Courtesy of Transgressive Records

Sophie Is Gone But Left Behind A Whole New World

The visionary electronic musician created a universe of digital particles. For me, it sounded like the future

Sophie’s music oversaturated, overtook, and in my earliest listenings, it stirred something within my body that I didn’t know existed or, perhaps, didn’t yet have the courage to acknowledge. Even before the Glasgow-born producer introduced herself to the world, the sound she developed in anonymity, though entirely computer-generated, had a distinctly visceral quality. It snapped like a rubber band, oozed like melting plastic, fizzed like shaken soda. Each single was illustrated with an appropriately artificial graphic of monochromatic tubing, while high-pitched, high-speed vocal modulations suggested that the womanhood she synthesized could be bought, manufactured in a lab, or ripped from a hard drive.

I was just beginning to toy with feminine pronouns when, after leaving a job where my neutral ones weren’t respected, a writing assignment brought us together. My cover profile in Out magazine’s end-of-year issue would name Sophie Xeon “Artist of the Year” and celebrate her banner 2018, including the release of her only full-length album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, which was nominated for a Grammy the following year, and capped by her first headlining world tour. I remember standing in the crowd at her Brooklyn Steel show, watching as she slowly took the stage, wrapped in latex like a doll waiting to be removed from its packaging, wheeling her synth on a stand. The immense power she wielded, commanding a packed warehouse to quiver with the touch of a button and the repetitive, mechanized cry of “Take Me to Dubai.” Sophie regularly tested new music while performing, she would tell me; this was one of the numerous tracks she never formally released.

When we spoke three days later, it was almost exactly one year to the day that she appeared publicly for the first time in the video for the earnest ballad “It’s Okay to Cry.” Prior to that, many who were curious about her background presumed the masculine pronoun, including reporters with The New York Times and Rolling Stone, as she avoided photographs and enlisted stand-ins to perform in her place. When she did play live, it was from behind the thick, dim haze of a DJ booth. So imagine the impact when, after years of being derided in the press and by fellow artists for “feminine appropriation,” here she was, ditching the signature alien manipulation for her naturally lower vocal tone, naked but for a cherry pout. And I recognized her, because she looked like me. She told me later it was “just a time when everything aligned,” though it seemed less a matter of coming out in the traditional sense than stepping into view. “It’s not a totally natural state of being for me to be visible,” she said. “But it’s something I’m learning a lot from — it can be helpful and nourishing to feel embodied.”

But for those who listened closely, or perhaps those who were always meant to hear, Sophie’s music sounded trans all along. I began taking estrogen and testosterone blockers a little over a year after our interview, and if my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that transition, despite what some simplified media narratives might have you believe, is often not about the here or there, the before or after, but the messy process of becoming, the generative and imaginative possibilities that exist in the fabrication of your physical self, and the changing relationship with the body that inevitably comes with it. I heard that potential in the yearning lyrics of “Immaterial,” the gummy clanking of “MSMSMSM,” the cyborg erection described in “Hard.” “Faceshopping,” to be sure, was for the girls. Sophie was a self-taught musician, yet she built her own universe from digital particles, a “whole new world,” as one track hinted by repurposing the theme from Disney’s animated Aladdin. I think that’s what Sophie meant when she told Paper that “God is trans.”

After a tragic accident in Athens in the early hours of Saturday (January 30), Sophie died at the age of 34. “True to her spirituality,” her publicity company Modern Matters wrote in a statement, “she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell.” Reading this felt as surreal and jarring as hearing her music for the first time. It sent waves through the industry, with fans and collaborators weighing in on social media to express their shock and condolences. FKA Twigs described Sophie as “a star of our generation,” while Finneas wrote that he found himself “so consistently inspired by her and in awe of her production.” I looked back at my interview transcript after waking up to the news. “This medium, your physical self,” I remember her telling me, “your relationship with it can change.” I wondered if this was just another transition — what bearing could the human form have on a spirit who has already mastered it?

What cannot be changed nor overstated is the immensity of Sophie’s impact on contemporary pop. She began to reveal her extreme, bubblegum interpretation of electronic music via the mysterious label Numbers in the early 2010s, during the peak of the dubstep era. But in just a few years, her production would shape the sound of the biggest artists in the world: from the revving on Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” to Madonna and Nicki Minaj’s zippy collaboration, “Bitch I’m Madonna.” Her early work with A.G. Cook and the influential London collective PC Music eventually gave rise to an entirely new genre. What we now know as “hyperpop” — an umbrella for the transgressive maximalism of artists like 100 gecs, Rina Sawayama, and Dorian Electra — is a direct descendant of Sophie’s pioneering vision.

Less than a week prior to the accident, uploaded to Sophie’s YouTube account was a paired-back version of the track “Bipp” by the British duo Autechre, who were major inspirations to the producer and the only artists she would allow to remix her work. The quiet drop of the heavy, pulsating song “Unisil” followed suit a few days later. Maybe Sophie was finally ready to release some of the work she tested at Brooklyn Steel those years ago, though that cannot be known. It's difficult, too, to truly grasp the magnitude of her influence, which will undoubtedly shape the way music sounds and feels for years to come. For Sophie, who once described her music as “advertising,” pop was the greatest communication tool of all, able to reach anyone, in any place, without words. Her art pushed the boundaries of industry and genre, blurring the barriers between artificiality and reality along the way. It captured all the power and potential and pain of self-making: “I'm real when I shop my face," she once sang. And to me, it sounded like the future.