When I was around 12, I decided I wanted to be a composer, in the same reach-for-the-stars way that kids want to be astronauts and world leaders.
I remember tearing up at the opening titles of Princess Mononoke as Hisaishi’s strings swelled, and this was before I knew what was going to happen in the film. From that point, I became enamoured by how mood could be steered and magnified by music. It seemed like alchemy, that layers of sound could shape emotion.
Through decades of chance encounters, happy detours, supportive friends, incidental learning and patient commitment, this unlikely kid dream has become my actual life. And now, even though I get to sit behind-the-scenes where the music making happens, that feeling of alchemy is still there. With that same sense of wonder, here’s a little travelogue of music that I think is magic.
I struggled to keep this to 15-ish songs (we’re at 17!) — but if you’re hungry for more, have a listen to the extended playlist.
Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – Hoc N’ Pucky
I’ve recently been working with Imaginary Theatre’s Thom Browning, a really sweet guy with a genius mind and great music taste. He put me onto Atwood-Ferguson, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who has worked with hundreds of hip hop and soul luminaries since the 90s. Think the likes of Flying Lotus, Mary J Blige, Slum Village, Saul Williams, Anderson .Paak and Lianne La Havas. Thom excitedly remarked that my work reminded him of ‘Suite For Ma Dukes’, Atwood-Ferguson’s tribute to the late, great J Dilla, which reinterpreted his work with a live contemporary classical ensemble. I was super grateful for the recommendation and, in my deep dive, I saw where Thom was coming from. Listening to this was like finding a kindred spirit — someone who feverishly arranges a nuts array of physical instruments to create sounds that could easily be achieved with a few pre-packaged samples, loops and mouse clicks.
This track, Atwood-Ferguson’s take on the J Dilla produced Slum Village track ‘Hoc N’ Pucky’, epitomises the joy of making each sound with real objects and leaning into the jaunty imperfection of instruments being played by human hands.
Another favourite is ‘Time To Go’. Miguel’s half-assed violin playing reminds me of when you get a bit delirious and silly at band rehearsal and play trash… but it kinda sounds nice anyway.
B Fachada – Kit de Prestidigitação
As I started learning instruments in my adolescence, there was a moment where I lost the ability to hear songs as a ‘whole’. I could only hear the individual instruments – like only tasting individual ingredients rather than the whole dish. This passed, but every now and then I enjoy switching that part of my brain on and breaking apart the individual sounds again.
The first 30 seconds of this song is a game to me. I’ve listened to this maybe a hundred times, but for some reason I still struggle to place beat one until the vocals kick in. I cognitively know that it’s the deceptively on-beat sounding Rhodes notes and bass kick accents, but it trips me up every time. Also I have no idea what this song is about, but there’s something cheeky about it that I love. It feels like popping on/off a metro as you explore different corners of a new city meeting the local characters.
Ichiko Aoba & Sweet William – Amaneki
I love the calming little ambient tunes that Japan seems so good at producing. I think not understanding the lyrics is the cherry on top. You can fully relax into it without having to focus on words and meaning. Gems of this ilk are Yuko Ikoma, Gutevolk, Lamp and Lullatone. This track transitions to a lo-fi beat about 35 seconds in, courtesy of someone named Sweet William. Not strictly the ambient stuff I’ve been describing, but the combination is lovely anyway.
Noname – Self
Lovely harmonies, snappy drums, understated chords and melodies provide a gorgeous backdrop for such calmly delivered yet incisively thought-provoking words about intersectional issues. A perfect 95 seconds.
Apadalia – The Sun Will Rise Again
I was lucky enough to meet apadalia just as I was ready to approach vocalists about ‘Make Everything’. She’s by day a freshly-minted nurse and by other times a prolific lo-fi bedroom musician who composes with all instruments heard. This is one of her many dreamy gems.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjua – Her Arrival
In Grade 5, I picked trumpet for the school music program without realising how much it would shape my life. First as a gateway to understanding the language of music, then a decades-long romp as a Mouldy Lover, then as a composer. Besides loving the sound of trumpet, I feel warm and fuzzy about the trumpet object itself, like it’s a lucky totem. I imagine aTunde Adjuah might feel the same about it too. I’m in awe of his experimental approach, his ongoing reinvention of what ‘jazz’ is, and his weaving in of cultural music traditions that have meaning to him. Also, for some reason he’s appearing in the new Bill and Ted sequel as one of those future utopia people and I can’t wait!
Ohashi Trio – Travelling
When I was 15 I did my first solo trip overseas to Japan and stayed with my friend Hiroshi. One of the songs that was absolutely everywhere was Utada Hikaru’s ‘Travelling’. It was all over TV, giant screens, trains, pharmacies, arcades, everywhere! And it was so catchy. I’ve since made a habit of seeking out local music anytime I’m lucky enough to travel. More recently, I went on tour with The Mouldy Lovers to Japan and came across this jazz pop artist called Ohashi Trio (just one person, not actually a trio, kinda like the Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra thing) and quickly fell in love with his music. Here’s his 70s Motown-style take on that Utada song, creating a poetic little loop back to that first visit.
Chiwoniso – Zvichapera
I first stumbled upon the late Chiwoniso in my early 20s, probably on one of those Putumayo world music compilations. I was mesmerised by the hypnotic quality of the mbira melodies, countermelodies and counter rhythms. It’s not that music I enjoy must always have lots going on – it’s just, after listening to so much Western indie/pop music where everything seems to be in service of the lead vocals, it was really cool to hear instruments sharing that limelight with all its virtuosity on show. Maybe that’s why I compose the way I do, weaving countermelodies upon countermelodies.
ICHI & Rachael Dadd – Wakka P
There are a few musical encounters that stop me dead and change the way I ‘music’. One was seeing music couple ICHI and Rachael Dadd at Woodford Folk Festival some years ago. I thought I was in for a ‘music gig’ but what occurred was ridiculously captivating performance art in some cartoon dimension. ICHI entered the stage on stilts with bells tied to them, while playing a homemade horn-harp hybrid. Rachael appeared with shakers on her ankles, a clarinet and a ukulele. The music began before they even reached the stage, and it only got better/weirder from there. Ping pong balls bouncing around in a steel drum, balloons attached to homemade bagpipes, handclapping games, lyrics as step-by-step recipes for making rice balls.
It brought on the realisation that, damn, music doesn’t have to be anything at all. We hear so much music that follows certain rules and trends. I loved this utter disregard for it, even the idea that lyrics should be ‘words’. It could just be pure creation. Jonathan Sri turned to me after the show and declared “this is what you’d sound like if you went solo”. I laughed and nodded, I got what he meant. In our time in the Mouldies, I was up for trying anything to make sounds. But, I also wondered, “Is that what I’d sound like though?” And like answering some imaginary self-challenge, I started tinkering with what would eventually become Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra.
Another moment like that was coming across Aviva Endean’s experimental clarinet-centred performance art, via her former band Barons of Tang (but no time for that story!).
Alabaster DePlume – Not My Ask
I don’t know much about DePlume, but I love this piece. Even one layer in, there’s an immensity and intensity to that repeated melody — like when you’re deeply concentrating on a deceptively simple manual task, but one that’s of great importance and consequence.
The Spooky Men’s Chorale – Sweetest Kick
I have a deep unease with existing constructs of masculinity, especially of the ‘yelling at strangers from a moving car’ and ‘take up every space’ variety. So it’s nice anytime there’s a conscious refutation of that kind of toxicity. I feel that in musical form when I listen to this piece by The Spooky Men’s Chorale, a group of mostly white middle-aged men singing songs with gentle depth and sensitivity.
Marlon Williams – Strange Things
I spent four years of my life writing a PhD thesis about indie-folk music, initially because I loved that old-timey nostalgic beard-ified Frankie Magazine-core sensibility that was at a fever pitch in the mid-2000s. I hoped it meant people were caring more about the natural world and that ethos was spilling into popular music. As I unravelled that indie folk moment, I waded into grim topics like, ‘why is indie-folk, not to mention just indie culture, so exclusively white?’, ‘Does indie folk romanticise slave owning, Native American killing, colonial times, as some kind of lumberjack-y frontier spirit golden age?’, then also the wider greenwashing of culture and consumer goods where Typo were selling ‘drinking jars’ you could easily just have by repurposing old sauce jars…
Sorry. Like I said, I spent four years pondering this stuff. I now hate indie folk but, somehow, a handful of musicians survived that death-by-overthinking. I still love Joanna Newsom, Fleet Foxes, Lior and Marlon Williams. Cheers to you Marlon. It’s lovely to know ‘indie-folk music’ has outgrown the presumption of being ‘white man’s domain’ and that a 20-something Maori fella is out there playing spooky musical-saw filled alt-country ballads.
Ludwig Goransson – You Can See The Whole Town From Here
I teach a class called ‘Music and Culture’. One of the things that came up this past week was how often Western listeners’ first exposure to ‘world music’ is via white purveyors like Paul Simon (Graceland) and Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club). In the best light, they can be viewed as allies supporting and facilitating beautiful works for new audiences to discover and further explore. In the worst, they can be likened to ‘white saviours’, using non-Western music traditions as a backing for their solo projects in a self-congratulatory ‘I’m providing exposure for these novelty sounds’ kind of way.
Someone who lately exemplified that best case scenario for me is Ludwig Göransson through the Black Panther soundtrack. There’s a video on YouTube where he explains how he travelled throughout the African continent building relationships with musicians, and learning the significances of their music traditions before collaborating with them. It’s really cool. I love that soundtrack. But, personally, I have a real soft spot for his Creed film scores. He simultaneously has a beautifully delicate composing sensibility, while also bringing everything he’s learnt as a hip-hop producer to his work (he’s produced most of Childish Gambino’s releases). Plus I love his occasional nod to the original Rocky motifs.
Note about the loud/intense ending: it’s leading to the epic next track on the album that you won’t hear.
Laneous – Hold My Hand
My old housemate Chris-Jane put me onto Laneous, a Brisbane based jazz/soul/‘croon-punk’ musician who’s really lovely to work with. He produces brilliant soul-inspired music that isn’t afraid to get weird. I love the moment he flips it from minor to bright sunny 60s big band soul for a phrase. It reminds me of Al Green’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’.
Blackbird Raum – Honey In The Hair
At the peak of my angsty protest kid phase (now just a regular protest adult I suppose) around the early years of The Mouldy Lovers, I listened to a lot of Eastern European, vaudeville-inspired folk/punk: Gogol Bordello, Devotchka, Mojo Juju, Greshka and Barons of Tang. Plus just so much Tom Waits it was as if I was prepping for my next chapter as a 78-year-old, dive bar-sleeping, bourbon-drinking, pack-a-day smoking, stubbled white mechanic who, when alone, waltzes with the ghost of his long deceased wife…
After a period of listening to other music, my love for that raw makeshift folk-punk was rekindled by a jazz pilgrimage to New Orleans with my friend Alita where, alongside being immersed in a thriving jazz culture during Mardis Gras (seeing Tuba Skinny, The Swamp Donkeys, Hot 8 Brass Band, Leyla McCalla, Tintamare and second lines!), we also spent nights with local buskers, street-side fortune-tellers and crust punks. ‘Honey In The Hair’ sums up that feeling pretty well.
Oh. I’ve just noticed this is the second song of this playlist that features musical saw. I like them.
Sheena Ringo/Tokyo Incidents – 天国へようこそ
Sheena Ringo is like the Bjork/Thom York of Japan. She’s one of those musically plural artists who do everything and make it weird/great. She invented a Shinjuku-centric alt-rock genre, created a dense experimental magnum opus, released some 8-bit songs, combined traditional street theatre with garage rock, did a 60s big band thing, started side project Tokyo Incidents, while also making sparse Sigur Ros-esque epics, and is also the creative director/composer of the 2020 2021 Tokyo Olympics. I struggled to pick a song, this is one from her band project Tokyo Incidents.
Kamasi Washington – Fist of Fury
A friend told me this cool thing about why the African American hip hop community has so much love for 70s kung fu films, which might explain Wu-Tang Clan being named Wu-Tang Clan, and Kendrick Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, amongst other things. Both rap and kung fu cinema were tools of empowerment for racial minorities. These films, often shown in the cheapest inner city theatres, presented non-white underdogs fighting against injustice or oppression, which was something lots of young African American kids related to.
After learning that, Kamasi Washington’s ‘Fist of Fury’ made so much sense. It’s a cover of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury main theme. The song retains that 70s martial arts soundtrack quality, but adds spoken word to recontextualise it in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s an absolute epic. From the same album, the music video for Street Fighter Mas shows Washington wearing a kimono with a sword hidden in a cane like Zatoichi, in search of a worthy opponent to challenge him in a Street Fighter arcade game battle. Too good!