Sophie Koh – Studious soul

September 7, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Sydney Morning Herald, Metro, August 28, 2008.

Singer Sophie Koh’s reflective music has many influences, writes Dan Rule.

SOPHIE KOH isn’t someone you would describe as a passive subject. If anything, the Melbourne songstress seems to take polite exception to the idea.

Today, sitting in a cafe in Melbourne’s inner north, it’s Koh who is the one asking the questions. She wants to know who she should be listening to and why; she ponders the finer points of musical subgenres and styles; she requests playlists, MySpace links; she makes a pact to do some serious record shopping.

“I’m always a student,” she says intently. “I never think of myself as someone who’s paving the way in any sense.”

If there’s one thing that characterises the 28-year-old, it’s her hunger for musical knowledge, no matter the style.

“I’m always trying to learn from other people and make that work with my own stuff,” she says. “There are just a million different ways of doing things, you know.”

It’s a sensibility that echoes throughout unconventional rhythms and shimmering vocal inflections of her new second record, All Shook Up. Her 2005 debut , All The Pretty Boys, skirted hook-led acoustic pop but Koh has expanded her frame of reference here.

Produced by indie savant J. Walker (of Machine Translations), the record touches on dark noirish textures, trip-hop-like beats and reflective songcraft, flirting with but never fully embracing any particular strain.

It was a formative step for Koh, who first floated onto the scene via Triple J’s Unearthed program.

“I felt like recording with J was just like playing around, kind of playing with toys, and just learning the whole time,” Koh says. “We just kind of did whatever we wanted to do. People like J aren’t technical musicians but they have an inherent rhythm to them that you can’t teach. Most people can’t think the way they do; you’ve got to have that instinct.”

The music on All Shook Up takes a progressive shape but much of its lyrical direction reflects on Koh’s wandering past. Born in New Zealand to Malaysian parents, Koh spent much of her childhood in flux, moving between Singapore, Auckland, Wellington and Melbourne.

“I’m a very reflective person,” she says. “Childhood is just so memorable and so important to me. I can remember everything — from bullying at school to even small talk in the girls’ bathroom — so clearly.

“I guess because I was always moving on, I must have kind of frozen all these memories from each place.”

For Koh, who was classically trained in piano as a child, music is a way not only to revisit but to reinterpret. Yet the process of penning songs is not a fast one for her.

“I’m a very slow songwriter. But when it does come, it comes very naturally and sometimes it surprises me what I’m writing about. I don’t really sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write about my break-up,’ you know. It’s sort of all inside you but you don’t even realise until it actually comes out.”

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