INTERVIEW: Magik*Magik on Directing an Orchestra, Her Inspirations, Crying Fake Tears
    • TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11, 2016

    • Posted by: Kirsten Spruch

    Magik*Magik is the project created by singer/songwriter/conductor Minna Choi. About eight years ago, she began her own orchestra, The Magik*Magik Orchestra, who have since then worked with an impressive slew of well-known artists such as Jonny Greenwood, Death Cab For Cutie, and more. Now, eight years later, she's gearing up to release her debut self-titled album on October 14, which of course features the orchestra. With them, she performs music that will tug at your heartstrings and writes music for herself and no one else -- quite like her inspirations, St. Vincent and Bjork. We had the opportunity to chat with her about the upcoming album, the story behind her latest video "Weep," and more.

    KIRSTEN SPRUCH: So you work as the Music Director of the Magik*Magik Orchestra. How did that come about and what's it like?

    MINNA CHOI: I started the orchestra eight years ago when I was in school. I was a composition major at the San Francisco Conservatory and I had done a lot of work in New York before then. I was writing arrangements for studio sessions and stuff, but when I moved to San Francisco there were no opportunities to be doing that. So I kind of came up with the idea of getting a bunch of string players together from my school and creating a studio orchestra. I partnered with a local studio called Tiny Telephone which is run by John Vanderslice. I cold-called him and I was like, 'You don't really know me, but I know your studio and I want to start an orchestra that just does studio work. And would you be interested in having us be your studio orchestra?' Because they have bands come through there, and I would write all the arrangements and book all the players and conduct the sessions. And he said yes! Since then, we've worked with hundreds and hundreds of bands, gone on tour with Death Cab For Cutie, and done film scores, so it's kind of branched out since then. We do a lot more than just playing on rock records.

    KS: What was it like taking on such a huge leadership role as the Music Director? Did you ever feel overwhelmed at any point?

    MC: I definitely felt overwhelmed. I mean, the thing that made it a little less overwhelming is that I wasn't becoming a music director in an orchestra that somebody else started. If you become the conductor or the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic or the San Francisco Symphony, it's not your orchestra, you're coming into an institution. But in Magik*Magik, I'm the one that's writing all the parts. My big thing where I had a huge learning curve, is I had never conducted before that and I had never even played in an orchestra. Like, I don't play violin. I didn't know how orchestras worked. I didn't know that every rehearsal has to be 2-3 hours. And that timpani players or harp players need to be paid extra to lug heavy instruments. I had to learn all of it kind of just thrown into the deep end. There was definitely no training. So the first few years were very difficult.

    KS: You've never played in an orchestra before?

    MC: I played flute when I was in fourth or fifth grade, but I don't play now and I would never ever book myself in a million years for a professional gig. I play piano, and yeah, I had to learn how to write string arrangements on the fly. The way that I approach writing, is if it sounds good when you sing it, it will probably 9 times out of 10 sound good on the instrument. Even if you don't play that instrument. Including non-melodic instruments like drums. When I'm writing a symphony part, my demos when I'm just making a rough draft are me going into the mic like 'dun-br-r-r-r-r-r-da-da-dun.' [Laughs].

    KS: You have a self-titled debut coming out this month. What was the most challenging song for you to write on that record?

    MC: Oh, gosh. Theres a song called "Sting Operation," and that song was challenging because it's a song that was cobbled together from like four other song ideas and it took me a long time to be okay with that idea. My composition teacher taught me that it's always better when one piece comes out of one idea -- have this one really cohesive song. And a lot of songs on the record were written like that, like "Weep" and "Circuitry." And you're very lucky when that happens. But there's another method of writing a song where you have all these different song ideas and you kind of force them to become one song. I think that method is valid now, but when I first started out I thought it was kind of cheap. But I actually heard an interview about St. Vincent --

    KS: I love her!

    MC: I love her too! She's a total hero of mine.

    KS: You reminded me of her a lot when I was listening to your music.

    MC: Wow, that's like the best compliment I've ever heard! She is just so remarkably uncompromising. I think between her and Bjork, they're like two of the most uncompromising artists.

    KS: That's so weird. I was thinking you were a mix of St. Vincent and Bjork, but a more orchestral version. And Mitski.

    MC: That's like the best compliment. You just made my day, and now I think I'm not going to do any work the rest of the day. They all seem to write for themselves and no one else. I heard this NPR interview with John Congleton -- who I've worked with and who is St. Vincent's longtime producer -- and he was breaking down this one St. Vincent song, and he was saying that it was one of the songs on her latest record that was a combination of a lot of other song ideas. Basically like five songs in one song. I heard him say that, and I was like, 'okay, if she does that, then to me it's valid.' The whole time I was writing that song, I kept second-guessing myself the whole way. Like I shouldn't be doing this, is this right, is this okay? And that's why it was so hard, because I wasn't feeling really free.

    KS: I think overthinking things and being afraid of doing something "wrong" is the killer of creativity.

    MC: Totally. Second-guessing yourself every step of the way is like the worst way to make anything.

    KS: One thing I really wanted to talk about was your video for "Weep." That was the first thing I saw from you and it gave me chills automatically. Can you just explain the inspiration behind the visual for that?

    MC: The video was directed by Nathan Johnson, who is also the producer of the record. He has a reputation for doing really, really over-the-top complicated music videos. He did the latest Lucius video and two Son Lux videos before that where he does stop motion animation and stuff like that. So when I approached him to do "Weep," I didn't want to do stop motion animation or something really over-the-top and complicated. The song is so simple that the video should be simple. He kind of took that and he was like, 'I have an idea, it's like, really simple though.' One thing I told him before he went on and made the concept was, it's really important to me that my first music video as Magik*Magik features the orchestra. And I have a dancer friend that I really want to be in it -- we wanted to do something together for a really long time and I think she can come up with something really beautiful in terms of choreography.

    Then he was like, 'I think, halfway through the song, you guys need to start crying,' and I was like no way. First of all, I thought it was way too obvious, like I'll "Weep." Then I was like, 'well, there's the other problem. I'm not an actress, and neither is Coco [the dancer], and neither is anybody in the orchestra.' So there's this thing thats like this menthol, it looks like chapstick, and you put it on your eyes and it makes you cry. His original idea was that I start to cry with these fake tears, and then the dancer starts to cry, and then the whole orchestra starts to cry. Fast forward to the actual day where we're shooting, and of course, everything goes wrong. Next thing you know Nathan comes up to me, it's already been such a long day, and he's like, 'we have to cut the crying scene, there's not enough time.' And I was like, 'Nathan, the whole point of the video is the crying scene, we can't not do that. What if it's just me and Coco, and what if we just really cry. Forget about the onions and the chapstick stuff.' So I talk to Coco and she's like, 'I think I can do it.' And I was like, 'I think if you can do it I can do it, but I think you need to do it first.' [Laughs].

    KS: So I thought there was this whole symbolism behind the orchestra not crying. Like I kind of looked at it like the dancer was you, reflecting how you felt, because you were standing still and conducting and she was moving around. But now I know that you guys were just running out of time.

    MC: [Laughs] But I like your interpretation! I think everyone's going to have a different interpretation. Like Nathan, originally his concept was like we were lovers, and something had happened. And she was really heartbroken over something I did, so we were just experiencing this very personal moment between the two of us while the orchestra was just witnessing and being very respectful of it. I like how people have different interpretations of it. And I think because it's so simple, because not a lot happens, just that one big moment in the middle happens, it's very right for different reinterpretations of different kinds.

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