Sophie Koh has got that good side of inertia going; she’s just released her third album Oh My Garden completely off of her own bat amongst trips to LA, she has several shows coming up across our great country, and she’s finding the time to compose her grandmother’s memoirs. “She’s 97,” Koh says warmly. “Well, we don’t know how old she is, she could be a hundred. She was sold to my grandfather in Malaysia when she was 16. No one really knows her history, and she’s been sick lately. It’s amazing how you get things done when you’re really busy,” Koh says, stupefied. “I’ve been a machine the last few weeks.”
The sincerely poppy record Koh has created includes synths stretched like boiled sweets, robotic blips, and mechanised ascending glisses alongside the more traditional piano and guitar sounds of her past albums. Winter Sunglasses in particular showcases some awesome production, but the songs still hold a lot of sparse beauty. Deciding when they’re done – as she doesn’t have a typical bass/drums/guitar checklist to tick off – requires a different approach during creation. “The way I record is normally with a producer, and I choose producers that play instruments as well,” she explains. “There’s a lot of conversation between me and the producer. In the end, he’s the most important person of the whole recording process.”
The producer Koh worked with on Oh My Garden was one Brad Wood, and she made four trips to his studio in LA over 18 months to work with him. Through fellow Aussie Ben Lee, Koh cultivated her musical relationship with Wood, who has an intimidating CV. “I was so nervous going over on the plane,” Koh chatters sweetly. “I’ve never been to America number one, and I’d never been to Hollywood. The picture in your head is kind of daunting. [But] when I got there, [the studio] was just in his backyard, in his shed. He had children, and he had pets, so I did a bit of babysitting,” she laughs. “Even though it was in Hollywood, we were still sipping cups of tea and walking the dog.” In this innocuous environment, Koh and Wood spent time in the state-of-the-art studio experimenting with gadgets and sound. “What I love about Brad is, he’s such a dad,” Koh says. “Even though he’s worked with Billy Corgan and Liz Phair, I went over at a time when the American music industry was a little bit slow and people were struggling to find work. He was so happy to work with an Australian artist and was branching out to do a bit more pop stuff too. We’re friends now and he’s kind of like a dad to me.”
Koh’s single I Understand features a chord progression on the piano which is contemplative and quite beautiful, and yet it comes as a surprise that she is not, in fact, a guitarist. “I’m a classical piano player,” she says succinctly. “I’m shit at guitar! When I started out in music the easiest way was to bring my guitar along to open mics and shows and stuff. Because I’m so highly trained in piano, I kind of over-complicate things when I write on piano. It always ends up sounding like Tori Amos; it doesn’t really translate to a pop songs. One day I’ll write that album, probably the next one.”
While recording in LA, Wood and Lee spent an entire day with Koh hooking wires from the studio to the next-door-neighbour’s, which housed a grand piano. Unfortunately, a concert piano is incredibly hard to record. If you think about it, it’s designed to be placed at the head of a hall and for the sound to touch every corner of an audience – not exactly easy to control. In the end they had to can much of the stuff they recorded, and meld what was left with electronic keys. “I don’t know how Tori Amos does it,” Koh admits simply. Her interest in the instrument is palpable though, as we get into the nuts and bolts of Amos’s well-documented love of Bösendorfer pianos.
It’s not just the music that gets Koh going: her video for first single Lo-Fi is a colourful, one-shot affair featuring members of her dance class. Filmed in Piedimonte’s supermarket in North Fitzroy, Koh and her mates from the notoriously fun Body Electric adult dance studio boogie through the aisles. “It worked out really well,” says Koh. “Sometimes I go there now and I feel a bit weird, and people look at me funny.” Pretty sure they’re waiting for you to bust out some polka, Sophie.
BY ZOË RADAS
SOPHIE KOH launches her new album Oh My Garden at Northcote Social Club on Friday July 13. The record is out now through her own label Crying Ninja Records.