SOHN had travelled almost twice around the world when he realised he wasn’t sure what he had to go back to any more.
The producer – real name Christopher Taylor – was born in London, but eventually settled in Vienna, a city he grew to love, and one that spawned his enthralling debut album. “The relationship I was in when I was in Vienna had ended while I was out on tour,” he recalls. “As those things do. And I remember getting back to this new flat in Vienna, and I’d spent about four nights there in four months, or something like that. And I remember sitting in this new apartment looking at the walls and thinking that Vienna just wasn’t home any more. I’d travelled so much, and saw so much, and so much had happened, that the idea of re-building again there just didn’t sort of seem right.”
So he moved. Drawn to the bright lights of Los Angeles, the producer made his home in the City Of Angels, one of the real crucibles for 21st century pop music. The culture shock, he explains, was acute. “My publisher is out here, so the first year I dove into that career side of LA and then just didn’t really like what I found, basically. And you just find that there’s a lot of people out here all desperately clamouring to write that one song, and it gets a little bit soul-sucking in the end when you realise that people are treating music as work, day to day. It’s all a bit shit, really. From that point of view.”
“Los Angeles is the sort of city that it takes six, seven months of living here before you suddenly can maybe carve out a little corner of it for yourself. In terms of LA itself as a city, I came in, got sucked into the trap a little bit, and I’m back out the other side now.”
Embarking on sessions with Kwabs, helping steer BANKS’ emphatic second album, Christopher Taylor – the producer, the songwriter – blossomed, while SOHN remained a nagging voice that echoed some place in the distance. Desperate for a space to call his own, he fled the city for the hilly wine country of rural California.
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“Basically, I just couldn’t write in LA – it just was not working… for me. I had this studio that was really terrible – it had paper thin walls, and next door you could hear this YouTube guy doing covers. Just really uninspiring. I’ve got a friend who has this house up in the wine country, in Northern California. So I took my entire studio of gear – which isn’t actually that much stuff – and just went and set up in the pool house at his place, and stayed there for a month on my own. I tried to write, basically. Eventually it worked. It took a little while but it worked in the end.”
The desolation seemed to force SOHN to find some kind of focus, and the music poured forth. “I think ‘Signal’ was the first one I wrote that felt like a complete song,” he recalls. “It works. And the production works. And I felt good about it. Pretty quickly after that I was writing a song every one or two days.”
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It gets a little bit soul-sucking in the end when you realise that people are treating music as work...
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Left to dwell in solitude with only minimal kit, SOHN began improvising, using whatever came to hand to get the sounds he required. ‘Conrad’, for example, feels like a muscular pop song, but the percussion utilises empty beer cans, wine bottles, and other junk he uncovered. “It was whatever was in the kitchen, basically!” he laughs. “There was a lot of beer cans. There’s a lot of beer cans on the tracklisting, and a lot of wine bottles because I was drinking a lot of wine at the time.”
“’Conrad’ was a breakthrough track for me because I wasn’t really liking how everything was sounding. I was feeling like the whole thing was a bit too polished and shiny. So I started to record my vocals from the other side of the room, so you get the natural sound of the room into the recording. And immediately that made a big difference. It would be easy for ‘Conrad’ to be just a very straight forward pop song, but as a result of the room the recording was made a bit scruffier again. So when it comes back around it’s not too shiny.”
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Hidden away in the California hills, SOHN found that he couldn’t quite escape the outside world. Political motifs and ideas litter his work, with his disgust with the conservative backlash, and the rise of both nationalism and the alt-right, seeping into his lyricism. “It wasn’t an intentional thing,” he explains. “It wasn’t an intentional thing. The way that I write lyrics is that I lead myself down a path and then I find out what it’s about afterwards. At the time, the Austrian elections were going on, and of course I have a lot of friends in Austria so the rise of the far right in Austria was terrifying. And then of course Donald Trump started campaigning, Brexit happened, it just felt… what is going on?”
“It’s crazy. We’re a generation that has lived in peace the whole time, and so we just take for granted that Europe is always going to be Europe, and America is going to be our friend. Things are shifting – right now, in front of us – but we don’t really see it yet. Everything is still the same, day to day. But it’s pretty terrifying.”
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Things are shifting – right now, in front of us – but we don’t really see it yet.
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Fuelled by artistic abandon and political paranoia, new album ‘Rennen’ is a much broader document than SOHN’s debut. Remarkably, it’s also much rawer – pushing himself to strip things down, to leave his ideas unadorned, SOHN entered the final phase of recording with what were little more than demos. “I took it all into the mixing studio and I said: ‘I’m going to play you everything I’ve got, and what I want you to tell me is that I can stop working and you can start working. That’s really my ideal.’ And said, ‘that’s like more than I would get from some other artist, you’ve got more than enough going on’. So for me to hear that was permission for me to put my tools down – cool, the record’s done!”
Out now, ‘Rennen’ is a rich return, one informed by a desire to takes changes, but also to reflect the climate it was made in. Pieced together in the Californian hills, it’s fuelled by forest fires and Trump, by natural recording and improvised percussion. “Moving from Vienna to an English speaking country has had a totally different effect on me as well, because all of a sudden I’m thinking and listening and talking in my own language the whole time. There’s a regular emotional shift that has happened since moving here which is a bit more of a sigh of relief.”
“You can’t under-estimate how important it is that when you end your day and you just want to relax that you can hear your own language. It’s really a big deal.”
Suitably relaxed, SOHN might just be making the most creative – and timely – music of his career.
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'Rennen' is out now.
Catch SOHN at the following shows:
1 London Electric Brixton