SOHN is set to have a massive year.
His excellent debut album is coming out on legendary independent label 4AD on April 7, and his profile is constantly rising thanks to not just his own solo output but production work with Erik Hassle, BANKS, and Kwabs (read our interview with him here). As the London-born but Vienna, Austria-based artist starts to peel away the layers of mystery that had previously obscured him we had the chance to speak to him on the phone before he headed to Austin for SXSW.
We named SOHN as one of the artists who will breakout at SXSW this year, and he plays Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel this Wednesday night (3/12) at midnight and the 4AD party on 3/13 at 11pm. Make sure to check him out if you have a chance, and read on him about his philosophical debut album, feeling disconnected from London, and wanting to work with Tyler, The Creator.
You covered “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera in the Live Lounge last night, which is an interesting choice. Do you listen to much mainstream pop music?
No. [laughs] No, no it was a weird thing because actually my first wish… you know it’s one of those weird things when you go on there, they tell you, “Ok, you do a cover, this is how it works.” I was suddenly a bit surprised like “Oh, oh really?” And then I thought about what to do and I was kind of told the way that it works is that you do something current. Which made it quite terrifying, because I looked around at what was out and I couldn’t find anything I liked! [laughs]
Well, you could have covered “Wrecking Ball!”
I would have done “Climax” by Usher if I could have chosen anything. I would have really been able to interpret it in a way I would have liked. In the end my manager sort of selected about five or six songs that might be good ideas for the Live Lounge. None of those worked out, but “Say Something” was the closest thing I could find.
So your debut album is coming out soon on 4AD which is a pretty legendary label. How does it feel?
Ah, it’s great man. I’m so buzzing about the fact that, more than anything, that sticker is going to be on there you know what I mean? It’s really happening there’s really an album coming out and it’s really coming out on 4AD. It’s kind of nuts. I have those odd moments of such realization where I think, wow, sh*t. It’s real.
Taking it back a little, when we first started hearing from you in 2012, you were based in Vienna, but you’re British and from London. What took you over to Austria originally?
Mainly, I wasn’t really connecting in London, for some reason. I guess I was a bit too far outside the scene. So I just didn’t really feel like I was a part of anything. I’d been playing in different sort of bands, trying different things and trying to make it in music and I ended up playing one or two shows in really small pubs in Austria. Then I ended up meeting some bands and they were all friends and all living really close to each other.
I wasn’t really connecting in London, for some reason. I guess I was a bit too far outside the scene. So I just didn’t really feel like I was a part of anything.
I got sucked into that community and decided to leave London. It’s kind of funny now, because I think now because I’m almost never there anymore. But, yeah, that is what pulled me out of everything, this communal, community spirit type thing.
You’ve been making music for a long time, how long ago did you decide that this is what you want to do?
I think it was just something I’ve always wanted to do. But it’s a gradual process where you get to a point where you realize that you have erased every other possibility out of your life. It’s all you’ve allowed yourself, you know the only thing that you can do is that, because you destroyed every other option.
So, what happened was more of a gradual thing in the end. Because I think I just sort of quit every job that I had and then ended up trying to get by somehow using whatever knowledge I had. I did sound at a gig or two and stuff like that and just bluffed anything I could bluff, and then suddenly I was in this position where all I could do was related to music.
I think that’s quite transformative, you start to believe in what you’re actually doing. You’re like, ” Hang on I must actually be a musician because everything I do involves music.”
Brian Eno said recently that the best music is made when the artist realizes they have nothing else they can do.
Yeah exactly. You know it definitely got to a point where that happened. I remember recognizing that when I was at a party and someone asked what I did. I said, “Oh I’m a musician,” and suddenly I realized, “shit, I actually am! There’s nothing else I’m doing now.” But I was kind of… you know, it felt like a really long journey. I guess it wasn’t that long but, it felt like all that time I was trying to say that about myself, but before then I couldn’t have honestly said that I was a musician.
I said, “Oh I’m a musician,” and suddenly I realized, “shit, I actually am! There’s nothing else I’m doing now.”
Were you surprised at the reaction “Oscillate” and “Warnings” got when you put them up on Soundcloud? Did you expect people to be so excited?
I actually didn’t even realize they were exciting people. The thing was I didn’t, and I still don’t really, have a real understanding of what it all means. I didn’t see these things that are getting written about me because I was so far out of the loop of knowing. I didn’t know about music blogs, I wasn’t reading music blogs, I didn’t have anything to do with London anymore.
That whole thing of knowing what’s going on was so far away from what I was doing that even when it started to happen I didn’t really have any context. It’s still kind of the same now. Even the Radio 1 thing last night, I still don’t have that much context, because I don’t listen to radio and I don’t live in the UK. So, it didn’t feel like too much of a big deal and it wasn’t until after that my family started calling me, saying, “you didn’t even tell us you were in London and you did Radio 1!” I was just trying to concentrate on learning how to play the songs before getting here.
What’s been really surprising is the speed that it has translated to real time things for me that affect my life. Like today I went into the club where I’m going to play in Brussels next month and it’s massive, it’s ridiculous. And to see that and think sh*t, this all is for me. My first gig was a year and two months ago. It’s mad.
When you tweeted about our interview with Kwabs you said, “this is what a superstar looks like in 2014.” So how did you two start collaborating and what do you like about working with him?
I love him, I think he’s absolutely fantastic. I was in London to work on something of my own and borrow someones gear and then my manager told a few of his industry mates that I was coming into town and that maybe I’d have some time to try out some things. Which I’d never done before—that whole songwriting with other people thing.
Also Banks was going to come through town and we thought we’d just try working with some people. And in the same week I got set up with Kwabs, and when I say set up I mean my manager sent me a link to something of his and I just went mental about it and said “Yes please.” What I love about him is just that his talent goes so much deeper than his voice. He’s got something about him as a person which I think the world hasn’t even really seen yet, and that’s going to be incredible. What he could make, the music he could make based on the world he’s got inside him, and the amount of experiences and stuff he’s got within him as a person, I think it’s incredible.
And you know he’s just got this incredible voice, bottom line.
What Kwabs could make, the music he could make based on the world he’s got inside him, and the amount of experiences and stuff he’s got within him as a person, I think it’s incredible.
He really does.
I remember we were doing the first session that we did “Last Stand.” I remember he was recording on the mic in the same room as me and I remember just holding my face in my hands just thinking, “oh my god, I can’t believe that I’m here working on this. This guy is crazy!” I mean, can you imagine like being in the room while he did it thinking, “Jesus this guy.”
The songs on your new album seem to be talk about what you’ve learned from love, heartbreak, and past experiences rather than just telling the story of something that happened in the past. Is that something you do consciously or does that happen naturally when you’re writing?
Yeah it was a very unconscious thing. I think it ended up sort of feeling like I was reflecting on things that had happened but without actually being inside the emotion anymore. Like more being on the other side of the glass and watching it, and seeing how I reacted and the way I’ve coped with stuff like that. It wasn’t really a turning itself inside-out sort of album. It was more reflective, almost sort of philosophical, thinking about it.
Situating yourself in the universe.
You tweeted about wanting to work with Tyler the Creator the other day.
Oh, I’d love that!
He’s rather different to the people you’ve worked with so far, so why him specifically?
I see something in him which I just think…I think he’s a genius. I’d just be very interested to explore that, I’d be petrified but…[laughs] You know, maybe he’s not the most predictable guy. But I’d just be really into meeting up with him and seeing what goes through his head and how he really ticks.
Do you listen to a lot of rap?
Yeah, yeah I guess when I can. I haven’t really listened to a lot in the last year because I’ve started to get a little disconnected from what’s going on unfortunately, but yeah I’m definitely into it.
The new album it’s very personal, very intimate, almost a private record. When you’re making music is it an escape? Is it something cathartic? How would you describe it?
I wouldn’t say an escape, because for me it doesn’t feel like a diary type thing. When I was a bit younger I made music that was a bit more like that, where I felt like I was getting things out which I really needed to get out. But now it’s more like I get fascinated by the music and I start to put music together like a puzzle. Then there always comes a time when I think, “Oh, I want to hear a voice on it now,” so I’ll just sort of start singing nonsense stuff and then eventually words come out.
Lyrically the song makes itself in the end rather than me being too involved in thinking about what I’m going to write about or what I’m going to do. A lot of the time I don’t really know what it’s about until it’s totally finished and I can look back and go, “Oh that’s interesting I must’ve had that on my mind.” Or maybe realize I didn’t release that feeling that I thought I did.
So it’s more like that, and I guess it’s just that once that happens, once the words have come out, changing them would be absolutely out of the question because for me it’s about the phonetics of how the words come together and how that works with the melody. So it’s like I come out with a lot of keywords and then just sort of connect the dots and I see the picture at the very very end.
I think that’s a very honest way of making music.
I’ve got a friend who says they could never do it me way, though I think a lot of people do. But my friend who’s making really good music, he likes to fully construct the idea beforehand so that he knows where he’s going with it, but I could never do it that way because I always end up with terrible lyrics!
Sohn’s debut album Tremors is out April 7 on 4AD. Pre-order here.
If you’re at SXSW, he plays Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel this Wednesday night (3/12) at midnight and the 4AD party on 3/13 at 11pm.