"How I identify myself is just as complex as the stranger sitting next to me" Sophie Koh

Sophie Koh's Book of Songs is a deeply personal record that asks tricky questions about home and identity alongside a musical approach influenced by Chinese poetry and Western classical music. Sophie's one of the busiest people we know, so we can't thank her enough for taking the time to chat with us.

Hey Sophie! I have to apologise for my lateness of this interview - but as a silver lining, I always find it’s interesting to hear about a record after a few months has passed. How has the process of releasing this album felt for you?

I'm an independent artist and self-managed so releasing an album is between me, myself and my publicist! BOOK OF SONGS is my 4th indie release. I felt more organised and prepared this album. Everything seemed to ready WEEKS prior to deadline. I had never been in that situation before. Perhaps because from the start, even when recording this album, I was never in a rush to release it. The crowdfunding campaign I put together leading up to the release day took a lot of work BUT it forced me plan and put everything in place 6 months prior. I had multiple Excel spreadsheets ready to go...that's my self-managing brain speakingI Also, I knew I didn't have to catch on to any musical 'fad' on the radio..this album's genre is quite undefinable, so there was no deadline and had no one to answer to, other than myself. I took my time putting things together, promo pics, album artwork, new website, engaging fans during the crowd-funding month, getting mailing lists, pitching for shows etc. Most Importantly, this is the first time I've let my fans be part of my 'process' from the start, months prior, via the crowdfunding campaign. I reached out to the fans to help me choose my new album cover via social media. All this really helped make the official release more effective and engaging for the fans, and satisfying for me to see it roll out. 

There’s a dense complexity that I feel a lot of people will relate to in Book of Songs. ‘Exploring the concept of home and identity’ is not something that can be easily summarised, and even answering these questions with ‘I’m Australian’ brings up so many questions in regards to the sovereignty of this land. I’d love to know more about what it was like to start unravelling this question, and where the process of releasing this record has left you on answering these kinds of questions?

Releasing this album hasn't left me any clearer about how to answer the question 'Where are you from?'. How I identify myself is just as complex as the stranger sitting next to me. My answer is still long-winded ' Well, I was born in New Zealand, my parents are Chinese, from Malaysia. I lived in Singapore and New Zealand as a kid but now I'm Australian, from Melbourne...but my favourite place, and perhaps my spiritual home is Darwin, Northern Territory. All my grandparents are from China but they left for Malaysia when very young'.  What I DO know for certain, is that identity can not be defined by the way you look. 

Though, the release of this album has helped me speak more openly about my Chinese ethnicity. This album was really sparked by a combination of things. My last-surviving grandmother was turning 100 and no-one had written down her amazing story. I started to visit her in the nursing home more regularly but I couldn't communicate as she spoke a certain dialect, so I had to bring my mum to translate. I felt frustrated and sad that I couldn't find out about my grandma's life as a young woman. During this time, I got a Creative Victoria grant to do a big tour of China with my band. It was my first time visiting my ancestral home. My grandmother and this China tour made me realise that acknowledging my ethnicity is something I should not shy away from, and should be more proud to discuss in public.

Are you able to tell us a little bit more about your memories attached to Gan Lan Shu (Olive Tree) 橄榄树?

Gan Lan Shu is a famous Chinese folk song. Most Mandarin speakers on this globe, no matter which country, would know this song.  Kinda like ' Love Me Tender' equivalent in fame. Growing up, my parents used to sing this on their karaoke machine. They loved music but grew up in big families so didn't have opportunities to learn instruments BUT they LOVED their cheap karaoke machine at home. When I was in my late-teens and starting to write originals, I mentally noted to myself that one day, I would record this song myself. The lyrics are also very apt for my new album ' Don't ask me where I'm from, my home is far away, Why do you wander? It's because I dreamt of an Olive Tree... "

You’re a self-managed, self-funded and independent musician, as well as a new mum. I’m sure lots of folks would love to hear how you manage your time, any tips or tricks?

I don't recommend it! But looking back, the first thing is to work out how you can get your baby to sleep well. I was just lucky that my bub was a good sleeper and I have a very supportive partner who believes in my music as much as I do. My bub is 15 months now. The first 3 months of the newborn's life was the most challenging period of my life. I didn't do any music related things during that time. Slowly, I would open my laptop to do work as soon as baby is down for a nap. But most mums would know, housework and putting your feet up sometimes takes precedence. Motherhood is all encompassing. I made sure that the album was all recorded before he was born and spent the first 9 months of bub's life managing the album release via my laptop, like overseeing artwork, working on press-releases etc. I guess I timed it well and to be honest, having a project like album release and managing a crowdfunding campaign was a welcomed distraction from the daily upheaval of being a new mum. Having something else to think about gave me energy. I also became less perfectionist about things. I would have 2 hours max a day during his naps to get everything done so I couldn't be precious about the final result. And new things like calling people on the phone directly, rather than writing a long email, (which I used to do) is something I learnt to be much more efficient! 

I read also that you’re pretty passionate about improving music education access in schools. As someone who went through high school in Dandenong as well as studied to be a music teacher out in the outer fringes of south-east Melbourne - I sadly saw first hand how a lack of funding and passion for music and art can be dangerously disenfranchising for young people. I often saw kids start to become interested in their music subjects, only to have to give it up because the school didn’t offer any senior music programs and they couldn’t afford to move schools. What do you think are some of the main challenges for students in underfunded state schools and how can it be helped?

Music in state schools is an issue very close to my heart too.  I would not have become a musician if it wasn't for my state schools in New Zealand. My schools had amazing music programs and accessible for ALL e.g. It was $60 to rent an instrument for the whole year, so I took up as many instruments as I could. Learning trumpet one year, then the cello. And I was in every orchestra, jazz band, choir, variety show etc. My parents were working two jobs and had no formal musical training themselves, so had no time to foster my musical interests other than save up money for private piano tuition. My NZ school also had the culture where the lead in the school musical was also the captain of the school rugby team. Music was compulsory all through primary school and up to year 9. Because of my school, I was exposed to my first opera, musical and symphony concert. My parents did not have the time, finances or prior exposure to have introduced me these experiences. 

We moved to Australia in Year 12 and was horrified my the lack of music programs in my state school. We couldn't afford to attend private school. It saddened me, even as a 17 year old. There is enough science now to conclude that learning music, especially consistent instrumental lessons, enhances children's' learning ability and improves numeracy and literacy. Policy makers need to understand this science, ensure that music is not seen as 'extracurricular' but part to the formal classroom stem areas, alongside maths and english. It's a policy that needs to be changed at a government level. There are some amazing advocates working on this very topic as we speak. I have hope! As well as compulsory classroom music, I'm particularly passionate about exposing the 'classical concert' experience to ALL children via their schools, like going to the footy. If they go when they're young, they'll go again when their older. I really feel this will help address the lack of youth attending concert halls in Australia, from youth of all backgrounds.

Grab of Songs, Sophie's latest record on vinyl, CD and digital over here.