Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

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Sophie Milman:
The World for a Song

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Sophie Milman is a new jazz singer who is making waves across Canada and in other countries around the world. Her first self-titled disc, Sophie Milman, sold over 100,000 copies and gained her wide critical attention. Her second CD, the 2007 recording Make Someone Happy, won her a Juno for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. She appears in the most recent Downbeat as an artist to watch, and she has a busy international touring schedule—which just happens to include an appearance in Winnipeg this February at the Burton Cummings Theatre.

Born in Russia, Sophie and her family emigrated to Israel when she was only seven.  When she was 16, the family sought a new life in Canada and Sophie has made Toronto her home ever since. Sophie is intelligent, intuitive and hard working—probably just a few of the benefits of having more cross-cultural experience in her 25 years than many have in a lifetime.

Make Someone Happy is a quality recording that showcases Sophie’s smooth, smoky vocals. She has a confident, consistent sound that is distinctive because of her slight Russian accent. At this point in her career, she’s not writing work herself—as she puts it, she “would rather be doing good covers than bad originals.” From the simmering “Something in the Air between Us” to the spiritual “Eli, Eli” to a fresh take on “Undun” (with The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman, no less), Make Someone Happy is a great addition to any jazz listener’s library.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Sophie early in December just after she finished recording her third album.

How did you come to jazz?

I listened to jazz as a really young kid.  My dad had a pretty comprehensive collection: Oscar Peterson, Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Brown—really wonderful, classic stuff.  It tuned my ear and made me a lot more sophisticated in my musical tastes.

I always sang along, making up words even though I knew little English.  As a teenager what came out was a mish-mash of all the records I had been listening to—Peggy Lee, Edith Piaf, Ella, Sarah—all sung with a slight Russian accent. I really connected with the music right away.

After high school I started sitting in at jazz clubs. I compare it with the kids who play pick-up basketball with no intention of going pro. I caught the eye of a piano player named Bill King and he gave me my first gig. He put me in a rotation at a restaurant that had a jazz series and I sang Tuesday nights. A record label walked in a few days later and they liked me and were in the mood for signing a young jazz artist. And that was when the path of my life completely changed—I went from being a first-year commerce student who sang jazz once in awhile to being a jazz singer who studied commerce once in a while!

Who are your music icons?

My favourite jazz singer is Carmen McRae.  She’s always playing somewhere on my iPod.  Then there is Shirley Horn, Jaco Pastorius, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Miles, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder—I love good music!

You have a busy performing schedule that many young musicians would envy. What are the highs and lows?

The highs are obvious: being able to go on the road and sing—it’s an amazing thing when you stop and think about it. I can live from what I love to do! I have an amazing band that I really enjoy spending time with on and off stage. Meeting different audiences, seeing how audiences around the world react to different things. I have seen the world as a result of what I do—I can’t imagine anything better than that.

The lows? Being away from family and the people who, at the end of the day, are closest to you. You tend to get kind of homesick.  The jazz touring schedule is intense. At the high-end clubs in the States and Japan, they often require two 75-minute sets a night, six or seven nights a week.  It gets hard on the voice. I recently started taking classical voice lessons just so that I can keep my voice in decent shape.

What are your goals for the future?

I’m really excited about this next record—we have bookings into 2010. We are going to be playing some symphony shows next year which is terrifying and exhilarating. I saw Dianne Reeves performing with a symphony in Toronto. That was the most amazing experience of my life and we’re going to be doing that next year!

Also I want to excel.  It’s not enough for me to just sing songs.  I want to grow from record to record.  As long as I feel like I am living up to my musical potential I will be really happy doing this for the rest of my life.

What advice do you have for fledgling jazz singers as they begin their performing careers?

You know, everybody has their own path. (I’m totally not zen but that came out really zen!) There are no rules to this game other than not compromising too much in what you’re doing. Follow your musical instincts because the music industry will chew up young women if we let them. It sounds harsh, but it does tend to happen. So no matter how young or inexperienced you are, you’ve got to come in there with some attitude. At the same time, keep an open mind and listen to people when they give advice.

Put together the most amazing band and be loyal to them.  Take them on the road even when it’s financially unthinkable.  The beauty that comes out of a band that is comfortable together is unmatched.  When I was on an indie label with no budget, I dragged my guys with me everywhere and it paid off over the years.  It’s like a family on the road.

You said that there are struggles just in the nature of being a young woman in the business.  Have you had anybody try to push you around?

Absolutely! Yes I am petite and blonde, yes I was signed when I was 19, but at the same time I have a strong personality. On my first tour of Canada I did an interview with someone who told me that I need to sound more like Norah Jones, more “rootsy.” I hung up the phone.

Fundamentally, I am who I am, I sound the way I sound. I’m going to get better, I’m going to develop, but I will not force myself to fit into a mould—ever. And I think that has really worked out for me over the years. No I haven’t sold 14 million records, but I don’t feel like I need to at this point in my career. As long as I keep growing, as long as every record and live performance is better than the ones before, I’ll be happy. I’m kind of a simple girl that way.

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