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Cover Story: Sophie and the Giants

| December 31, 2021

Sophie and the Giants

This is the way the Universe works if you’re open to the experience.

Ever since we collectively lurched into these dark, foreboding waters of the coronavirus, you might have found yourself getting swallowed up by its inky blackness, losing sight of any easily-identifiable landmarks on shore, artistic or pop-cultural harbors where you could safely drop anchor. They were there, little signs that there was still some comforting sense of order clicking away beneath this new ball of confusion— you just had to learn a slightly more subtle way of seeing, hearing, or feeling them.

You might, for instance, have found yourself glancing at digital clocks at eerily opportune moments and finding faith in a significant sequence of numbers, like 1-2-3-4 or 1-1-1-1, a particularly magical alignment in numerology. Or, for those seeking more natural reassurances, the smell of fresh-mown early summer grass, or the curious intricacy of a neighborhood birdsong you’d never heard before, or a fresh feathered face at your backyard feeder. There was a certain reassuring consistency to the movement of constellations, as well, which could easily be charted in a jet-free nighttime sky. Life would carry on, things seemed to say, and our tension-fraught situations would eventually return to some semblance of normal, even as our national Covid death toll mounted to its current tragic, staggering total of over 800,000. And some days, it just felt good to be alive.

But when the Arts started throwing out buoyant life preservers, you felt even more indebted. Especially when it came to music, for this writer, personally, the first salvation salvo arrived in early 2020, when I heard Australian alt-rocker Imogen Clark’s picture-perfect single “My Own Worst Enemy,” a jangling, jubilant slab of power-pop accompanied by a charming home-filmed lockdown video that I couldn’t resist playing for weeks on repeat, simply in awe of how quickly a great song could uplift your dour mood on a daily basis. Ditto for the first four triumphant songs on The Killers’ 2020 album, Imploding the Mirage. Although you weren’t in the stadium with Brandon Flowers and company, punching your fist in the air to those celebratory anthems, on headphones, alone in your chilly remote-distanced apartment, it sure as shit felt like you were. And that was all you needed for some tiny flicker of hope to ignite.

One such beacon that beamed brighter than many others is the fledgling British dance-pop outfit Sophie and the Giants, which revolved around the elastic, hearth-ember warm tones of Sophie Scott, easily one of the most remarkable voices of her generation. We’re talking a rarefied, Alison Moyet-ethereal talent here, a rubbery, slippery one that slithers effortlessly between the New Wave confines of Yaz/Yazoo yesteryear to post-techno intricacies of modern dance-floor perambulators. She truly is one in a million, and on “Hypnotized,”  her band’s irresistible early pandemic team-up with Purple Disco Machine (German house/disco producer Tino Piontek, AKA Tino Schmidt), you felt refreshed, revitalized, righteously redeemed the minute you heard her insinuating herself into its shadowy Scritti Politti-retro rhythms. As sparkly synthesizers twinkle above a rubbery New Order bassline and thumping backbeat, Scott’s amazing, inimitable trill sidles in, at first mournfully documenting her lockdown environs with “Feel buried alive, this city is airtight/ Suffocating lonely in the crowd/ I fell down so low, I found nowhere to go,” before rising, Lazarus-like in the chorus to defiantly declare, “I’m coming home, I’m coming back down tonight/ ‘Cause I’ve been hypnotized by the lights.” Again, I kept playing this feel-good delight over and over until it was a fully-formed earworm, now occupying a permanent residence in my fevered brain. I’m going out on a critical limb here. Still, if you don’t instantly adore “Hypnotized” after just one listen, you’d better consult a priest, a vicar, or maybe a mortician, Dear Reader, because you’ve got no Goddamned soul (sorry — I think I accidentally watched too many mawkish and twee Bridgerton episodes during lockdown).

And if “Hypnotized took listeners down the claustrophobic rabbit hole — into that frustration with being confined for too long in one space that we all were experiencing — then Sophie and the Giants’ early-2021 follow-up single “Right Now” was a conversely bright spirit-lifter, illuminating a navigable path out of the darkness and back into old familiar routines, all set to a similarly addictive hook-happy shimmy. It’s not a clean vaccine-boosted bill of health, exactly. But it’s very close: “I’m better now, better now,” Scott soothingly reports. “No more dancing in the shower now…I’m all done waiting, and we’re coming up stronger now/ And we made it right now, right now.” Again, the track’s immediacy is a dynamic, transformative force, in and of itself, and if Sophie and the Giants are heading back down to the discotheque this Saturday? Fuck yeah — we’re going along, too! Possibly. Or at least it feels that way until “Right Now”’s three hip-shaking minutes end. And what more can you ask from a pop song than to be transported away from where you are to some inviting, mood-altering new world? That, honestly, is a genuine Gift From the Universe—a sign you just can’t ignore.

2021 saw the Sheffield-bred Scott and her crew (guitarist Toby Holmes, bassist Antonia Pooles, drummer Chris Hill) push boldly into new textural territory via two more standalone singles, the shimmering “If I Don’t Break Your Heart I’ll Break Mine” and sinuous serpentine stomper “Golden Nights,” ably assisted by Dardust (Dario Faini), Astrality, and the legendary studio Svengali Benny Benassi). Her voice is an incredible force of nature that tornadoes out of your speakers. It brightens the entire room’s mood in a heartbeat, and it changes in intensity from mix to mix, as various producers tinker with it (as they should) and play up its strengths as they hear them and see fit. At the end of such a genuinely depressing year where it appears that humanity has learned nothing redemptive or transformational from its wrist-slapping time out, you can’t help but see the stratosphere-bound Sophie and the Giants as a little gift from the Universe, a glimmer of hope that all might turn out right with the world after all, or at least we’ll have one unique new voice to serenade us into the sarcophagus of slow but inevitable extinction. But when Scott phones, pre-Christmas, to discuss her rising profile as Brightest New Star of 2022, she’s optimistic and determined to stick around for some time to come. And — like a wandering Toshiro Mifune samurai with a katana-blade voice for production hire, she feels perpetually restless. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m always searching for something,” she says. “And it’s been like that for me from as far back as I can remember, from the first moment I had consciousness. I don’t actually know what rest is.”

IE: What kind of kid were you?

SOPHIE SCOTT: I was disruptive, quite mischievous, and I just had to get my way. I think I’ve actually gotten a lot less like that as I’ve grown up, but then now I’ve got other things that I deal with. So I guess I don’t speak my mind as much as I did when I was a kid, back when I would always just say the first thing that came into my head. I just didn’t care — I was just on my own path, and that was all that mattered. So now I keep to myself a lot more, I just do my thing, I do my art and my music. But I still feel very unstoppable, even though I’m not as wild as I was before. So I guess I’m just loud through my music and through my art, and just how in-people’s-faces I want it to be. But I don’t feel like I have to do that as much with words anymore.

IE: How did other classmates and your teachers see you?

SS: There was like the odd teacher who loved me, but most of them really, really didn’t like me at all, and they would keep putting me in detention or keep telling me off or putting me at the back of the class. They really didn’t like how I would always create a lot of attention around me, just me and my big personality. So I was an ugly duckling, for sure.

IE: What was some of the craziest mischief you got up to?

SS: I dunno. I used to do all kinds of weird stuff. You know how toilet paper, when you get it, how it sticks to the ceiling when you throw it? I’d do stuff like that. Or I would draw all over the walls — I was always just drawing on everything.

IE: Do you still draw or paint?

SS: Yeah. I do a lot of painting, and I sketch all the time. It’s just the only thing I’ve found that calms me down outside of making music. Because I can’t constantly be making music, so I’ve found a lot of peace in just making art, just throwing stuff on a page, and making a mess. It makes my mind feel like less of a mess, so I have my sketchbook everywhere with me.

IE: In what medium do you work?

SS: Mostly acrylics, but I’ve recently discovered how much I love watercolors. But I didn’t use watercolors for a long time because I didn’t really understand how to use them, and so I would get angry if something wasn’t coming out the way I wanted it to. Then my mom sat down with me and actually showed me how to use watercolors, and now I really like them. But I still do mostly everything in acrylics because that’s what I’m most familiar with, I think.

IE: How many pieces did you come up with during the pandemic?

SS: Well, I didn’t actually do that many. I did a few small ones, maybe 30 small paintings. But I focused mainly on bigger ones because I’d never actually done pieces that I’d really committed to and had a vision for. I would always go into every painting that I did with no plan and no expectations, so if it didn’t go right, I wasn’t going to be annoyed with myself. So I actually sat down during the pandemic and decided, “No, I want to do big portraits, and I want to have a plan and stick to it, and not get annoyed at myself and really commit to it.” And I did maybe five or so of those ones, and I originally did it because I couldn’t afford to buy my own art in my house. I was like, “I really want to hang some art on my walls, but I can’t afford to buy any! So I guess I’m just going to have to paint what I want to be on the walls!” So that’s what I did. And now I’ve fully decorated my flat.

IE: What styles or motifs are you drawn to create?

SS: I do a lot of physiques, like body shapes and stuff. And I did some stuff that has movement, monochrome, or black and white things that are all moving in the same direction together. That’s the more neater stuff that I do. But the other stuff is like…when I paint a body or things like that; It’s quite messy and dirty-looking, I guess. And I’m always into different shades, mostly darker red and pink, and most of the artwork that I’ve done recently has just been reds, oranges, and then a dark turquoise-y blue. But it’s mostly those four colors in my paintings — I’ve just been using those four colors since I bought them a few months ago.

IE: What’s the baseline you start with? Black or white?

SS: I would say always with white. I like emptiness at the start, and then there are colors that I add onto it, and sometimes it can get too much, and there’s too much color until you can’t see the white anymore. Or if I’m feeling simple, I’ll just add really tiny amounts of faded oranges and things. But that’s always with a white background for me.

IE: Not that you have synesthesia, but when you’re making music, do you sense sounds as colors, too?

SS: Yeah. When I’m writing or planning out a song, there’s always got to be a color scheme in my head of what I want the sounds to visualize. And how I see the music makes it easier to write the notes and the lyrics if they’re a specific color or matches the mood and the aesthetics of whatever song I’m attempting to write.

IE: When did you first notice your amazing singing voice?

SS: I actually didn’t even really realize it. I think when I was a kid, I really so badly wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t think I had a unique enough voice. And I was so into Debbie Harry and Alanis Morissette and P.J. Harvey — just these people who have these really distinctive voices. And I was so upset for most of my years growing up because I just didn’t think I had a unique enough voice like that — I didn’t think I had a voice that stood out. So I think people just started telling me that I was good when my music started going ‘round, and more and more people were listening to it. People just kept saying how unique my voice was, so I think only in the past year or so have I actually started to appreciate it and understand what it is that’s unique about my voice. But I just didn’t hear it before — I just didn’t think it was very special, I guess.

IE: Was there one “Aha” playback moment where you appreciated that voice fully for the first time and went, “Whoa!”

SS: It was probably with “Hypnotized.” It was the first time I’d written over the top of someone else’s music. Before that, it was always music that I had written and then written on top of. But he (Purple Disco Machine) sent me the track; it was the first time where it was a fully-formed track that I was just writing melodies and lyrics over. And I dunno…there was just something so special about me being disconnected from the music, and then writing this top line, because it was just like all about my voice and the way that my voice sounded, and how I could write the best possible thing to complement this already-amazing, fully-formed song. And I wanted to do it justice because he is so talented already. And well, something just really special happened when I was writing it, I think. And I had never really experienced that before on my own, but it felt so unique. And when I listened back to it — when we got the masters to it, back before it got released — my voice just sounded really…, I dunno, it felt really deep and strong, and I was quite taken by it. And I’d never really had that with my voice before because I was just so used to it. Maybe it was just because it was on something different to what I had done before, but ever since then, I think it has set a path for me which I’m now going down, which is a lot more in that world — kind of like that dark, disco, dance music. And I think my voice just flourishes with that music, and that’s what I really want to continue doing from now on.

IE: “Hypnotized” really captured the tension and repressed angst everyone was feeling at lockdown’s onset, like a ‘Before’ picture, while “Right Now” is a more optimistic and decidedly defiant ‘After’ snapshot.

SS: Yeah. That one felt good for that time, I think. Everybody was just so fed up, and I was like, “Okay — I need to follow “Hypnotized,” and I need to write something that makes people want to get off the sofa and dance and see colors and movement again, rather than feeling strapped down. There might not have been any dance clubs open, but you could still just jump around your living room. I do that quite a lot — I just want to put music on really loud and then throw my body around and about the sofa again.

IE: How do producers find you?

SS: They usually just send me a message, and I like it when I get personal messages from other producers or artists. Like, you know, when it’s your management or your label, or just an email or something, it’s usually just a passing note about working with someone or whatever. But it’s so much cooler when it’s just like artist to artist, or artist to producer, and they just find me on Instagram and send me a message saying, “Hey, Sophie! Really liked your stuff — let’s work together!” And I am always overwhelmed and just so grateful that people make the effort to go find a way to message me. Benny (Benassi) messaged me and sent me a Dropbox link to these different ideas he had that he wanted me to work on. And I was like, “Oh, my God! I have a message from Benny Benassi!! What the hell?” It was just so amazing because growing up, his songs were massive and all over the radio, and now he was personally messaging me? And he was even leaving me voice notes and stuff, so I could hear Benny Benassi’s voice on my phone. And I love that because it’s so much better when it’s like that and not behind the scenes and going through other people.

IE: Who else has found you that way?

SS: I think Benny is the biggest one for me — it was like a big shock. And there’s more stuff coming, but I’m not really sure what I can talk about yet. But there is definitely some cool new stuff in the new year. And I’m working on a lot of things for an album at the moment. I have this big concept and a visual thing that I’m working on, and it’s gonna take a bit of time. But hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to release it. And, of course, there will be new singles and collaborations that I’ll be working on. But I really want to do a big body of work that’s just mine, where all kinds of things just seep into each other until it’s like one big song, but it’s also got 11 songs within it. I want every song to feed into each other until it feels like a story. I feel like a lot of albums nowadays are just a bunch of singles posing as an album, with no kind of correlation or connection to each other. So I want mine to be like a journey that can really move people, where every song is a stage, and every time people listen to the album, they’ll be relating to a different stage, depending on where they’re at in their life or what they’re going through. Like, I struggled a lot with mental health, and I go through periods that are a lot harder than other times. So I just want to write something which people can really feel and also hold onto, because it’s so easy to feel alone, and I want at least one track to remind them that they’re not alone in that feeling and that it’s also not gonna last because the cycle continues and it never stops. We live as people, and our feelings change, and our emotions change. And I think that’s a big part of the music that I make — paying things forward. I always want my music to be helpful, and take something that I experienced and offer someone some comfort from it or warmth. I want it to make people feel safe, I guess, and accepting of their own feelings. I just want to make other people feel good because that’s what I get from music. I want people to feel safe and warm, and accepting when they listen to my stuff.

IE: My prediction is that you will very soon go into — and conquer — the film world.

SS: Oh, I would love that! That would be so awesome because there’s so much stuff that I want to make, and I want to put music to visuals and all of that. That’s my dream.

-Tom Lanham

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