Sun Airway Soars Into the Surreal on ‘Soft Fall’

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

Soft Fall, the second album by Philadelphia-based Sun Airway, is not the kind of recording that sits quietly in the corner waiting to be noticed. It’s full of big, bold musical statements, lush arrangements, and a broad, dramatic sweep that’s as ambitious and anthemic as anything from the Arcade Fire, but without that band’s Springsteen-goes-indie-rock flag-waving feel. In fact, there’s not much traditional rock instrumentation on Soft Fall at all — most of the heavy lifting on these electro-acoustic pop productions is accomplished via the synth wizardry of singer/songwriter Jon Barthmus, augmented by some idiosyncratic string orchestrations. It’s a complex latticework of subtle sounds layered carefully atop each other, achieving a critical mass that listeners can either absorb as a single cinematic experience or investigate piece by piece, uncovering one small surprise after another in the sonic small print. Barthmus even penned some notes detailing a few of the farflung, multimedia influences that informed his creation, and fortunately, he found the time to tear through them with us. Stream Soft Fall below.

When your first album came out, you mentioned the art of Ed Ruscha as being inspirational, and this time around you’ve singled out some other visual artists – What’s your own visual art background?

I went to school for graphic design, and just generally do visual art things as well as music. At some point I kind of decided to pick music to focus on, because I thought I was better at it, so I kind of let the visual art fall by the wayside. The graphic design I still do sometimes, as a day-job sort of thing.

Your method for putting together the string arrangements on the album was unconventional, to say the least. How did it work exactly?

Most of them were made out of these chopped-up classical music samples. I would send those to [arranger Joshua Stamper]. And then he would try and rebuild them into sheet music, and then kind of figure out how to have a string quartet remake those. I wanted it to kind of sound like the samples, but to have complete control of the quality. I haven’t heard of people using strings that way. It yielded more interesting results than just writing string parts myself. I’d be putting things together that were never meant to go together, and sometimes there were little key changes and stuff that I would never have thought of if I was just writing the arrangements.

Recounting the non-musical influences on the making of Soft Fall, you’ve mentioned the feel of the album being inspired by Versailles.

The earliest thing I can trace back to is Sofia Coppola’s [film] Marie Antoinette, which I didn’t really like overall, but there’s a scene of Kirsten Dunst coming down these grand stairs with a New Order track in the background, and that, I thought, was perfect for some reason. And when I was thinking of this record I was just thinking of these giant, beautiful palaces, and Versailles was the one that came to mind first. I just started looking at pictures. And eventually I found photos of [Japanese artist] Takashi Murakami’s exhibit set up in there, and those looked perfect to me … something weird and modern thrown into the mix of this ornate palace. I knew I wanted something heavy with strings but also modernized in some weird way, so I kind of took visual cues from that.

“It’s always been fundamental to make it so that you don’t need the backstory and the information. I’d like for a listener to just be able to get with it regardless of any of that. I like the idea that it’s enjoyable without any of that but if you’re looking for it, there’s plenty of layers for you to get into.”

The French writer Andre Breton was in the inspirational mix as well, right?

I go to the library in Philly a lot and just grab a ton of books that look cool and see if anything jumps out. Once I started going down the Versailles/French rabbit hole, I grabbed a ton of books from the French section, and then I was looking for French surrealism and Breton kept coming up. I got a couple of anthologies of his poetry, and those to me just captured the mystery and bizarre atmosphere that I wanted to get across with this record. I always have one or two things I just carry around with me, or always look to if I’m stuck, and that book of his poetry was that for this record.

But even though Soft Fall is full of all these influences and layers, it’s complete accessible even without any of these references.

It’s always been fundamental to make it so that you don’t need the backstory and the information. I’d like for a listener to just be able to get with it regardless of any of that. I like the idea that it’s enjoyable without any of that but if you’re looking for it, there’s plenty of layers for you to get into.

Soft Fall is out October 2 on Dead Oceans. Stream it below: 

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