It’s been a year since Sohn’s debut single “The Wheel” amassed a hundred thousand soundcloud plays within a month of appearing online. Not bad going for the unknown, Vienna-based artist on London’s then-brand-new Aesop Label. Listening to the small cluster of his tracks available it isn’t difficult to understand the appeal. They present a producer with a flair for constructing intricate synth arrangements which ebb and flow as gently as a sleeping infant breathes, the tension growing until the songs seem to be hijacking your own breath. The whole effect is made all the more addictive by Sohn’s otherwordly vocals. He was swiftly signed to 4AD. “It’s just perfect,” he says, still mildly bewildered. “To have gotten on to Beggars, and so soon after starting. It’s all been kind of crazy”.
We're speaking at Amsterdam's Pitch festival this summer, and he's cheerful, chatty and calm – quite the opposite of the nihilistic, melancholy dreamer you might think. The reality of signing his record deal has only just begun to sink in. “All the blog stuff didn’t really register, so it was a bit of a shock yesterday at (Danish festival) Roskilde where it was as full as it can be, with all of these people obviously there to see it rather than just going by. That was a bit of a moment.” Watching Sohn live for the first time in Amsterdam that day, flanked by two Viennese musicians – Albin Janoska on synth and Stefan Fallmann on bass – the impact is exhilarating. Early shows for many electronic pop acts can be an awkward transition to the stage, but Sohn manipulates his synths as if a minature electronic orchestra with generous, dynamic results.
The tale of Sohn (pronounced sonn after the German word for ‘son’) begins a few years ago with an escape from London. “I was hating it, and the music that I was playing at the time was getting me modest shows in Vienna, and I wasn’t getting that over in England,” he says, wriggling out of his his black hoody in the Amsterdam sunshine. His adopted home, steeped in culture, also had astounding scenery at its periphery. “There are really inspiring landscapes. On the motorway there is just one mountain that stands out on its own, and every time you go past that you’re like, “Why is that even there?”
The Sohn project was borne of a song written that immediately opened a new path, leading far away from musical avenues previously pursued, which he affably refuses to discuss. He persisted with this new incarnation, quickly discovering that Sohn was to be defined by elimination. “After writing I look really coldly at the tracks, and then it becomes about cutting out the maximum amount of stuff that I can,” he explains. This editing process has also affected him on a personal level. “I always really wanted to be the strong, silent type and I think a bit of a transformation happened when I started to write the Sohn stuff, as it started to feel like maybe that was who I always wanted to be, but never quite could be” he says. “I get to experiment and play with how I am, and that’s really cool. Every time I go to make a stupid joke or whatever something comes into my head, that says ‘that’s not what you would do’.”
It’s hard to resist comparing this situation to a macabre fairy tale, but he won’t be lured by child-like narratives. “The character of me and of Sohn is not the main point really of it," he rebuffs, "it’s about the space and the music.” He strives to keep at a remove as much as possible. “That’s the healthy way that I think about it, that I’m not that important to it. I’m just the way that that gets made.” On stage, Sohn is meticulous about remaining hidden in plain sight. Beyond facing away from the crowd, and keeping his black hoody down, he limits speech to the bare minimum, “my instinct would be to talk a lot more to the audience, but that would be totally wrong for the music so I stop myself.”
Even with such diligent preparation there is still the daunting prospect of a debut record to finish for release early next year. Understandably Sohn is feeling the mounting tension created by his success so far, but he’s found methods of stopping it becoming overwhelming, such as producing for other rising artists such as Banks (he is behind the excellent "Waiting Game"). His lyrics all seem tantalisingly bleak, forlorn little worlds unfurling in every track, but he insists "The Wheel" is affirmative. ‘“It’s a sigh of relief at realising that everything is futile. It is such a relaxing thing to understand. You can’t do anything wrong as there is no point to anything. That’s what the mountain imagery on the artwork is about for me. It’s about reminding myself how insignificantly small I am, and therefore I can’t do anything that makes a huge difference either way, so it’s a way of managing my delusions of grandeur.” He already seems so diligent at monitoring what he creates, as well what he says and does, that there can’t be too much left to worry about, surely? “I am now," he states, “because I can feel like I am the best person in the world, and I can feel like I totally shouldn’t even be here, and I’d rather not feel that so much anymore actually, so I’m trying to figure it out is the thing... I’m in the right business for it.” This one lone mountain whose summit is coming into sharper focus by the day. How far does he want to climb? “I just know further," he smiles. "That’s always been the sort of feeling, and it’s always going to be that way, until it’s just like, “Can we go back a little bit now?”, “Oh we can’t”.”