Minna Choi’s voice remains remarkably composed in the backseat of an Uber as it haphazardly speeds in and out of traffic down Valencia Street.
The San Francisco-based songwriter, conductor and founder of the city’s premier orchestra-for- hire, Magik*Magik, is 30 minutes late to practice, and it happens to be the night before they hit the road in support of their debut album. At the moment, however, her thoughts drift to how she finds herself sounding like a brass instrument.
“I think it’s important to talk, sing, and mimic instruments with your own voice when you arrange music,” Choi says. “When I write a French horn line, I try to sing like a French horn. When I write percussion parts, I sing like a drum. And when I first started off, I was just air-violining all over the place like nobody’s business,”
She adds, “I look at arranging for others like being a musical doctor. [If] something is missing. I’ll diagnose the track and add a dash of strangeness to the strings or create something weird, creepy, or lush at the end. Like a doctor and patient, it’s a one-on-one relationship [between a conductor and musician]and you work until you find a cure or at least a fix.”
There is a quiet pause. Choi’s gaze wanders out of the car window in a thousand-mile stare, into the passing Mission District. For a second, it seems like the 34-year-old might be the one in need of mending.
Moments of melancholy have arisen throughout the afternoon; earlier, Choi confessed she just went through a painful break-up. This wasn’t an apology but rather, just her self-reflective way of being honest. Her silence, it seems, carries a heavy heart.
While her emotional sensitivity might have made it difficult for her to manage a smile during a photo shoot, that same quality has informed collaborations with artists as varied as the Dodos, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie. As she heads to that final rehearsal before hitting the road, the question remains whether her affinity for working with other musicians can translate to a bigger stage and a solo spotlight. To succeed, she must trust her instincts.
Then again, trusting her instincts has been a driving force behind most of Choi’s musical career. The force was with her when she was a composition major at the San Francisco Conservatory, and was given the opportunity to conduct Radiohead lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s opus “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” with a 34-piece orchestra – and Greenwood in the audience. It inspired her to cold-call John Vanderslice, proprietor of influential SF recording studio Tiny Telephone, and pitch the idea of having Magik*Magik be an in-house orchestra that local and visiting bands could rent by the hour, week, album or concert. While munching tacos with Death Cab For Cutie guitarist/producer Chris Walla, that same instinct led her to wonder, what would it sound like if Magik*Magik had a musical statement of their own instead of just being in the background?
The idea of a Magik*Magik album stayed on Choi’s back burner for months. She quickly realized that she had her own learning curves to navigate. “At first, I kind of defaulted on making an instrumental record, because an orchestra usually just does instrumental stuff. But if I was going to be honest with myself, all of my favorite artists are vocally-minded, like Bjork and St. Vincent. So, I took all of these instrumental ideas that I was working on, scrapped them, and just started over,” she says with a laugh.
Unlike a typical orchestra composer, Choi is not classically-trained in any instrument, let alone vocally. Yet, on each song on Magik*Magik, her voice is front and center, as if she saved that best French horn melody or solo for herself. As an artist, she says, she is “99 percent musical creature and a one percent a lyrical creature.”
Magik*Magik is far from a classical record; if orchestral indie rock was a genre, it would fit there. It’s self-assured, optimistic, at times moody, and one of the strongest debut albums of the year. The first single, “Weep,” starts off as a simple refrain over a grand piano, which threads between verses as Choi adds orchestral layers with subtle accents of foreboding unease and tension. Faint, lower-register kicks of percussion sound like a heartbeat, and are barely noticeable as the song quietly builds to a crescendo and finally to a fragile resolution. Like the other 10 tracks on the album, arrangements of strings woodwinds, and brass help to pronounce each song.
Taken as a whole, the work plays almost like a soundtrack to a film, one in which we follow Choi’s insights around day-to-day struggles of love lost and found. There are pop ditties with driving club hooks, like the ridiculously-catchy “Life of the Party,” and tracks that jump through time signatures with disregard to formulaic pop structures, like “Sting Operation.”
The overarching cinematic quality might have been influenced by producer Nathan Johnson, (whose past work with Choi includes film scores like Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Don Jon and Kill the Messenger). But while Magik*Magik has its share of theatrical moments, Choi’s approach never gushes with overly-sentimental fluff. Even songs that might be considered “emotive” like the lullaby-ish closer “Count Me Out” still carry an undercurrent of discord; the loose strings never wrap up into a nice and neat little bow at the end.
This particular approach was intentional. It’s rooted in Choi’s hope that she could create something that she herself might listen to and find inspiring. “I just wanted this record to keep people on their toes. When I listen to music, I am always like tracking a split second ahead, trying to predict what is going to happen next. I wanted to make an album where what people thought was going to happen next goes in a completely different direction. Like when you are eating and you are surprised when something does not turn out to taste what it looks like.”
A food metaphor also creeps into her response to what it means to be an uncompromising artist. “Like cooking, I think that everyone resonates with certain musical flavors… An uncompromising artist knows the flavors that are the most delightful and delicious to them. You hope that it resonates with other people, but that can’t be your main priority.”
Earlier in the day, SF Sounds invited Choi to meet at a psychic reader’s home— only to find that the location was actually home to a professional clairvoyant who had been counseling folks for nearly 20 years in the field
In retrospect, the set-up may have been a bit intrusive for someone who was suffering from a broken heart. However, Choi remained resilient in her resolve to see the day through. As we left the clairvoyant’s office, she reveals that the reader mentioned she has a problem of inhabiting “too many people’s energy.” She laughs and says, “Well, she got that one right, of course! It’s been my job is to inhabit other people’s musical countries for years. I am almost required to become somewhat of a citizen of their world and work within their musical laws. It’s who I am.”