words by tom johnson
photograph by tonje thilesen
There are numerous and varying comparisons one could make to the music of Suno Deko; those fractured, lilting Perfume Genius-like vocals, the exquisite and immersive instrumentals that recall Port St. Willow’s 2012 masterpiece ‘Holiday‘, that left such a lasting impression on us. Perhaps what’s most vital about Suno Deko, however, is how immediately their beautiful new album (self-titled and released in October) permeates its very own, distinct spell. Evocative from the outset, it’s the kind of immersive and poignant record that will linger long in the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to discover it.
Released via the ever-rewarding Elestial Sound label (pre-order here), the record was written by David Courtright over the course of a year while touring the globe with fellow GFP-favourite Julie Byrne and informed by the almost endless array of spaces they found themselves in: “a New Orleans puppetry theatre, a geodesic dome in rural Missouri, a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost in frigid Missoula, and dives, punk houses, basements, and everything else in between.”
Featuring adornments from Byrne herself, as well as Nicole Miglis and Zach Tetreault of Hundred Waters, and Jake Falby of Mutual Benefit, the record is preceded, today, by new track “So Long”, a torch-like ballad that is indicative of both the initial comparisons above and the stark nature of the work itself. Gliding through four exquisite minutes, but never far from a moment of deep poignancy that will pull the rug out from under whatever day you find yourself in, the new track feels like a quietly momentous arrival; a coming-of-age projecting a voice and vision that feels wildly captivating throughout.
Listen to the new track right here and scroll a little further down to read a new interview with David Courtright about the making of this very special record and the people and places that informed it.
The album was written while over the course of a year spent on tour – do you see it as a document of life on the road?
Not explicitly. That time on the road was incredibly formative for me, and about half the songs on this record were actually already written or mostly written when Julie Byrne and I spent those months on the road together in 2014. The more orchestral songs on the record came later though, and I definitely think spending time in those vast landscapes in the west and the forests of the northwest informed my understanding of space in song. We listened to a lot of Nils Frahm and other contemporary composers, reading Frank O’Hara to each other to keep from going insane on the fourteen hour drives across Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Oregon. So I think my understanding of inner space expanded in that time, and the magnitude of the physical world definitely seeped into my writing.
How much do you think the initial writing of it was informed by the restlessness of that time?
Listening back now, there are so many questions in a lot of the songs on this record. That year was truly transformative for me. I gave myself no limitations in terms of how long I would go out on the road—I put the project before most things in my life (to the detriment of some things), and put myself fully into it in a way that ended up depleting me a little. A lot of the later songs like “So Long” were me recovering from being that unhinged and ungrounded for so long.
When did the record, as we know it now, start to take shape?
There’s a moment I’ll never forget when Jake Falby (who plays with Julie and Mutual Benefit as well) send me the first pass of his string arrangements for “Swan Song.” I was driving home from work at a restaurant in Atlanta, where I was toiling in misery and battling an anxiety disorder that was grinding me into the ground, and played it in my car with the windows down at night, I think it was autumn. I immediately burst into tears when the strings came in, and saw the potential and vision for this record really expand but also solidify. So I would say when Jake’s parts came in, the record as a whole really started to take shape as a complete statement. And the more I mixed it (over the course of about two years) the more it felt like it was a complete statement, or a book with different but intersecting chapters.
You recorded the vocals for the record in your old church – can you tell us a little more about that idea and process?
The original idea actually came from my dear friend Tonje Thilesen, whose microlabel Stratosfear put out my first EP in 2014. She just kind of mentioned it in passing as something that would be beautiful, but I followed up with it the rector at my church in Atlanta, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. I wasn’t sure if I would need to rent the nave to record in or how it would all work, but they were so responsive and the head rector at the time, Rev. Mac Thigpen, was extremely gracious and reserved the main sanctuary for me for no cost for as much time as I needed. It ended up being a really overwhelmingly beautiful experience, just having grown up going to that church. I was confirmed there when I was eighteen also, and while I don’t consider myself a religious person in terms of following any one tradition, I am a deeply spiritual person, and singing into that space that holds so much history and time spent with my family was incredibly powerful. Also my church was a radically inclusive space for me growing up—Rev. Mac is openly gay and his partner John would wear the most extravagant costumes to the high holy days like Easter and Christmas Eve. I guess Mac got to wear such fancy robes he didn’t want to feel left out. But to be a young confused gay boy and have these really holy and respected gay elders was and still is a huge gift to me. So to have my art intersect that history and honor my queerness and the queerness of that Christian space in such a beautiful way means so much to me.
What else played a pertinent role in shaping the record?
Definitely being in love, and being in a long-term relationship with someone. We split recently after seven years together, but what we shared deeply informed (and continues to inform) my work. I’m a true romantic, so much of what I write is written toward a lover or an idea of a lover; a person or entity that is a mirror to the self. I have a hard time writing about anything else because I’m not sure if writing about anything else would feel authentic to me. But of course the work of other artists has shaped this record. There are too many to point to any one, and the songs were written over the course of so many years that I wouldn’t say it’s a concept record or has any central conjoining theme. But music is therapy to me, so it ends up working thorough things unconsciously that later I look back and say “Aaahh, so that’s what that’s about.” It can be really surprising sometimes.
Your biography talks of your music as a “call to vulnerability, to living openly with love, fear, and free expression” – how difficult has it been to stay true to such ideals given the current state of the world. And how did that affect your work, if at all?
Much more difficult, but in many ways much easier. We are living in such fraught times, but the lines are drawn so clearly I feel it’s much easier to find common ground with other people. It feels more welcome to ask for help, and I find myself offering that to others more readily when I have it available. I think the only response to the current climate is in fact to open oneself more, as if allowing oneself to be vulnerable is in itself an act of resistance. But I’ve noticed an increase in empathy and care and attentiveness from my friends and community, just because we are all in this perpetual state of low-key (or for many people, especially trans people and people of color, high-key) trauma on a daily basis. But I feel like people are really caring for each other in a different kind of way, and that feels really positive and nurturing, and perhaps something that will ferry us out of this burning world into whatever we will and must build after it.
There are a number of collaborators on the record – was it always the plan to involve other voices?
Not really. I started this project wanting to be able to do everything myself after being in a really democratic band where we all unfortunately wanted different things from it. So with my EP it was really important that I did everything, played everything, and was able to do it all live without anyone’s help. And I moved through that paradigm and out the other side. And really, it was working with Jake, who has this uncanny ability to actualize your very floppy vague ideas into the most beautiful but not overwrought arrangements. Working with him really is like alchemy for me, so that excitement of involving other players and the magic in that process returned. My friends Clinton Callahan and Brian Bo also figured in in a major way, helping me flesh out songs and doing early demos, and then both of them actually tracking the whole record with me at a studio in Decatur, GA. All three of them were so patient and helped me realize this work while being sensitive to what I was trying to actualize out of it.
We’re sharing “So Long” today, what can you tell us about that track in particular?
This was written right around the time my partner was going to Turkey for an artist residency and we were going to be apart for a few months. He hadn’t even left yet but I was already feeling the loss of him being gone from our home, and I had this melody (the “soo-oo-oo-oo long since you’ve been go-oo-oo-oone” part) and just kept toying with it on my piano. Then I made that kind of modulated percussive guitar loop and everything developed from there. This is one of the most difficult songs to sing, a prime example of writing songs just a bit out of reach of what your voice is capable of executing, which I think most songwriters do. It took about 25 takes to get this nailed down, so it definitely kicked my ass during recording. But I love the lilting nature of it and how simple and universal the expression is. Longing, plain and simple. Also aligning with one of the main things I like to explore lyrically, which is, what are the boundaries between spirit and flesh? To echo Grouper’s stunning statement: “I’m looking for the place the spirit meets the skin.” So to “crawl inside your voice to feel you speak my name,” I think in retrospect was a desire to get closer to someone, to feel what they feel for you in a visceral way. To feel what your name feels like coming through them.
‘Suno Deko’ is released on October 13th, via Elestial Sound
Pre-order here: sunodeko.bandcamp.com