Into The Light

31 July 2012 | 3:16 pm | Nic Toupee

"We talked about that ‘magic third album’, the one where you’re trying to connect with a greater audience, and how you can do that by writing something more direct, more pop. I have always been a big fan of pop songs."

Perhaps Ben Lee had advice in mind for future collaborator Sophie Koh, when he wrote the lyrics to Numb 'So let the music come, I'm writing pop songs.' It was in conversation with Lee that Koh found inspiration to develop what she considers her indie-pop incarnation in the newly released-album Oh My Garden. “I wrote a few songs on this album with Ben,” she explains. “We talked about that 'magic third album', the one where you're trying to connect with a greater audience, and how you can do that by writing something more direct, more pop. I have always been a big fan of pop songs.”

Some people might think pop – the three minutes of sunshine, the hooks and shimmy around the lounge infectiousness – is the beginning of an artist's journey. There are plenty of examples; even The Beatles themselves went from Love Me Do to Revolution Number 9 in an increasingly oblique and psychedelically-enhanced freak fest. Although to draw comparisons to The Beatles' wild trajectory may be a bit extreme, Koh has taken the journey in reverse. Three albums and 10 years into her songwriting career, she finally felt in a position to make a pop album, after a couple of albums of stripped-back acoustic tracks.

“When I made the first two albums I was quite young, and young as a songwriter – not as mature as I am now, or as confident in the studio as I am now. When I went into the studio with Brad (Wood, LA-based producer of Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair and, fortuitously, Ben Lee), I felt more confident in knowing what I wanted, and with this album I feel I've grown up.”

So in a norm-spinning reversal, for Koh, the pop album was, in fact, her great experiment. “Part of it was me wanting to do something different,” she says earnestly, “but also to play to people's strengths, the people I was working with on the album. Ben's strength was with the vocals, helping me make it more direct, and I was keeping it all as raw as I could.”

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She found the collaboration refreshing, after the thorny wilderness of two albums of solo creativity. “It was magical,” Koh affirms. “I was sick of writing songs by myself. I'm not the kind of person who goes in with a hard idea of exactly what I want in my head. I knew I wanted to make an album that was more upbeat, and that idea was shaped by the people I was working with, as much as it was my idea wanting to make something more pop.”

Brad Wood and his LA-based studio were the missing links in Koh's pop plan. “For me, having access to proper studio facilities, I wanted to make the most of it, and I knew I wouldn't get the chance again. Whereas previous albums have been a lot more homegrown and organic, this time we got programmers and stuff in. I wanted to learn a lot more about writing and recording, and collaborate with other people.”

The results of this California-infused burst of melodic pop inspiration have found some Australian critics on the back foot, suspicious perhaps that Koh has sold out. Nothing, in Koh's mind, could be further from the truth. “Whether people are critical or surprised is not important to me. What was important was to see whether I could keep being a songwriter interesting for myself. I was sick of writing songs about sad stuff, I wanted to write songs that were strong and melodic, to make something happier and less held back than my previous work. This is my third album and time to stop trying to please people,” Koh appeals. “I haven't done it as a career move – I don't actually want to be famous. I just want to be a songwriter.”