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“Feel buried alive, this city is airtight…” With hindsight it's easy to see how intensely those opening words of Sophie & The Giants’ breakout hit Hypnotized would resonate in the claustrophobia and confusion of 2020, but when the first lockdown hit the band’s future was looking uncertain. The Sheffield-based four-piece had been steadily building up momentum since the 2018 release of their debut EP, but when Covid hit they found, along with the rest of us, that everything fell apart overnight. Songwriting moved online but shows were cancelled, and release plans ground to a halt.
It was Hypnotized, a song frontwoman Sophie Scott had written and recorded with exquisitely-monikered German bop practitioner Purple Disco Machine, that proved to be something of a secret weapon. Initially appearing to little fanfare in April 2020, the beguiling Italo-inspired tune started to pick up heat in the months that followed, with airplay in Germany and Italy leading to chart placings across Europe, then a million equivalent sales and more than 100m streams on Spotify alone; it hit gold certifications in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, platinum in Poland and quadruple platinum in Italy, turning Sophie into an international superstar.
Well, sort of. Because while Hypnotized was conquering charts around the globe, for Sophie the entire thing was happening in Sheffield, and more specifically in the bedroom of her small flat. “I haven’t toured the song or done any of the normal things you get to do when you’re becoming successful,” she muses now; it was, she acknowledges, a bit like becoming a superstar by remote control. The video, for instance, was shot on green screen in her bedroom. And her performance on Italian X Factor, seen by millions on TV and online, and hundreds of people in the studio audience? It was actually seen by just two people in real life, due to being another bedroom green screen special, with the finished performance appearing ‘on stage’ via LED screens.
In the brief autumnal window when travel was permitted Sophie did make it to Italy, and for 48 hours her new success started to feel real. She experienced first class travel, five-star hotels, a performance in an empty colosseum and the surreal moment of being mobbed by selfie-chasing fans. Then 24 hours later she was back in Sheffield, back in her flat and, before long, back in lockdown.
As Christmas approached and Covid chaos intensified, Sophie wrote Right Now, a song that defines the optimism of 2021 just as deftly as Hypnotized summed up the strangeness of 2020. “As I was writing the song everyone seemed to feel terrified they’d be stuck in their bedrooms for the rest of their lives,” she remembers, “so at the point when it felt like all this was never going to end I wanted to write a song that felt positive about what would eventually come.” The result is a powerful, urgent and defiant anthem for anyone desperate to break out of their box: a song about heading out of a dark place, taking control of a situation and bursting forwards. “I needed to write with positivity,” Sophie adds. “There was no doubt things were bleak when I wrote it, but an entire generation has lost a year of its life, and we’re about to make up for lost time. We’re going to lose our collective shit once we’re allowed out again.”
If Hypnotized was the song for back then, Right Now is the right song for, well, right now. It asks what happens when we reach breaking point: do we crumble, or do we lean in? Sophie, for one, has an answer. “I’ve decided I want to lean in, and that’s what Right Now is about,” she smiles. “The song says: I’m not going to break. There are always situations in life that test you. And there are times when it feels as if things won’t get better, but I wanted this song to show that where there’s determination and spirit, there’s always hope somewhere.”
While the undulating throwback style of Hypnotized and supercharged defiance of Right Now will bring Sophie & The Giants to new ears around the globe, the band’s existing fans have long been aware of this forward-looking, left-leaning band’s knack for expressive, emotional pop. Drawing on collective influences ranging from Blondie, PJ Harvey and Alanis to Caroline Polachek, Siouxsie and Radiohead, the band formed at music college in the spring of 2017 with Sophie (vocals and guitar), Chris Hill (drums), and Toby Holmes (guitar) more recently being joined by bassist Antonia Pooles.
And at the heart of it all is pop’s most captivating new frontperson, whose teenage life was chronicled with unflinching honesty on Sophie & The Giants’ debut EP Adolescence, a collection whose candid songs covered growing up, growing into yourself and growing out of toxic relationships; finding courage and confidence along the way. “When I was younger I felt like everyone and everything was against me,” Sophie adds today. “They weren't, and as I got older I realised I’d been creating monsters in my own head.”
Sophie describes herself as having been an anxious child, with confidence issues not helped by persistent bullying she received at school for the crime of having red hair. She joined a choir after school — a move that led to the unusual mid-teens experience of performing at Wembley Arena — which provided a confidence boost, but it was songwriting in the privacy of her bedroom, and in an occasionally deserted school music room, that became Sophie’s salvation. “I can’t remember a time when there weren’t melodies in my head,” she says. “When I started writing lyrics and playing the guitar, suddenly it wasn't all in my head any more.”
At music college in Guildford, Surrey, Sophie met her Giants. In the band’s earliest incarnation she was accompanied by musicians who were all, for some reason, extraordinarily tall, but a few lineup changes later the band is a more reasonable height. “At college you have all these little cliques,” Chris remembers. “Sophie wasn’t in them — and I saw that give her strength. It completely changed her. She came out stronger.”
In the spring of 2017 the band had only been together eight weeks but finished college and took a leap into the unknown, moving as one to their adopted home of Sheffield, with Sophie having fallen in love with the city after a visit to work with Reverend & The Makers frontman Jon McClure, who subsequently became an unofficial mentor to the band. Toby, who’d only been in the band two months, hadn’t even visited Sheffield before he dumped his bags down in the house the band would initially share together. “I had faith,” Toby remembers. “More importantly, I didn't want to live apart from the rest of the band. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”
The band’s shambolic house on a suburban street two miles west of the city centre boasted temperamental running water, sloping floors, broken doors and — for Chris — a bedroom that was actually the lounge. At the time none of that seemed to matter. “By living together we figured out who we are not just as individuals but as a unit,” Sophie adds. “We learned a lot in that year, but above all we’ve learned what it actually means to be a band.” And as the band pulled together a catalogue of intense, life-affirming songs and toured with the likes of Tom Grennan, Yonaka and Reverend and The Makers, they became even closer.
Whether it’s the Adolescence EP, Hypnotized, Right Now or the barrage of new music due to land in 2021, none of the band’s singles or EP releases are disconnected: they’re all unmistakably chapters of the same story. And there’s a line in the band’s earlier song Monsters — “the future beckons you” — that brilliantly sums up the band’s ideology. Purpose and possibility lie at the heart of Sophie & The Giants’ music, and while the last year has shown us all the risks of making plans for the future, there’s no doubt this particular band’s future is looking bright.
“There were times in 2020 when I felt like I was feeling one emotion that would never change,” Sophie admits. “Times when I thought: I’m never going to feel happy or excited again. But every time I felt that way, I’d put on music, and I’d find something inspiring, and I found it changed my mindset.” Finding herself on the precipice of stardom didn’t do any harm, either. “It makes me want to cry a little bit,” she smiles. “For as long as I can remember there were people telling me I needed a real job, or a backup plan. But I always felt: ‘I have no choice, there’s nothing other than music I ever want to do.’ So right now I’m feeling quite proud of myself for defying the odds.”
“I didn’t expect any of this to have happened by the time I was 22. But looking ahead to 2021, this really feels like the start of something. It’s making me think: if I can do all that, what’s around the corner? What’s next?”