It's a frigid and wind-ravaged early evening in New York City and SOHN is decamped in a dark but cozily lit Manhattan bar musing about the songs he'd want played when the time comes for his inevitable funeral. Björk's "Hyperballad" is his first thought.
"It's a beautiful track that's both melancholy and sad and also so uplifting," says the London-raised (but now Vienna-residing) singer and producer whose own music carries with it the signature of fusing electronic studio techniques with heartfelt sentiment. "I think it very aptly describes how I am," he continues. "A lot of people might have me down as knowing what's inside my head, but I feel that 'Hyperballad' is a great example of my state of mind most times, which is before all of you wake up I go up and throw things off a cliff. That's the tune for me."
SOHN started chatting about funeral anthems after being asked about a line from 2012's "The Wheel" where he sings, "I died a week ago." Along with this year's "Bloodflows" track, that song helped introduce SOHN to the world as something of a moody electronica balladeer -- one to begin obsessing over now, before his debut album on 4AD drops early next year.
He says he often finds that people expect him to be downbeat in person -- having listened to his jams -- but that his songs are anything but. There are kernels of joy and freedom at the heart of his music -- just like Bjork's own paeans. SOHN adds that when he's listening to another artist's music, he can become fascinated by trying to spot what he calls these "little tricks" of emotion or technique. He likens watching someone else's stage show to one magician wanting to work out how another enchanter pulls off their own tricks.
Holed up inside from the inhospitable weather, Hive chatted with SOHN about just how these diminutive moments of magic sparkle into emotionally fulfilling songs. It's a conversation that evoked legendary producer Quincy Jones, SOHN's own early start in a rock band, and the thrill of laughing at instances of sonic audacity.
As a kid, who had the best tricks to try and work out?
In recordings, it was Quincy Jones on Michael Jackson's Bad album. There's little bits and pieces that if you weren't listening straight to the songs, you wouldn't hear these amazing things going on.
Like with "Speed Demon," there's this amazing riff that happens. It's this incredible synth run that goes up and down and takes about one second to happen and you would never notice it as just another pop listener, but as someone who's into what's going on with the making of music it's amazing that it's going on. It enhances the song so much, this amazing little thing.
It was one of those moments that still happen now, like you listen to some producers and some musicians and you have to laugh because it's so ridiculously good. It's the audacity of doing it. I had it recently. When a song can make me laugh 'cause of how ridiculously good it is, that's when it's great.
What was the most recent moment in a song that made you laugh?
It was when I was working with Kwabs, this guy that I did a track with, and he did something vocally that I was really trying desperately to contain my laughter over. I was in the same room and had to do a little silent laugh because he was recording and it was an ad lib and I was just taken by it.
Do you ever get jealous when you hear one of these little tricks?
Not at all, not at all.
How many people listening to music do you think actually pick up on those little tricks and moments?
I don't know, actually. Probably not the majority of people who buy it, but it's the same as when you can hate lots of things on the radio until you hear them properly. A lot of the time I used to hate when my parents would play the radio, and I'd hate every song that was on the mainstream radio out of principle, and then you'd hear it later in a setting like this and you realize, oh, actually, it's really good.
But you don't notice at the time 'cause you only hear the vocal or the main part of it when it's broadcast on the radio. When you hear those little details, you can tell that whoever was making it was really enjoying the process. If there are none, though, then chances are nobody was enjoying it when they were making it.
Did you ever try to recreate any Quincy Jones productions when you first started making music?
Not really, but I guess those things are just in me now, like little things like doing a ridiculous little synth run when nobody is expecting it.
Do you have to check yourself when you're making music to make sure you don't get too obsessed over these little tricks?
Yes. All the time. It's good to have a couple of people around you that you can ask about that sort of stuff and trust. A lot of the time the question is really, "Did you notice that bit?" If they don't then you take it out, it's not needed. A lot of the way that I'm making stuff is very focussed on the production afterwards.
What was the last bit of feedback like that that you received?
I get it all the time. After every show I like to ask the people that know the show well what they thought of this and this and this. It's not because I'm going to change things to reflect that, but I want to perfect the show. I think about every element -- a piece of lighting here or a moment of improvisation that happens. I want to know what people think is important.
Like you can think it's massively important that this kick drum has a filter, but you ask 10 people whether they notice any difference if you take it off and they don't. It's important to ask other people about these things to stop you from going mental.
Are there any songs you've released so far that at one point in the recording process were radically different?
Yeah, like my manager and I have a good dialogue of that sort of stuff where I absolutely trust what he thinks 'cause he knows me best. When he sees me doing things I shouldn't be doing -- whether it's over-thinking or over-complicating things -- and I'll play him a couple of versions, then a lot of time he's right.
Like with "Bloodflows," when that came out there was a very different version going on and at the last minute he said, "You know what? There was that first version you had and why don't you reopen that and listen to it now you're at this stage?" I did and ended up using the first version. I put back in all the strongest bits of the edits that I'd done after, but that was a great bit of editing.
How would you describe the style of music you were making when you first started?
Terrible! I've done everything. I started with rock, I was a guitarist.
In a band?
What was the band's name?
Terrible, terrible, there's so many… The best worst was probably Fluid. It was terrible. But there were so many bad names going on.
Do you still have any demos from those days?
Everything has been destroyed. It's all been burned. It's all gone. [Pauses] I was into that kind of music at first but, you know, when you don't have a record deal and you're a kid, you want to record an album 'cause everyone records albums and I kinda learned how to do multi-track recordings for myself so I could make my "band." I wanted to do an album, like a big band album, and it slowly got that way as more electronics came in; like I couldn't record a live drum kit and those things creep up on you and by necessity you use the only tools you have your hands on. Then you hope to make something better than if you had a terrible drum set-up and mic-ed badly.
Was there a moment when you began to feel comfortable with the style of music you were making?
Yeah, there probably was, but I don't think I could put my finger on it. It was probably more about being comfortable with your vocal -- 'cause I'm doing all my own vocals -- as that represents what you are to a lot of people. That's probably the hardest part to find.
Do you have any formal singing training?
No, not really. When I was 5 years old I was doing all that stuff, like choir stuff. I had opportunities to do like classical things, but I always opted out of them. For me, my voice is always another tool so I'm always searching for the best way to record it or the best way to phrase a line. I see it as another instrument. The way I record it was an important early choice, like it should flow into the rest of the music and it shouldn't be so intrusive on the listener, like just a straight-up vocal.
Do you have plans to work with many other vocalists?
Yeah, we get a lot of offers for that stuff. I really enjoy it, like the songwriting process. It's always hands-on. Everyone I've worked with, we've sat down and created it from scratch. I never have any pre-composed beats and things like that, I always start afresh when I'm with a new artist.
How do those sessions usually start?
It normally starts with a really deep conversation. You get to a point where you feel like you really know them and then you get to a point where you are comfortable with creating something with them. I have a couple of bits of gear that produce -- how can I put this? -- very unexpected results if you use them over and over again. Like I've got a drum machine and a synth that can suddenly do things that you don't expect them to do.
Like they're slightly broken?
Yeah, and that's a great way to start something 'cause you get some weird shit and you play around with it. Normally, that thing will be 60% of whatever track I'm doing until the end when I remove it -- it's like a great springboard.
Do you have any pet names for these machines?
No, I call them very simply what they are. Actually, not strictly true, if I'm working with the Jupiter [synthesizer] it's always The Jupe in my eyes. If you went into my files, you'd see many tracks called like Jupe 1, Jupe 2 or whatever they sound like. Nasty Jupe is one that gets used a lot.
Which artist would you most like to do a Quincy Jones on and produce an entire album?
Jeff Buckley. That would have been great, we'd have made a good album together. Or Bjork maybe.
As a producer, how would you approach giving constructive feedback to a perhaps very egotistical vocalist?
It totally differs, but make it seem like their idea! That's probably the best one. Plant a little seed in there and when they say, "I think maybe I should do this," say, "Yes, that's a fantastic idea!"