(photo: Manchul Kim)
Crying never looked as beautiful and contagious as in the Magik*Magik music video for “Weep” — in which Bay Area orchestra conductor Minna Choi is so intimate with her band, she sets off an emotional chain reaction of tears.
The song is about a close friend whose mother was sick. Choi composed the piece at a point in her life where she wanted to write about things other than romance and heartbreak. Instead, she searched for deeper themes like empathy and understanding. “All I knew, was that he was going through a painful experience and my job as a friend was just to be there for him,” Choi says.
It’s songs like these which make the Berkeley-born composer stand out from other orchestra conductors. Today, October 14, marks the release of her debut album. “Weep” was the first song she wrote for the album, it inspired her to continue writing and create a 10-track album full of gorgeous songs.
However, prior to the record’s release, Magik*Magik served as the Tiny Telephone Studios in-house orchestra and contributed to countless of other artists’ records. Choi formed a collective of hundreds of Bay Area musicians to call upon for orchestrla arrangements. She founded the project in 2008, after moving back to the Bay Area from the East Coast, where her family moved when she turned 12. Some performances or recordings would call for lineups as simple as one violin player, while others would require a group of 80 classically trained musicians and saw Choi writing string ensembles for a number of notable musicians. After collaborating with more than 150 artists including Death Cab For Cutie, Weezer, and Third Eye Blind, today marks a new milestone for Choi.
With the release of her album, Choi coined a new title to her musical repertoire; singer. Her delicate yet powerful voice is now the forefront of her songs. She knew singing and conducting would take time to learn but she knew she could master it, just as she did piano and singing in middle school. “I love the idea when you’re conducting an ensemble or when your conducting a dance, you’re engaged in a very intimate connection,” she says.
For Choi, conducting is about small gestures and cues. She considers it an open conversation with her band, something as simple as a look can signal a player to play quieter our louder. “I think conducting is such a beautiful activity,” she says. “The beauty and intimacy of it get lost sometimes because you see these conductors and there flailing their arms about and they do these dramatic pieces.”
Though Choi created a plethora of beautiful songs, a solo record wasn’t something she planned on. The album came together in San Francisco over tacos with former Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, with whom Magik*Magik went on an eight-week tour within 2012. Walla had worked with Choi on numbers songs he produced and told her she needed to make a record of her own, under his music label Trans Records.
Up until that point, Choi had never considered making an album of her own. She enjoyed her work and liked collaborating with other artists. “Exploring someone else’s musical world is really exciting. I wasn’t unhappy or unsatisfied,” Choi says. “He said ‘I know your happy doing the band stuff, but you should really consider stretching yourself beyond being a hired hand for somebody else.’”
Walla’s support convinced her to take a chance.“It was a no-brainer,” Choi says. “It felt like it just fell out of the sky. It would have been silly not to take him up on his offer.”
While Choi has worked with countless musicians, recording her own music has proven to be different than any project she’s done in the past. When she collaborates with musicians, her job ends once the band or musician is happy with the arrangement.
With this album, her job didn’t stop once she finished recording. If anything, she said it feels like it’s just starting. “You’re putting yourself out there being like, ‘Hey, listen to this thing I made,’ and it can be kind of brutal because you don’t know what’s going to happen; you’re just walking into the unknown, especially as a new artist,” she says. “All I can do is write a song that I’m proud of.”
Though Choi knew she could collaborate with a variety of artists on this record, she chose to only include one guest feature on the album. “I don’t want this record just to be an opportunity just to feature my musician contact list,” she says. “I decided to just have a feature on one song and that really came from a purely musical standpoint.”
Choi refers to the song “Laugh a Lot,” a duet with How To Dress Well, which came together by coincidence when Tom Krell reached out to Choi to record piano for a Bleachers remix he was working on. It was important for the frontwoman to focus the record on the orchestra and herself. “I’ve waited so long to put out a solo record,” she says. “If it means a smaller audience because no one knows who you are, that’s OK. At least you know the audience that is there, is there for you and they’re there because they’re responding to the songs.”
Her upcoming tour will include dates in Chicago, New York, and end at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco.
Swedish American Hall
December 2, 2016
8pm, $15 (21+)