A few months ago, Sophie Hunger got out of bed at four in the morning to go to Berlin’s techno superclub KitKat, where Paula Temple was playing a 5am DJ set. She could have done what most clubbers do and arrive at midnight, but she wanted to appreciate Temple with a clear head. “I could either have spent all night there and been dead in the morning, or gone at five, so I went at five,” she shrugs. Typical Hunger – in love with the nightlife, but still the sensible girl from Bern.
“Sensible” is relative, though. Since her last album, 2015’s Supermoon, Sophie has made major changes. She moved to Berlin, got passionate about analogue synths and electronic music – Berlin’s heartbeat. She exchanged her classical instruments for drum machines and computer software and decided to write a full English album. Until then, she’d written in a mix of English, French, German and her native Swiss German. "There's something dubious about it. On a good day I like to think I'm heroically defying the tyranny of Anglophone pop culture; on a bad day, I realize I'm simply shunning the confrontation, hiding behind this weird language mix." Recorded almost entirely solo, it’s a twilight journey through the mind of an artist who’s long been loved by musicians and Continental connoisseurs, and is about to plant her flag in the Anglophone world.
A quick bit of background: born in Bern to a diplomat father and a politician mother, she grew up in Zurich, Bonn and London. Her gateway to music was her jazz-loving parents, and jazz and folk still form a core part of her writing style. At 19, she became a vocalist for an electronic collective called Superterz, and between 2004 and 2007, she fronted a jangly indie band, Fisher. Her first solo album, Sketches on Sea (2006), introduced Europe to her slow burning intensity; the French daily newspaper Liberation declared that she “wouldn’t stay Switzerland’s best-kept secret for long”. She didn’t – her next album, Monday’s Ghost (2008), was a Swiss chart-topper but also got her attention all over Europe. In 2010 she became the first Swiss artist ever to play Glastonbury, where she picked up her first UK fans.
The following albums – 1983 (2010), The Danger of Light (2012) and Supermoon (2015) – saw her expand her sound into blues and cinematic ballads. Supermoon, which reached Number 6 in the German LP charts, featured a romantic duet with a surprise guest:
Manchester United legend – and Hunger fan – Eric Cantona. More recently, she gained a particularly smitten British admirer in the shape of singer-songwriter Steven Wilson. Much taken with her “sexy-sinister” vocal quality, he invited her to duet on the track "Song of I" on his current album, To the Bone. The LP reached Number 3 in the UK chart, exposing her to her biggest audience yet.
There was another breakthrough in 2016 when she wrote her first film score, for the French animation Ma Vie de Courgette. Brilliantly, it translates to My Life as a Courgette – the undisputed film title of the decade – though when discussing it Sophie herself uses the German word, “zucchini”. “I got my foot in the door of film music because of Zucchini's success,” she says casually. The film was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe while Sophie's contribution won a European Animation Award for best Soundtrack, the Prix Lumière for best Newcomer in Film Scoring and a nomination for the César. She’s since been asked to work for artist Gregory Colbert's Nomadic Museum – the follow up to his exhibition “Ashes and Snow". She's also been writing fictional chronicles in Germany's leading Newspapers DER SPIEGEL and DIE ZEIT.
All of which sets her up for her artistic reimagining in the form of MOLECULES.
Hunger has long been synonymous with a minimalist folk-jazz hybrid that put her in step with fellow travellers like Laura Marling and Feist. But having made the move to Berlin, she discovered electronic music, became a frequent visitor to the Berghain club on Sunday nights and developed an interest in modular synths, for which Berlin is a mecca. The songs she wrote in her home studio (which were later recorded with producer Dan Carey in South London) do her proud.
MOLECULES, which she describes as “minimal electronic folk”, is still recognisably a Hunger LP, though. Her most compelling qualities – an ingenue-like delicacy and contrasting solitary darkness – haven’t changed. Familiar trickles of funfair weirdness still permeate the music, calling to mind Beth Orton and Regina Spektor. Moreover, she’s still enigmatic and self-possessed to the point where it feels too intrusive to ask certain questions.
Despite its familiarity, this is Hunger’s breakaway record – the one that “will be embarrassing for me, because I don’t normally write like that”. Like what? “Well, personal.
My friends, when they hear the record, they avoid eye contact. I went through a breakup that felt like deconstruction, where the shape of everything decomposes back into its smallest parts – molecules. In a time when the same seemed to happen on a social and political level, structures decomposing, institutions falling apart, and somehow you have to welcome it, because it's the only way forward. Songs like "Let it come down" or "Electropolis" (an anthem for Berlin) formed through that feeling." There is Still Pain Left, scheduled for release as a single later this year, exemplifies her new boldness. It’s a wash of trip-hop/folk that pinpoints the reason she could no longer stay with her now ex-partner: “It’s delicate to talk about this – it’s about being with someone who’s falling apart and whose logic is to say that there is still pain left, I’m not done yet with this darkness, there is more, ready to sacrifice everything for the pleasure of self-destruction.”
The lullaby-like Coucou tackles a subject that rarely surfaces in breakup songs: the other people who get left behind when a relationship ends. “There were two children, as well, and when I had to leave I realised that I now had ex-children. I didn’t just lose the man but also the children. But you can't lose children in the way you lose adults. There's something about it that is sick.”
Hunger attributes MOLECULES introspection to having been “quite isolated and in a state of deconstruction" while recording it; most of the time, she and Dan Carey were the only people in the studio. But there’s nothing introspective about the tensely thrumming She Makes President. She wrote it before the US presidential election, having listened to a radio programme that declared that the female voters would wield the deciding vote on Election Day owing to their greater numbers and likelihood of voting. “I wrote that song trying to portrait this future female identity and then Trump got elected,” she says, still audibly stunned. “Knowing that women had it in their hands not to elect Trump, but they proved to be yet again unreliable when it came to standing up for their own rights.”
Tricks, featuring an analogue CS80 synth and a Krautrock beat, is similarly political.
“Nitroglycerin for healing you are in control of people's feelings, you push’em down to help’em up” she sings, listing the rewards lavished on politicians and business people who set out to deceive the public. “This has always been the mechanics of power structures, but the question in my mind is, what do these guys do when all their tricks have come true?”
What links all 11 tracks is Hunger’s references to what she calls “matter” – mentions of physical substances, from insulin to nitroglycerine to celluloid. “I wanted to have a vocabulary which respects the material reality my world is made up of,” she explains. "If the typical singer songwriter's vocab used to be bones, blood and birds, today it would clearly have to be plastic, plutonium and particles. Also, I used a lot of synthetic sounds to make the record so I wanted there to be a bit of coherence between vocab and musical material without being silly.”
Hunger silly? Maybe a tiny bit. But also gifted, whip-smart, and an artist you want in your life in 2018. Molecules bears witness to her defiance and intellectual credibility in a post-truth age of ignorance. Female (and male) pop fans in search of a nuanced, intelligent role model could do worse than to keep an eye on her.