A Trip Into SOPHIE’s Whole New World, Remembering an Innovator

Sophie Xeon, professionally known as SOPHIE, unexpectedly died on Jan. 30, falling after climbing up to watch a full moon in Athens, Greece. She was only 34, but her impact on music was already far beyond her name. It is impossible to simply explain her vision and its effects on music, and these words only serve as context to the music which should speak for itself regardless. This is a trip into SOPHIE’s whole new world that was cut short way too soon.

A New Take On Dance-Pop

The songs that started turning heads in the underground in 2013 shared as much appeal to fans of progressive electronic music as it did to dance-pop purists. With many of the EDM trailblazers of the era were making names for themselves through their bold, loud takes on the sounds of trap, notably the likes of Diplo, TNGHT and Rustie, SOPHIE was taking notes of their impacts in pop music and applying them to dance and electronic tunes in her own unconventional way. Simultaneously she was outdoing the biggest names in the genre at their craft through her meticulous attention to detail which resulted in songs like “BIPP” and “JUST LIKE WE NEVER SAID GOODBYE.” The former shows dance-pop songwriting prowess while the latter is a stripped back and twisted up teen-pop ballad, both bold expressions of what was possible with electronic and pop music that few were exploring at the time. Through these songs, the at-the-time mysterious artist found sophistication in what is commonly seen as the most boorish styles of music, pushing forward in a non-pretentious way.

Synthesizing Reality

Arguably just as interesting as her sound is her fascinating approach to sound design. Synthesizing almost everything from scratch, SOPHIE’s music might sound insane to the average listener, but to people who are interested in music production and sound design she set a bar that very few have even touched. 

“A lot more so I think about physics and materials. “LEMONADE” is made out of bubbling, fizzing, popping and “HARD” is made from metal and latex — they are sort of sculptures in this way. I synthesize all sounds except for vocals using raw waveforms and different synthesis methods as opposed to using samples. This means considering the physical properties of materials and how those inform the acoustic properties. For instance — why does a bubble have an ascending pitch when popped and why does metal clang when struck and what is this clanging sound in terms of pitch and timbre over time? How do I synthesize this? Perhaps after learning about these things it might be possible to create entirely new materials through synthesis.”

Changing Pop From The Underground

After these songs became so popular, SOPHIE began working with AG Cook, who founded the label PC Music who was pioneering a similarly experimental, bubbly, over the top take on pop. This eventually led to the label being noticed by Charli XCX, who enlisted SOPHIE to produce her 2016 “Vroom Vroom” EP. Fresh off of her top five single “Boom Clap,” this was one of the most unseen yet formative moves in pop music of the 2010s, as it was this project that catapulted Charli XCX to becoming the modern queen of experimental pop, marking a stylistic shift from her previous album’s radio-ready pop.

Five years later, an entire genre and movement spearheaded by the influence of her and PC Music called hyper pop has become one of the most talked about underground genres of music, but this domino effect started with this unexpected crossover on the groundbreaking “Vroom Vroom” EP. Through this time, SOPHIE found herself collaborating with other underground pop minds with their heads pointed toward the future, such as LIZ.

Changing Music In The Public Eye

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015, SOPHIE explained her garish approach to pop:

“I think all pop music should be about who can make the loudest, brightest thing, and I think it’s a very valid challenge — just as valid as who can be the most raw emotionally. I don’t know why that is prioritized by a lot of people as something that’s more valuable. The challenge I’m interested in being part of is who can use current technology, current images and people, to make the brightest, most intense, engaging thing.”

It’s just this philosophy that ended up catching the attention of others including Vince Staples and the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna. If anything, these songs are testaments to how SOPHIE could lend her sound to whoever felt they needed it, be it a legendary pop icon or a popular rapper.

Outside of the Underground

Her vision was never meant to remain in the underground. She wasn’t afraid of mainstream success. In fact, as a trans woman, that’s exactly what she wanted. When talking about mainstream success, this is what she told DJ Mag in 2019:

“It is so important for queer people, and for anyone making music that’s deemed to be somehow alternative or inaccessible. They shouldn’t be made to feel like their identities are not mainstream, or to be marginalised just through genre and categories. I think it’s really important to break down those binaries, and not feel that because you are making ‘weird’ music, that you are a ‘weird’ person. To create those bridges is possible, it’s one of the most important things for artists to do.”

Her transition into the stages of her debut album, “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES,” also marked her transition into the public eye. On Oct. 19 of 2017, SOPHIE released the lead single for this album, “It’s Okay To Cry,” along with a music video, where, for the first time, she put a face to the moniker that’s kept so many on the edge of their seat. It was a momentous occasion for many reasons, but most importantly it shed light onto a trans identity who was already inspirational to so many people.

Pure Experimentation

If it’s hard to tell where the pop ends and the avant-garde begins with much of her music, some of it is a lot easier to tell. While she launched a short lived side project with multi-disciplinary artist Juliana Huxtable, called Analemma, that released two songs beyond the boxes of genre labels, and some tracks on her ambitious remix album of her debut featured tracks were pure avant-garde ear candy, the farthest she’s ever pushed this sound was on the closer to her debut. It is a nine minute goliath that starts punishing and leaves you off with more questions than answers. It’s the kind of song only SOPHIE could make.

A New Direction In The Same Universe

While dance-pop has informed SOPHIE’s music from the earliest stages in her career, remixes and unreleased material played in DJ sets showed a brand new take on the sounds of techno. These innovations, most notably found on her album of remixes of her debut and a livestream from early 2020, shifted the general focus on groove and low-end sounds in techno towards sound design and a more physical listen, described best by fellow hyper-producer Iglooghost, saying “this acidic, harsh, longform, raw feel where you could practically hear the waveforms splitting & cracking.”

A World Beyond Her Own

While SOPHIE’s small but impactful discography is enough to keep one busy for days, it’s only a skin deep showing of the SOPHIE world. Her innovations in the early 2010s led to what indie kids today consider to be one of the most exciting genres in the underground: hyperpop. This bold and brash take on pop music already has its own big names, such as 100 gecs and Charli XCX. Her production styles have found their way into mainstream projects and become the blueprint for bedroom producers. For as long as musicians are turning to her for reference, we will be dancing in SOPHIE’s whole new world.