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by Dr. Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Sorrento – Look Up

by Dr. Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Sorrento – Look Up

Somewhere deep within the NZ music scene lies a musical entity called Sorrento. In the Top 20 shortlist for the 2019 Silver Scroll Award, Sorrento made an appearance with a track called Look Up (feat. Troy Kingi), co-written by Troy Kingi, the actor and singer who tenaciously and publicly committed himself to a 10-albums in 10 years challenge.

However, the force behind Sorrento comes from Marika Hodgson, a bass player of notable esteem, having played with the likes of Hollie Smith, Esther Stephens, Noah Slee and Jordan Rakei, to name a few. Currently a member of indie-pop act Alae, Marika is a stalwart of the Auckland scene – a respected and liked contributor to the heart and soul of NZ music.

In this X-Factory, we will take a look at denotative and connotative components of Look Up and try to dissect its musical juiciness. First off some facts. Look Up was released early in December 2018. Recording credits go to jazz-inspired pianist Daniel Hayles (lead synth), NZ School of Music sound artist in residence Cory Champion (drums), Matt Nanai (lead guitar), and Andy Lovegrove (BVs), as well as Marika and Troy. All musicians with significant weight in their own right.

The track is grounded in nostalgia, as a lot of new music tends to lean these days, towards a modern and perhaps self-ironic look into the soul and funk prevalent late last century. The synths, however, provide an audacious twist to an established sub-genre, a post-modern reflection that is also represented in the accompanying music video.

I think it is important to note one of the major strengths in Look Up, its harmonic movement. The track starts with a chorus section after a 10-second drum solo, a chorus which is based in D Dorian minor (Dm | C | G7 | G7), repeated four times for the chorus. However, at 46s an Eb chord is spelt marking the beginning of verse one, abruptly and unapologetically – so cool. I want to use Batman and Robin action words here like “kapow,” and “whap”, but I shall refrain. Eb major moves to Bb major two bars later then resolves back to Dm via A7, all two bars long (Eb | Eb | Bb B C | B Bb | A7 | A7 | Dm | Dm).

This 8-bar strophe is repeated with a G7 chord replacing the Dm chord in the perfect cadence A7-Dm (at bars 7-8). Additionally, Sorrento uses constant structure-based chromatic chords idiomatic of some ‘70s soul/funk compositions. Marika, who is a MAINZ Bachelor of Musical Arts alumni, told me this by email:

“I love syncopation and chromatic runs, very much influenced by Stevie Wonder stuff like Sir Duke where the bass/horns do runs which are mostly major pentatonic with chromatic steps.”

I love this about Look Up – syncopated pentatonic runs like at 1m add to the surprise and nostalgia, killing two birds with one stone.

Marika continues: “When I wrote this I wanted to make something that used dominant and major chords, cos I thought that would be a good challenge, I find it’s easier to write songs focused around minor chords, but it’s hard to make a major sound funky.”

An interesting and relevant point to make here. Major = happy and minor = sad is a culturally derived phenomenon, but even after this realisation, the challenge to turn this around is still very real.

Subtlety and sophistication play a part in Marika’s harmonic choices as she spells an additional B half-diminished chord in the second verse only, and uses prosodic devices such as descending harmony over the words ‘gravity’ and ‘let the moon follow your own tide’. Other notable congruence includes syncopation over the lyrics ‘we split the clouds in two’, a tactile anaphone representing cutting or breaking. (A tactile anaphone is a ‘sounds like’ – musical devices found in semiotic studies where the music represents touch or sensation.) The additional high synth part over ‘where dragons learn to fly’, abstractly links two domains.

Interpreting the meaning of Look Up as a combination of (1) surrealism and fantasy presented as a metaphor for combating the age-old story of good and evil, and (2) street vernacular such as, “I never know if my shit’s a little wack, everybody just relax, I’m off the beaten track”. Kingi’s lyrics are equally bold as Marika’s music. So lyrically speaking, paradoxical semantic viewpoints are eventually combined in the final chorus, where the rap and chorus merge.

I can’t help but interpret the connotations of merging as an acceptance of all facets of the human spirit, but hey, I am a romantic. Sorrento is being playful. The bass riff that opens the track has Marika’s bass part deliberately NOT synced to the music at this seminal moment, making me laugh whenever I watch it on video.

Borrowing from a recent travel website on Italy’s Amalfi Coast I stumbled across this:

It can be said that tumbling down a cliffside in a palette of bright hues, Sorrento is a popular and long-standing resort town with a charming historic heart, atmospheric ruins and a bustling port…

I have been to Sorrento in Italy regularly in my youth, and if Marika captures even a taste of the romantic flavour of the Amalfi Coast then Sorrento will do very well indeed. I hear the palette of bright hues, and the historic heart in Look Up, do you?