Built with a significant measure of calculated restraint, the calming, immersive world of Mawn -- Sabine Holler (vocals / guitar) and Björn Eichhorn (electronics) -- expels an alluring and equable ambience: interesting soundscapes and serene vocals making for a wonderfully hypnotic experience. Having featured on our very first Oneiric Escapism compilation, the Berlin-based trip-hop duo recently sat down to chat with ALGB, discussing their songwriting process, sharing creative duties, mutual respect, and what they gain from being of an artistic inclination.
I love the idea of striving towards something, and the goal is so vague and unreachable, you will never create your magnum oeuvre.
Sabine: I started writing songs when I was fifteen. I was discovered by this band in Brazil influenced by The Mars Volta kind of stuff. This band was successful in the underground scene of Brazil — we made something that was a mixture of math rock with alternative. It was kinda cool but, when I was twenty-two, I decided to move to Berlin to maybe pursue a bigger career. I was really into electronic music at the time, and my band was not fulfilling all of my creative needs. So, I decided to come to Berlin and learn electronic music in a music school. Then, I met Björn. We were in the same class, and we decided to make a band.
Björn: I started when I was ten because my family had a piano at home. I went through various genres: played in an orchestra, played in a jazz band, played in a metal band — I had long hair…
Björn: I ended up in a Britpop indie band where we had some smaller successes, but eventually that split up because it was a bit too mainstream for all of our tastes. When I moved to Berlin, I also got very much into more alternative electronic music and ambient. I went to this electronic school and then, with Sabine, created more of our new identity where eventually we ended up with the sound of Mawn.
Sabine: I’ve always been a huge fan of trip-hop because my sisters used to be big fans; I remember listening to Portishead at home, Radiohead at home, Bjork at home. So I always liked this kind of music, but I think technology needed to be really simple for us to start making it; previously, you would need a lot of high-end equipment — big synthesizers, drum machines — so I think it was quite complicated to make this kind of music in the nineties. Now, with the advance of technology, I think it’s easier. I mean, still not super easy, but you can make good electronic music with not much. So I think it is probably musical tastes and technology that allowed us to make the kind of music we do. At least, in my opinion. What’s your opinion?
Björn: Well, for me, it was definitely surprising because, when I was fifteen, I didn’t even know about trip-hop to be honest. I wouldn’t have imagined it earlier, but right now I totally understand and see why it turned out that way.
Sabine: It was kinda natural. We just tried to make something that we wanted to hear — something that we would connect with if were hearing another band doing it.
Björn: It came from experimenting. We tried out a lot of different ways, and eventually it was like, “Okay, this somehow feels right.”
Sabine: It would probably not sound as good. [laughs]
Björn: Or maybe it would sound even better.
Sabine: We would have to work a lot to buy high-end equipment. Now, with a couple of plugins, you can achieve a good sounding synthesizer. But, I think I would be making different music if it wasn’t for technology. I’m a fan of noise, experimental and ambient, so it would probably have a different format, like maybe a tape recorder, some samples, or something like that, but it wouldn’t be completely electronic, I don’t think: it would be more acoustic with elements of electronic.
Sabine: For the first two EPs, basically I brought out some songs that I’d written at home and were not finished. We sat down and we finished a song together then started to build the song on the computer: to build the structure and the layers of instruments. But now we’re going to release a new song, which actually was a reverse process, because Björn had this really beautiful piano line —
Björn: It was more like a finished ambient track. I didn’t even expect to use it for Mawn initially, but then I showed it to Sabine and she tried something to sing over it, and it worked.
Sabine: It’s still going to sound like Mawn, but it’s different.
Sabine: Yeah. And in the end, I had poetry in a book and I just read. It felt like, “Okay; that’s it.” It was super easy.
Björn: I definitely want to try this more, and maybe even new ways, afterwards. I think it’s very good to break free from your routines.
Björn: Right now, I’m reading a book by Brian Eno, called ‘Oblique Music’, and he talks a lot about ways to achieve new creative output.
Sabine: I mean, Björn is not a lyric kind of person. [laughs]
Björn: We leave a lot of freedom. For example, I really respect the lyric work of Sabine, so basically I always feel like I want to let her have all the freedom. And usually, for the music, we have a lot of similar tastes.
Sabine: It’s really rare that I do something Björn doesn’t agree with, but then we discuss it and try to change it, of course. Normally I’m the one writing the lyrics, but when it comes to the melody of the voice, we can write that together sometimes. It’s actually easier to have someone, because I also write a lot alone and it’s really hard to make choices when you’re alone — you have like a-hundred possibilities for something. A creative process that’s shared: you have to make a choice, so that makes it easier in my opinion.
Björn: We never have fights — only fruitful discussions.
Sabine: I think Björn is more rational when it comes to songwriting, but sometimes he stays too much stuck on the same loop. [laughs] I think Björn is really good at having an overview of the sound, bringing really good sounding timbres and making it all look like a work; he has this really nice outside perspective of everything, and that’s really awesome in my opinion. I really like that. And, of course, a great taste for melodies, great taste for beats.
Björn: Sabine is obviously very, very creative when it comes to lyrics, and when it comes to trying out creative ideas with any kind of song, any kind of timbre, any kind of music. She has a very broad knowledge of music, from noise to singer-songwriter, jazz and classical. Very inspiring. I feel like, basically, every quality that she just listed, I would say the same things about her… plus, she can sing and write lyrics. [laughs] And the question reminded me a bit of the presidential debate question yesterday —
Sabine: Yeah, we were watching it, and in the end they were like, “What do you like about the other?”
Björn: So, Sabine: You’re a fighter. I don’t like what you’re fighting for, but you’re fighting for it. [laughs]
Sabine: And I really respect how you raise your children, Björn. [laughs]
Sabine: We watched the whole thing! [laughs] But we were having a beer, and a friend over, so we were laughing at it: we were not serious.
Björn: We were supposed to be in the studio, but the electricity didn’t work.
Sabine: It is. It’s the most important decision a country has to make right now because, depending on who they choose to be president, maybe the planet’s over. It’s really serious.
Björn: No, I think it does. [We regretfully didn’t get to expand on this as Sabine ‘spaced out’, to use her own words, and began talking about tomatoes… Ed.]
Björn: I guess, for me, it’s education, curiosity and network. With education, for example, I had piano lessons and guitar lessons when I was a child, but also the music school we went to. Curiosity: in the way that I’m always looking for new, inspiring sounds or new music. And network: in the way that I surrounded myself with people who gave me new ideas — not only people who worked with music, but in any kind of artistic fields. And all this influenced me eventually.
Sabine: I’ve been writing songs for nearly ten years now, and I’d been writing songs with different projects — I had three bands in Brazil. Most of my lyrics: I have an idea, and I apply lyrics to this idea, or I’m just talking about my own feelings. I’ve been writing a lot of lyrics — I might have, like, five-hundred songs. So, I think, what made me actually get better at it, was making a lot: doing it over and over and over. Just exercising it all the time. And with singing — of course, I took singing lessons, but I think I actually became really good because of my background with this rock band. They were so loud that, for me to be heard, I needed to be louder. I just had to really push my voice to its limit. Maybe, wanting to make music like Mawn, which is calmer and where I have more space for my voice, was kind of natural, because I felt like, “Okay, now I really want to be heard.” And yeah: I think it was trying and working hard. That’s the reason for everything. You cannot be good at anything if you don’t do it a lot and try.
Sabine: Exactly. That was really annoying for a long time, but I just had to do it. I think my singing style was a bit different; I was more strident and aggressive sometimes — much more aggressive. My band was called Jennifer Lo-fi; you can google it and see how different it was. But also, I was in a band with five boys, and we were all kind of young and I felt like I had to really make my point — not only to be a really strong feminist, but also to be a really strong artist. Because it is true that a woman needs to speak more times to be heard, and make her point in a better way. So I had to be even louder, maybe, in expressing myself. And this actually gave me some knowledge so that now I just don’t have to try that hard to make myself heard. And with Björn, it’s so lovely that we never have this kind of problem: we just integrate ourselves. There’s no possessiveness.
Björn: A lot of care for each other.
Sabine: Yeah, of course. I want the electronics to sound good, and he wants the voice to sound good, and that’s a mutual understanding.
Björn: There’s no competition.
Sabine: Yeah, and in rock bands: the guitar player is always going to put his solo up in the sky, the drummer’s always going to be banging stuff, and if you can’t hear yourself, you do feel frustrated. But also, I must say, even though I love playing with Björn in Mawn — when we play we get this really hypnotic thing; it’s really, really like a trance and I love the feeling — when you play with a rock band on stage, you feel like you have superpowers.
Björn: Yeah, that’s true. That’s very true. [laughs]
Sabine: It’s really, really invigorating; you feel a lot of energy.
Björn: It’s a very different way of making a music experience. I totally see what Sabine is saying.
Sabine: The energy you have on stage when you have a five-piece band is fantastic.
Björn: I think both of us, since we started this project, grew a lot: musically and personally. Both of us, when we started this, were new to making electronic music.
Sabine: Yeah, it was my first attempt at making electronic music, ever.
Björn: And same for me, because I used to be a guitar player, and then the computer basically became my new instrument. If I think back: two years ago, I knew nothing. That makes me really excited about the future: to see how it continues improving.
Sabine: I think my English songwriting is getting better, because my English is getting better — I’ve been living abroad for three years now. I think when you grow as a person, your art grows with you, so I consider myself more mature, but at the same time you’re a little more afraid of trying things because you have a clearer view of what you want to have in the end. But yeah, I think I’m more mature than I was in our first EP, a better musician skill-wise, a better guitar player, I have better ears.
Sabine: I started writing in English because most of the things I would listen to would be in English. And it’s the international language for music, so if you want to appeal to a bigger audience, you kind of have to sing in English. I listen to world music, and sometimes I have no idea what people are saying, and I love it. But I think it comes from the fact that most of the singer-songwriters I listen to, they sing in English, so most of my references of sound and things like that are in English. It’s an interesting language to sing in: I like how it sounds. But in my rock band, I used to sing in Portuguese.
Björn: For me, I’ve never played in a not-English-speaking band. Since the first band I played in, when I was thirteen, it’s always been English. I never wanted to play in a German speaking band because, also for me, English was always the universal language when it comes to music, even though I still like to listen to songs that I can’t understand.
Sabine: I have some songs where I sometimes incorporate Portuguese, but mostly on my solo project. For Mawn, I think English really fits the aesthetic. And German: it’s not a language that people can sing in. [laughs]
Björn: But still, once in my lifetime I will need to make a German nu-wave electronic song, for sure. [laughs]
Sabine: I have a routine of songwriting; I have one or two days a week that I spend writing songs. Sometimes, I like what I do; sometimes, I don’t. I have a lot of songs that are on the shelf and I’m never going to look at again. Sometimes I do get blocked, but the best way for me not to get blocked is to bring in different kinds of references: maybe watch a movie; think about something different, or inspire myself; maybe go to an art exhibition. To be surrounded by other creative means so you can have material to work with.
Björn: I’ve recently realised that my creative process is always a three-step theme, which basically is, first: being inspired by maybe an art exhibition or something that happened during my daytime. Then — not judging myself: just trying, like a child — whatever comes into my mind, I just do it. And then, afterwards — the third step — to rationally analyse what I’ve just done and try to put it in a structure or an order that feels more deliberate.
Sabine: Yeah. I love being on trains. I love being places that are not my room. [laughs] Even though I am in my room to write, I just sit there and I’m like, “Oh, but it’s so much better if I’m in a library, a cafe or a train.” Sometimes I just take a train. It’s good to leave the everyday space, but this is for the beginning of the idea. When I need to structure the idea, then we go to the studio or I just sit at home.
Björn: Yeah, it’s sort of the same. It’s hard to say when good ideas come, because they usually happen when you expect them the least. I really like when you’re getting to the stage where you have an idea and, suddenly, time passes and you don’t realise how this happens because you’re so absorbed in this creative process or moment. You come up from the water and you’re like, “What happened?” [laughs]
Björn: I’d say the voice.
Sabine: And the atmosphere. I like to think that when we’re making music, we’re changing the space, and changing the environment. I like that.
Sabine: I write music almost for necessity. For me, it’s part of my body: I can’t not write music. I think it’s vital for me. I’m idealistic sometimes: I believe that being creative brings you closer to some sort of truth that I’m trying to pursue. I’m really spiritual when it comes to those things.
Björn: I’m very fascinated by the artistic cultural output of humanity, which is books, music, films, and I sort of realised that music is my favourite kind of medium because it’s literally just sharing emotion. And, because there are so many fascinating things out there, I feel like I want to be a part of it: all these creative minds and outcomes of them.
Sabine: … In the end, it is emotions, but there are a lot of big songwriters who helped me go through different phases of my life because I connected with what they were feeling. That was really important for me: to listen to something and understand I’m not alone in feeling a specific way. So, I really want to connect with people like other artists connected with me. To connect with people and share something beautiful.
Björn: Yeah, I feel the same. Also, to present my point of view towards things, especially understanding of aesthetics and music, or my emotions that I would like to receive from music. Also, like what Sabine just said: how music can maybe help people through some phases in their life. I know this from myself, and a lot of people I’ve met: how music can help you in many situations. Maybe if there’s one person out there who eventually listens to it and is like, “Wow! This made me very happy in this moment”, or, “This helped me through this phase”, then it was already all worth it: creating music.
Sabine: Yeah. That happened to me a couple of times. People came to me and told me like, “Hey, that song… I was going through this, and it made me realise that.” I’m just like, “Wow! You just made me feel like what I’m doing actually has a meaning.” And that’s the best motivation, actually.
Björn: And I think this is also very interesting — what you were just saying. Two things that I find very nice: creating art, but also helping people. I have other friends who work in some sort of health sector, like medicine or psychology, and I often feel like it’s a very honourable thing if you can help people —
Sabine: And Björn studied psychology. It’s also a way you can see music as a service. We’re not just having fun, you know. [laughs]
Sabine: The biggest fear I have? Besides economical? [laughs] Yeah, I think the only fear I have is money. Otherwise, I think I’m still going to be making music forever. The only problem is if I’m not going to be able to live completely; I’m afraid that I’m not going to have time to do only that. We have so many great artists and so much great music right now, it’s really hard for everyone to make the monthly amount you need. Especially if we’re doing music that’s a little bit more individual.
Björn: I’m enjoying the music making and, whatever happens, it’s going to be good because music is going to be there. Whatever happens, I never want to stop creating music. It’s hard to say where this ends because you really can’t plan it — all you can do is fight for it. And all other fear just comes down to the fear of dying, which eventually we all do, so nothing to be afraid of. [laughs]
Sabine: I understand the distraction part of it, because sometimes you can stop focusing on what you want to create, and you start focusing on: how much money would I make with that? And I really don’t want to do that; I want to create exactly what I want to create. If I have to change that in a way that’s not what I want to express then I don’t want it. I’d rather be a poor person but still make something that, for me, is real.
Björn: I think the music industry is so broad, so it’s all about using it in the right way. If you approach it from the wrong side, trying to collaborate with people that are not good to collaborate with, you end up devastated and it’s not going to work, but there is always some kind of way in the industry that will be very helpful for you. It’s all about finding the right people to work with. It’s definitely difficult.
Sabine: I hope not, because I try to be really real about what I’m doing. I like to believe that me and my music are the same thing.
Björn: I don’t think there was ever a thing where somebody came up to us and was asking something where I felt like, no –
Sabine: – this is not true. Yeah, it’s always been kind of too much on point. [laughs] I like to believe that we are Mawn, and Mawn is us, and that’s it.
Björn: And also, when people came to give us some references, it was always something that we were like, “Yeah, that’s great — we want you to be reminded of them.”
Sabine: It’s part of me, definitely! I mean, of course, it’s one of the sides I have; I do other things, but it’s a big share of my personality. So, a big part of me is defined by my music, but I’m other things besides that too.
Björn: Yeah, I’m totally the same. There is a big bubble of my personality and then there’s the big bubble of music, and definitely it should be music that I can identify myself with. Otherwise, there would be the part where it’s like ‘music as work, which I have to make for money’, which I wouldn’t identify with.
Sabine: I mean, it’s the only reality I know.
Björn: One thing I gain is definitely some sort of beautiful goal.
Björn: I love the idea of striving towards something, and the goal is so vague and unreachable, you will never create your magnum oeuvre. You create your whole life and therefore it’s the strife towards wanting to improve and wanting to create new things. It’s so beautiful, and always accompanies you on your path of life.
Sabine: That’s really true. It’s a great meaning for life.
Sabine: I think we’re still becoming more mature people, and better in our fields of expressing ourselves. We’re still learning and, of course, the learning process is eternal, but I would like us to be more specialised in what we do. And I would like to work with visuals in a better way. I would love to play bigger concerts, and make better music.
Björn: Yeah, just constantly improving how the music sounds. And making the live shows more interesting, playing with artists we really like, maybe playing in places we really like to an audience that we feel appreciates our music, and maybe even collaborate with artists that we like. A bigger version of what we are right now.
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