SOHN talks fatherhood and learning to trust his instincts on ‘Rennen’
January 24th 2017
- SOHN :: Interview with Caitlin Medcalf
He’s been caught in a whirlwind of sounds and experiences over the last three years, but SOHN is back and bigger than ever. Since releasing his debut album Tremors in 2014, he’s been busy touring the world, writing and recording with artists like Banks and Lana Del Rey, and moving to LA. Somewhere in between, he became a father too.
Following this arduous amount of touring, SOHN found himself relearning the basics. Now he’s back with a new record, titled ‘Rennen’. Meaning ‘to run’ in German, the LP serves as a snapshot in time of SOHN’s artistic development. With an intense focus on vocals, the record feels deeply personal, with a heavy dose of soul throughout.
I was lucky enough to have a chat with SOHN ahead of his album release. We spoke about all things ranging from fatherhood to recording and writing out of his comfort zone. Listen to the interview above, or read below.
[Background: negotiations around who is looking after the baby…]
C: You’ve just had your child, haven’t you?
S: I have. It’s been absolutely bonkers.
That’s so beautiful! Have you been enjoying fatherhood so far?
Its a total trip. It’s like all of a sudden you have a whole world, but you only focus on one stone that you found somewhere. That’s what it’s like. For six weeks, you just look at this stone the whole time, and then all of a sudden you have to go and do promos or something, and then you wake up and there’s a whole other world and it’s like, what’s going on?
It must be surreal. I wanted to start by asking if you could tell me a bit about the thought process behind the album title, ‘Rennen’.
It’s a German word which you can use as a noun or a verb. If it were a noun, it would be like ‘the race’, but as a verb you can use it as an instruction like ‘run’, but it also means ‘to run’. So the album is called ‘to run’, but I didn’t want to call it that in English because it just didn’t have the same sort of appeal to me.
It’s partially a nod to the last two and a half years. They’ve been a crazy sprint, where I’ve been running through life choosing left or right and not really thinking much further ahead than that.
There’s something about touring so much and seeing so much of the world that sort of focuses your attention, and it calms you down at the same time because you can’t really decide anything. The world is gonna throw you wherever the world is gonna throw you, and it’s about whether you catch it or not basically. When it came to naming the record, I wanted it to pay respect to that kind of feeling that I’ve had for the last couple of years.
The last two years have been insane for you. How has it been saying yes to more opportunities? Has it been daunting for you?
I’ve just been approaching everything with a sort of innocence of do I want to do it? Yes/no. Do I want that in my life? Yes/no. It certainly becomes less daunting. The more you let go of control and the more you go off instinct, the easier it becomes to live that way. Very quickly you realise that you’ve become a really calm person who works on instinct really well, but it’s just because it’s the circumstance you’ve been in for the last few years and you can’t really do anything about it.
I know in the last couple of years you’ve been busy – not only recording your own music, but helping other artists record their music too. What’s it been like writing for other artists like Lana Del Rey?
It’s been great. It’s been busy. I think that when I was touring, I would get back from tour for a week and a half and I’d be producing or remixing for people, and then I’d get back out on the road. At the same time I had a show on Radio 1 in the UK which I had to prepare, which I had for like 7 months. I was doing it on the bus… I was so busy for two years.
I got back to LA at the end of it and of course carried on producing – I did a lot to of the last Banks record and bits and pieces along the way, and my own record. It got a little bit too intense for a while and I think I had to cut back a little bit, just so I have room for my own artistic projects… So that I don’t get stuck like I did this time, which was a year and a half of frustration of not being able to write anything for myself, but writing loads of things for other people.
That must be such a hard transition actually because you’re probably so used to writing for yourself.
It’s an amazing thing to write for other people, because it’s using a muscle that you don’t really get to exercise when it comes to writing your own music. Sometimes you can really go a lot more RnB, or a lot more pop in terms of melodic or lyric choices. But at the same time, you would never use them in your own stuff.
This last year has been a slight shifting of that. There are songs on this record that I wrote for and with other people. As it came around, I realised – “Oh wow, that was totally my voice when I wrote this tune”. They ended up going back on the record with me singing them as SOHN, which I never thought I would do.
So I guess this has been an exploratory exercise, more than anything.
Definitely. The first track on the record is called ‘Hard Liquor’. If I had of put my pen down on a blank piece of paper and said, ‘write the next track by SOHN…what’s it called?’ – it wouldn’t be called ‘Hard Liquor’ and it wouldn’t have started with “my baby” in the lyrics, right? But I wrote it definitely 100% honestly from my point of view – just with someone else’s voice in mind.
I was working with this guy Sam Dew, who’s got this incredible bluesy, soulful voice. I came up with this idea of this song which was about this wild, hard drinking girl that’s been falling in love… So we wrote this song. I’ve always loved it, but as it worked out, we didn’t end up using it for Sam’s stuff and I was constantly was in touch with him saying, “I feel like I might actually maybe sing it myself” – which is, for me, a crazy thing to think, because this song was so far away from what it originally was. But I tried it and decided that it felt right.
I must admit, ‘Hard Liquor’ is actually one of my favourite tracks on the record.
It’s one of my favourites as well. I know it probably sounds ridiculous to people outside the artist themselves, but for me, I felt like I had to be so brave to put it on. I’m sure that for most people listening to records don’t even think about that – it’s just like, ‘oh this is a great tune’ and you move on, you know? But for me it was a huge thing to make that decision and say ‘No, this feels good… I’m going to put it on the record’. And it totally changed the landscape of the whole record – the whole thing became about making those sort of choices and saying, ‘Does it feel good? Alright cool, so it’s going in.”
I think sonically this album is definitely a lot darker – there’s just something in there. You can tell that you have undergone some kind of massive shift in the last couple of years and I think it’s really beautiful.
Thanks! The main thing was that I tried not to overwork the record. I tried to come at it from the point of view as a producer and say: ‘Alright, if I was the producer, what would I say to the singer?’
On Tremors, everything is kind of framed around the soundscape, whereas this record is heavily vocal-led. The most captivating thing is the very first thing you hear, which is vocals, you know? Then it became about making sure that there were only ever three or four elements in the track, which worked around the vocals but also had to be really strong on their own. Otherwise they wouldn’t go in. So it was a really good exercise for me to discover the strongest elements of each track and then get rid of everything else.
Last time I felt a bit like there was this little voice hiding in the background of my record. This time, I’m a bit like, ‘Right… I’m the singer, yeah?’ Got to own up to it now.
This feels like a soul record, there’s so much depth to your vocals. What do you think this album says about you as an artist?
Now that I think about it, I have no idea. I think that because I tried so hard to not squeeze a lot of myself down into the record, and concentrate it and pack it in, as a result I’ve been sort of loose about the record, and making the record and getting the record out and everything… I’m actually kind of hoping it doesn’t define me at all. It’s just my second record.
When I did Tremors, I felt like the whole thing had to sum me up in some way, and you sort of squeeze everything into it and think – “This is my only record that I’m ever going to make.“ This time I feel like – well, hopefully – I’ll be the kind of artist who makes 10 records. In which case, this is the second one. This is the vibe that I was feeling at the time, this was my output at the time.
It’s not so much a defining record, but it’s more of a memory or a snapshot of where you are.
There was an amazing time in my life where I was experiencing the crazy stuff that you want to be experiencing, and that all went into the record. Tremors was a very introspective record that was about being trapped in a relationships, and this record is like ten different songs that all have different narratives based on this time that I had.
It’s not in any way like a concept record that’s going through stages of what I’ve been through. It’s like you said, snapshots of what I was going through at the time.
It will be interesting for me to see what the next record will hold. I was living very fast and I was experiencing a lot and it was a very blurry time – I was probably drinking quite a lot. As a million sort of images in my head and a million sounds and a million smells, that all just came to me in the last two years that I’ve experienced. For me, that feeling has gone into the record.
Do you feel that making this album was an organic process for you? Or do you feel that this was an album that you needed to make?
It was bit of both. I forcefully created a very organic process. I put myself in the situation where I had to write, so that’s a very inorganic experience – you’re putting yourself there and saying “write some songs”. I put myself in the situation where maybe something organic would come out.
What you’re trying to do is create boundaries that your creativity can work within, because I think creativity works best when it does have boundaries. Otherwise people make huge, stupid symphonic albums that no one wants to hear.
Setting yourself a few rules is a really good way to find creativity in small places. A lot of my best stuff has come from when I’ve only had two instruments in the room and that’s all I can work with, or if I don’t have a lot of time and I have to do something quickly.
This is the first time I had a mix engineer who mixed the record without me being there. I actually went to the mix engineer – an amazing guy called Manny Marroquin – because I knew that he’s so good, and I became really good friends with him and knew that he was really into my stuff. I brought him what would have been on the last record, like demos, and I said to him: “Give me permission to stop working on this. Tell me that I’ve put enough detail in so that you can work with it and you can make a great record.”
That was a really interesting thing because of course he listened to it, and was like “This is more than enough! This is a huge amount of detail, we can mix the record like… now.” And for me, I would have been halfway through working on it, but the fact that I trusted someone else really helped the record.
It must have been relieving, in that respect.
It was so relieving. And the whole process of this record has been about trying to relieve myself of the burdens of the pressure of it.
I’m really proud of it, because I feel like I gave up a lot of control and what came out was really good. So from that point of view, I tried to make an instinctive record, which fit the instinctive nature of how I was living life at the time.
‘Rennen’ by SOHN is out now through 4AD / Remote Control Records.
Caitlin hosts Woman Crush Wednesday, every Wednesday at 7:30am on Up For It.Read more from Caitlin Medcalf