ML Buch and Astrid Sonne Take It to the Edge of “Too Much”

The Danish artists talk their songwriting processes, English lyrical cliches, and more.

Astrid Sonne is a Danish-born, London-based composer and viola player; ML Buch is Danish composer and producer. After having come up together in Copenhagen, the two friends each recently released universally acclaimed records — Great Doubt and Suntub, respectively. To celebrate, the two got on the phone to catch up before their UK tour last month.  
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Astrid Sonne: It’s good to see you. Where are you now? 

ML Buch: I am in my apartment in Copenhagen. I’ve just been to the hardware store to buy some screws and a hand jigsaw — I’m gonna build something for my home.

Astrid: OK, nice! You’re good at building stuff.

ML: And I was just walking my dog, and I’m ready to talk music. How’s it going on tour? 

Astrid: It’s going great. We had a little bit of airport drama yesterday, because we couldn’t bring our instruments on the flight.

ML: What!

Astrid: We had to buy another ticket, and it was just incredibly stressful. I feel like my adrenaline is still like—

ML: It’s not like you have two drum kits. It’s not that much that you bring. 

Astrid: No, the thing is, we were flying with a low cost company yesterday, and I hadn’t had that much experience with them. But I have a blacklist of companies that I can’t fly with when I’m bringing my instruments, because we want to have the viola and the violin in the cabin. Sometimes you’re lucky, but yesterday we just got an asshole and he wouldn’t let us in. It was the worst. We spent almost nine hours in the Barcelona airport and then went straight to the venue, did line check, and played. I’m in Lisbon now, and it is so nice to be here. It’s really nice to get a bit of a break from the gloomy winter in the north. 

ML: Are you having an off day today or playing tonight?

Astrid: No, no, off today. And then back to London, actually. Then it’s the UK shows. 

ML: Well, that’s nice. 

Astrid: I can’t wait for our tour!

ML: Yeah! it’s gonna be really nice. 

Astrid: How’s it going with preparations? 

ML: Well, I’m just trying to look at the transitions between the different pieces, and the combination of songs and instrumental parts. I’m trying to feel free with the material and combine maybe a part from one piece with another part from another piece. I’m just constantly trying to find out how I can translate the music I make to a performance on a stage. 

Astrid: It’s always a tricky one. 

ML: Yeah. I have a hard time going on stage, and feeling like I have to give people what they expect. I feel claustrophobic, in a sense. So I really have to find a way to feel free.

Astrid: Is it always in the back of your mind, the idea of other people’s expectations?

ML: No, it’s just that I’ve had some experiences where I’ve said, “I’m going to play a new song, I hope you are OK with me playing new material.” And then one time this guy just yelled at me, “Yeah, but we just want to hear the old stuff!” [Laughs.] And I completely understand that need, but…

Astrid: That’s our curse from now on, when you’ve done multiple records. I can imagine it’s only going to be worse. It’s really been on my mind lately how, every time I talk to my friends about iconic artists with a huge discography, it’s really seldom that people are like, “Yeah, I’m so into that newer stuff. I didn’t like what they were doing in the beginning.” [Laughs.] It’s always like, “Yeah, I just love their first three albums.”

ML: It’s just so crazy to be reduced to your early music. I think that’s why it’s important for me to feel free, because I need to break new paths. But at the same time, just play the songs like they are on the record. It’s not like I don’t want to satisfy people, but I think it’s inspiring with other artists when I can feel that they’re feeling like the material feels fresh, but it’s old, you know? 

Astrid: Yeah, totally. I think you need to trust that you can do it. You can present everything in the way that you want to, and allowing yourself to have a lot of space in terms of different possibilities is the best thing for you to do. That’s like the foundation of your artistic practice — that you are an artist that doesn’t want to be categorized as being only a songwriter or only a composer or whatever. You need to trust that you can create that space for yourself, by being quite versatile in the way you’re presenting your music.

ML: Have you allowed yourself to be versatile?

Astrid: I’ve just never felt really comfortable by being put in a box, in terms of what I was doing. I guess there’s this narrative of [me] coming from classical music and then doing electronic music, so that was already kind of the starting point of having different schools influence the way that I did music. And I think for me, every time I’ve felt like I was being too much a part of a specific scene, I was like, “Oh, goodbye!”

ML: Yeah, yeah.

Astrid: The more I just do the things that I find the most interesting, that’s the most exciting part as well. If you’re easily boxed, it’s easier for people to understand your project, and then maybe you can gain a bigger audience, blah, blah, blah, but I think in the long run for me, it’s so important to be able to do different things and move and be part of different musical scenes. How do you feel about that question? Do you feel like you can move freely around into different musical scenes or styles?

ML: Um… yes. Well, in my 20s, I think I moved away from the boxes that I could feel people were trying to put me in. But I think I had to be quite stubborn and I really had to just pave my own way. I feel that now I’m completely free to do whatever I want — or, at least, I am going to, because I know that it’s the most important thing. It’s my whole existence, so I can’t compromise too much.

Astrid: No, no. And that’s how it should be. That’s so important, because otherwise it’s just going to burn you out. 

ML: I lived in the countryside for three years, and I had a need to be distanced from the community that you and I are a part of in Copenhagen, and just the city and everything — I’m curious what it’s meant for your life, and for your music, to move to London. 

Astrid: It has had a huge impact in every corner of my life, both on a creative, artistic level as well as on a personal level. I think sometimes a change of scenery or a disruption in your life can create a lot of energy. It is difficult to deal with, but… it’s hard to say that I “needed it,” but I think there was something in me that wanted something else to happen, and I wasn’t really realizing until I was actually away that I needed to shake everything up. I’ve definitely felt like it was a bit like — not necessarily dropping a bomb, but it was something like, I just moved to this place, and it’s so fucking overwhelming, and now something new is going to come from that. And, of course, I don’t think you’re meant to do that all the time. Because last year was not easy. [Laughs.] And just so weird. When you’re really pushing yourself — I was ill, like, two times every month last year. I was ill all the time. It was just like my body saying, “Stop yourself!”

ML: Overload.

Astrid: Or maybe it’s just all the pollution in London. How did it feel for you going to the countryside? How did that affect your music?

ML: Well, I feel like it happened sort of the same. I realized that I had wanted the disruption when lived there. It meant a better connection [to myself], or just a sense of my own instincts, trying to figure out what I really want in life. Just in every aspect — who am I making this music for? What kind of music do I want to make? And then just: how can I have fun? I think the album that I made during those years, Suntub, deals with themes like isolation and connection and intensity and the need for peace and calm. It’s meant a greater gratefulness, being in nature a lot. I can’t really describe it any other way. I felt closer to the sun. I felt closer to light. You could see the horizon a lot more. You’ve grown up in the countryside. 

Astrid: Yeah, it affects you.

ML: Yeah, it really does. I went out in the night time to look at the moon and the Milky Way, and I felt my body just… You know when it’s completely dark and you’re all alone, and it’s just you and the animals crawling around? Your body reacts in a different way when it’s awake like that. I did that a lot. I recorded a lot of vocals in my car, and I recorded the wind for three years. You know, very banal things, but they made sense in the end. Finishing the album, it’s really nice to be surprised by all kinds of connections I find afterwards.

Astrid: It, like, crystallizes, because it becomes another piece in itself when you’re releasing it and giving it to someone else. Obviously it’s still your music, but hearing other people’s perceptions of it and seeing how they [connect] the dots and that sort of thing. 

ML: Yeah, that’s so amazing. 

Astrid: It’s incredible. There’s so many things that I haven’t thought about, and then I talk to a person about it, I’m like, “What? How did you get to that?” And it really makes sense, but I hadn’t thought about it. 

ML: OK, I just have to say I love the new album.

Astrid: [Laughs.] Oh, likewise!

ML: It’s such a compelling, interesting, mesmerizing sound selection. How has it been releasing it? How has it been releasing songs? Because, I mean, this is the first time, right? It’s been more like choral pieces earlier. 

Astrid: Yeah. But we’ve worked together before — you play on my previous album, outside of your lifetime — and you also know how fixated I’ve been on separating things in terms of being like, “This is electronic music, this is a cappella vocal music, this is guitar alone,” and really finding it difficult to combine things for some reason. I don’t know if it’s that sort of minimalistic thought—

ML: Which is so nice. 

Astrid: Yeah, it’s nice. Sometimes limitations really give you a lot of creative freedom. 

ML: That’s also what I love about the new album, that the elements are just completely naked. It’s really minimalistic in that sense. But I’m really curious to hear how it’s been combining that with hook lines. 

Astrid: I’ve been thinking about this, and I think you reminded me not too long ago, but you were the one suggesting [I should] starting writing songs. [Laughs.] 

ML: Oh, many years ago. 

Astrid: Many, many years ago, like 2018. I was like, “Fuck no. Definitely not.”

ML: Yeah, and I was like, “Well… why?” But I totally understand. I guess for me, coming more from a songwriting background, I feel completely liberated when I make instrumental music.

Astrid: To answer your question, releasing it’s felt really daunting. I’ve had so many second thoughts and doubts throughout the whole process. When I’ve spoken to people that have known my practice from when I started ‘til now, it’s like… Yeah, I have been pushing myself because it’s been something I’ve been interested in exploring, working with lyrics or my voice in a more singer-songwriter way. But I think at first I was more cosplaying singer-songwriter. That was like the first step. Like, OK, now I’m just playing, and then I’m doing this, and you could kind of tell. It was like I was trying a bit too hard to fit into that box. But I think I needed to go to that place to figure out, OK, how can I actually combine what I’ve been doing so far with what I’m trying to express? It’s been really interesting, and the whole process and releasing it’s been so incredible. It’s been so overwhelming and I haven’t really been able to… 

ML: Digest.

Astrid: I’m sure you know how it feels. It’s so overwhelming. And, yeah, as you’re saying, it is definitely the most accessible album I’ve made so far, and reaching more people is… I don’t know, it’s amazing. Like the show we played in Barcelona, people were singing the lyrics — I have never experienced that before. 

ML: That’s overwhelming to me as well. 

Astrid: How do you feel about it? When I saw your concert at Cafe OTO, I was in the back and could kind of see the whole audience — I was standing on a bench — and it was just so funny, every time you started off the track, people were dancing and just going crazy. It’s so amazing experiencing people’s relationship to your music. I think for so many people, it’s really touching and they can feel you and that connectedness. It’s really inspiring. But the overwhelming part —how do you tackle it? 

ML: Well, I have struggled with nervousness, or straight up anxiety, before getting on stage. Just being on stage can be intimidating, I think. But I’m trying to figure out a way. I think the more [I do it], I think, I’m just gonna do my thing and I’ll see you afterwards. Because otherwise, you can have antennas crawling around like, Oh, there’s my mother, there’s those people from that community, there’s friends of… I think I’m trying to connect with people in another layer of the world, in a way — in another sphere, like in the music. Maybe not human to human.

Astrid: Yeah, I see what you mean, like a third place that you’re meeting at that is away from your body. You can connect through that, and that’s what is so magical about music. And I really feel like people are doing that when engaging with your music. It’s just very clear to me how it resonates with people.

ML: I also think about when I make songs, or music with vocals, that I’d like for it to be a place that the listener can enter and discover and experience, and maybe there’s room for their interpretation and their feelings. 

Astrid: Yeah.

ML: Also, when I play live, I think I’ve given myself permission to not entertain, necessarily. I played a lot of musicals when I was a kid, from when I was 7 ‘til I was 10 or 11.

Astrid: And that’s very over the top.

ML: Completely different. There’s this whole saying, “You have to reach the back of the audience with your voice,” and all of that. So it’s been a journey, figuring out a way — because you also have to create this atmosphere. Sometimes it fails and people are talking or getting drunk and it’s chaos. But when people are really listening and that space is created — I don’t know, it’s still a mystery to me, but at least I try to just allow myself to enjoy the music and do what I need to do. 

Astrid: No, totally. That completely makes sense. That thing you’re saying about wanting to create an openness in your music, I feel that so much from your music, and it’s something I think about in my own practice as well. Both when it comes to orchestration or lyrics, or in every layer of the music, I just want to create a room where people can enter, or a mood where you can come with your own experiences and maybe it resonates with you. Maybe it won’t, but that’s completely fine as well. 

ML: Exactly. There’s so much music, please just listen to [what you want]. [Laughs.] I guess it’s the singing part that I’m mostly focused on, because it’s such a strong element when a voice [is in] music. It’s on top of the hierarchy. So how does this voice take up space? It’s just interesting to me. But you’ve made some really great hook lines. I love talking about riffs and hook lines and all that. I’ve made a guitar album — licks and whatever they’re called. But, yeah, I just want to compliment you on the choruses and the strong melodies. 

Astrid: Oh, you too!

ML: OK, I have a question I’d like to ask you.

Astrid: I feel like you’re asking me so many questions!

ML: I’m just curious! Is it your turn?

Astrid: Yeah. Speaking of texts and lyrics — because for me, it’s a very new thing to be working with in many ways, but I know you spend a lot of time figuring out how you want to phrase things. How is your process when you write texts? Because I love your lyrics and the way you describe things. I think for me, it really easily becomes quite cliche and feels like you’re talking to a very specific tradition when it comes to lyrics — like, “Oh, yeah, baby, I love you.”

ML: Well, I write my lyrics in English, so it’s like I’m being a visitor within another language that, I do know, but it’s not my mother tongue. 

Astrid: Do you feel more free? 

ML: Maybe, but also confused. [Laughs.] It’s pretty confusing. But it’s more fun for me to write in English because I can play around with the cliches. I’m interested in that, in the worn out expressions or symbols. I’ve made an album that’s about the sun, basically, and human connection; I don’t know if you can find a more used a theme.

Astrid: Yeah, totally.

ML: I’m also really picky with words. I need to be able to sing them. It’s so few sentences that I that I’m able to sing, so it’s really boiling things down and condensing my thoughts. You have so little space to say anything, so I think when I make lyrics, it’s a combination of describing a space or describing some sensation or a sound or a vision, just to see if I can sketch up the world that we’re in. And then within that world, there are wants — there are these “I wanna”s. Suntub is an album of 15 guitar-based tracks, both instrumental pieces and songs, and it’s been challenging — how do you sing on top of a rock riff? You’re really walking a fine line, because it can very quickly become a rock lyric cliche.

Astrid: Yeah, but that’s the most interesting thing, isn’t it? And it’s maybe the same you’re saying with the cliches — it’s like walking to the edge and trying to find that place where it’s very, very close to being too much, but then not.

ML: The opposite way of working with lyrics — very poetic, descriptive, all sensations — can also feel very pretentious on top of a rock riff. So I’ve tried to combine the writing about flames and the “big rock sun”—

Astrid: [Laughs.] I love that.

ML: Those kind of words mixed with the more poetic.

Astrid: That’s so good, because you get something that is a bit washed out, but then it sounds maybe more clear. Those contrasts, I think that’s what really elevates the lyrics in your songs. You can feel those contrasts really working well together.

ML: I just have just one more aspect of this, which is humor in the lyrics. It’s becoming increasingly important for me. 

Astrid: Yeah, me as well.

ML: To let my humor shine through in a way, and not take myself too seriously — it’s important in life and in art, I feel. Sometimes humor can be like a door into your emotions as well. 

So if it’s possible, I’d like to combine [humor with] the seriousness — because this is my whole way of existing, making music, so it’s not like I’m making fun of that. But [humor] is so important for me.

Astrid: I feel like we come from a period where, when I started doing music, everything had to be really serious. Or maybe it was just very much within the Copenhagen scene that we were part of at that time — and I was a big part of it too, you know; I was very serious, and I still feel like I am really serious. But to be fair, when I listen back, I feel like humor’s always been present in my music. I think it’s something I’d been trying to wipe out a little, whereas now I can embrace it. And I can feel, as you’re saying, the connectedness. Having humor be a part of your music or your expression can really touch people as well. Because humor is not just a positive — it’s so many things. 

ML: It’s so complex. I think it’s really strong, and maybe we really need it in these times right now.

Astrid: Well, I guess it’s time to wrap this up.

ML: It’s been really nice talking to you.

Astrid: You too, Marie Louise!

Astrid Sonne is a Danish composer and viola player, currently based in London.