Sweet Gum Tree, the musical project of Arno Sojo, is back with the follow-up to 2013’s ‘The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame’. But unlike the debut album which featured a guest list including Belle & Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, new LP ‘Sustain The Illusion’ is a far more intimate affair, with Sojo recording most of it alone.
Ahead of its release, the French multi-instrumentalist tells us about making room for spontaneity and playfulness, the balance between the sensual and the cerebral, the influence of The Church, Talk Talk, and Wes Anderson, strange beautiful escapism, and why the sitar isn’t his favourite instrument.
Although you played most of the instruments on your first album, you had several guests. This time it’s all you. Were these songs too personal to share?
It was David Odlum, my friend and producer, who challenged me to play every instrument on the album this time, for a change. I was used to doing that on my home demos, but for the follow-up to an orchestral record which credited more than 20 musicians, it seemed like a brave move. To make the initial sessions more fun and relaxed, we invited two talented friends, Romy (keyboards) and Elise Douylliez (violin), to record most of the basic tracks live in the studio with me. But it’s a much more personal record, from the writing process to the recording itself.
Did working largely alone give you more freedom? Or did it create a situation where you had to work within specific parameters?
I’ve actually come to believe in creativity being unleashed within tight budget restrictions or technical limitations. As opposed to the previous project which sounded ambitious and had enough resources to make many of my dreams come true, while keeping me relatively safe, this time the process felt rather challenging. And yet something no less compelling, hardly perfect but more edgy, seemed to materialise. At least we were able to make room for spontaneity and playfulness, which were probably missing from the first album.
What made you pick David as producer?
Between the two albums, David and I became close friends, so I felt very confident working with him. To his credit, you could say he picked me first – even that he picked me up at a time when I believed there was no point in making another Sweet Gum Tree record. So he must have been pretty persuasive, and I must have trusted him a great deal. In the end the record we’ve got is pretty much the one we had in mind when we set to work: a mix of acoustic, electric, and electronic in the style of what he’d recently achieved with longtime partner Gemma Hayes. An album which sounds more contemporary than the vintage obsessions of ‘The Snakes You Charm & The Wolves You Tame’.
You worked with Isobel Campbell, Earl Harvin, and Marty Willson-Piper on your previous album. Is there anything in particular you learned or picked up from working with them that you used this time around?
Although they were relatively underemployed in their assigned roles, I have been spoiled by my prestigious collaborators, not to mention all of the other lesser known but no less brilliant musicians I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Perhaps the main lesson was that there comes a time when you need to do things by yourself, step out of your comfort zone, use that extra space to develop your own ideas, and push things further – indeed, making good use of everything you’ve learnt from witnessing greatness at work.
What one song or lyric on ‘Sustain The Illusion’ best sums up what the album’s about?
Probably ‘The Gift’, because it quotes the album title and encapsulates the whole point of the record: “If we cannot make this world humane, at least we can sustain the illusion with grace”. It nods to Wes Anderson’s movie ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, which definitely stirred me. But if this song is so luminous, it’s because it was inspired by my recent experience of fatherhood. It felt so personal at first that I wasn’t sure I wanted to release it. David was aware of its wider appeal, and told me that the song had similar qualities to Bowie’s ‘Kooks’ (on the same subject), a huge compliment which made me change my mind.
What do you hope listeners get from the album?
In my quest for a balance between the sensual and the cerebral, I’d like listeners to experience beauty with meaning, to free their hearts but not switch off their brains. Aesthetics matter to me, but if they’re not a vehicle for ideas, then I barely see the point. Also, it would be wrong to assume that serious lyrics or melancholic music can’t be entertaining. Or that smart, elegant, understated songs can’t be subversive too.
Having said that, half the people who get to hear my records are French and don’t necessarily understand the lyrics, which doesn’t really matter: music is a universal language anyone can enjoy. One of its many wonders is to stir our imaginations. It’s purely magical how music can take you on a trip with its evocative power. It suggests things, it provides the soundtrack to your own mental movie. That’s how it all started for me as a baby, and it’s still pretty much how it operates today.
Your first album had a very vivid cover; this one’s more muted. What was the thinking behind the different look?
Because the previous LP was in seductive mode, its glamorous, colourful and glossy artwork made sense. The lyrics to ‘Breathtaker’ were even slightly erotic. This time, it was a whole different story and I thought this intriguing black and white picture (from an otherwise casual photo shoot with Christophe Crenel in Paris) captured my inner struggles and the recurring themes on the record.
The album’s been compared with classic albums from the 4AD label, and bands like Talk Talk, Prefab Sprout, or Divine Comedy. Was this a conscious decision?
No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. But left to my own devices, those teenage influences were bound to resurface at some point, and they probably did. Anyway, I still enjoy playing those records today, notably Talk Talk’s ‘Colour Of Spring’ and ‘Spirit Of Eden’ or Prefab Sprout’s ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘Jordan: The Comeback’.
Growing up, what one band or album changed the way you think about music?
As a teenager, Australian band The Church opened new horizons for me, at a time when I was mostly listening to mainstream bands. Their Arista years notably, from ‘Starfish’ to ‘Sometime Anywhere’, set a milestone. The Church had a higher standard for lyrics, to begin with, and it was stimulating to try and decipher their idiosyncratic rock poetry. The subtleties in their moody compositions, the fantastic interplay between both guitars and the bass, those intertwining lines weaving their way through the songs, the singer’s minimalist baritone and melancholic melodies, those shimmering 12-string arpeggios, exquisite textures and entrancing atmospherics… There was such depth to their albums, and a great amount of romantic exaltation too. A part of myself was revealed to me through their music. Suddenly I knew who I was and where I belonged. Getting to play with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper himself a few years ago was beyond belief.
You play a lot of instruments – from guitar and piano to drums and glockenspiel. How did you get to this point?
I must have gotten there out of curiosity. I got my first guitar at three and taught myself how to play until my late teens, when I completed my knowledge in a musical institute. By then, I used to practice on the electric for 12 to 14 hours a day. As a teenager I also had piano lessons for a few years and learnt how to read and write music. I used to sing all the time too and had fun with synthesizers and effects. Much later the need to capture rhythm ideas and commit them to tape pushed me to dabble in bass and drums. My brother even offered me an indian sitar, which I love except for the damn tuning. If time allowed I’d like to learn how to play a bit of flugelhorn and viola too, but I haven’t tried yet.
For people who’ve never seen you live, what can they expect from your upcoming show in London?
Strange beautiful escapism.
- ‘Sustain The Illusion’ is released on 31 March. Sweet Gum Tree will be performing live in London at The Good Ship on 5 April.