Finding a Melody of Her Own

Minna Choi, San Francisco's orchestral mastermind, goes solo.

“I’m totally nervous,” Minna Choi says from her Russian Hill apartment.

For the last eight years, Choi has been leading San Francisco’s ever-expanding Magik*Magik Orchestra, which has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest bands — like Weezer, Death Cab for Cutie, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and Third Eye Blind — and on some of America’s biggest stages — Outside Lands, L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, and New York’s Beacon Theatre. And now Choi, who usually arranges and conducts for the orchestra, has added another skill to her repertoire: lead singer.

Which is why she’s currently freaking out.

“I love to sing, but I’m super self-conscious,” says Choi, whose debut solo album, Magik*Magik, comes out Friday, Oct. 14. “It’s going to be scary, like jumping into the deep end.”

Since 2014, Choi has been working on the album in between leading the orchestra and working as a church choir director. The idea to create it, she says, came in 2013 after a lunch date with Chris Walla, the former guitarist and producer for Death Cab for Cutie, who asked her if she’d ever thought about making her own record. His question got Choi thinking about her musical goals beyond simply arranging compositions for the orchestra.

“After eight years of that, you think, ‘Who am I? Do I even have a voice of my own?’ ” she says.

Invigorated by the idea of searching for her own voice, Choi sublet her Russian Hill apartment and spent the following two months in Los Angeles attending what she calls a “songwriting bootcamp.” Five days a week, she met with her producer Nathan Johnson every morning and presented him with her completed homework from the night before: bits and pieces of songs, such as choruses, string hooks, and bass riffs. Though she’s used to working on deadlines for Magik*Magik Orchestra, her experience in L.A. was very different and grueling.

“What was foreign to me about these particular two months was having to reach so much deeper emotionally to write an original song,” she says. “That process of digging through the dirt to get back down to that older memory and making it feel real and fresh again, that was way harder than I thought it was going to be. I severely underestimated how vulnerable the process is.”

Over the course of 10 tracks, Choi charts the devolution of a relationship that ended three years ago, an experience that she says didn’t embarrass or bother her because “I’m totally over that emotional hump.” The result, recorded at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone in the Mission, as well as at a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a glitchy electro-pop record rife with string instruments and synthesizers.

In “Front of the Line,” an explosive number reminiscent of the Icelandic singer Bjork, Choi is a fighter, acting as the aggressor in the tail end of her romance because “your love ain’t enough this time.”

But throughout the course of the album, Choi also peels back her tough front, revealing her sensitive core. In the stripped-down ballad “Laugh a Lot,” which features alt-R&B artist How to Dress Well, Choi ditches the lush instrumentals and her usual silky falsetto for a simple piano tune and a more plaintive tone, intoning to her ex: “Kiss me, name me, show me off / Fool me, save me, make it stop.”

With Magik*Magik, Choi did more than just expose her past and dig up old emotions: After years of writing for others, she finally accomplished her mission of creating something entirely for and by herself. Choi may have felt as if her voice was buried underneath the work of others back in 2013, but now that it’s at the forefront, she deserves your complete, undivided attention.

Minna Choi plays at 8 p.m., on Friday, Dec. 2, at Swedish American Music Hall. $15;

Related Stories