With her latest album Book of Songs, Sophie Koh finds a middle ground between her pop songwriting, classical training and heritage.
“In my early 20s I just wanted to be like everyone else on the radio,” Koh says. “I was already a classical pianist but seemed to want to forget that part of my training and just write three-minute pop songs, with three chords, on the guitar. As you get older, you also worry less about what other people may think too, and listen to your own creative gut with more conviction. This is the first time I wrote an album where I didn’t worry myself with the question ‘is this song going to get on radio?’”
Having kicked such industry-oriented inclinations to the curb, Koh instead looked to her earliest musical experiences. “I have played piano since I was six, and got up to my L Mus diploma when I was about 17. However, I never really used my ‘piano chops’ in my pop songwriting or performances for my first three albums. Similarly, my love for Eastern European classical composers like Bela Bartok has been strong since I was a teenager too. Bela Bartok used very eastern melodies, inspired by folk music among Romani populations in and around Hungary.
“I’ve also grown up listening to my parents sing famous Chinese folk tunes around the house. It was kind of natural for me to finally marry all these influences together, finally, in a contemporary album, as it was already strong in my past, but just ignored,” she says. “In recent years, I’ve relished just playing piano, exploring simple but strong melodies and have less desire to have over-complicated or busy textures. That’s why I mainly used only three instruments for Book of Songs, piano, cello and viola. Melody is the most important thing for me. And where else do you find best melodies than folk tunes, passed down in song from generation to generation?”
In addition to tapping into timeless folk melodies Koh drew inspiration from Chinese literature, an experience that helped contextualise her own heritage. “I’m born in New Zealand, to Chinese/Malaysian Parents, and grew up in NZ and around Australia,” she says. “Growing up in a Western environment, but looking Eastern, is something many can relate to. I’ve had quite a few fans come up to me at gigs expressing that this album really speaks to them as it captures that flavour, that puzzle.
“I did a bit of research into ancient Chinese poetry for this album. In that search, it has brought me closer to my family, in my own understanding of my parents and grandparents who migrated from China, and also gave me confidence in acknowledging my own ethnicity. I also recorded most of this album whilst I was pregnant with my son, and perhaps this time of life or life event played a role in my search.”
Following a tour of China, Koh also began singing and writing in Mandarin, a task that brought with it some complex musical challenges. “Ta Da Mei (Her Beauty) is my first original song in Mandarin. Sindy, from the Beijing Band 16 minutes helped me translate, when she was my support act during my China tour. Writing a song in Mandarin is super challenging, I have great admiration for songs in Asian languages now, as these are such tonal languages. To write using such a tonal language, and within a tonal medium such as music, it’s like a double whammy and leave you with multiple constraints.
“During live performances, singing in Mandarin has taught me that language is no barrier to reaching an audience,” she says. “A good melody traverses cultures.”
From her initial exposure via Triple J Unearthed in 2003 to her more recent, personal work, Koh has seen the independent music landscape undergo some transformative changes. But for today, Koh content to make art that is driven by her own needs.
“I really focus minimally now on what the music industry is doing, or hook on to any fads or trends,” she says. “It’s all about creating new work, that you’ll be proud of, expressing your identity through your music, collaborating with people you admire, that somehow connects with community, before you leave this earth!”
Book of Songs
Sophie Koh and Tracy Chen
Saturday, April 6