Interview: Sophie Hunger
The Swiss jazz-pop singer-songwriter reveals a talent for palatial flat-hunting, songwriting on the move and an alternative career in waitressing
wiss multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Sophie Hunger has been a busy woman. Having shifted over 250,000 albums and sold out venues across Europe, Sophie spent the three years since the release of her last studio album The Danger of Light – produced by Adam Samuels, with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Kinghoffer on guitar – completing yet another unforgiving tour. Then followed the release of a live double album The Rules of Fire, plus a book and fictional documentary to accompany the tour.
Sophie’s forthcoming album, Supermoon was borne out of a need to step off the rollercoaster ride for a moment, but still involved multiple locations from California to her current ‘home’ of Berlin, via several carefully chosen rented apartments. Songwriting caught up with Sophie in a moment of calm before the hectic album-tour-album-tour cycle kicked off once again…
Where are you right now?
“In Berlin. I’ve been here since September. I’m in an amazing, 150 square-metre penthouse flat. Berlin is like that, you can still find these incredible places right in the city that cost nothing.”
What instruments have you got in your flat there?
[cc_blockquote_right] MY FRIEND’S FATHER HAD DIED AND I WROTE A SONG ABOUT HER DAD [/cc_blockquote_right]
“I’ve got a Cherry guitar which is a Japanese copy of a Fender Stratocaster, and two Martin acoustic guitars. There’s a Rhodes Mk I, all kinds of outboard, a preamp…”
When did you first start making music?
“As a child I wanted to play an instrument and I played the piano. I think I started really early on to write songs for fun – well, I still write songs for fun! But I’m not sure if I knew that’s what I was doing. I just threw together a couple of chords, sang along and recorded it on my tape recorder. I was maybe six, seven or eight years old.”
Can you remember what those songs were about, or what inspired you to start writing?
“I remember one song. My friend’s father had died and I wrote a song about her dad – I was 10 years old or something like that. I can’t remember the lyrics, but I remember that I wanted to write something for her.”
Do emotional or meaningful moments like that still inspire your songwriting now?
“No, I think if you’re a singer-songwriter and it’s what you do in life, then you should be able to come up with a song no matter what happens, even if nothing happens. I often start with improvisation and sometimes I’ll have a sentence in my head and I’ll build something around that sentence.”
Do you write anywhere, regardless of where you find yourself in the world?
“Yeah, just my headphones and some sort of instrument. It can just be the computer and I can write with a bit of software, if I have to. But I also make myself do that, because I think writing songs shouldn’t depend on anything. It should all happen in your mind.”
Were your family musical?
“Yes, my mother, father, brother and sister all played music. My grandfather was a musician too. My parents always gave me the feeling that if I wanted to become a musician, it would be honourable and would be worth doing, and I think that important.”
If you hadn’t become a songwriter, what do you think you would’ve been?
“I have no idea. Before I was making money from music, I worked as a waitress for six years and that was also an honourable thing. It was a good life, so I guess I would’ve stayed as a waitress for the rest of my life.”
Who were your early musical heroes that you aspired to?
[cc_blockquote_right] GERMANY AND FRANCE – THEY’RE THE REASON WHY I’M ABLE TO LIVE FROM MUSIC [/cc_blockquote_right] “My dad listened to a lot of instrumental jazz – very standard stuff like Louis Armstrong – but also a lot of soul like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. That was the first kind of music I’d listen to, then I grew up and listened to my own music like rock and hip-hop.”
What was your ‘big break’ that took you from a waitress to a professional singer?
“Well, I was a singer in lots of bands and then when I was 23 or 24 years old I decided to start my own solo project, and that’s when everything started to work out in a professional way, if you like. I very quickly had invitations to play on radio and bigger shows. It was when MySpace popped up and I had requests coming through that, and Facebook. Very quickly after that I started touring throughout Europe and I never really stopped.
Are there countries where you’re better known, because of that constant touring?
“That would be Germany and France – they’re the reason why I’m able to live from music. I’d like to do more in England, but it’s hard. It’s ridiculous because it’s very close, but at the same time it’s hard to become part of the scene there, as an ‘outsider’. I’ve already toured the United States for a month, with [Tuareg band from Mali] Tinariwen, and that was great, but unless you have a worldwide hit, I think you probably just have to live there and tour your head off!
“Canada was always very kind to me too. I’ve been invited to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival almost every year, so I’ve always played there.”
Do you ever collaborate, or do you prefer to lock yourself away and write on your own?
“Not really, although sometimes musicians come up with ideas and that happens because it’s part of the natural process. The drummer in my band will send me beats, so sometimes he’ll have an influence. I like doing that.”
When do your lyrics arrive in the songwriting process? Does it vary?
“It’s different every time. Sometimes I have all the lyrics first and sometimes I’ll have just one sentence. For example, with Love Is Not The Answer, I had the title and I was thinking about the idea of ‘anti-romance’ and how people say, ‘love is the answer’, but I’m saying, ‘no, it’s not!’ So I tried to come up with all kinds of situations where love won’t make any difference and you won’t get any further whether you have love or not.
Did you find it more challenging to write – to have a lyrical theme to fit the words to?
“I think if you write the lyrics while you’re playing the guitar or the piano, it comes together – the form and content become one thing. That would be an ideal way of making a song.”
So do you prefer to use different instruments to write songs and do you find your music changes depending on the instrument?
“Yeah, yeah, it’s different because they have different sounds. With this record, I wrote all the time I was travelling. I rented AirB&B flats and always checked on the pictures whether they have instruments. I spent two weeks in a flat where there was nothing but a Steinway grand piano, so the things I wrote there were spaced-out tracks with big chord changes. Then I also stayed in a flat that had a collection of old Gretsch guitars, so during that time I only wrote fast, edgy, rhythmical guitar tracks. So I just deal with what I have.
[cc_blockquote_right] I DON’T TRY TO MAKE IT SEEM LIKE SOMETHING MAGICAL.
IT’S OUR JOB TO BE CREATIVE [/cc_blockquote_right] “Sometimes I’ll be on the bus or the train, or on the plane and I’ll only have Logic or Garage Band on my laptop and use a small, one-octave keyboard, which also influences what I can write. I can’t go crazy on a keyboard that only has eight notes!”
Is this an approach you’d look to do again with your next album?
“Yes I think so. I think I should because it was really cool and it always felt like it was easy. I went away for three months and came back with a record. And I’ve become like a specialist in finding cool flats.”
What do you do when you’re not feeling inspired?
“I have this idea that I don’t ever want to hear myself say to someone, ‘I’m not inspired’. Because I imagine a construction worker who turns around to their wife or husband and says, ‘I’m not going to work today, because I’m just not feeling inspired.’ Those people can’t afford to have that thought, so I shut up and try to do my job. It’s my job to come up with stuff and, if I’m not capable of that, then I’m just not good enough. So I just work and don’t try to make it seem like something magical. It’s our job to be creative.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
Supermoon the album is coming out in May, but get a taste of Sophie Hunter’s forthcoming release by watching her video to the title track below, which was shot in Mexico. To find out more about Sophie, you can visit her official website: www.sophiehunger.com