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The first in KYD’s New Critic series examines a classical-fusion album that came to life through a Pozible campaign and takes listeners on a very personal journey through identity and home.

Sophie Koh - WebCulture is crafted through the telling of stories.

A genre-breaking new album, Book of Songs, captures the essence of one woman’s story. Bringing together both her musical and life experiences, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Sophie Koh invites us to listen to how she has arrived at this moment in time. But her inner world, and a deeper understanding of Koh’s songs and sound, comes about when the listener learns more about the ambitious campaign that led to the creation of her new album.

Koh was born in New Zealand; her parents are ethnically Chinese and grew up in Malaysia. A traveller, Koh’s home has been ever-changing – she also spent some of her childhood in Singapore before moving for a stint to the far reaches of Australia: Darwin.

‘This question of where I’m from has always been quite confusing,’ Koh explains in the album’s promotional video. ‘I became more curious about my ancestry, and Book of Songs is sprinkled with this question of identity and home.’

This rich cultural heritage is loud in the new album. Here Koh has created the greatest amalgamation of East and West of any of her three studio albums, the first of which debuted in 2005. The composer’s musical training is as diverse as her background: her past singles revealed flashes of pop, and she has performed widely, from pubs to television appearances on Spicks & Specks and RockWiz. She was taught piano as a child, but her classical training has so far been hidden in the background of her musical output.

What is produced aren’t mainstream-oriented hits – everything on this album is organic and unique.

Book of Songs strips things right back to focus on three classical instruments: Koh on piano; Caerwen Martin on cello; and Louise Woodward on viola. The album was largely recorded in Koh’s lounge room, with the musicians using the furniture as makeshift sound barriers. Other recording venues included an intimate school hall in Korumburra and producer Greg J. Walker’s home in Gippsland. What is produced aren’t mainstream-oriented hits – everything on this album is organic and unique.

The album opens with ‘Paper Kites’. Koh’s gentle voice takes what can be interpreted as an ‘indie’ sound; through well-mastered audio we can hear elements of breathiness despite an otherwise pure tone. Enchanting with mystery and beauty, this opening track features Koh’s piano playing through her Yann Tiersen-esque lines with innovative and unpredictable chord progressions.

The second track, ‘Yellow Rose’, was a teaser released prior to the album launch, and it features a short animation by Melbourne artist Xin Li. Xin, who himself crosses cultural boundaries with a background in Western oil and Chinese brush-painting styles, creates mesmerising landscapes of birds, water and mountain ranges.

The animation depicts an old-fashioned beauty in the handmade – art that possesses the remarkable quality of having been laboured over by human hands. In this way, it wasn’t just a teaser for the album but for the ethos of authenticity of Koh’s music.

‘Yellow Rose’ reaches the ears in the same delicate way as an impressionist work by European composers Erik Satie or Claude Debussy. Koh’s relaxed interjections mimic resonant piano notes, while the cello adds texture as it plays a folk-sounding melody.

Despite this specificity, Book of Songs still reveals a global sound. It is not bound by cultural restraints, despite the drawing on Chinese poetry and melodies, nor by age – sometimes Koh sings with the depth of a woman who has lived, and at other moments she sounds feminine and light, as in ‘Once a Little Girl, a song that starts with humming over the piano, hinting at nostalgia and past experience. It has a simple melody, and at six minutes in length there are many haunting repetitions in which Koh imitates the cello’s folding and bending tones, themselves reminiscent of a Chinese erhu instrument.

Sometimes Koh sings with the depth of a woman who has lived, and at other moments she sounds feminine and light.

There are a few reprises in this album, each slotted between the vocal-based songs and featuring a short burst of instrumental music. These arrangements stand alone to showcase Koh’s talent for classical composition and pianism. ‘I Want to Dance’ may remind us of piano music found in early 20th-century concert halls, though it’s eerily childish with a music-box feel.

It’s hard to pick a highlight of the album, though the tracks in which Koh sings in Mandarin offer a striking aural contrast. She hints at vibrato in these moments, a rare treat on this album, and her wavering tone is subtle and more evocative of emotion than deliberate technique.

‘Song for the Birds’ closes the album, giving us a calming reflection that ends with repetition of the words you’ll always be in my heart, during which Koh toys between major and minor, giving the impression that the feelings articulated within the song aren’t resolved – in the same way life often doesn’t resolve itself.

Koh toys between major and minor, giving the impression that the feelings articulated within the song aren’t resolved.

Comparisons can be drawn between Koh’s album and the music of Icelandic singer Soley and the classically trained Kate Miller-Heidke (in her more sedate moments), but Koh largely draws on the influences of her surroundings: singing in unison with her instruments, using these instruments with practised skill, and constructing melodies that comprises classical and Chinese music.

Koh isn’t the first artist to weave the story of her background through song. She follows in the footsteps of many Australian singers that communicate their heritage through music. Malaysian–Australian Omar Musa is celebrated for his impassioned personal stories told through rap; while the classically trained artist Dami Im, who crossed cultural boundaries to present gospel music in Korea as a child before migrating to Australia, has gone on to represent a concept of multicultural Australia in Eurovision. Undoubtedly, the artists who gift Australia with cultural diversity are helping to evolve what it means to be ‘Australian’ – and the impact of Koh’s album continues this tradition.

Book of Songs was crowdfunded through a recent Pozible campaign, in which 191 people gave money to raise nearly $12,000. Koh, a self-managed artist, had already spent more than $13,000 on recording and mixing, almost all of which was supported by Creative Victoria.

The success of this album and crowdfunding campaign demonstrates the power of bravery in the face of an industry that is flooded with competition, issues around piracy, and financial insecurity. It also revealed that Australians will still spend money on supporting local artists. This album represents hope for Australian composers – from any culture and musical background – and for the industry as a whole.

Independence isn’t the only benefit of a crowdfunded album. It also enables a direct link between artist and audience. By opening these doors to her listeners, Koh’s campaign encouraged a sense of community in line with the values of the album itself. Every listener can become part of her history and her story by contributing something of themselves to bring her project to life.

But don’t let the genesis of this album fool you. There’s nothing amateur about Book of Songs: Koh assures her listeners in her first song that she harbours no hesitation, no self-consciousness, revealing instead real grace and confidence as an artist.

Towards the end of the Pozible campaign, Koh revealed a particular secret: soon after she began her recording sessions, she discovered she was pregnant. Now listeners to her brilliant album can perhaps imagine that her son might one day continue his mother’s tradition of storytelling through music.

Book of Songs will be launched on March 25 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.