Sono Oto


Contact Stephanie Bauman about Sono Oto

Mark Henry Phillips has a “day-job” that requires him to make compelling music and immersive sound design very quickly. But if that’s the case, why did it take him over 6 years to finish his new album Inheritance?


Phillips, who uses Sono Oto as a nom-de-indie-rock, is an accomplished composer and sound designer for films, commercials and podcasts. He wrote the score for the first season of Serial. The last two films he scored are premiering at Sundance this January. Phillips was also the sound designer on sonically rich films like Academy-Award nominated Cutie and the Boxer, Ballet 422 and Teenage. And he was the producer, editor, sound designer, and composer on his latest project, Homecoming – a scripted narrative podcast starring Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, and Amy Sedaris.


But Inheritance wasn’t simply about writing catchy tunes and crafting a polished sound. The Beatles-esque tunes are catchy and the production is impressive – it sounds like a record from the early 70’s that was mixed and mastered to perfection in 2016. But underneath the poppy tunes and layered vocal harmonies is a raw – almost painful – sense of yearning that gives the album another layer of depth and meaning. Ultimately it was Phillips’s effort to understand that melancholic yearning that put the album’s completion just out of reach for so many years.


The origins of the project go back to the winter of 2008. Mark had shelved his dreams of being a fulltime musician and was working as a producer and reporter for NPR shows. But the trajectory of his life changed one night when he learned his dad had terminal lung cancer. The two of them were never very close and in fact had grown far apart in recent years. Mark always assumed they would have time to work it out but now realized they wouldn’t have much time at all. Over the next couple years he and his brother visited their dad in Ohio as often as possible and they eventually spent the final month with him. Through this Phillips got to know his father much better and started to see why things had turned out the way they had. One key part was finding a group of letters his dad had written to his father. Through reading these letters Mark realized his dad actually had many of the same unresolved issues with his father. This discovery – combined with caring for his dad as he became sicker and sicker – morphed Phillips’s anger into sorrow. He wished his dad had more time to work things out with his father, with their relationship and within himself.


It was during this time Mark began writing the songs that would become Inheritance. He wasn’t doing it with any intention of releasing the tracks – he just thought of himself as a journalist who used to be a musician. But after his father’s death, Phillips had a visceral understanding of life’s brevity. He quit his job as a radio producer to become composer and sound designer. And as he continued writing this batch of songs he tried to reckon with an issue that could take a lifetime to figure out: how could he avoid inheriting all the baggage that his dad had received from his father? Mark’s dad had many great qualities but there was an anger and loneliness that ran through his life that Phillips wanted to avoid. This quest became a part of his songs and ultimately it’s the yearning at the heart of Inheritance. Phillips double-tracked vocals sum it up in the song “Lies” when he sings, “I know I’m under curse / I understand / it’s in my blood.”


Over the next 6 years Phillips saw his career as a composer and sound designer blossom but he still recorded these songs whenever he could. At one point he had close to 40 songs partially recorded. He eventually zeroed in on 12 tracks to finalize and he brought in the drummer Nick Kinsey (Diamond Doves and Elvis Perkins in Dearland) to bring his melodic and soulful drumming to the tracks. Thanks to Kinsey, songs like “Had to Go” have a Stax-like soul sound to them. He also brought in guitarist/mad scientist Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine) to add another layer of melody and texture to several tracks. His pedal steel adds a haunting wail to “Lies” while his distorted stabs on “Take Your Time” add a George Harrison-esque flourish to an already Beatles-y tune. And Phillips let his day-job skills seep into the recordings as well with beautiful string arrangements on songs like “No Idea” and “How Do You Feel.”


The end result is pop album that is classic in feel but very contemporary with its details. The catchy melodies make it immediately likeable but it has a complex, emotional underbelly that allow the songs to flourish with more and more listens. It’s the kind of album that takes 6 years to finish.