MKO SUN On Staying Away From The Trends And Forging Her Own Sound

Written By Sam Murphy on 11/17/2015

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It takes a certain artist to be able to forge their own sound so early in their career. All over the world, the music world is taken by trends that influence everyone from major labels to radio stations and tastemakers. Plenty of artists fall into that trap only to find themselves redundant when people move onto the next thing. That's why it's so refreshing to find an artist making their own way by way of experimentation. They're the ones who set the trends, not follow the trends and that's exactly what Brisbane artist MKO SUN is doing.

Her EP Opus Opalus sets a new benchmark for Australian music. It marries throwback soul with future R&B all while bringing something different to the table with experimental detours that make the seven song set a thrilling ride. It's emotional and human but it also has an other-worldly feel to it with parts sounding like nothing you'll hear out of this country this year.

We caught up with MKO SUN to chat about the new EP and also discuss why it isn't worth following trends. If you haven't already, get up to speed with her new EP below and then delve deeper into it by reading the interview.

What's it like being an artist in Brisbane?
It’s both really awesome and really shit. The really awesome part of it is that the living conditions are beautiful, it’s pretty cheap to live, the weather is nice and it has a nice pace to it. The downside is that it’s pretty quiet and not a lot goes on. Like, sometimes it’s pretty hard to go out and see a good gig and find inspiration. Also the music I make, there’s not much of a scene for it in Brisbane. It’s getting a little bit better and I think maybe it’s working in our favour that we're one of the only few groups doing that sound like R&B, soul flavour. But then sometimes I think, “ah, I just needa put a bill together,” and there’s not really anyone to ask.
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MKOSUN3
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It’s interesting what you say about there being no electronic/soul crossover scene. There’s been a lot of that recently in Sydney and Melbourne but not necessarily the type you’re doing - really experimental. It’s all been cut and dry ‘90s R&B stuff which I don’t feel like is your vibe.
No not at all. I love R&B and I love soul music. I have always responded to that most strongly. But I also don’t see the point in just re-doing something. I could easily make an album that sounds like TLC and release it but it would just be copying and there would be nothing interesting. They have already done that so why would I? I like the idea of taking something old and making it new.

Even with Michiko, if you took out the really aggressive electronic parts in that it would be a nice song still but it wouldn’t be captivating. How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you write the track and then inject these interesting bits?
Yeah with that I wrote the piano part first, so that kind of nice R&B, poppy piano bit. It was written first before the singing and the words, I just had this instrumental thing. And then I took a shitty iPhone recording of that, put it into Ableton and just started playing around. I was just like, “aw, I’m going to play some synth over this,” and my drummer had given me a beat that she’d cut up and that fit in those little pockets so it just kind of happened. I was listening to the piano part I’d written thinking it sounds really nice but nice...it needs some flavour.

What’s the rest of EP like?
They’re all very different. That’s where I wanted to go with this EP. All the songs are written about the same subject matter but I wanted them each to be this different world. Black Seaweed and Michiko were already very different and so is the rest. There are a couple that are a little more experimental and beats driven. There’s one in particular that’s quite hip-hop driven. And then there are a few more down-tempo, sentimental tracks. My favourite is track four. It’s this interlude that goes for a minute and 20 seconds. I think it’s because I have a short attention span.

Your stuff is very inline with what’s going on overseas at the moment where you’ve got experimental stuff coupled with R&B melodies so it’s more accessible. If you had to put together your dream bill who would we see on it?
A few people recently have made this comparison to FKA twigs which I think is partly because my name sounds a bit like it but it’s interesting because I don’t actually listen to her stuff. It’s not because I’m not interested in what she’s doing, I’m just not a massive fan but from what I’ve seen and heard I really respect the artistic, experimental approach and also the DIY doing everything herself thing. So, I’d love to play alongside her. Little Dragon, also. There are a few hip-hop, neo-soul artists from the States that I really like. There’s this one singer Georgia Anne Muldrow that I really like. My ideal support slot would be Björk. Maybe if all those people could be on a bill I’d be part of that.

Bjork is an interesting one. I’ve been thinking about all the contemporary people doing this experimental pop thing but she’s been doing it for 20 years.
I think that is because she doesn’t copy and doesn’t emulate anyone else. Everything Björk has done is totally her own thing. It’s like she’s her own genre.
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MKOSUN2
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Is that difficult to carve that out and find something that’s unique and separate to other people?
I think definitely it’s difficult and it’s difficult at first when you’re just starting. People always want to compare you to somebody else. If they find that hard to do then...people are wary of new things and whether they should like it or not. If there’s a trend heaps of people get on board and if they hear something that fits in that trend they’re like, “that’s cool.” But something that’s new and challenges a bit people are hesitant to like it. So I think it is difficult but it also pays off if you make something that’s really unique and people start liking it that feels really good.

I think often it just takes a little bit longer for people to catch on when you’re doing that. A lot of people talk about the triple j sound and matching their music to suit the station. Has there ever been a temptation for you to change your sound to match the trends?
Yeah definitely. I’ve definitely thought about it. People have been like, “just do one track that’s super poppy with nothing weird and experimental.” But then there will always be this thing in the back of my head where I’m like, “ah, I gave into it.” I don’t think I’ll ever do that. I’d rather be true to what I wanna do. It’s interesting, triple j get on board a little bit but not totally. Occasionally there’s one presenter that likes it but it doesn’t get put on rotation.

Yeah it’s a game. But then people are able to build a scene separate to it. Is it your aim to create shows that aren’t necessarily huge but are full of people who are really committed to your sound?
Definitely. I think what my aim is...I also wanna go overseas and not just play in Australia. I took my band to New York and we played about seven shows over three weeks to small rooms but I had a  really awesome response. I would like to have those pockets all over the world where there’s just enough people to fill a room. I feel like that would...I would call that being successful.

How integral was that New York experience to this EP?
Totally. I pretty much wrote everything while I was there. Going out and seeing so much music and coming home every night and just writing. All the initial inspiration behind the songs happened there.

Do you have plants to move away from Brisbane?
Yeah, I’m thinking I will move to Melbourne next year for at least six months. I want to get back to New York as soon as possible too and hopefully live there one day. I also really wanna go to Japan and play some shows there. And I also haven’t seen any of Europe.

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It takes a certain artist to be able to forge their own sound so early in their career. All over the world, the music world is taken by trends that influence everyone from major labels to radio stations and tastemakers. Plenty of artists fall into that trap only to find themselves redundant when people move onto the next thing. That's why it's so refreshing to find an artist making their own way by way of experimentation. They're the ones who set the trends, not follow the trends and that's exactly what Brisbane artist MKO SUN is doing.

Her EP Opus Opalus sets a new benchmark for Australian music. It marries throwback soul with future R&B all while bringing something different to the table with experimental detours that make the seven song set a thrilling ride. It's emotional and human but it also has an other-worldly feel to it with parts sounding like nothing you'll hear out of this country this year.

We caught up with MKO SUN to chat about the new EP and also discuss why it isn't worth following trends. If you haven't already, get up to speed with her new EP below and then delve deeper into it by reading the interview.

What's it like being an artist in Brisbane?
It’s both really awesome and really shit. The really awesome part of it is that the living conditions are beautiful, it’s pretty cheap to live, the weather is nice and it has a nice pace to it. The downside is that it’s pretty quiet and not a lot goes on. Like, sometimes it’s pretty hard to go out and see a good gig and find inspiration. Also the music I make, there’s not much of a scene for it in Brisbane. It’s getting a little bit better and I think maybe it’s working in our favour that we're one of the only few groups doing that sound like R&B, soul flavour. But then sometimes I think, “ah, I just needa put a bill together,” and there’s not really anyone to ask.

MKOSUN3

It’s interesting what you say about there being no electronic/soul crossover scene. There’s been a lot of that recently in Sydney and Melbourne but not necessarily the type you’re doing - really experimental. It’s all been cut and dry ‘90s R&B stuff which I don’t feel like is your vibe.
No not at all. I love R&B and I love soul music. I have always responded to that most strongly. But I also don’t see the point in just re-doing something. I could easily make an album that sounds like TLC and release it but it would just be copying and there would be nothing interesting. They have already done that so why would I? I like the idea of taking something old and making it new.

Even with Michiko, if you took out the really aggressive electronic parts in that it would be a nice song still but it wouldn’t be captivating. How does the songwriting process work for you? Do you write the track and then inject these interesting bits?
Yeah with that I wrote the piano part first, so that kind of nice R&B, poppy piano bit. It was written first before the singing and the words, I just had this instrumental thing. And then I took a shitty iPhone recording of that, put it into Ableton and just started playing around. I was just like, “aw, I’m going to play some synth over this,” and my drummer had given me a beat that she’d cut up and that fit in those little pockets so it just kind of happened. I was listening to the piano part I’d written thinking it sounds really nice but nice...it needs some flavour.

What’s the rest of EP like?
They’re all very different. That’s where I wanted to go with this EP. All the songs are written about the same subject matter but I wanted them each to be this different world. Black Seaweed and Michiko were already very different and so is the rest. There are a couple that are a little more experimental and beats driven. There’s one in particular that’s quite hip-hop driven. And then there are a few more down-tempo, sentimental tracks. My favourite is track four. It’s this interlude that goes for a minute and 20 seconds. I think it’s because I have a short attention span.

Your stuff is very inline with what’s going on overseas at the moment where you’ve got experimental stuff coupled with R&B melodies so it’s more accessible. If you had to put together your dream bill who would we see on it?
A few people recently have made this comparison to FKA twigs which I think is partly because my name sounds a bit like it but it’s interesting because I don’t actually listen to her stuff. It’s not because I’m not interested in what she’s doing, I’m just not a massive fan but from what I’ve seen and heard I really respect the artistic, experimental approach and also the DIY doing everything herself thing. So, I’d love to play alongside her. Little Dragon, also. There are a few hip-hop, neo-soul artists from the States that I really like. There’s this one singer Georgia Anne Muldrow that I really like. My ideal support slot would be Björk. Maybe if all those people could be on a bill I’d be part of that.

Bjork is an interesting one. I’ve been thinking about all the contemporary people doing this experimental pop thing but she’s been doing it for 20 years.
I think that is because she doesn’t copy and doesn’t emulate anyone else. Everything Björk has done is totally her own thing. It’s like she’s her own genre.

MKOSUN2

Is that difficult to carve that out and find something that’s unique and separate to other people?
I think definitely it’s difficult and it’s difficult at first when you’re just starting. People always want to compare you to somebody else. If they find that hard to do then...people are wary of new things and whether they should like it or not. If there’s a trend heaps of people get on board and if they hear something that fits in that trend they’re like, “that’s cool.” But something that’s new and challenges a bit people are hesitant to like it. So I think it is difficult but it also pays off if you make something that’s really unique and people start liking it that feels really good.

I think often it just takes a little bit longer for people to catch on when you’re doing that. A lot of people talk about the triple j sound and matching their music to suit the station. Has there ever been a temptation for you to change your sound to match the trends?
Yeah definitely. I’ve definitely thought about it. People have been like, “just do one track that’s super poppy with nothing weird and experimental.” But then there will always be this thing in the back of my head where I’m like, “ah, I gave into it.” I don’t think I’ll ever do that. I’d rather be true to what I wanna do. It’s interesting, triple j get on board a little bit but not totally. Occasionally there’s one presenter that likes it but it doesn’t get put on rotation.

Yeah it’s a game. But then people are able to build a scene separate to it. Is it your aim to create shows that aren’t necessarily huge but are full of people who are really committed to your sound?
Definitely. I think what my aim is...I also wanna go overseas and not just play in Australia. I took my band to New York and we played about seven shows over three weeks to small rooms but I had a  really awesome response. I would like to have those pockets all over the world where there’s just enough people to fill a room. I feel like that would...I would call that being successful.

How integral was that New York experience to this EP?
Totally. I pretty much wrote everything while I was there. Going out and seeing so much music and coming home every night and just writing. All the initial inspiration behind the songs happened there.

Do you have plants to move away from Brisbane?
Yeah, I’m thinking I will move to Melbourne next year for at least six months. I want to get back to New York as soon as possible too and hopefully live there one day. I also really wanna go to Japan and play some shows there. And I also haven’t seen any of Europe.

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