We caught up with SOHN before his Berlin gig to learn more about his debut album and working with London-based musician Kwabs.
SOHN’s vocals and electronic instrumentals resonate through his singles “Oscillate” and “The Wheel,” from which steady spikes of release highs have spun the bearings in the lead up to his debut album Tremors. Running parallel to his solo release, SOHN has struck collusive synergy through his production work with Kwabs, whose soulful voice pronounced by his Gospel and R&B lineage reverberates off SOHN’s synthesized hands on two tracks of Kwabs’ debut EP Wrong or Right. We had the pleasure of getting to know SOHN by way of his collaboration with Kwabs and the recording sessions that fired synaptic clout.
“He’s like Gospel, almost Bluesy Gospel. The thing which drew me to Kwabs was that even when the song is kind of an upbeat ’90s, R&B-sounding thing, he could just be singing “Baby” and you’d feel that there’s a depth to him which you don’t find very often in artists. I recognized that immediately and thought: I have to work more with this guy.”
After being introduced by their managers in London, Kwabs and SOHN recorded “Last Stand” in their first session and instantly knew that they had something good. A lot happened along the peripheries and following some great moments and long discussions about their lives, the two hit a point where they could flick a switch and push the other into new directions, as was the case with some of Kwabs’ tunes written six months prior that struck SOHN’s thinking, “Okay, I need to get my fingers involved in that because I hear a million things which could happen in that song.”
A few short months following his production on Kwabs’ Wrong or Right, SOHN is on his Tremors release tour. We’re hanging out in a beer garden on the afternoon of his Berlin gig and with one word he expresses his first album release experience, “Shocking.”
“Things are starting to hit me, like when the album came out last week it hit the Australian iTunes Top Ten and I didn’t even know that people in Australia had heard anything, so that was really just odd to me. Now an Asia tour is getting booked. These little things have started to hit me in a really big way because as far as I was concerned, there was a certain audience in Europe which I understood and now I don’t understand it anymore because it’s changing so rapidly.”
SOHN is going with the current in honesty, “It helps not being massively aware of what’s going on.” Granted the surge of attention has jolted his grounding, it’s a flux reminder of the artistic decision he made in moving from London to Vienna five years ago.
“I’d grown up in London and I just felt like I wasn’t connecting at all. You know what it’s like when you live in the same place where you grow up and you don’t see it with fresh eyes anymore. There are certain areas where you don’t go to because you know that over the years people have always said you can’t go there. When you move to a new city or to a new country you don’t know anything, you just go so innocently and most of the time you never have a problem. I wanted to jump into that a little bit and have the feeling that anything is possible and that I can go wherever I want. What’s really funny is since I did that, I see everything that way now. I even see London that way. I just have that very open attitude toward stuff now, which is good. It’s a massive trick to pull off in your own mind to be able to get rid of that stuff and I’m glad I did it.”
Disconnecting from city cues has granted SOHN the leeway to unhinge from both ends of his solo and production work, “I find old school producers like Quincy Jones interesting, he was always making his own stuff which was so different from a Michael Jackson record. David Bowie on one hand has recorded Low and Young Americans, I think more of him not less of him because he’s gone through these different influences and has been able to navigate his way through them.” Harnessing his influences, SOHN has a flow with which he approaches his production work with an instinctual innocence that goes: “Do I think that’s good? Yes? Then I do it. When I’m doing my own stuff there is an extra layering process that says, ‘Do I want to do that?’ If I find myself tricking myself out of that, I try to give myself a slap.”
“”Wrong or Right” with Kwabs is probably the only song that is markedly different than what my instinct tells me. Producing that track made me realise that there’s this indie kid inside of me that says, ‘This is getting a bit close to pop music.’” SOHN’s mode of working between musical borders draws on his affinity to pull stylistic subtleties out from his production mates.
“As a producer, I think it’s important that you don’t put yourself in front of the artist. That’s what you’ve got to make work. I remember with Kwabs we’d done “Last Stand” already then he came to Vienna before “Wrong or Right” had happened and we’d been working a day or two on some really nice atmospheric things. We were eating in a restaurant when some ’90s vibe thing like “Power of a Woman” came on and then he just told me loads of stuff that he used to love like “En Vogue” and I actually didn’t know that, so we had this big conversation and I realized that there’s a huge part of him which hasn’t come out in song yet, which is stuff he adores. I tried to gently allow myself to let him explore that and that’s what happened when “Wrong or Right” came along. I suddenly had an understanding about what he is and who he is and what he really loves.”
On stage SOHN’s hooded silhouette intersects the neon glow orchestrated by the lighting set up that he and his close friend and fashion photographer, Andreas Waldschütz, designed in Vienna for three of SOHN’s 4AD Sessions videos. “We had this enormous white warehouse where you can’t see any corners. Song by song, Andreas and I decided what each video would do and how it should work. It was really amazing that they came out the way that I saw them coming out in my head. I’m really proud of the “Bloodflows” video in particular because that for me was like “Stop Making Sense” by Talking Heads where you see the silhouettes. That’s basically what we’re doing live.” The shoot also came as a catalyst for SOHN’s clothing infatuation and he’s since collected pieces from designers that are cut perfectly to his fit and the ten or so outfits that he’s curated has piqued his interest in designing his own collection down the line. I ask if he wears a lot of black, “I don’t wear anything else, I’ve got these trousers that have fake leather on the inside that are made from rhubarb, they’re so cool.”
There’s a calm pragmatism to SOHN’s directional vision that guides his call for going forth on a collaborative track, “If you can’t feel that you might as well just stop because then you really get into that thing, especially with major labels, where if you get something going you can use that person’s name or cool factor to launch, then you get really skeptical. I’m only following through work with people where I just instantly feel: yeah, that was great and that’s it. It’s cut and dry for me.” As for working with Kwabs, there is a mutual esteem for the other by which a seamless authenticity speaks for itself.
“We’re in an era of cool before good. It would have been easy after “Last Stand” and “Spirit Fade” for Kwabs to just keep being ultra icy and ultra cool, but that’s not one hundred percent who he is. He’s this very warm person who loves to dance and loves melody and loves to really sing with his full heart. I feel very proud of those things as a producer, that I let that happen. It makes me really happy now when I read that he said that “Wrong or Right” is probably his favorite tune, the one that’s closest to who he feels like he is. I think that’s great because that just came from me as a producer getting into who that person is and then encouraging a sort of truth from that person to come out.”
Interview by Katherine Koniecki for Highsnobiety.com
- Photography: Ryan Hursh