving out havens in which it’s easy to pretend the far-reaching effects of late capitalism don’t exist is less interesting than meeting the far-reaching effects of late capitalism head-on. In an early interview, she offered “advertising” when asked about the genre of her music, and in 2015, her answer became literally true: a McDonald’s web spot used a clip of her song “Lemonade” to sell lemonade. “People were furious,” she says. “But I don’t think that compromises anything in the music. If it’s used in that context, it doesn’t change my intention of making it. If you can do two things with it, give it meaning for yourself according to the perspectives you want to share and also have it function on the mass market, and therefore expose your message to more people in a less elitist context, then that is an ideal place to be. An experimental idea doesn’t have to be separated from a mainstream context. The really exciting thing is where those two things are together. That’s where you can get real change.”
“When I was doing the first Sophie music, I thought I’d like to place it in that context because I wanted to live in the real world,” she says. “I don’t want it to be this elitist, academic thing, with only people from a certain sect listening to it. That’s not my intention. I want it to interact and have a life in the real world, as I see it, and communicate within that context.”
The idea that interacting with consumerism is actually more authentic and truer to the world as it is than keeping your music in a position of relative purity populates the show Sophie performs at the Teragram Ballroom, which I do get to see. At her previous concerts, alone or with singers like Charli XCX, she’s stood mostly in darkness behind a table of electronics, twisting together her squiggles and curlicues and harsh synthesized percussion in real time, with rock-solid concentration. Now, she has broader ambitions. Static rumbles from the speakers in darkness; then, there’s a flash of light, and two figures are onstage. The lights strobe again, and the dancers are in a different position. The strobes quicken. The words “WHOLE NEW WORLD” flash across the projection screen, and a low, digitally processed voice speaks them in time. More dancers enter, the beat kicks in, and then Sophie enters, tall in thigh-high patent leather boots, dancing with her friends, mouthing along to that three-word phrase.
Of course the words “whole new world,” which seem to be something of a thesis statement for this era of Sophie, are inextricable from Disney’s Aladdin, where they’re sung high above the Earth on a magic carpet-assisted first date. But Jasmine and Aladdin aren’t in a whole new world at all; they’re in the only world, just seeing it from a different vantage.
Other allusions to children’s media crop up throughout the show, like when Sophie and her dancers come out on all fours after their first costume change, long pastel ponytails clipped into their hair as images from the My Little Pony franchise flash behind them. The voices remain demonic; the beats are hard and relentless; and the choreography is precise and elegant. At one point, two of the dancers carry Sophie around the stage like a three-person mini–crowd surf. They draw close to each other, forming intimate shapes, and then push away, kicking their heels in the air and flipping their hair extensions.
Sophie worked with the performance duo FlucT on the live debut, whose members Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren appear with her onstage (and in the video for the song “Ponyboy,” adapted from the show). “They have a very strong practice that they’ve developed over many years,” Sophie tells me on the phone a few days after the show. Rather than have a single person choreograph their routines, the artists developed them collaboratively over time. Sophie had worked with FlucT in the past, composing music for a New York installation called “Authority Figure,” and opted to continue their work together for her own show. “It was about having their art interact with the content I was thinking about,” she says. “They’re so tight and strong in what they’re about.”
That content, delivered by way of the most aggressive instrumentals Sophie has ever made, twists in and out of explicit cultural references — a new element in her music, whose lyrics have historically tended to be vague. There’s a song probably called “Immaterial Girls,” a Madonna reference which taps into her interest in transhumanism, a subject she talks about eagerly over dinner. She cites Martine Rothblatt’s books, From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form and Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality. Rothblatt draws a line from gender trouble to artificial intelligence, postulating that mind clones — digital copies of human brains — may well flourish as the next iteration of humanity. It’s a heady concept, and the technology to realize it isn’t quite there yet, but it makes sense that it’s a trans woman posing such a theory. If you can find your way out of one system — gender — you’re better prepared to find your way out of all the rest.
“That’s a running theme in this music — questioning preconceptions about what’s real and authentic,” Sophie says. “What’s natural and what’s unnatural and what’s artificial, in terms of music, in terms of gender, in terms of reality, I suppose.”
In an essay from early this year, artificial-intelligence designer Jacqueline Feldman wrote, “Refusing simple descriptions of the world — insisting on the world and not a micro-world — constitutes political resistance.” She was talking about AI’s ability (or not) to feel pain (or, really, how humans decipher AI expressions of pain), but her sentence reads like a thesis statement for what Sophie is attempting to do. She posits micro-worlds like genre, gender, and classical conceptions of the human being as inadequate. They do not describe the present and they will not illuminate the future. What might, though, is a holistic expression of late capitalist reality, one that insists upon reflecting every individual’s entanglement with larger power structures. I wouldn’t describe Sophie’s music as utopian, but elements of futurity and forward propulsion inhabit her work. Maybe the very notion of human survival in the future, in biological bodies or digital ones, is itself utopian by now. It’s bad out here. But to get out of the prison, you have to understand the prison — its structure, its dangers, and most importantly its weaknesses.
After dinner, Sophie and I stand outside the Italian restaurant in Los Feliz. She has her car keys ready, but we talk for another hour and a half while the restaurant empties and closes down. At one point, I mention an idea I gleaned from the Tumblr blog Fuck Theory that the revolution, if it happens, will be multilingual — that to get out of this mess, people will need to communicate across languages, to learn concepts that can only be expressed outside the border walls of English. Sophie considers. “Maybe,” she says, “it’ll be musical.”