Meet S O H N, a London-born, Vienna-based singer songwriter whose sparse, haunting vocals and unique brand of electronic soul positions this introverted crooner as one of the most interesting artists in contemporary music. Having worked closely with other enigmatic singers including BANKS and tantalizing our palettes with a string of awesome singles (“The Wheel,”Bloodflows,” and “Lessons” among them), on Tuesday, April 8th S O H N drops his debut full-length Tremors on 4AD.
We caught up with S O H N, who spoke by phone from Brussels, Capital of the European Union, just days before a run of highly-anticipated shows on March 12th, 13th, and 15th in Austin, Texas at the SXSW Festival. We talked about writing an album at night, rebirth, being typecast as an enigma, and sausages.
When Did You Discover Electronic Music?
I think I really discovered electronic music when I started making it about a year and a half/two years ago, because that was when I first started using hardware and electronic stuff. I collect synthesizers from the 1970s up. So I really discovered electronic music first when getting into making stuff on actual hardware synths, because suddenly I realized there was a huge possibility for a human element in electronic music. That’s something I would have never associated with electronic music.
Have you noticed this strong backlash recently against more laptop based musicians? The debate about whether music made electronically is still “real music” has been going on since the beginning of the form.
For me that’s a massive part of being able to play the live show. You’re creating a bed of sound using synthesizers, not presents. The bed of that sound is synthesizers, so it absolutely feels that there’s no other way to do it than to have a human doing it on stage. There’s a real interaction going on there on stage when we’re actually playing, and that’s good because otherwise I think it gets very boring, very quickly.
Your music often does a lot with sparse textures and a wide, open atmosphere. I’m thinking in particular about “Lessons.” Can you tell us about the importance of space in your compositions?
It was something I just started kind of early, when I did the first song. I felt like my instinct was to write too many words and too many melodies.
Suddenly I’m remembering that scene from Amadeus where one of Mozart’s critics tells him there are “too many notes.”
There was something in the beginnings of being S O H N which came from a feeling of wanting to change myself personally so I wasn’t the kind of person who would want to fill those spaces. If ever there was silence in a room, I would always be the kind of person to try to break it. I really, really wanted to change that in myself. Musically, I tried to sing less, and it was effectively changing myself as a person as well. As soon as I cut back on my instinct to overfill I felt like, “Wow, there’s something else there.” And that became very satifisfying to me, to feel that negative space and to allow the listener to adjust to get used to the lack of something being there, so that when something comes back again, it really has impact.
It’s interesting because a lot of contemporary electronic music, on the more commercial side anyway, is so packed full of sound. I always describe it as being very “sugary.”
I think there’s obviously a bit of a reaction to that overstuffed sound going on now. Almost all of us music listeners are starting to crave a bit of space. So yeah, it’s kind of interesting to me that the whole world is a bit like, “Okay, too much information now.”
You wrote a lot of your debut record Tremors at night time. Did that impact the sound or the mood of the album any?
A track like “Lights” definitely sounds like it couldn’t have been written during the day. And at the same time, I’d always finish a session just as the sun was coming up, then I’d walk home. So that also had a big impact into it, too. It’s not quite a night record, it’s more like a sun-coming up at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. type of record. A very fresh cold breeze and the sun’s starting to come up.
Speaking of the writing process, what can we expect from Tremors?
A very particular snapshot of a particular time of my output. That’s the main thing, because I don’t feel like the album was a planned thing that took a long, long time to curate and bring together. It very much felt like most of it was made in one month, even though it was spread over a long period of time. I see each song as it’s just like sections of one big song, basically. So I hope that I’ve got the crescendos right and the dynamic of the album right and that it’s one piece and it drags you along and up and down. If it does that for the listener, then I’m very, very happy.
You’ve got a string of live shows coming up in support of the new record, including gigs at SXSW followed by a European tour in April and you’ll hit North America in May. How do you approach the live show?
I very much try not to think of what’s going to happen live when I’m writing, because it would really limit the possibility of what you can do. I just record without thinking, without any thoughts of that other side. There will come a time where I’m starting to think about how to do those new songs in a live setting. Basically the first thing I have to do is try to get rid of elements that aren’t absolutely key, then decide which of the elements in the song are the most important and have to be played by hand.
They’re almost slightly different songs live than they are on the recordings, because you’re aware that somehow on stage that everything has to be a little bit more pronounced. Each high and low dynamic has to be magnified when you do it live. I’ll make sure that a kick drum is a bit harder sounding kick drum, or that maybe when there’s a part which lasts 30 seconds on the record that we give it enough time when we’re doing it live. Maybe give it 50 seconds to a minute just so the person in the audience can get the chance to enter into it.
You’re sort of an enigma, would you agree? Plus the sonic pasture you offer is quite moody, if not mysterious. In a music industry driven by the cult of personality, how has keeping things mysterious worked for you?
The thing is, I don’t know what Prince’s name is and I don’t care, either. Because he’s Prince. The mystery thing is a bit of an accident in a way. “Hi my name’s S O H N, here’s my face, you’ve all seen my face, and here’s a picture of me performing live” – I’m not sort of hiding behind a mask like that. I have a funny relationship with that mystery because I guess I play with it and enjoy it because it also can create drama. And at the same time it’s something which sort of hounds me slightly because it’s not necessarily about mystery the reason why I just started to call myself S O H N and only S O H N. Since I’ve started making this music, that’s who I really am.
So it’s sort of like staging a rebirth.
Since I arrived in this state of making the music I make and the effect it has had on me, it would be weird for me to refer that back to my childhood because I don’t think it’s got anything to do with each other. It’s like you say in German, “das ist mir Wurst” [laughs].
Wait, whoa. What does that mean?
When something doesn’t really matter they say “das ist mir Wurst,” which just means “it’s sausages” [laughs].
[laughs] I’m definitely going to start saying that now, actually.
It’s all sort of sausages, really [laughs].