The Garden of Unearthly Delights has a great lineup of music for this years Adelaide Fringe. No stranger to Adelaide, Sophie Koh is bringing her show Book of Songs which showcases her blend of pop sounds to Chinese poetry fused with Western classical music. There maybe a piano, cello and viola present and it may look like a classical show but Koh promises to bring the pop music with original songs and some favourite modern covers making it a hi-fi sonic show.
It’s been a while since you’ve been to Adelaide and you’re coming to the Fringe. Are you excited to be coming back to Adelaide?
Yes! I actually had my first ever gig many years ago in Adelaide. Outside of Darwin where I was living at the time and when my song went on Triple J for the first time Adelaide was where I descended. People in the audience actually knew the song from the radio so I have fond memories of Adelaide in my past. I haven’t played the Spiegeltent for nearly ten years and I remember that as a very amazing venue.
It was 2019 that you were here last. Have you had any gigs since COVID-19?
No! This will be the first one back and the first trip on a plane for me outside of Melbourne in the last twelve months.
Are you ready for that?
I hope it goes ahead. I hope I do ascend on a plane (laughs).
You’re performing at The Garden of Unearthly Delights. Are you ready for Fringe audiences?
I’m ready for anything! I’ve been doing some cabaret the last few years and appealing to all types of audiences. Lots of different styles of settings and venues. I guess the punters will have to show me what they are all about (laughs).
Will you be doing all your songs from Book of Songs? What can audiences expect from your show?
Yes, we will be going through most of the songs from Book of Songs and also a couple of well-known Chinese folk songs that my parents used to sing on the karaoke machine but I’ve fancied them up and made them my own. Probably a couple of pop covers that I throw in every now and again that people recognise but the show is very much a classical looking show but very hi-fi and sonic in its delivery. It’s not a classical show, but it looks like we’re about to play a classical concert with a piano, cello and viola. It’s still very much a pop concert.
Your music has been described as exquisite indie-pop songs, influenced by ancient Chinese poetry and Western classical music. How did you find yourself mixing those different styles and genres to create your own unique style?
This is album number four for me (Book of Songs). I’ve been an independent artist for a long time, ever since that first gig twenty years ago in Adelaide playing to Triple J’s Unearthed fans. If Madonna can change every album genre, I can (laughs) and I’ve become more comfortable in my skin in the last few years. In the past as an indie artist, you chase radio play because that’s what you should do and must do to get exposure. As I get older, I decided to not care about it. I’ve shied away from my classical piano training as well as my Chinese ethnicity in the past. I don’t know if it was actively but certainly passively. In the last few years, I’ve tinkled on the piano a lot. I’ve realised I’m a classical musician and how can I apply it to a pop song making it less about the drums and bass and more about the melody.
My Grandmother turned one hundred that year when I was thinking about this. I got to go on tour to China with my pop band for the first time and I had never been to China. All this stuff coincided with the album and doing the China tour being an Aussie Chinese looking person, I had no association with China nor a deep need to go there other than to discover the arts and play with my band. When I got there, I realised how much of my ancestry was tied to the place down to the food that I eat, the dialect that my Grandmother spoke and it just had a full circle effect on me. Even down to the brush paintings we used to see of China in the museum, so I started studying Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty and the ancient poets of China.
I read the English translations of the poems as I don’t read Mandarin and realised that my pop song writing style is very close to how these women wrote the translated poetry in English. It’s very abstract and sometimes it doesn’t make sense from being lost in translation but it’s still beautiful. It’s very poetic and I’ve just realised for many years that people have said to me that about my pop songs and previous albums that the lyrics make sense but doesn’t matter (laughs). I’ve realised that this is the intonation and the phrasing was from a deep ancestral and ethnic base.
I find that when you’re from an ethnic background you tend to want to explore that culture as you get older and find yourself being drawn to that later in life as opposed to your teens and early twenties.
Yeah, then you have your elders pass away or you have children of your own and I think of the cycle of life commonly pushes you in that direction of questioning who you are and how you fit into society. I think being born in New Zealand having grown up in Malaysia and Singapore then ending up in Australia and feeling very much Australian now, people have always asked me where I’m from even down to the taxi driver! That’s a very complicated answer for me and I think in many ways we all have a complicated answer for that question.
You can’t be defined by how you look and what you sound like. Again, with my Grandmother the Matriarch who passed at 103 was my only remaining grandparent left, I think I had a realisation that ‘if she goes, I don’t know anything about my past and where the documentation is so I can pass on to my own child.’ Yeah, like you said it’s the journey of life.
Do you find your audiences can relate or identify with that?
At my shows a lot of people of Chinese ethnicity, who maybe part or full, come up to me and tell me that their ancestors have been in Australia for two hundred years since the Gold Rush and they have slight slanty eyes but people still assume they are Chinese. They don’t speak the language nor have they travelled to China and they found that my music spoke to them because its like an acknowledgement of Australian Asia which is kind of undefinable.
The melodies are resonant of folks from Asia but the application is very different. It speaks about that kind of inner dialogue, restraint and duty that a lot of Chinese art and poetry speak about particularly with the women in history, where there was that element of restraint and duty. There was passion written in their poetry which couldn’t be fully explored during their time, the lyrics are very reserved and there’s a yearning. It’s heart breaking and generations of women particularly with poets a lot of it was lost in fires or didn’t survive so I’m just trying to give a voice in a very Australian way.
Your music is quite unique.
I didn’t realise there was this ‘gap’ in music in Australia until I started performing this work and I saw that no one else had chosen this kind of narrative in the music scene anyway. Definitely with original songs, not covers and I hope to keep going because there’s a lot more to give here. Western classical music particularly my major influences which are Eastern European; the Hungarians and their composers, they actually had a lot in common with Chinese folk music. Their Pentatonic Scales and how the melodies were formed had more in common with their peasants and folk people such as in Hungary. They had more in common with the Chinese than with the Germans who were just next door! That mixture of music in the album is really interesting.
I was listening to your music and I did find myself getting absorbed into it. I’m really looking forward to seeing your show!
I think the general theme of identity and looking for home wherever that may be; it could be ancestral or home, there’s very much a female dialogue there like I said the duty and restraint. I find that its very deep in Chinese culture but it can be found anywhere. Its really the Australian story; where is home?
Interview by Anastasia Lambis
Catch Sophie Koh performing the Book Of Songs at The Spiegeltent at The Garden of Unearthly Delights on Saturday 3 March at 3.30pm. Tickets from FringeTix.