Rule Breakers Act Sofi Tukker Has Broken A Lot Of Rules, & The Band's Fans Are Better For It
It was late afternoon on Saturday, Sept. 22 at Bustle's 2018 Rule Breakers event when Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern, the two artists who make up the band Sofi Tukker, took the stage. The sun had just come out from behind the clouds on an otherwise overcast day as if the Grammy-nominated duo had summoned it. On stage in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Hawley-Weld jumped around in white flowing pants and a nude bodysuit while singing in Portuguese. Some moments, the fast-paced lyrics sounded like scatting. On the other side of the stage, Halpern, with his bleach blonde hair, danced while DJing. He wore black and white checkered leggings underneath lime green shorts and a black shirt that read "Femme House" in white block letters. The drumkit and Hawley-Weld's microphone were festooned with banana leaves.
Taking in the act, the uninitiated festival-goer might think they'd happened upon a performance of what is still called "world" music, aka a genre not super popular with Americans, but that descriptor doesn't actually fit Sofi Tukker, one of the most exciting duos to hit the house music scene since Disclosure debuted. Sure, the band is known for making what music reviewers have dubbed "jungle pop," but Hawley-Weld and Halpern resist declaring a genre. Yes, their music mixes electronic dance beats with Brazilian samba music, and yes, they are huge in Europe, thanks in part to a tour there that concluded last week. But the band, whose roots track back to an Ivy League campus, really does defy categorization, and their star is on the rise stateside. Proof: the minute they launched into their hit song "Best Friend" — which includes bells, drumming, and vocals with Portuguese lyrics, the crowd at Bustle's Rule Breakers, most of whom one can safely guess do not speak any Portuguese, was jumping.
Hawley-Weld and Halpern spoke with Bustle by phone earlier in September while the two were in Austria on their aforementioned European tour. "We're getting back from four shows in two days and coming from Paris, so we're gonna be jet lagged as f*ck," Halpern says when talking about the Sept. 22 show at Rule Breakers. Then he adds, "So if we don't look as excited and happy as you think we will, it's not 'cause we're not excited and happy, it's 'cause we're f*cked up." But Saturday, there was no sign of jet lag. Hawley-Weld and Halpern danced around like they'd had all the R & R, and Halpern asked the crowd, "Brooklyn can you feel the energy?" Evidently, Brooklyn certainly could.
Hawley-Weld and Halpern's musical careers have had a similarly non-stop rhythm. They only started making music together four years ago, and, since then, Sofi Tukker has performed at music festivals around the world — including Coachella. The two say they work incredibly well together, and they learn from each other as they go. "Because we weren't classically trained musicians, we don't even know what rules we're breaking half the time," Hawley-Weld says. Then she adds, "We're just making things that make us come alive and make us happy."
Hawley-Weld, who's on electric guitar and vocals, tells Bustle she met Halpern during their senior year of college, when she was playing in a Bossa Nova jazz trio at an art gallery. "Tucker came to the event early 'cause he was DJing at the same event and saw me playing and ended up basically remixing one [of] my songs on the spot," Hawley-Weld recalls. They've been working together ever since. Still, neither Hawley-Weld nor Halpern necessarily thought they'd make music professionally.
"I loved [music], but I always had to put my passion for that aside because basketball was my main thing," Halpern says. He'd gone to Brown to study architecture and play varsity. "I was the captain of the team," he recalls. Then he got sick with a severe strain of the Epstein-Barr virus and had to leave school during his senior year. During that time, he taught himself how to make music on his computer. "When I switched it up, it really was a tough thing identity-wise for me, 'cause everyone knew me as the basketball player or the jock or something, and then I tried to reinvent myself," he says.
The idea of challenging the label assigned to you resonates with Hawley-Weld too. Hawley-Weld majored in Developmental Studies, which led her to discover a passion for Portuguese and then Brazil. In addition to studying conflict resolution, Hawley-Weld took classes in dance and literature. A year of living in Rio cemented her love for Brazilian culture. "When I left Brazil I was heartbroken 'cause I wanted to stay there forever," she says. "I started making music only in Portuguese, just to feed my love for the language and to keep that alive, and then I got a fellowship to go back to Brazil... the spirit of the place really resonated with me."
Even though she'd started making music in Portuguese before meeting Halpern, Hawley-Weld kept her dreams of becoming a musician dormant for a while. "I think I secretly wanted to just make music forever, but didn't really know how to make that happen," she says. Then she met Halpern, and they began collaborating. The pairing of Halpern's sound mixing skills and Hawley-Weld's passion for Brazilian music might not seem obvious pairing, but it totally works.
Hawley-Weld used her experiences from traveling in Brazil for her major to help make Sofi Tukker's sound so distinctive. "I learned the language on purpose so that I could sing the songs that I loved. And then once I was [in Brazil] I realized that the musical culture there's really remarkable. Everybody can play an instrument and has rhythm. I am in awe still of samba and many other dance styles," Hawley-Weld says. Dancing is a big part of the two's performances. At Rule Breakers, they brought a mother and daughter who traveled from Maryland to see them onto stage for a dance break, and at another point Hawley-Weld went into the crowd to dance with the audience.
As important as dance and music are to Sofi Tukker, poetry is another art form that's intrinsic to the band. The song “Matadora,” which is on their 2016 debut EP Soft Animals, features Hawley-Weld singing the poem, "Relógio," which was written by the Brazilian poet Chacal. Hawley-Weld and Chacal also met at Brown University. "I was studying Brazilian poetry with my professor, and she invited me to do this event where there [was a] Brazilian poet, Chacal," she recalls. "He was reciting poetry, and I would basically recite back his poetry but in song." The pair started working together, doing performances for small audiences. Chacal and the singer/guitarist stay in touch still and he continues to send her new poems. "It’s a really cool collaboration," she says.
That continued Brazilian influence was palpable in Sofi Tukker's 2018 debut album, Treehouse, which includes similarly pumped-up Portuguese lyrics. The song "Best Friend" instantly became a smash hit after being featured in the iPhone X full commercial reveal at the Apple keynote event in 2017.
The band knew the song would play for a new Apple ad, an experience they were familiar with. Their song "Drinkee" from Soft Animals, had already been used in a commercial for the Apple Watch, and "Batshit" played in a commercial for 2018's iPhone 8 (PRODUCT)RED™ Special Edition. But they didn't know the new commercial would play at the keynote. "They're so secretive that they didn't tell us what it was for or that it was for a bigger than normal phone launch or anything like that," Halpern says of Apple. The moment when they learned their song played at the flagship annual event stands out as a big moment for Sofi Tukker. "We were actually in Ibiza shooting the music video for 'Best Friend' when they did the keynote speech thing when they premiered it, and we freaked out," Halpern says, laughing.
Hawley-Weld and Halpern both say they hope their music transcends borders, both geographical and personal. "People really put you in the category, in the box, and I had to make my way out of one box [as an athlete] and it was just a weird thing to do, especially in the bubble of social community in college," Halpern says. The DJ adds, "I feel super box-less right now."
The idea of making music that doesn't follow rules or abide by preconceived expectations appeals to Hawley-Weld, too. "I think we don't call ourselves any genre for a reason, and every time we go to write a new song we don't come with a preconception of what kind of genre or what kind of world it should fit into, it's more like, What's inspiring us right now? Usually it's in the realm of dance music, but even that is flexible," she says.
Avoiding the music industry's tendency to confine artists to a single genre or sound is important for Sofi Tukker. "Control artistically, of what we do, is really a giant priority. It's a must for us, and we never wanna make music for —" Hawley-Weld finishes his sentence, "For a label or for anybody." Even without the band making their music for a specific audience, Sofi Tukker's performances especially appeal to people who want to dance and feel the freedom to be fully themselves, even if that means breaking some rules.
For the duo, that has meant incorporating Brazilian music even though the bandmates aren't Brazilian. They didn't go to music conservatories but have been nominated for a Grammy. True to their vision, they haven't signed with a major label, but they just concluded a highly successful tour. And they prioritize collaborating with artists who also challenge the status quo. Their newest song, "Energia (Part 2)" came out on Sept. 14, and it features Pabllo Vittar, whom Halpern calls "The ultimate rule breaking icon." The DJ tells Bustle that Vittar is "one of the most popular trans artists in the world and definitely in Brazil," and that he's "never felt like anyone's more of an icon than her."
Hawley-Webb and Tukker hope that their story might inspire someone else to explore an interest they're passionate about, even if it's not what they're "supposed" to be doing. "I think that unfortunately we live in a culture where when you do something enough times, then people like to box you in and make your identity that thing... it's like when you're 13 years old," Hawley-Webb says. Both artists see themselves as proof that you can follow a new passion at any stage of life, though.
"I'm a perfect example," Halpern says. "I didn't make music at all until I was 21 or something, 22 maybe, and that's usually after people decide what their thing is. And then we started making music and then what, two years, three years later we have a song that [was] nominated for a Grammy. So you can do it, it's proof. But if you feel like you're not trained enough or something, then I think you just need to go train more, but you can do it." Hawley-Webb agrees, adding, "You're never done growing and it's never too late to start a new project."