Through a web of friendships, Silver Sphere's Sophie Cates has thrown herself into new sounds and spaces, creating supportive communities both online and offline.
Halfway through a move to LA, Sophie Cates still “technically” lives in New York, but made the cross-country trek two months ago so she could take advantage of the seasonally warm weather which has lent itself to socially distanced outdoor sessions. Not her first pandemic-related move, she originally headed home to her parents’ place to escape NYC during the first peak which ended up being creatively fruitful for her music as Silver Sphere.
“Back to my Taylor / Swiftie roots” she laughs having wound up writing songs with just her guitar in her bedroom. “I felt like I was 15 again… but I got back into a really cool groove where I didn’t feel like I needed to hear the beat in order to write. I was just writing from my heart.” One of her childhood inspirations, the ubiquitous Taylor Swift was the reason a ten-year-old Cates was writing her first songs. “I was writing break-up songs and obviously I’d never had my heart broken, so I think something about her music and emotion really got [to] me.”
Her Taylor Swift obsession reached a peak with the release of Fearless and a bonus DVD of behind the scenes footage which Cates would watch every single day, mesmerised by her idol’s star power. Showing her true Swifie stripes, reminiscing about the release of folklore this summer, she admits "I always knew she was going to go back to the more folky roots and writing style eventually and I was excited for that day and it finally came.”
Born in LA, Cates moved with her family at a young age to a small town just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. It’s here, with plush suburban surroundings, that she discovered and fostered a love of music. Something she originally kept to herself, at least outside of the house, as she grew up and found her people it’s a passion she began to more outwardly share.
“Honestly, I think I was just a really melodramatic kid and I wanted to get out my feelings in a way other than throwing another temper tantrum,” she laughs revealing even at eight-years-old, when she picked up her first guitar, she was thriving on drama. “For real, that was a big part of it I had so many feelings and emotions and it would have been overwhelming to be screaming and crying all the time, so I turned it into music.”
Another early memory was a pink cassette, the very first music she owned, which had Britney Spears on one side and N*SYNC on the other. Having worked out full choreography for the whole tape, making up dances wasn’t going to cut it as Cates already knew then she wanted to be a pop star.
By the time she reached high school she was going with the flow, embracing life as a cheerleader. “It was a classic American high school experience, very clique-y, what you see in the high school movies, exactly like that,” she says, “I never really got along with everyone in that scene, but there were no art kids at my school [and] I was always into indie music but there was nobody who was like that.”
Immersed in the worlds of The 1975, Marina & the Diamonds and Lana Del Rey, it wasn’t until attending a summer programme at Berklee College of Music that Cates realised she wasn’t the only one. Upon her return she describes going through a “full 180”; “I dyed my hair dark brown, went goth and I became super artsy and was like fuck it…” She began working on GarageBand to record her songs: “I wasn’t going around school letting people know I was releasing music, I was a little worried about how vulnerable it was at first.” Finding new friends, who were also into The 1975, they were some of the few people who knew about Cates’ big ambitions. One of which – an aspiring YouTuber – shot some of the very first visuals, a collaborative process she remembers fondly.
Releasing her first project through Bandcamp (“some spoken word with weird synths”), under the guise of Silver, her choice of artist name wasn’t some convoluted branding exercise. It was an homage to her favourite 90210 character, Erin Silver, and a nod to Sylvia, the name Mum almost gave her, but Dad protested. Despite things sailing along smoothly, there was one issue… Cates realised searching for “Silver” alone would become a nightmare. Already attached to the galactic “silver sphere” concept which would see her welcome fans into an imagined world at some point for either an EP or an album, she’d even written a song with this title, eventually she settled on Silver Sphere to be an all-encompassing name for herself and her rapidly shifting musical persona.
Despite already working with a manager, Nathan James at Little Worry, Cates headed off to college in Chicago. This meant juggling studying music business with making her own music, something she only had time to do during winter and spring breaks. Learning more from her manager, she says “[the professors] weren’t even teaching about streaming services or whatever, so because I was doing meetings already that everything I was learning was a bit outdated.”
Chicago was pivotal because of the people Cates met. “I found this insanely perfect group of friends as soon as I got there,” she explains. “The first rave I ever went to was a big [moment], it was the first time that 100 people were dancing to music I liked. Stuff like that made me feel secure in the fact that I wasn’t alone in my interests and I could enjoy it with other people, and that other people might wanna hear it if I did it.”
It was at one of these underground shows where Cates, then still performing as just Silver, met experimental artist, producer and DJ Laura Les, who is also one half of 100 gecs. “My mind was blown. I’d never heard anything more amazing; sped up pop music with insane basslines.”
Mentioning friends LAN Party and Chase Alex too, Cates says “the thing that I love about hyperpop is that you really just stumble upon crazy shit if you’re in the depths of the internet or a basement in Chicago.” The people behind these artist projects are also the first people Cates was able to have deep, meaningful conversations about not only obsessing over songs, sounds and the scene in general, but also critiquing and sharing where their tastes differed. It was a revelation and these relationships continue to inform her work. During her breaks she’d visit New York and LA to get to work on the material which would eventually become yikes!, her first commercially released body of work. An albeit random collection of songs they convincingly hang together as if their running order was meticulously planned.
Having recently been introduced to the music of pop futurist Charli XCX, thanks to the Number 1 Angel mixtape soundtracking a pre-game, Cates explains “when Pop 2 came out that solidified her as one of my icons.” She remembers being moved to tears on the train by the sheer perfection of opening track “Backseat”, a collaboration with Carly Rae Jespen. “I’ll never forget that. I was like ‘this is perfect pop’, this is what I’ve been wanting to hear for so long and I’ve never heard and I fully started crying on the train.” Cates confirmed her adoration by getting the mixtape’s logo tattooed on her arm; a photo of which was sent to XCX via the pair’s mutual friend, and boundary-breaking pop producer in his own right, umru.
Dropping out of school and diving into music full time when she secured a publishing deal, with the ability to pay rent she took the plunge and moved to New York full-time. This was the push she needed, she had all the time in the world to focus, hone her skills and put together a body of work she had actually planned – from start to finish. Releasing her second EP all my boyfriends this year, it marked the singer/songwriter’s first major label release – an exciting milestone for an artist who’s so focused on continuous development.
Her hectic school-life balance had the school part taken away so perfecting, polishing and conceptualising the record was all that was left to do. “I don’t know if [a more polished sound] was intentional,” she explains, “but I’m happy with where it ended up. I think that shows the differences in my listening taste too over that time.”
Taking pride in the diversification of her listening habits, Cates acknowledges her newfound love of listening through the Top 40 charts, recent re-discovery Katy Perry's classic album Teenage Dream and digging deep into the discographies of critically adored artists like John Prine, Fiona Apple and Imogen Heap: “There're a lot of different places, whereas before it was coming from one very specific scene, which I still want to centre it around. I just wanna make a new sound out of that plus the other things I listen to.”
Signing on the dotted line just as the pandemic really took hold, it was a run of shows with Omar Apollo which really helped Cates gain perspective when making the decision. “I don’t think I’d have signed to a major label had I not had that experience,” she explains. “I think it’s important to have a good grasp of what you’re doing before you make that commitment.”
While she may not be playing sweaty basement raves in Chicago, that touring experience has proved there are fans beyond streaming services, who are ready and eager to have that same live epiphany with her music. Surprised by the support she received on those Omar Apollo dates, just before lockdowns rolled in, “I went into it without really knowing how many people knew my music, but I’d see groups of girls singing the lyrics to “drinking games” and I’d be like ‘wait you know this’, that’s still crazy to me.” One fan, who went to a handful of dates on that tour, would bring her a bag of her favourite sweets (watermelon flavour Sour Patch Kids) to every show, and she even received hand-drawn fan art. “It was super cool to hangout with the people who enjoy my music and put faces to the names of [Instagram handles] I’ve had full DM conversations with.
“It’s a cool community,” she says, noting how her growing online fandom and their interactions have begun to shape her world in new ways. “A lot of the time the music I find is because a girl in Colorado who listens to my music is also listening to some artist who’s producing at her high school.” In fact it was a fan suggested she check out eric doa, who recently played a set for the virtual launch of the “football game” single alongside the track’s producer Dylan Brady, the other half of 100 gecs with Cates’ old friend Laura Les.
While “Football Game” is the latest single to be released from Silver Sphere, it’s not exactly new. “You always have to wait a long time when you make something for it to come out, but I think “football game” is the longest,” Cates admits, “I’m pretty sure I made [it] before finishing yikes! which is wild…” Brady and Cates go way back, to the time when she was in sessions for just a handful of weeks.
“It really does fit my sound now, and the sound I’m going into,” she continues. “Dylan’s just a genius, I think he knows how to predict what’s coming next in music and I’ve always admired that about him and Laura, and it finally was the right time for it to come out. 'Football Game' is definitely very hyperpop and I’m always going to have more straight-up pop in my blood, so I think [the next project] might be a mixture of the two.”
Its inclusion on the next Silver Sphere body of work depends on the finishing touches Cates is finalising right now, which she says is inspired by both Charli XCX and Eric Doa. “We have music ready to go and I think it’s coming very soon, I definitely have a concept and a new era is coming. It’s going to be very fun,” she teases. Already thinking about projects four, five and beyond she’s got a “solid plan” with “lots of different vibes [which she’s] excited to weave through… at some point.” It’s all mapped out on Google Slides in “hybrid scrapbook-bullet-journal-planner.”
Dreaming of a safer future when we’re all back on the road and witnessing live music in the flesh, instead of behind a screen, Cates is eager to play. “If I can have a room full of girls and gays dancing and having fun, and there’s no fuckboys there, that’s the goal,” she laughs. “I wanna play shows for people who identify with my music because that was keeping me alive at 15, going to The 1975 shows and scream-crying the lyrics, they meant so much to me. I want my music to be that release for other people.”