November 04, 2016

Five Song Fridays: Magik

I'm taking Song Exploder on the road for a few events later this month. If you're in New York, Chicago, or Toronto, I'd love to see you. More details at

Nov 15: New York - Listening party (episode premiere and Q&A) at SONOS [ RSVP ]
Nov 18: Chicago - Live Song Exploder with guest Sara Watkins [ tickets ]
Nov 19: Toronto - Live Song Exploder / Podcast Exploder with guest Reply All [ tickets ]

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Minna Choi of Magik*Magik has written orchestral arrangements for artists like Death Cab for Cutie, How to Dress Well, and John Vanderslice. She's also the music director of Pop-Up Magazine. She's just released her first solo record, and she's put together a mixtape for Five Song Fridays to accompany it. Her playlist is called "All Kinds of Empathy."

Listen to the playlist on Spotify or YouTube, and read Minna's words, below.

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All Kinds of Empathy

My latest single is a song called Weep. It was the first song I wrote for my record that I was truly proud of. It's really short, the lyrics are only 7 lines in total but the message is very clear. If we want to be empathetic towards others, it requires full immersion in someone else's psychological and emotional state. I searched through my itunes for songs that reminded me of diving deep into those scary and sometimes chaotic waters for the sake of another person.

Billie Holiday - Good Morning Heartache - I have a lot of Billie Holiday songs in my itunes and know them quite intimately because a few years ago a producer hired me to write out 30 of her songs' string arrangements by ear. It was one of the hardest jobs I've ever done but it made me listen so much more closely to her music than I had before. I love the way heartache in this song is personified as a human. It's an interesting way to think about empathy, the act of just sitting with the trouble or the sadness that someone might be going through and not trying to push it away or pretend it's not there. But to just welcome it in, like you would a friendly stranger visiting your home.

Antony and the Johnsons - Hope There's Someone -  I used to listen to this song everyday while waiting for the NJ transit on my morning commute to work in the city. If there is a more simple, heartbreaking and straightforward plea for connection and mutual understanding and support than this, I don't know what song that could be. The singer in this song is expressing that foundational desire we all have to find someone who can understand who we are and what we are going through. My friend Doug Henderson mixed this record and he told me once that the one weird chord that Antony hits about halfway and just stays on through the song was actually a mistake, but that she just hit the chord, waited, sighed and kept going. If that's true, that makes the song even more poignant. None of us are perfect but we're still looking for someone to accept and love us anyhow. 

Bjork - Unison - Bjork is my favorite artist of all time. It's not just that her music choices resonate so deeply with me on a compositional level, but as an artist she has is fiercely uncompromising and has been as such for a long long time. The amount of artistic will and discipline that takes, I'm just in awe. Vespertine is my favorite record of hers and this song is my favorite song on the record. It just so happens to fit in with this theme but I'm more excited about it just from a musically delicious point of view. Everything about this tune is sparkling, heart tugging, lovely, daring and it soars away. It was inspiring then when it came out, and will be forever to me. 

Christina Vantzou - Going Backwards to Recover That Which Was Left Behind - I've worked with Christina as an orchestrator and arranger since her first record and she is a true kindred spirit. All her music is instrumental but this songstill feels like empathy for me. If you had to paint of picture of the musical moves in this tune, it's a combination of small swirling whirlpools fluttering towards the ground (that twirling viola line) and then a massive blanket of a melody slowly covering the whole thing from left to right. Do you remember in Fantasia, towards the end of the unicorn Beethoven Pastorale cartoon, there is giant woman with a black cloak moving across the sky? That's what this song feels like. And somehow that feels like empathy to me. It's a massive hug around all this internal murmur and twisting underneath. 

Magik*Magik - Weep - The chorus of this tune is "I'll weep when you weep". I don't think empathy really requires any more fireworks or explanation than that. All you need to do is sit with someone and let their burden or their troubles become yours for a temporary while. Because the words were so simple, it was important to me that the music was simple too. There are only 5 ingredients to this tune: the main vocal, the drum loop, the piano loop, the wurlitzer chords and the strings. I love that feeling of when you can create something poignant with very few ingredients, like a really great simple pasta or something. This song was created that way. I'm really proud of this one.

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Learn more about Minna's story and hear more of her music at

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Here's the most recent episode of Song Exploder:
Oathbreaker - 10:56 / Second Son of R.

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