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INTERVIEW: Sweet Gum Tree

Hi Arno, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Fine, thank you for your interest.

Can you talk to us more about your single “Twinkle”?

When we first recorded this song, I doubted it was going to make the album tracklist, perhaps too poppy and cheerful for the project. But then it grew on me and whenever I heard it, I thought I had overlooked its qualities. It’s a catchy tune with an unconventional structure, a light-hearted track which offers a nice contrast to the darker material on the album.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

Not any in particular, but I refer to my lover, our son, the paths I’ve taken so far. I think of this song as a playful mid-life review, a humble reflection on the gears of life.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

There’s a couple of upcoming videos for “Someday” and “Guilt Trip”, but none for “Twinkle”.

The single comes off your new album Sustain The Illusion – what’s the story behind the title?

It nods to Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, based upon the writings of Stefan Zweig about the rise of fascism in the 1930’s, which is worth remembering today so as not to let history repeat itself. From my perception of the movie, the director refers to what’s left of humanity, or the illusion of it, and our duty to sustain it regardless circumstances.

How was the recording and writing process?

The songwriting felt fresh, spontaneous, and relatively unambitious. Most of the recording was done in a couple of days at Studio Black Box in France’s Loire Valley, with young and talented musicians Romy (keyboards) and Elise Douylliez (violin) kindly joining me for live sessions. The overdubs and the mixing were sparser, and a year went by before we managed to gather and finish the damn record.

What was it like to work with David Odlum and how did that relationship develop?

David and I bonded over recording and mixing sessions for the previous album, which he really tied together thanks to his musical background, open mind and clear vision. We live just a few miles from each other and got to spend more time together over the years, in our private spheres. So we approached this new project as friends, with mutual respect and appreciation, and it was a first for me to be working with a producer who knew me well already, with my strengths and my weaknesses, my beliefs and my doubts. As for me, I’m a huge fan of his work with Gemma Hayes, and their latest collaboration, “Bones+Longing”, kind of initially set the tone for the new Sweet Gum Tree LP. David and I both agreed that this mix of acoustic, electric and electronic sounded like the right place to go next.

How much did he influence this record?

To his credit, he came to me and convinced me not to give up, so there might not have been another Sweet Gum Tree album without him. After fixing the broken parts, he helped me pick the right songs for the album among my latest home demos, and he was prompt to support material that I hesitated in including. Then he insisted that I perform as many parts as possible, even play instruments that I don’t necessarily master, such as drums. He wished we wouldn’t lose what made those demos special. I tended to find them awkward, but he found them interesting. Overall his job consisted in making me feel comfortable with myself and pushing me further. He has a good notion of when a recording is complete, or if something’s missing in terms of arrangement or production. But most of all, he understood my needs and acted like a revelator of ideas. He also contributed extra keys and bass. It’s a real asset when you work with a producer who is also an accomplished musician in his own right.

You have worked with some great artists from bands such as Belle and Sebastian and The Church – what have you learned from those experiences that affect your career now?

I’ve learnt more about the trials of the modern day artist. It’s been humbling. Above all I’ve witnessed greatness. I’ll never forget the goosebumps I got from listening to Heather Nova singing next to me, or Marty Willson-Piper of The Church unveiling his guitar tricks for me during late studio hours, or drummer Earl Harvin of Tindersticks jamming with me when the tape wasn’t rolling.

Do you tend to take a different approach when you are working with someone else than when you are writing your own material?

I certainly should, and I’ve tried, but I’m afraid I never really could. For instance, when I worked with American DJ Dax Wadley, I probably made matters worse for him with lyrics that sounded too clever for the dancefloor.

I can hear an alternative rock sound, some of The Cure and The Church in particular, on the album – did either of these influence the writing of this album?

It had been a long while since I had let any of my teenage influences transpire, but nothing was planned, it just happened. Perhaps I had never really paid my tribute to eighties new-wave / guitar pop before, as though it was a forbidden fruit. Also, there was always someone reluctant to follow me there when I was surrounded by musicians. Now that I was demoing the new material on my own, and for myself, I felt totally free. The Church is my favourite band of all times, and I take it as a great compliment if anything on my new LP sounds vaguely reminiscent of their body of work, which is carved in me anyway.

What role (aside from the title) did Wes Anderson play on this record?

Well, none really, so let’s not embarrass him by giving him too much credit… Seriously though, when I started writing the lyrics to “The Gift”, the characters I had in mind were Monsieur Gustave and Zero, from “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, who soon develop a kind of father-son substitute relationship, but I soon realized I was actually writing about myself and my own son. It became this deeply personal song with a universal message. Besides those considerations, Wes Anderson is an artist that I admire, and probably my favourite movie director. I cherish his system of values and relate to his eternal dandy character. When he speaks about his work and what drives him, it echoes something in me.

What aspect of ‘illusion’ did you get to explore on this material? Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Inspiration itself remains this magical, barely conscious process. The main ideas seem to be here before you even realize. And then, there was a lot that I needed to get off my chest. A bit like “Redhead” on the previous record, much of the new material seemed to spring out of necessity. Mostly, it’s about the individual struggling to thrive within the collective. Guilt, envy and fear are recurring themes, balanced with a few love songs, hopefully summoning hope in troubled times. The last two songs are written for my son. Becoming a father certainly gave me further confidence to write about a world gone wrong and ways to cope with it.

Any plans to hit the road?

A little bit of touring in the Spring (UK, Belgium, France) and hopefully more dates in the Summer and the Fall.

What else is happening next in Sweet Gum Tree’s world?

I’ve kept writing new songs since completing “Sustain The Illusion”, so I might go back to a recording studio before the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’m also planning to put out an album of previously unreleased material spanning a decade.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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