Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Those who assume that an orchestra can't possibly be relevant or cool obviously haven't heard of Minna Choi. While studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Bay Area native formed Magik*Magik Orchestra, a rotating group of around 150 instrumentalists who have since collaborated with the likes of Sting, Weezer, Carlos Santana, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, among others. She's also worked on the video game soundtrack for Iron Man 2, and film scores for Looper and Kill the Messenger.
Now, Choi becomes a talent to watch yet again as she steps out with her first solo project titled Magik*Magik. According to Chris Walla, Death Cab for Cutie’s lead guitarist and producer: “She is a genuinely, honestly, world-class, no B.S. kind of unbelievable musical mind. She’s really, really incredible."
After chatting with her about her hurricane-like writing process, growing up as the child of immigrants, and the glory of Björk, I'd have to strongly agree.
Did you always know you wanted to explore becoming a musician, or was there another dream that captured baby Minna’s imagination?
Baby Minna definitely loved music more than anything else. My mom told me that I learned how to work a tape deck -- play and rewind and stop -- before I learned how to talk. But I didn’t think about pursuing music as a career until much later in life because, in my family, becoming a musician was kind of frowned upon. I was always afraid of going into music because I was afraid of rejection. I studied Communications in undergrad, and after graduation, I got tons of rejections -- in this field that I had really lukewarm feelings about. So I finally decided that if I'm going to be getting rejected every day, I'd rather be rejected for something I love.
You're the only child of Korean immigrants, and being a child of immigrants myself, I know how anxious it makes some parents to see their kids follow a more artistic, less practical profession. How did they react when you decided to focus on music as a career?
They were very against it. They had always told me that people who make it in music are the extreme child-prodigy geniuses. That if you’re not one of those people, your life is just going to be one miserable disappointment. [laughs] I told them, "I know I’m not one of those people, but this is what makes me happy."
I attacked my grad program at the San Francisco Conservatory with a fury. I thought of it as my one chance to prove to my family that this was something viable for me. My parents watched me speak at my graduation. A couple of days after that, the Magik*Magik Orchestra, which I started between my first and second year at school, played a big benefit concert at Davies Symphony Hall. The headliner was Sting, and it was a 60-piece orchestra that I put together. I wrote all the arrangements. There were 2,500 people in the audience. After that, my parents were like, Yeah, maybe.
Months later, I got offered a full-time job as a music director at a local church. That’s when they started breathing easy. Now they're behind it 100-percent. It took many moments: getting into grad school -- Oh, maybe -- the Sting thing -- Oh, okay -- and then the church thing -- We’re cool with it now.
You’re now becoming a role model for the women who will come after you. Are you able to take that in, or is it hard to think of yourself in that way?
I think the term "role model" feels a little scary, but I do try to act as a cheerleader and a comrade to a lot of people. I host this community salon-style thing for artists of all backgrounds at my house once a month called A Sunday Dinner for Artists. I cook dinner, and we sit down and eat together. I set up a projector and some speakers, and people share what they're working on, or ask for feedback, or just share something that inspires them. Being there for fellow artists as much as I can emotionally and in a Rah! Rah! We can do it! kind of way is an important part of my artistic mission and something I make time for.
When you’re creating or even just listening to music, you've said that you're on the hunt for a surprising moment. Once you find that, it’s a good song. What’s one of your favorite surprising musical moments of all time?
For me, a song doesn't have to be great the whole time, as long as there's something surprising or unexpected. Björk is my favorite artist of all time. A great example is when "It's Oh So Quiet" goes from hushed to chaotic a minute into the song. It's perfect.
You’ve recently branched out from arranging and conducting to produce your own LP, Magik*Magik. What called you to make that switch? What’s it been like stepping into the spotlight?
Chris Walla, who was the guitarist and producer for Death Cab for Cutie, approached me a few years ago and said it bummed him out that I'm always in the back behind someone else and didn't have my own music out there. He offered to fund my record and release it on his label. It started out being about not wanting to say no to Chris and learning how to do a new thing, but when I got really into it, I realized I really like writing original songs. The process isn't as painful as it was when I was a teenager. It's now inspired me to keep writing. I've been writing like crazy this year. I've finished 20 songs since the New Year because it was one of my resolutions.
When you're writing about something that happened to you and it's your own artist mission statement on the line, it's really emotionally turbulent. Maybe for other people, it's more freeing, but for me, because it was my first statement out there, I wanted to make sure what I was claiming to be my voice really was my voice. It was an internal artistic exploration that felt really angsty and furious at times. I think I was taking things a bit too seriously, which made every decision feel scary. I feel a lot calmer now.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
An ideal future for a woman artist wouldn't be that dissimilar from an ideal future for a male artist. We would be able to live here and afford an apartment, that’s number one. We would be able to have a healthy mix of writing music for ourselves and writing music for others. Back in the day, writing music on commission was considered a form of selling out. Being commissioned to write music for events or something special in someone's life used to happen so much more in classical times. Small commissions like that are a sign of a healthy society, one that values music and art as something beautiful and important to their everyday lives. I would love to work in a city where we returned to that kind of appreciation of art.