In the days after SOPHIE’s death from an accidental fall in Athens, Greece, this past January, a similar sentiment echoed online among fans of the groundbreaking artist. Journalist Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard best summed it up in a tweet: “the past tense doesn’t suit SOPHIE.” In just eight years of releasing music, the chameleonic creator reimagined the course of pop, leveling boundaries and bringing whoever else would follow along. SOPHIE worked in the future tense, more interested in figuring out how music would, could, or should sound than working within how it did.
Born in Glasgow in 1986, Sophie Xeon entered music loudly in 2013, releasing a string of singles that challenged the modern electronic establishment. Naming “BIPP” one of the best songs of the 2010s, Pitchfork called it “a day-glo warning shot that indicated just how wonderfully weird pop was going to get in the years that followed.” SOPHIE pushed that process along by collaborating with everyone from Madonna to Vince Staples to Arca. SOPHIE had a particularly fruitful relationship with Charli XCX after executive producing Vroom Vroom — the 2016 EP that allowed Charli to soak up SOPHIE’s experimental tics and translate them into her now-trademark DIY pop playfulness — and continued to produce Charli songs through her 2017 mixtape Pop 2. As much as SOPHIE was known for solo work, collaboration energized the producer. “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,” SOPHIE said in a 2017 Vulture profile.
So, SOPHIE’s decision to then turn inward created a breakthrough moment. The musician’s first video, “It’s Okay to Cry,” showed SOPHIE — who’d previously shied from being identified by face — dancing shirtless in front of clouds, singing with an unedited voice for the first time. It was SOPHIE coming out as trans on SOPHIE’s terms. OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, SOPHIE’s only solo album, followed, a full-length exploration of identity, from construction to its disruption. “I could be anything I want,” vocalist Cecile Believe sings on “Immaterial,” the victorious penultimate song. “Anyhow, any place, anywhere, anyone, any form, any shape, any way, anything, anything I want!” As much as a new generation of pop and electronic musicians found freedom in SOPHIE’s brash blend of industrial and bubblegum, a generation of trans musicians and fans found themselves in SOPHIE’s gender expression.
SOPHIE’s career continued to move in the months before the 34-year-old’s death: a livestream in July, features for the musicians Jimmy Edgar and Shygirl in September and October, a prized Autechre remix in January. On March 5, Unsound Productions released SOPHIE’s first posthumous track, the amorphous Jlin collaboration “JSLOIPNHIE.” Over the past month, Vulture spoke to SOPHIE’s friends and collaborators, along with the musicians that followed in SOPHIE’s steps, to better understand Sophie Xeon’s influence as a musician and as a person. SOPHIE might not be around for the future, but it won’t be a future without SOPHIE.
(Editor’s note: A statement following SOPHIE’s death noted that the musician ultimately “preferred not to use gendered or nonbinary pronouns.” A number of interviewees use “she” and “her” when referring to SOPHIE; we’ve kept the integrity of their quotes.)
“SOPHIE Creating SOPHIE”
Ben Long (brother, tour manager, recording engineer, and producer): From as early as I can remember, SOPHIE was always there for me and always had my back. We did absolutely everything together, from the raves and big festivals of the mid-to-late ’90s with our dad and older brother Mark, as teens helping to sneak me into London’s house and techno clubs with the older kids, to later touring the world, engineering her debut album together, and going all the way to the Grammys in L.A.
SOPHIE started making music on our family computer at the age of 8 or 9, which was around the same time our Dad had started taking us to raves and festivals. She was inspired by and tried to emulate the electronic music that we always loved so much. Albums such as Orbital’s In Sides and Moby’s Everything Is Wrong were absolute staples in our house and always on heavy rotation in our mum’s car, much to the frustration of our older and younger sisters, whose Shania Twain and Disney CDs rarely got a look in.
Success wasn’t something that came to SOPHIE overnight. It took many years of hard work and dedication in honing her skills and devising, then mastering certain techniques and tools that allowed her to craft her work to such precise levels of detail.
It was such a joy and a pleasure to see her develop as a musician, from bedroom beat-maker into one of the most skillful sound designers and original producers in the world.
Calum Morton (co-founder of Numbers; released SOPHIE’s PRODUCT singles): We started talking in early 2012. [It was] the boom of what people wanted to lazily refer to as club music, or U.K. bass, or garage, or techno, or house, or grime. Everyone wanted to try so hard to pigeonhole stuff into these really defined lanes. And then at the same time, you had Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” coming out, and people were really upset about their own notions of authenticity in pop music.
When SOPHIE sent us “BIPP,” it was just so refreshing. It was taking in what we felt like was that freedom of disco and freestyle music from New York. That expressiveness, but with crazy hooks, sound design, and very tight minimalism — in terms of the idea itself, of what it was trying to do. Some people wanted to grip onto formats, for authenticity. But this whole project was dealing in ideas more than any medium. And I think that upset some people, who just want to know exactly what’s happening and for things to stay the same and to be slightly backward facing. The vinyl itself took six months to sell. But it was just not about that, at all.
To me, this was SOPHIE creating SOPHIE. Forming a whole new thing around sounds and ideas. The idea of genre was already old for SOPHIE. And it certainly evolves in crazier ways as the story goes on. There’s not that many people who released that breadth of musical styles in such unique and refreshing ways.
Jim-E Stack (producer): One day, I got another promo email from Numbers, and it was for these two songs, “BIPP” and “ELLE,” by some person named SOPHIE I’d never heard of. I remember listening like, What the fuck is this music? This is insane, because it was. It was just something I never heard before.
I’m a firm believer that the best shit is just the simplest stuff. It was so distilled to the thing that was impactful, with these cool synth chords and this cool vocal, but it was also banging, but not quite a dance track. I was like, Oh, this could clearly have a life beyond just electronic music. It made sense then to start seeing her go on to be in the studio with Rihanna, do something with Madonna, and of course all this stuff with Charli. She was clearly so keyed into something that, just straight up, I don’t think existed in anyone at the time. And that seemed to birth this whole musical movement that extends both deep into electronic music, but so far out of it, and then into pop music. You can trace that all to literally just “BIPP.”
Sasha Geffen (critic and author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary): The vocals, obviously, were really attention getting in the way that they pushed up into annoyingness — that sweet spot between feeling thrilled and feeling annoyed. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, and what I was seeing was that SOPHIE was pulling it off with other gay people. Like, a lot of the people who were really, really into that early SOPHIE music were queer. And a lot of the old-guard dudes in music journalism were like, “Well, this is silly, this music [must] be satire,” or like, “This is ridiculous.” That divide felt very clear to me in the beginning.
Everyone had assumed certain things about SOPHIE because SOPHIE was really good at synthesis. Everyone was like, “Well, this must be a cis man using a girl’s name as a joke, right?” I guess because SOPHIE didn’t participate in the identity-making processes around music that were commonplace, everyone was thinking that that remove applied to everything.
Kristen McElwain (friend and former manager): Being at [electronic music publication] Resident Advisor during that time was fun because if you’d go to any kind of gathering or party, the question of “What do you think about SOPHIE?” as an icebreaker was just everywhere. It was alien enough, it was disruptive enough, to where even journalists struggled to articulate it in music terminology, which was perfect. [Laughs.] That was the ideal scenario, I think, for Soph. And we would laugh about that a little bit too, after the fact. I still don’t think there has been another kind of disruptive moment like that since.
“I just couldn’t get enough of it”
Banoffee (collaborator on “Ripe” and “Count on You”; former Charli XCX keyboardist): I was in a heavy clubbing time in my life, where I was out four or five times a week. “LEMONADE” was constantly being slipped in towards the early hours of the morning, and I remember just being like, What the fuck is this? It’s really interesting to look back now and think of the time where SOPHIE’s sounds were foreign to me because they’re everywhere now. But hearing those very industrial and harsh sounds for the first time was such an elating feeling.
For me, as a musician, I’ve always wanted to be making sounds that have never been heard before, but I don’t have the skill to do it. Hearing that someone had done it in a way that I thought was so effective and so unaffected by what was popular at the time was really exciting.
Peaches (musician and performance artist): That music said so much in the way that had this mainstream quality and this really brutal production but still had this cuteness to it, also. It just really pushed boundaries in brutality. That’s the power of SOPHIE, that took this underground, and also really complexity, and great production value, and was not afraid to just fuck it up — and it still was mainstream.
Slayyyter (singer-songwriter): I think it was back when I was a freshman in college — I really deep dove, one day, and started listening to everything on PRODUCT. I was absolutely awestruck by everything I was hearing. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. I became so obsessed so fast in a way that I hadn’t been with an artist before. I just couldn’t get enough of it. The music was so hard, but it was so unique and different.
I started trying to make little beats myself, like on GarageBand. Obviously those didn’t really turn out very good. [Laughs.] But I was so inspired to create upon listening to it. Finding out about SOPHIE really started my entire musical journey.
Shamir (singer-songwriter): I was signed to XL [Recordings] around the same time as they had signed the QT project, which is basically an extension of SOPHIE. I remember making the rounds and getting used to the people who worked there when I first went out to London, and they’re telling me about some of the new stuff. “Hey QT” was the first thing I heard, and I remember being like, This is insane. [Laughs.] But I loved it. I tried to smuggle a can of [DrinkQT] back home and I think TSA took it. I was so pissed.
Allie X (singer-songwriter): When “Vroom Vroom” came out, that’s when I was like, Holy shit. Just a sound design that I’d never heard. I mean, when I first heard PC Music, I was already very taken with that. But when I heard SOPHIE’s music, even though it’s all synthetic, there was this really raw, emotional, instant feeling that it brought up in me. It was aggressive. It almost brings up a discomfort alongside a euphoric release.
She should be in the textbooks. She really influenced where pop music has gone. That’s how I think of her: someone who very quietly, majorly impacted the whole sound of pop and what pop means.
Banoffee: Vroom Vroom was a big turning point for everyone; when anything from that EP started playing, the energy changed. It was a really special moment. You could see it in Charli too. She’s so proud of that EP, and so she should be, because that was a real record of trust — trusting in releasing something that was so different to anything anyone had ever heard before. You could tell that she feels something about it, everyone else feels something about it. It was a real moment of joy playing those songs.
Shamir: SOPHIE and QT were on the lineup for Laneway Festival [in 2016]. It’s a traveling festival, so all artists stay in the same hotels, take the same flights and everything. So everyone finds their circle of friends. I already had knew QT [Hayden Dunham] personally, and so by the way of knowing QT, I became pretty close to SOPHIE during that time. We got really close really fast.
The more I think about her, the less it’s about the music. Aside from who she was as an artist, she was just a good person. And you can ask anyone in the music industry, that is hard to come by. I can count on one hand how many people who are as nice as they are talented.
Performance versus Identity
McElwain: In that first era, doing the shows, [it was] one of the most dynamic live sets, electronic sets ever. When you would talk about the future and the scale, it’s like, Okay, this is going to be like, main stage Coachella. It is made for that.
There would always be something new. It wasn’t like when you’re used to going to these shows and you’re just hearing the old catalog. All of a sudden, you’re like, Wait, the other stuff was blowing my mind. Now I’m just completely on another planet again. Like, this person keeps building on top and continuously pushing it, challenging it, and would always play with the old material — speed it up, slow it down. It would never be the same thing twice.
Long: She would never want to perform her finished or released music, at least not in the way it had been released. Simply pressing play on pre-existing tracks or triggering certain parts of arrangements wasn’t enough for her, and she felt her audiences deserved more. Instead, she would always try new things in shows, testing new tracks she had just made or making new versions of songs live, on the fly.
Logistically this made things complicated, to say the least, as she would insist on having her computers with her in the dressing room, making beats and honing new sounds for the show, until about 30 seconds before she was due on stage! This meant pretty much taking everything apart after soundcheck and a mad scramble to reconnect it all in front of a packed house just before she came out. Laser and lighting triggers we had programmed often went out the window, as the planned set would regularly turn into something completely different once she was on stage. That was SOPHIE, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Kim Petras (collaborator on “1,2,3 dayz up”): I went to SOPHIE’s, I think, first headlining show in L.A. It was super intense and audacious, like nothing I’ve ever seen. And I just remember thinking, Wow, this show looks and feels exactly the way the music does. It was SOPHIE on stage on this spaceship-looking DJ desk that had lasers, and it felt like SOPHIE was the commander of the room, like a space commander in a miniskirt. It’s still the sickest show I have gone to.
Slayyyter: Even just the videos of her performing live, you could feel the energy through the screen of your phone. It feels like you’re there. She was one artist that I actually would listen to live unreleased songs of from SoundCloud. I would listen to the live rip of “Kitty Cat” in the gym every single day.
Dorian Electra (singer-songwriter): We performed at Pop 2 in London, Charli’s show, and that was just an iconic night. Absolutely amazing. [SOPHIE] is so quiet, but yet has such a huge presence just on a personal level. It was like everyone knew. When she was in the room, you knew she was in the room, even though she’d be speaking very quietly.
Petras: When I went backstage to meet SOPHIE, she was just the sweetest, nicest, honest person. We kept seeing each other at parties and houses late at night, and we’d just talk and talk and talk about music. I remember her saying, “You carry the torch for the trans girls.” And I was like, “No, shut up. You do, bitch.” We’d go into late night text sessions of like, “You’re changing the world, you are so amazing.” It felt like there was a real connection with us both being transgender and just similarities in our experiences.
Geffen: The “It’s Okay to Cry” video was huge because it made explicit some of the things that I felt were being communicated implicitly in SOPHIE’s earlier work. I shared an appreciation for SOPHIE’s music with a lot of other queer and trans people. I think we felt that someone was speaking a language meant for us, and then all of a sudden it was like, Oh, we were right! We weren’t just projecting onto this empty space — we were being communicated with in this way.
Suddenly, there’s this work that addresses the question of being seen and of seeing yourself as a trans person. That video is very vulnerable. SOPHIE’s naked in this video, and moving in this way that is at first very tentative and then very ecstatic. Kind of like coming into this body as it’s changing in a certain way for the first time, which I think anyone who has done two puberties can relate to. There’s this period of figuring out, What do I look like now? What’s changing? How do I feel about this? How is this real?
“We would just make song after song after song in SOPHIE’s world”
Morton: The songs were always there at the start. But we would always have fun going through iterations. I have books’ worth of emails. But, of course, we [always] ended back at version two, with sections of version 45 and version 130. Half of the feedback notes, we’re talking about plastic and latex and construction terminology. We would talk about slides and use the slides as visual guides to how the audio would sound. And they were like secrets. One message I looked up from my email reads, “Hey, I’ve got the feedback. I’m working on the underwater section, whilst I’m away … Trying to get these sliding-down-a-straw sounds at the moment.” That just gives you an idea of the language.
Banoffee: I actually cried the first time I came out of a session with Soph. It was really the first time I’d worked with a producer where I’d felt really listened to and like it was a collaboration, and that made me quite emotional. I think that gender roles play a really big part in how people are treated in the studio, and that just wasn’t an element of our studio experience.
SOPHIE was very quick in the studio — she gets things done in like ten minutes. You can go in and say, “Let’s work for the day,” but you’ll spend most of the day smoking cigarettes and lying around, and then you go in for ten minutes and make something amazing, and then you’re off doing the next thing again. I think the reason she was very fast is because hit-and-miss wasn’t a thing, because she actually listens to you. She’ll ask a lot of questions to make sure she’s heard you correctly, and then she hits the nail on the head. There’s none of this competition of egos and trying to make something the way she wanted it to sound or the way she wants you to sound. You could be someone that never played music before, but she valued your voice in the studio as much as anyone else’s because she trusted that everyone has something unique about them that can make them interesting.
Jimmy Edgar (collaborator on “METAL”): We were immediately best friends. I was struck by her energy and aura, there’s something enigmatic about it. She was always authentic and sharp with words. I loved to write ideas and lyrics with her. That’s where we flowed the most. We would peruse the magazine shops to get ideas from the headlines and covers. We had written some songs in minutes and would take turns playing with vocal phrases on the microphone. Both SOPHIE and I loved to play with sound textures, so there would be moments of time, being in the cloud of a synthesizer.
SOPHIE was a gentle and innocent soul, someone I look up to every day. Very sensitive, hyperdetailed, and incredibly visual. Even in her passing, I’m accepting it more and more every day with this overwhelming feeling of gratefulness to have known her.
Petras: It was cool to work with someone who never questioned what they did. We would just make song after song after song in SOPHIE’s world. It was really like friends hanging out, making music, and connecting over being nerds for music. I think we made like 10 or 12 songs together in those two days that we worked together.
She literally just started playing that [beat] and I just started singing “One, two, three days up,” over it. It was that easy. We all were dancing around the studio to it and so excited about it. It has real fun in it. It’s how we felt being up till five in the morning, talking and talking and talking about music and about art and about all the things we liked in the world.
SOPHIE had this audacity about her that was like, “Yeah, I’m going to not change anything about exactly what I want in my sound. It might be fucking chainsaws and robot sex, but I don’t give a fuck.” That’s what was so dope about SOPHIE — that was her world, and anybody can enter it by listening to her music.
Geffen: I came away [from profiling SOPHIE] with an impression of SOPHIE as someone who thought very deeply about consciousness and reality and how people piece together reality from each of our discrete sensory perceptions. SOPHIE asked me almost as many questions as I asked SOPHIE, just because SOPHIE was so curious about how other people hear music and perceive reality. If the world is a composite of 8 billion individual apertures onto what we consider the real, the more people you talk to, the clearer a picture you get of what we’re all doing here.
There’s a lot of effort to portray SOPHIE as this singular talent, which is a model that I think SOPHIE rejected. I think SOPHIE considered the work to thrive in collaboration and in mutual inspiration, as opposed to like, “This one person’s a genius and did everything solo.” The work was more about finding those connective seams between like-minded artists and working with others.
If you listen to a lot of SOPHIE’s collaborations, you can hear the way that other artists were inflecting SOPHIE’s work. That Quay Dash song, “Queen of This Shit” — that beat doesn’t sound like anything else that SOPHIE did. I hear this communion between the way Quay Dash raps and the way those squeaky balloons rubbing together sound. Like, materials coming into contact with each other — that’s what happens when we vocalize, and that’s kind of what SOPHIE was playing with through synthesis.
Banoffee: I’m so glad we made [“Count on You”] because it’s a really nice thing to have together now that she’s not around; it’s a song about friendship and helping each other and holding each other up. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, but I couldn’t put it into words, and Soph really got my references. And my references were all like textures and objects and, you know, kid’s toys. Some producers would just be like, “Get out!” [Laughs.] But it was such a relief that I could work like that with SOPHIE because she thinks like that as well.
She was so proud of it, and that made me proud of it. I’m not someone who can always see the good in my work, and that was something she really helped me with. Having that song come out, I knew someone I admired loved it, and that was really special to me.
“SOPHIE absolutely paved the way for me”
Ada Rook (producer and former member of Black Dresses): You can hear how custom everything in SOPHIE’s music is. Every nut and bolt and screw is made to fit in that spot. And I was really blown away by that.
I was still rooted in industrial sounds, which had been my zone for most of my life. SOPHIE incorporated a lot of those, too, but they were so bright and colorful. It’s like a whole new sound. Like, that snare that would be on so many tracks — on “Faceshopping,” the metallic, clangy snare — that apparently is just completely synthesized. That blew my mind when I found that out because I was like, No, that sounds like it’s in a place.
I’ve been producing music for 20 years in some capacity, and I thought of it having these two separate worlds, of samples and sound design. And I was never that good at sound design — it’s a bit too much like math for me. With SOPHIE’s music, it’s impossible to tell what’s what. I always assume that SOPHIE’s stuff is entirely synthesized. Maybe that is a romantic sense of, that’s cooler to me. But it just blurs that line between the two worlds, to the point where it doesn’t really matter. Thinking about it in terms of those two approaches is almost reductive to me now, which really opens up a lot of new ways you can get to the sounds you want.
Dorian Electra: I think that now people have a much easier time accepting the ambiguity of irony and sincerity in music. Especially with me, and the music that I do, I’m always operating in that weird gray area, where sometimes I’m not sure. SOPHIE and PC Music absolutely paved the way for me, but also in a lot of people’s minds, for accepting that beautiful ambiguity.
umru (producer): I really didn’t even know how to produce music until listening to SOPHIE and PC Music and then Cashmere Cat. That introduced me to the idea that it’s even possible for the stuff that I thought sounds cool to also be something that’s pop music and enjoyed beyond producers.
I’d always expected, just ’cause I worked with so many people that know her, that eventually we’d be able to do something together, and we’d be able to get to know each other. I had been working with Hayden Dunham [QT], so she introduced us [because] I had one song with Charli XCX come out [“I Got It”], and SOPHIE said she was a fan of it. It was very validating, ’cause this is someone who, at that point, I’d been listening to for years. I’m very lucky to have been able to meet her.
Banoffee: I want to stress that everyone who knew SOPHIE had such a different experience with her. It’s so beautiful to see all of the outpouring of love for her and also really complex in working out how to be around her death. She was a very, very private person, and part of being her friend was sort of entering an agreement of extreme trust and privacy. If she let you in, she trusted you with everything in her. I really hope that we can talk about SOPHIE in a way where she was this incredible artist and her work has changed everyone, but she was also a very complex person underneath it. I feel like, sometimes, people just wanted to see her as this symbol instead of a person. It’s really important that we acknowledge the very relatable things about her, like her love for her family, that she was a silly and fun and genuine person.
“She had a lot of work left to do”
McElwain: She did the HEAV3N SUSPENDED [livestream in July]. And I think that format of a set or an elongated mix, a certain fluidity, was where she was moving toward, artistically. We talked about Arca at one point. Soph was like, “I love the one-hour piece that Arca had also released before the album” [“@@@@@”]. She said something like, “I feel like that’s kind of where music should be moving toward, where it is more fluid.”
She was, just in classic Soph fashion, tuned into what’s going on and always wanting to apply pressure to how things were settling in. It’s like, “Okay, this is the structure? Oh, surely there’s something more interesting.”
Jlin (collaborator on “JSLOIPNHIE”): SOPHIE wanted to collaborate with me for a while, but our schedules just never matched. I was writing — I saw this dance in my head, and it kind of reminded me of this one scene in Memoirs of a Geisha. I started it, and I just kind of stopped it until I sent the demo in to Unsound, and then SOPHIE sealed the deal. Nothing needed to be added, nothing needed to be taken away. I’m not a control freak in collaborations, and I didn’t have to [be] with SOPHIE. She had it.
The track is good, but it’s not as exciting with her not being here. We lost a beautiful artist early; she was nowhere near done. But, legends never die. Her spirit is definitely still here, we just all wish she was here physically. ’Cause she had a lot of work left to do.
Morton: Of course, the amount of people wanting a piece of SOPHIE’s originality was almost exhausting. But that’s just the sign of an incredible artistic force. It’s unstoppable. So, to try and fight it, it’s fruitless.
SOPHIE somehow covered almost every genre imaginable. But each was done uniquely because SOPHIE was happy to make something new and synthesize it into SOPHIE’s world. And creating a new future as part of that. When you’re so free and willing to envelop influences and shaping creative freedom into new forms, then pop music is surely not the same after you started that process. Even this idea of progression was there across everything from SOPHIE.
There’s always the crazy stuff that people are yet to hear. And that’s interesting in itself, the fact of how much material there is by this person, because they were just a creative force. My favorite SOPHIE song is always the next song, if I’m honest.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.