Arts & Culture

Following Sofi Tukker: A journey from College Hill to Coachella

Alums Hawley-Weld, Halpern reflect on two Coachella weekends, Brown’s influence

By
Arts and Culture Editor
Thursday, April 25, 2019

Earlier this month, while students eagerly awaited the arrival of Spring Weekend’s rising stars, Sophie Hawley-Weld ’14 and Tucker Halpern ’14 brightened a different, grander arena: Coachella’s Mojave stage.

Hawley-Weld and Halpern joined forces five years ago in the spring of their senior year, combining Halpern’s beats with Hawley-Weld’s Brazilian bossa nova style to create electronic-dance-music duo Sofi Tukker. The band’s rise to prominence includes a number of commercial features, two Grammy nominations and their second Coachella appearance. Now, they are set to embark on an international tour.

As Hawley-Weld and Halpern begin the tour’s Australian leg this weekend — bringing their neon style and upbeat sounds to 10 venues across the continent — University students will finally descend upon the Main Green for Brown’s smaller but equally anticipated music festival.

Halpern fondly recalled his experiences at Spring Weekend. His first year at Brown marked the fiftieth anniversary of the festival, which was celebrated with a star-studded lineup including  Snoop Dogg, MGMT, Major Lazer and the Black Keyes.

Hawley-Weld’s recollections were accompanied with advice for today’s attendees: “It’s super cool if you go out and enjoy it, but you can be sober and you can take care of yourself.”

At this, the two descended into friendly banter. “But also go crazy and have fun,” Halpern added.

Hawley-Weld and Halpern brought this same fun and wild energy to Coachella with an electric setlist and guest appearances by Brazilian drag queen and singer Pabllo Vittar and Li Saumet of Colombian band Bomba Estéreo.

“There is something really special about Coachella,” Halpern said, describing the unique vibe that has made it “the most hyped festival in the world.” With a combination of consistently impressive lineups, culinary temptations and artistic installations, Coachella incites a feeling that resonates with Sofi Tukker’s “exciting, energetic set and vibe.”

The duo’s performance was framed by a landscape of neon hues and animal projections, which sit at the heart of their new live show touring internationally this summer. “It’s really our dream show. We’ve always talked about having a diorama on stage and just fully enveloping ourselves and the audience in a neon jungle that … transports you to another world,” Hawley-Weld said.

Sofi Tukker concluded their April 14 Coachella set with a performance of their newest release, “Fantasy.” In the last minutes of their performance, Halpern paused, leading the thousands of people crowded in the Mojave tent in a swaying dance. “You look so beautiful!” he said from behind his turntable and drums. “Thank you for the experience, thank you for the love!”

The new single also received attention for its music video, which featured a dreamscape saturated with neon colors and follows Hawley-Weld and Halpern as they traverse a forest rich with vibrant fauna. Decked in sparkling, iridescent blues and greens that compliment Halpern’s aquamarine hair and Hawley-Weld’s highlighter-pink makeup, the duo navigates an Avatar-esque land of their own creation.

“In the comfort of my daydream / You’re everything that I need,” Hawley-Weld sings over Halpern’s beats. “Don’t step on my fantasy,” the chorus continues. Like their shows, the video is meant to carry the viewer and listener to “another planet” while remaining “an ode to the Earth,” Hawley-Weld said.

The first weekend of Coachella marked the one-year anniversary of Sofi Tukker’s debut studio album, “Treehouse.” The record earned the band their second Grammy nomination, this time for Best Dance/Electronic Album. “Treehouse” featured the single “Best Friend” which appeared in an iPhone X commercial and then in the film “Ocean’s 8.”

Halpern sees each festival stage, high-profile performance or new release as a single brick on their pathway forward. While they are proud of and grateful for their accomplishments, there is no time to dwell on the past. “It’s all sort of part of the journey, and we definitely appreciate it. … We are so excited and driven by what’s coming ahead of us, that we just want to keep growing and keep spreading the good vibes around the world.”

This journey — Coachella, “Treehouse,” stumbling into that “Fantasy” — would not be possible without a fateful encounter that united Hawley-Weld and Halpern during their final year at the University. After Halpern fell sick with a severe strain of the Epstein-Barr virus, he took a year off from the University. During this time, he took up DJing to replace the intense focus and commitment his life-long basketball career once required, the New York Times reported. In his first-year season, The Herald once named him athlete of the week.

Upon his return, Halpern brought his music to venues on campus and in Providence. He first heard Hawley-Weld play her bossa nova music at an art gallery where he was also scheduled to perform. They collaborated on the spot: After he heard her music, he was inspired to put a track to her melody, speeding up the beat. It was their senior spring, and they were meeting and performing together for the first time.

But Brown’s influence on the duo stems from earlier than this first encounter.

For Hawley-Weld, the University offered an introduction to Portuguese and improvisation, skills that both she and Halpern constantly use when writing and performing their music. After finding herself drawn to bossa nova music, Hawley-Weld was encouraged by a voice teacher to pursue Portuguese. “I ended up taking the intensive Portuguese course and loving it,” she said.  She would go on to study abroad in Rio and concentrate in Development Studies with a focus in Brazil and conflict resolution. “When Tucker and I started the band, it seemed like a natural thing to continue including (Portuguese) in what we were doing.”

Even now, Hawley-Weld still recalls and appreciates all that she learned in the University’s Electroacoustic Improv ensemble. In the course, dancers, videographers, musicians and artists of various disciplines came together to improvise and create what Hawley-Weld called “weird stuff.” But this stuff was inspiring and career-shaping. “In a nutshell,” she said, those skills encapsulated her experience at the University, where she constantly pushed herself to experiment, explore and employ her creativity.

During his time at Brown, Halpern took a number of music courses to supplement his concentration in History of Art and Architecture. But it was DJing parties at friend’s houses and in the apartments above then-Johnny Rockets that offered him a crash-course in adapting and playing to a crowd. “That stuff really influences me still when I’m making music. I put myself in those parties.”

The day after Hawley-Weld completed her last final exam, she received a call from Halpern. “He was like ‘Hey, let’s form a band and move to New York.”

And so they did.

Sometime within the next couple of days, the duo headed to a studio in Steinert Hall, where they wrote most of their first song, called “Drinkee.” The song features poetry from Brazilian poet Chacal, whom Hawley-Weld met after he spoke at a poetry reading at the University.

“Drinkee” was discovered by Apple, featured in a 2015 Apple Watch commercial and received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording in 2016.

But before “Drinkee’s” fame, Sofi Tukker’s move to New York City and any thoughts of Coachella, the two had to graduate.

“We do love Brown, a lot,” Hawley-Weld said.

“It’s a big part of our story, and … we love being a part of Brown,” Halpern concluded.

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