Sophie, Who Pushed the Boundaries of Pop Music, Dies at 34
Sophie, an innovative producer and performer whose music distilled speed, noise, melody, clarity and catchiness into what would soon be called hyperpop, died on Saturday in Athens. She was 34.
Her death, after an accident, was confirmed in a statement from her publicity company, Modern Matters, which said that Sophie, who was Scottish, had been living in Greece, and that “true to her spirituality she had climbed up to watch the full moon and accidentally slipped and fell.”
Sophie worked simultaneously at the experimental fringes of dance music and the center of pop, recording with Madonna, Charli XCX and the rapper Vince Staples. Her 2018 album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides,” was nominated for a Grammy Award as best dance/electronic album.
Sophie’s first appearances onstage were performed in near-darkness, concealed in a D.J. booth and avoiding photographs. But on tour in 2018, after she came out as transgender, she emerged at center stage, singing and posing in costumes and wigs that embraced both plasticky futurism and vintage glamour as the music veered from brutal noise to lush ballad.
“A push and a focus in the Sophie music is to condense particular feelings down to the most concise, shortest form possible,” Sophie said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “To try and create this immediate feeling, through sound and lyrics, that communicates itself instantaneously.”
Sophie Xeon was born on Sept. 17, 1986, in Glasgow. She was a self-taught musician, learning to make sounds with cheap synthesizers and inspired by her father’s cassette tapes of electronic-music raves.
In the early 2000s Sophie moved to Berlin, an electronic-music hotbed, and gathered a loose dance-pop collective called Motherland. One of Motherland’s members was the artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, who used Sophie’s music at exhibitions in the New Museum in Manhattan and across Europe.
Sophie’s musical ideas were clear from the start. In a 2012 interview with Bomb magazine, she said, “It would be extremely exciting if music could take you on the same sort of high-thrill three-minute ride as a theme park roller coaster. Where it spins you upside down, dips you in water, flashes strobe lights at you, takes you on a slow incline to the peak, and then drops you vertically down a smokey tunnel, then stops with a jerk, and your hair is all messed up, and some people feel sick, and others are laughing — then you buy a key ring.”
In a 2013 interview with Pitchfork, she compared music to molecular gastronomy. “It’s about getting to the molecular level of a particular sound — realizing what that sound actually is made of, and why it behaves a certain way when processed or cooked. Then you use those molecules to build new forms, mixing and reappropriating those raw materials, and of course, it should be bloody delicious.”
Sophie began releasing music on SoundCloud, and her work drew immediate attention with the 2013 single “Bipp” — a sparse, insistent track with a piercing high vocal that declared, “However you’re feeling I can make you feel better” — and with the two-minute 2014 song “Lemonade,” which would soon be used in a McDonald’s advertisement. Sophie’s early singles were collected on the album “Product” in 2015.
Living in London, Sophie found kindred spirits in the emerging PC Music collective spearheaded by A.G. Cook, which was also making music that combined bubble-gum pop impact with avant-garde sound design, scrambling distinctions between pleasure and irritation, commerciality and exploration. They shared a visual sensibility as well, flaunting shiny, brightly colored, surreal forms. Mr. Cook and Sophie would both produce tracks for Charli XCX, and in 2015 Sophie’s sound came through clearly when she was among the producers of the Madonna single “Bitch I’m Madonna.”
“Pop should be about finding new forms for feelings and communicating them in ways which talk about the world around us right now,” Sophie told The Times in 2015. “There’s no need to view something commercial as necessarily bad.”
In 2017, with the release of the single “It’s OK to Cry,” Sophie came out as transgender. The song opened her full-length debut album, “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides,” which spanned harsh, aggressive electronics and ethereal meditation, with lyrics touching on identity, artifice and yearning. In an interview with Paper magazine, Sophie said: “An embrace of the essential idea of transness changes everything, because it means there’s no longer an expectation based on the body you were born into, or how your life should play out and how it should end. Traditional family models and structures of control disappear.”
Unlike most electronic producers, Sophie did not want her work remixed — except, she declared in 2015, by Autechre, the English electronic duo formed in 1987 that had strongly influenced her music. In 2018, her label, Numbers, sent Autechre the electronic stems that had been used to create her singles on “Product”; in 2020, Autechre sent back a remix of “Bipp,” which was released on Jan. 23. Sophie had just released “Unisil,” a jittery, crashing outtake from “Product,” on Thursday.
Information about survivors was not immediately available.
Along with her own productions, Sophie’s music has been widely influential, notably for hyperpop acts like 100 gecs, as well as Rina Sawayama. Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier, the French songwriter who performs and records as Christine and the Queens, said on Twitter: “Sophie was a stellar producer, a visionary, a reference. She rebelled against the narrow, normative society by being an absolute triumph, both as an artist and as a woman.”