SAN FRANCISCO — Conductor, pianist and arranger Minna Choi is about to kick off a three-hour rehearsal. But while several of her musicians from the popular Bay Area Magik*Magik Orchestra are on-hand, they’re not rehearsing for a recording session with one of your favorite bands or a community concert, as the orchestra is wont to do.
They’re about to prepare for Choi’s debut solo show as the appropriately named Magik*Magik. The concert is the next day, and this happens to be the first time that Choi is in a room with all of the musicians who will make her original songs come to life. There’s also the matter of this interview, which will delay the practice. As soon as it concludes, Choi and her band will build a complete set from her self-titled debut album of chamber pop spine-tinglers.
“I’d never heard [my songs performed] with everyone together; with drums, with strings, with vocals,” Choi says. “This is trial by fire.”
Over the next month, Choi goes on to perform eight shows, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. But the most important concert is this Friday at the Swedish American Hall.
“I’m very excited about that one in particular,” Choi says. “I love to play for my friends, so coming home and being able to do the last show of the tour in your city to everybody who’s supported your career for nine years [is] going to be a nice memory.”
The solo project is an offshoot of the orchestra that Choi founded in 2008 after moving here from New York to attend conservatory, but it’s completely separate. The main role of the Magik*Magik Orchestra is to work alongside bands and other composers to perform their work, be it live or on-record.
Choi has written arrangements for more than 100 artists like Death Cab For Cutie, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, John Vanderslice, The Dodos and Weezer. The orchestra has been featured on more than 800 songs, and performed with Third Eye Blind at the Outside Lands Music Festival last summer.
Magik*Magik the solo project consists entirely of original songs. Instead of decorating someone else’s cake, she gets to bake her own, Choi explains. She was inspired and pushed into the challenge by frequent collaborator and mentor, Chris Walla of Death Cab. Wall released her debut on his label, Trans-.
“I was not unhappy or bored recording other peoples’ music at all,” she says. “In fact, I thought I was going to be doing that for the rest of my life. And that’s a big part of my musical mission and voice.”
The album married her two loves of orchestral music and pop, and is an emotional rollercoaster of heart-tugging strings and synths set against Choi’s smooth, inquisitive vocals. Bay Area music fans will recognize How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell guest vocals on song “Laugh a Lot, ” as well as Oakland’s Fox Theater as the setting for the video to single “Weep.” The video came together quickly after Choi asked Another Planet Entertainment, her management company as well as the managers of the Fox to set the first single in a local venue.
“To me it was important that the first video be in a theater, feature an orchestra and be in the Bay Area, because that is the DNA that I came from,” she says.
RIFF: You’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some very successful, talented musicians. Can you tell me which ones come to mind first?
Minna Choi: One of the artists I really took a liking to; he’s become like an older brother to me, was the Dodos. [Lead singer] Meric [Long] is like one or two years older than me. We instantly connected. He puts so much trust into the parts that I write. I think his songs are really musically interesting. Another person I’ve worked with a lot is John Vanderslice. We worked with him on his White Wilderness record. We’ve done tons of live shows. And, probably, Death Cab for Cutie is the biggest band that I’ve worked with. With them, it was such a deep musical partnership because they wanted me to write string parts for their songs dating back to their very first record. And all the way through their newest stuff. It really felt like someone was inviting you into their whole history as a songwriter and as an artist. That’s pretty special.
A solo project didn’t mean the end of collaborations. How’d you convince How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell to take part?
It was a trade. I knew I wanted harmony on one of my songs, and I’d worked with How to Dress Well many times. He comes to me every now and again with little musical favors. “Hey, can you play a piano thing for me?” Or, “Can you come up with a harmony; can you this choir thing for me?” So I was on the hunt for someone to harmonize on one of my songs, called “Laugh A Lot.” He reached out to me with “Hey, I need someone to play this piano part on this Bleachers remix I’m doing. Do you mind laying this down? Let me know what I should pay you.” So I [said], “Don’t pay me, just sing harmony on one of my songs and we’ll call it a deal.”
The Magik*Magik Orchestra has helped score several films. What’s your dream movie to score?
I think action movies are really fun to write scores for. My first choice on a Friday night is not to watch an action movie, but I think one of music’s most powerful [elements] is that it has a tempo. It moves time. Add music to something and it’s going to have a pace. It’s going to push stories forward and it’s going to drive emotions. Action movies are so hard to score, even though people make fun of it all the time. It’s like this drumming: Dum-de-de-duh-de-de-duh. But to get the timing exactly right, for the music to swell and scare an audience at exactly the right time before an explosion or something, that timing would be tricky and very fun to work on.
What is your strategy for merging electronics and organic instrumentation?
I really try to push the organic instruments to sound a little more surprising. How can you adjust the timbres of a [trumpet or trombone] to make them sound otherworldly?