Zakia Fawcett reflects on the Grammy-nominated Scottish musician and producer’s impact and legacy. SOPHIE sadly passed away in January 2021, too early at the age of 34.
I remember the first time I heard SOPHIE’s music so vividly. I was about sixteen, I had started out at school, everything was exciting and new, and I began to make friends who were interested in queer-adjacent culture. They were telling me about the music they listened to, then someone asked, ‘Hey, have you heard of SOPHIE?’. This was shortly after the release of PRODUCT, and the visceral soundworlds of ‘BIPP’, ‘LEMONADE’, and ‘HARD’ were completely unlike anything I had ever heard before.
Growing up I always had a desire to experience things as intensely as possible – whether that be falling deeply, madly in love, eating the most delicious food, or creating art obsessively. These tracks fulfilled that desire in a completely new way. The music was surreal and clean, tidy and glossy, and yet there were these harsh and ugly metallic sounds which were abrasive, almost physical. At that point, SOPHIE was still relatively underground and was my ‘cool thing to show people’ as I got to uni. There’s a fanmade video to go with ‘LEMONADE’ which was hard to top in bizarreness – it’s a pulp novel-esque, hot pink mannequin-centred romantic tragedy – which I just loved to shock people with.
While at uni, though, I came to a point where repressed feelings from my past began to resurface, and many questions rose about my personal identity. I had one friend who was trans when I was a teenager, but aside from that and what I could find on YouTube (and the show Transparent), transness wasn’t a concept that was readily accessible to me. However, as I became more immersed in the Glasgow music scene, I met people who identified as non-binary and that really changed things.
I had always had intense issues with my body, which I just couldn’t understand, and I felt so confused. I would frequently cry when getting dressed or if intimate with others – something as simple as a bath or a shower was an incredibly intimidating experience. I had always thought of it as a general dysmorphia, but understanding the experiences of other trans/nonbinary people (n.b: not all nonbinary people identify as trans, however, I personally do) brought so much of my experience into question. It was simultaneously terrifying and exciting. It made me realise ‘Wait, I’m not alone, and maybe there are things I can actually try that would make me feel better.’
At a similar point in time to my seriously questioning my gender identity, SOPHIE released the single ‘It’s Okay To Cry’, with accompanying video. This initiated a complete transformation of the cultural understanding of who SOPHIE was – previously they were an anonymous person who used vocal filters in interviews and altered their voice to sound like a child. One of my favourite moments was when they were asked, ‘Why do you sound like that?’ in a radio interview, and SOPHIE simply replied, ‘I’ve got a cough.’.
Suddenly, they were associated with an image and a face and a voice that was quantifiably theirs. Most importantly, this was the moment that SOPHIE arrived publicly. In the past they were someone who worked as a producer for notable names such as Madonna, and now they were SOPHIE: the icon, a new Madonna for current times; the immaterial girl who was shaking things up. To suddenly have someone who was so openly themself in the public eye was just mind-blowing.
This was followed by SOPHIE’s Grammy-nominated album, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, a beautifully moving, frivolously playful, and unashamedly queer debut. The album developed the in-your-face, cartoonish timbres that we came to know as SOPHIE’s signature sound from the PRODUCT era – with songs such as ‘Faceshopping’ and ‘Ponyboy’ pushing this aesthetic even further. However, it also brought out a different, more vulnerable, and subtly experimental side to SOPHIE, with tracks such as the hauntingly bittersweet ‘Is It Cold In The Water?’
After getting in from work around a month ago, I bought my first pair of clippers and decided to cut my hair the shortest it has ever been. I wanted to look as masculine as I could. I spent hours researching hair editorials to find inspiration for a haircut that felt truly me. After I finished cutting my hair, I cried. I couldn’t believe that I could just be myself and that things could (and would) be okay. I was so happy and proud to finally be the most okay with myself, and my transness, that I have ever been.
I went to bed late, and the next morning I woke up to messages from friends to tell me that SOPHIE had passed away.
I was crushed. I didn’t know how to handle the information. SOPHIE had completely changed my relationship with music. I had spent hours and hours over the past few years trying to figure out how to create sounds as visceral as theirs. There’s something about SOPHIE’s sound work that, as soon as they are involved in the production of a song, you can instantly hear it. SOPHIE’s music was unbelievably original and unapologetically unique. They had completely changed me, and ultimately had helped me to accept myself by being so undeniably themself.
Loss is so difficult. I was excited about a future with SOPHIE being involved in the art world, and it seemed like everything was changing so much. The representation of trans artists in the public eye is so much more present than ever before, with the likes of Dorian Electra, 100 Gecs, and Arca. The world will never be the same after SOPHIE’s influence, with fans all over the world creating tribute concerts, digital club nights, and other responses to pay tribute after their passing.
SOPHIE has transfigured culture for so many people – not only myself. They encouraged us to laugh, cry, dance and understand ourselves better than ever before. So, if you have never heard their work before, go out and listen! If you have: re-listen and feel everything. SOPHIE will not, and must not, ever be forgotten.
Main photo credit: Charlotte Wales