Minna Choi’s music inhabits an alternative universe, a place where sound is unfettered by limiting categories, free to drift between rock, pop, classical, electronic and ambient music, following its own impulse to explore the infinite possibilities of melody and meter. The sensibility she brings to the songs she composed for her eponymous debut album, Magik*Magik, was honed by her work as the Music Director of Magik*Magik Orchestra, a group she started while attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2008. When she told fellow students about the session work she’d been doing at recording studios in New York City, they got excited about doing studio work themselves, so Choi put together a string orchestra that would work with people outside of the classical sphere. “We started doing session work for rock bands, hip hop artists and pop singers, to create a name for ourselves,” she says.
Shortly after they got together, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood hired the orchestra to support a performance of his classical piece, “Popcorn Superhet Receiver.” The sold out concert launched their career. Since then, they’ve recorded with hundreds of artists, toured with Pop-Up Magazine scoring the live stories, contributed music to video games (Iron Man 2) and film scores (Looper, The Dam Keeper), written and performed string charts for Death Cab for Cutie’s Codes and Keys album and backed the band on stage. “Ben (Gibbard) handed me 20 songs from their back catalogue,” Choi says. “I wrote the charts and we toured with them for six weeks.” Impressed by her string arrangements, Death Cab’s founder, Chris Walla, encouraged Choi to start writing songs. He said he’d release an album of her music on his new label, Trans- Records.
“I’m constantly putting black notes on white paper but, most of the time it’s for somebody else,” Choi says, with a smile. “I was in a band years ago, but songwriting was painfully slow, so I stopped doing it. I began writing this album like it was an assignment from Chris. Since I make my living as a sidekick, I was able to look at the process objectively. I wrote what I wanted to write. A song doesn’t have to taste sweet. It can be thorny, dry and not immediately pleasurable, so long as it’s free.”
Choi cut the basic tracks for the album in LA, with the help of producer/composer Nathan Johnson. “He unlocked my songwriting and encouraged me to make interesting statements and not water down the dissonances or weird voicing’s.” When the templates were complete, they overdubbed live bass (Jason Muscat) and drums (James McAlister from Sufjan Stevens’ band), Choi’s vocals and the string and horn arrangements she wrote, played by her colleagues from the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
“Weep” describes ambivalent love, with a simple repeated piano figure and a drum loop that mimics the beating of an anxious heart. The dissonant strings and Choi’s quiet singing create a palpable tension. Dark cellos and a fluttering string section give “Circuitry” an ominous mood, before shifting into a bright, upbeat tempo, with a funky clap track and bubbling keyboards. “I wanted to write a sad song that sounds happy,” Choi says. “It’s about witnessing terrible things and deciding between forgiveness or recrimination.” Choi belts out an exuberant farewell to a clueless lover on “Now Or Never,” supported by a thumping electric bass, eerie keyboards and stuttering horn stabs. “Count Me Out” uses the same beat, slowed down to a glacial pace, to represent the end of a failing relationship. Choi’s minimal vocal is marked by sustained phrases that suggest the poignancy of resignation.
Violin master Rob Moose, of yMusic, contributed the sad, subtle arrangement that makes the free time ballad, “Laugh A Lot,” so touching, with Tom Krell (How To Dress Well) adding his harmonies to Choi’s poignant vocal. “Life Of The Party” is a new wavey dance tune in 7/8, while “Sting Operation” is a skewed, mid-tempo rocker full of random percussion accents, odd key changes and jolting string accents. “You have to honor a song and let it go where it wants to go,” Choi says. “I like pleasing melodies and arrangements that push the envelope.”
Minna Choi was born in Berkeley, the child of Korean American immigrants. “My elementary school teacher told my mom that, whenever she’d play a melody on guitar, I’d go to the piano and play it back,” she recalls. Piano lessons followed, but a career in music was not encouraged, although she did enjoy writing vocal harmony arrangements for her high school vocal group patterned on En Vogue, TLC and SWV. After graduating from NYU in 2003, she interned at a recording studio in Times Square. “When clients found out I could do string arrangements, they would have me write them out. Students from Julliard would come in to play them.” After returning to the Bay Area, Minna’s studio experience led to the creation of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, whose services are still thriving and in demand. “Magik*Magik is a solo album and, while it features members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra, the music is different than anything I’ve done before,” Choi says. She’ll continue running the Orchestra, but will soon be taking the songs from Magik*Magik on tour with a full band as well.