Electro-soul is booming. Today it’s a dominant trend in pop, with even Britney Spears emulating The Weeknd’s trippy R&B on Glory. But Brit singer, instrumentalist and producer Christopher “SOHN” Taylor has always existed both within and without of an expansive culture. Taylor released music as Trouble Over Tokyo before recasting himself as SOHN – moving from London to the implausible hotspot of Austria.
The buzz surrounding 2012’s EP The Wheel led to his signing to cred label 4AD. Meanwhile, Taylor was offered production gigs. He remixed Lana Del Rey, Rhye and Disclosure. Notably, Taylor worked with Californian songstress BANKS (aka Jillian Banks) on her early Waiting Game. In 2014 Taylor presented Tremors – SOHN’s full-length debut. Initially, he was compared to James Blake – the pair sharing a love of electronics, melancholia and drama.
Since Tremors, Taylor’s life has changed. He transplanted again – this time to Los Angeles. His song ‘Carry Me Home’ was used for the Insurgent Original Sound Track. And Taylor was heavily involved in BANKS’ recent release The Altar – guiding her foray into dance music on ‘Gemini Feed’.
Now Taylor is finally back with his second album, Rennen (German for “to run”). It’s coming out on the same day as The xx’s I See You. “Those bastards…,” Taylor jokes.
Watch: SOHN – Signal
Rennen is less sorrowful than philosophical – Taylor has learnt to unwind. Aside from the lead single, ‘Signal’, Rennen sounds closer to vintage Jamie Lidell than Blake, with Taylor’s sonorous singing over spare, glitchy IDM. ‘Signal’ has a legit ‘Hollywood’ video – directed by, and starring, SOHN super-fan Milla Jovovich (who, though known for her role in the Resident Evil franchise, once cut a Ukrainian alt-folk album). ‘Hard Liquor’ is abstract blues. Yet Taylor’s favourite number is ‘Dead Wrong’ – created on one synth. “It’s so simple,” he says. “It kind of informed the whole feeling of how I should make the record – which is just like, If it feels dead wrong, then it probably is. Therefore, if it feels right, then probably it is as well.”
Taylor has twice toured Australia – the last with 2015’s Laneway. He hopes to bring his new expanded live show, bound for Coachella, here. “I’d love to do Laneway again.”
Music Feeds: Artists always talk about the ‘difficult’ second album. Did you have that anxiety with Rennen?
SOHN: I think underneath I did. But I made the whole record an exercise about relieving that anxiety. A lot of the things that I did, and a lot of the result of what came out on the record, was because I was forcibly making myself not be anxious about it. So I tried to make this record a sort of exercise of letting go of that and an exercise in not overworking it and not letting myself get too attached to it. As a result, I feel so relaxed about this record. I’ve never had this feeling before of putting something out and being like, “Yeah, you know, whatever – it’s my second record (laughs).”
Music Feeds: You went through a lot of life changes leading up to this record – moving to LA. How did those things impact on your songwriting process?
SOHN: It’s been two-and-a-half years since Tremors came out. And, two of those years, I was just totally touring the whole time. Very quickly you learn to let go of any kind of control that you could possibly have – because you don’t have any control. When you’re doing 110 shows in a year, you go from one place to the next and you deal with whatever you get when you get there. So that in itself was a huge exercise in learning to be calmer and more laid back in general. Then, during this two years of travelling around, basically a relationship broke up, a relationship began… I moved continents somewhere in the middle of that. Now I’m married and have a kid. All of that happened in two years – from the first meeting. So, yeah, a lot has happened in my life in two years. As a result, I think maybe I’m not too pent up.
Tremors was a record where I was about as pent up as I could be. I was releasing a debut record, which is so important and you’re trying so hard to make people like it – even if you don’t wanna work that way, you can’t help feeling it. It’s like, “This record defines me!” This time I’m a bit like, I’ve got so much going on that I just made a record in the middle of it – and that’s what happened. Now the record is coming out. It’s the second record of probably, hopefully, 10. If I can have that sort of career.
Music Feeds: I always think of you in relation to BANKS. I’ve interviewed her and she’s very inscrutable. I imagine she’s quite different with a producer than a journalist!
SOHN: She is, yeah. She’s very much more from the school of ‘cutting your veins’ and putting it into the music. She likes to be really direct like that with her writing. We ended up being really good friends and really working together well. It didn’t necessarily come 100 per cent naturally from the first second. Through getting to know each other and each other’s kinda tics and patterns or whatever, we ended up being a really, really good working partnership.
Music Feeds: Are you interested in doing more collaborations? I wondered if that’s something you’re actively seeking or if you just let people come to you?
SOHN: Yeah, I guess – [it’s] a bit of both. I’d been actively seeking it – in terms of people knew that I was up for doing it with the right artists. Now it’s a bit different. The last BANKS record took six months out of my year, and my record took the rest of the six months of the year. So, in total, that was like the only two things I could work on, basically. I’m now getting offers for a lot of other things but, for the first time, I’m feeling like I might wanna actually just cut back a little bit and give a bit more breathing space to my own artistic project – mainly because the reason that I was asked in the first place to work with all these people is because what I was doing for myself was interesting to them. I got asked to do the remixes and stuff – the Lana Del Rey stuff and the Rhye stuff – because they liked what I did. I got asked to do the BANKS stuff because they liked what I did. I’m starting to realise I’ve got to put maybe 75 per cent of my effort into that side, because that’s what drives everything. Ultimately, I’m not gonna be happy just as a producer. I’m always going to have to make my next record. It’s where my real instinct comes from.
Watch: SOHN – Hard Liquor
Music Feeds: It was really cool that you got Milla Jovovich to be so hands-on with the Signal video – she’s not just making a cameo, she’s directing it. How did you make that happen?
SOHN: Basically, Milla had said that she really liked my stuff on Twitter or something – and three times in a row [she] had put something that I’d done up on Twitter. So I just literally sent her a message saying, “Thanks very much for showing your fans my stuff.” She got back in touch with me and was like, “Oh my God, is this SOHN? Really?” And I was like, “You’re Milla Jovovich – what are you on about? (laughs).” We just got talking. Then I ended up saying, “Well, if you like that song, then I can show you this unreleased one.” So I showed her ‘Signal’. She’s incredibly creative, and kind of wildly creative, which is so refreshing – to just have someone be like, “This is what I’d like to do!” She started talking about what she’d like to do. Then we sort of refined the idea. Then, before we knew it, this was a video that not only did she star in, but she [also] organised all of it. At one point she was asking me if I wanted her to book a taxi for me from the airport. I was like, “Dude, you need to remember that you’re Milla Jovovich here. Just do your side. I can get my own taxi – it’s fine!” But she’s incredible. She got the whole team together, she booked the studio – she did everything. Had we approached it in the official way and gone through the record label and approached her and blah, blah, blah, it probably would have been a US$200, 000 music video. As a result, it didn’t cost anything because Milla just did it ’cause she wanted to.
Music Feeds: Music is so hybridised now. Pop has never been so avant-garde – I guess in the ’80s you had the (ambient-soul) band Japan. But it’s now crossing over even in the States with a Frank Ocean. How do you feel about this giant shift – and where do you fit in?
SOHN: I was so excited about music about a year-and-a-half to two years ago. I thought we were on the edge of something really special. Then, about eight months ago, I realised that I’d hated almost all music which had come out for the whole year. I felt like it had actually got really stale. Because what’s happening is maybe all of the interesting things that were coming from a more underground perspective have reached actual #1 status. The Weeknd, for example, the aesthetic of it was one of the first of its kind. Then, all of a sudden, it’s the #1 record. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, that’s great – I’d much rather The Weeknd than whatever else was going on before. But I would also compare it to the ’80s, in a way. I felt a bit like we had this really great surge of new genres and new mish-mashes of different genres. Then, all of a sudden, it became, “Oh, what you do is you do this: you do this certain trap hat, this certain snare, and you just sing something sad over the top of it – and that’s the formula.” So, for me, the whole alternative R&B thing which happened maybe a year-and-half to two years ago became really stale. It’s like the same with New Wave in the ’80s – you had amazing bands that started the genre and then you just had a shit tonne of bands who took the same sounds, but without the content.
Music Feeds: I don’t know what the next wave will be. I guess we’ll find out when it hits. The big crossover sound this last year was the trop house thing. But even that’s a couple of years old now.
SOHN: A lot of things probably in the last 10 years have taken their lead from what someone like a Kanye [West] is doing – you know, because Kanye has managed to somehow be at the top of his industry but, at the same time, be pretty brave from album to album. As a result, you’ve got kids in rock bands who love Yeezus and so that stuff will find the way into what they’re doing. You know what I’ve noticed in the last six, seven weeks, when you listen to the radio? Everybody is copying Kendrick Lamar’s flow. Everybody. Even like white female singers on pop records are starting to copy Kendrick’s [demonstrates]. Everyone’s just starting to imitate it! For every imitation, there’s also just a really cool person coming out – look at someone like Chance The Rapper, last year, just comes out, puts out an amazing record and is just like, yep. No record label, just does it.
Music Feeds: It’s really funny what you say about the Kendrick thing.
SOHN: I’m like, “Is Kendrick featuring on everything?” And then I’m realising, No, he’s not – people are just copying him now.
‘Rennen’ is out today. Pre-order a copy here.
Listen: SOHN – Conrad