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Thursday, February 21, 2008
Sophie Milman: The Jazz Singer



This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.

The night Canadian jazz vocalist Sophie Milman was discovered, she had plenty of things on her mind. Becoming a professional singer wasn't one of them.

Nineteen years old at the time, Milman was a bookish commerce student at the University of Toronto. She was also a jam session regular, and after her third professional gig, representatives from a record label walked in and offered her a deal.

"It was never a conscious decision," is one of the first things Milman, now 24, tells me when I reach her by telephone at home in Toronto. "I knew I loved music, that I had a pretty voice -- the way kids do sports, but not everybody can become an Olympic athlete."

It is 9 a.m. when she recounts the story, and Milman is on break from a rigorous tour schedule that often demands four performances in as many days. "I'm not the kind of artist that really sleeps to 2 p.m.," she tells me seriously. (Her band members -- who are like an extended family to her -- are another story, she jokes.) In June, Milman released her second album, Make Someone Happy, and she was home preparing to kick off a nine city U.S. tour.

In the jazz world, Milman is recognized as the fresh new talent to emerge in Toronto. Born in Russia and raised in both Israel and Canada, her rise in popularity has been meteoric, certainly the stuff aspiring artists dream of: Her self-titled debut album, released in 2004, sold 100,000 copies and made it to Billboard's Top 5 in Canada. The record topped the iTunes jazz charts, and in 2006, she received a Juno Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Recalling the details, Milman tells me it "clicked" that she was no longer just a college student when halfway through university, she found herself worrying about music more than schoolwork. "You're really defined by what you do," she says. "That was the beginning of Sophie Milman," she says.

But her career as a professional jazz singer came later, she insists: While recording her second album, she found her voice when for the first time she assembled material that reflects her life story and everything she is about: "That's when I became a singer."

***

Toronto is buried in snow in late December when I pick up the phone to call Milman. We chat for about 30 minutes when she interrupts to ask: Can we take a break and possibly resume after she has worked out with her trainer? She is nervous about driving to the gym in this weather, concerned about how her newly leased car, a silver Mazda 3, will handle the snow.

For the past eight years, Milman has called Toronto home, although there were many others before it. Born in the Ufal Mountain region of North Central Russia, Milman and her family immigrated to Israel in search of better opportunities when she was 7 years old. "By the end, my parents were really tired," she says describing life behind the Iron Curtain. "My mother was a journalist, it was very hard for her to be censored all the time."

As Jews, the Milmans could not express the cultural and ethnic traditions of their religion either. "We're still not religious, but the freedom to explore that was something not available to my parents growing up," Milman explains.

In Israel, life was better -- although the first years were difficult, and money was tight, Milman recalls. "We moved with a few old couches and a lot of art, and a box of records, and we had to rebuild our lives," she says. Until she was 11, both her parents worked two jobs to make ends meet. "I spent a lot of time alone in those early years."

Music was Milman's constant companion, as the family's first purchase in Israel was a turntable. The old-fashioned machine was hard to come by, but the family could not afford a CD player. Before leaving Russia, her father had amassed a comprehensive collection of vinyl records, which he brought to Israel. The collection was a mixture of British rock -- Led Zeppelin and the Beatles -- plus gospel, jazz, and classical music.

"The thing we would get together around the most was music. I think that's why it entered my life in such a powerful way," Milman says. "Truly, there was no rhyme and reason. We would put on a Stevie Wonder record, a Mahelia Jackson one ... It really enriched my life in a way that I can't even put into words."

Today, Milman says the early influences are her musical inspiration: "Carmen McCray, I adore her ... nobody delivers lyrics like Carmen," she says. "Ella [Fitzgerald], of course, has the most perfect instrument. She truly has an unbelievable voice, and a lot of my earlier jazz came from listening to her records."

When she was 16, security concerns in Israel upended the family's happiness and they moved to Canada. While violence did not touch the family directly, the threat of terrorism and of suicide bombers proved too troubling for her parents. "They just couldn't get over the stress of it," she says. "We very much loved Israel and it was probably the hardest decision my parents had to make that second time."

***

On her album covers, Milman's blond hair frames blue eyes and a creamy complexion. With a flawless face and physique, she is a bombshell -- and fans certainly appreciate her beauty and her voice, which spans a wide range and delivers notes in a clear, sultry tone.

Despite the upheaval of another move, in Toronto Milman found an audience. "I feel like I found myself best here in Canada. The opportunities that this country gave me in terms of the jazz, singing, I probably wouldn't be able to do that there."
Milman insists that as a teenager, she was "weird," awkward, and "chronically shy" -- the result of moving so much and having to learn new languages and make new friends. Perhaps because of this immigrant experience, Milman describes a fierce bond with her parents. (Milman's younger brother, Tal, who is 14, was born in Israel.)

In no uncertain terms, she credits her parents with fostering in her a sense of artistry. "When I was growing up, we were the only household playing jazz," she recalls. As she acclimated to new homes throughout the years, her parents pushed her to read and to listen to music, not just to watch television. "Maybe it would have been the easier road to just blend in," she says. "My parents helped me form an identity from the rest of my peer group. I'm really grateful for that."

Milman says her parents fed her love of music, and when it came to her own career, Milman concedes that her father believed in her more than she believed in herself. "I never thought I was good enough," she says. "He heard something there long before I did."

She recalls attending an Oscar Peterson show with her father when she was a teenager. "We honestly couldn't afford it," she says wistfully. Nonetheless, he purchased two front row seats, where they could hear every grunt -- "every single noise" -- that the jazz artist made. "When you're that young, music is a very important part of your life. It's not something you just do, you experience music," she says.

For Milman, her music is about her own past and her present. "I don't sing what I don't believe in," she says. "I've experienced so much upheaval in my life. I want to find a lot of stability and peace on my own."

Although she is not religious, Judaism is a topic she feels passionately about. "I used to get into arguments all the time with Jews and non-Jews in Canada who would tell me Judaism is only a religion. I'm not sure what that makes us then," she says. "To me, limiting Judaism to just being a religion is simplifying it completely. We are a people, we are an ethnicity with a common history and background and some pretty strong national traits that bind us whether we're religious or not." On her new album, Milman departs from her trademark sound and sings a Chana Senesh song, "Eli, Eli."
The song, and others, are a better reflection of her as a person, she explains. "I had so much more to say." She says ultimately, she asked herself: "Wouldn't it be cool to be honest about that and make a record that's less 'pretty girl singing pretty songs' and more about who I am as a person? Where I've been and where I'm going and some of my joys and some of my demons, as well."

--Text by E.B. Solomont / Photo by Alex Collados-Nunez

This is part of our Feb/Mar 2008 issue.
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