To say it’s all about the voice would be to underestimate the many strengths of INNER TONGUE’s debut album. It might, however, be understandable, and that’s not just because – gentle, tremulous, expressive and expansive – it runs like a red thread throughout his songs. But FAVOURS is more: a concise, twelve track album that also reveals an idiosyncratic songwriter and producer at the top of his game. Its tracks are strangely exposed, their arrangements stark and their instrumentation minimal, and its lyrics, which envision a mental battle between self-awareness and self-gratification, are as cryptic as they are compelling. Nonetheless, that voice is central to the story that led to FAVOURS’ release, because, for a while, it looked like INNER TONGUE would never sing his songs at all.
That this tale concludes with an album so special is ultimately what should occupy those who hear it. INNER TONGUE himself confirms that, “I’d rather people focused solely on my music.” So, for now, let’s do exactly that. Hard though it is to sum up, names one might associate with FAVOURS’ sound include Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean – especially on ‘Next Life’ and ‘Wallbreaker’ – and, overall, the album combines the lightness of touch that distinguishes Death Cab For Cutie with the heartfelt perfection of SOHN and the intuition of Chet Faker. With nonchalant beats and elements at times recalling James Blake, the music boasts delicacy and astonishing depth, and also points to more than a few of the artists INNER TONGUE grew up with.
“I love the melancholy of electronica acts like Björk, Moby or Portishead,” he says. “I admire the detailed precision of their sound.” Other early passions no doubt played a part too, even if their influence is sometimes inaudible: these began with Michael Jackson, moved on to Sonic Youth and Radiohead, while others have pointed towards Pet Shop Boys, though he claims never to have heard them. Generally, in fact, his tastes are so broad that he also recalls a childhood obsession with The Cure In Orange – “I watched it daily before joining the other kids at play” – while Aphex Twin gets a nod, too. These, however, offer little indication of his own musical tendencies.
This, no doubt, owes at least a partial debt to the circumstances in which the songs were written. In 2013, while in his mid-twenties, INNER TONGUE was diagnosed with a rare, severe vocal cord disorder, one which imposed silence upon him. Music had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember: growing up in the countryside, where his parents had shared their favourite albums with him, there wasn’t much else to do. Fortunately, his father wrote songs, so there were always instruments lying around, and the youngster had formed his first band by the age of six. “We started out using one of my dad’s synths to play a pre-programmed beat,” he recalls. “I’d sing something that sounded to us like English.” Unsurprisingly, he continued playing music, beavering away under the radar in more recent years. “I only played in three or four bands before,” he says, revealing a little more about his past, “but I always had at least one going. I have some good stories to share on a late night, half drunk, like the one where I sent Duran Duran’s and David Bowie’s producer home because he wanted to transform our music into American college, radio-compatible 80s pop. We got dropped by our label after that!”
This time, doctors removed the decision to stop making music entirely from his hands. Furthermore, there were only a small handful of specialists anywhere capable of treating his medical issues. So, reduced to silence, his goals shifted from artistic to financial as he worked day and night to raise the money needed for the operation. Adding to the strain was the knowledge that at the age of four he’d had an allergic reaction during routine surgery, leading to cardiac arrest, and no doctor had dared operate on him since. Finally, he found one not only able but also willing to perform the procedure. The days before he was admitted to hospital were, he admits, “really quite intense”, but, when he awoke ¬– in a sign of how central music remained to him – the first thing he heard was Everything Everything’s Qwerty Finger playing in his head. “That was sort of strange,” he smiles, in a typical display of understatement. “It made a good story when we toured with them two years later!”
Because that’s the remarkable thing about this narrative: It has a happy ending. Though the months that followed his operation were hard – “I hid myself in total silence in my apartment; I was totally depressed, and refused to write any music” – INNER TONGUE eventually began composing again. Singing was out of the question, “so I decided to modify my musical focus temporarily by writing songs which could produce a melodic tension without vocals, but which featured the traits of forward-looking pop music. It was as if someone had pressed a reset button on the musical identity I had of myself." With this came an urge to try other experiments: “I used to layer many sounds and melodies before, and felt like I hid the core of any idea behind that technique.”
The result was Tz, Ka, the first EP under the INNER TONGUE identity. Though largely recorded alone, its songs provoked him to travel around the world in pursuit of vital finishing touches, calling upon Matt Boynton (MGMT, Kurt Vile) in New York, and, especially, John Catlin (Foals, Warpaint, The Naked And Famous) in London. The efforts were worthwhile: quietly released in the spring of 2015, the EP garnered enough acclaim to win support slots with not only Everything Everything, but Ghostpoet and Get Well Soon too. Now, almost three years later, his debut is at last ready.
Though some of FAVOURS was made at home, most was recorded at a friend’s studio in Vienna, where INNER TONGUE is based. Catlin again helped out, and though “his involvement varied throughout, he was continually involved in decisions as a co-producer and friend.” Catlin also mixed the album at London’s Assault & Battery, with further overdubbing taking place as he worked. The entire experience of writing and recording, INNER TONGUE admits, provoked “a lot of soul searching, trying to become a better mixing engineer and producer. I’m somewhat controlling when it comes to my music, and I need to get the little details right.”
Nonetheless, other musicians were involved too, and he underlines that “INNER TONGUE is a solo project, but it’s the outcome of my ideas shared with a collective of close friends. All contributions are built on a vision I initially had, and then gain shape during the process. Beats and drums are played by Flo; most keys are played by Philipp; Heli and Conni play bits here and there. They also play with me live. And the saxophone was my Dad. I played him ‘New York’ and said I wanted him to improvise. He did two takes. I was blown away by the depth of his spontaneous performance.”
FAVOURS is appealingly difficult to define, something which cheers INNER TONGUE. “I try to commit to every song,” he explains, “instead of just reinterpreting and improving on whatever has worked for me before. If people feel like each one has its own distinct qualities, that absolutely pleases me.” So, while the increasingly expansive ‘Somebody Knows It’ begins with a subdued piano riff and the striking line, “You should have seen this circle go square”, before gliding towards a colourful, passionate climax, ‘Two Seconds’’s quietly shuddering rhythms, winding guitar line and understated sensitivity encapsulate the inexplicability of attraction with touching lines like “There must be gold inside you”. ‘Fallen Empire’’s haunting melancholy is meanwhile epitomised by provocative images – “Your business friend zombies/ Should go to sleep instead” – and advice whose wisdom seems almost ancient: “Don’t seed your coin in the dead sand”. There’s also the fragile optimism of the soulful ‘Dig Deeper’, the rather more disorientating ballad, ‘Catch’, as well as the unhurried, intricately detailed of ‘Next Life’, not to mention the sparse beauty of ‘Teeth_hteeT’, the tenderly affectionate ‘Wallbreaker’ and the low-key drama of ‘Underworld’.
Book-ending the album are the mysterious ‘Lamac Part I’ and ‘Lamac Part II’. It seems only appropriate that the album should have such a definitive start and end, and with luck it will emphasise the real story here. INNER TONGUE certainly remains keen for the album to be the focus, even though he concedes his tale is as absorbing as his music. “I’m a consumer myself, “and intrigued by life’s stories, so as long as it doesn’t sound like I’ve been through hell and back, but was simply forced to restart, it’s OK.”
He’ll be fine: with a voice like his – and an artistic one driving him too – FAVOURS is attention-grabbing enough.