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Sophie Milman: Beauty and the Geek

It’s an unseasonably sweltering autumn afternoon in midtown Toronto, and Sophie Milman, sporting cutoffs and flip-flops, her blonde locks trimmed short, is curled in a café armchair, sipping herbal tea. The 24-year-old, well into her third year as Canada’s hottest young jazz singer (with rapidly escalating popularity in Japan and the United States and across Europe) could easily be mistaken for the most attractive co-ed from the nearby University of Toronto campus. Wait a minute. She actually is the loveliest student at U of T, less than a year away from completing her degree in … Vocal performance? Ethnomusicology? Jazz composition?

Nope. Milman’s discipline of choice is commerce. Yes, she just might be the first chanteuse in jazz history who’ll be able to play a gig, then tally up her own profit-and-loss statement at the end of the night (though Milman’s academic interests lean more toward loftier topics like global money markets and industrial relations). “Being a nerd comes naturally to me,” she shrugs good-naturedly, with just a hint of her Russian-Israeli heritage still evident in her charming voice. “I always study, always read. I’m very analytical, I am totally not what you think of when you think ‘singer’: yoga, flowers in my hair, free spirit; that’s not me. I’m cerebral and logical. If I weren’t a singer, I’d probably be a lawyer or an economist.” When asked about the connection (or lack thereof) between jazz and number crunching, Milman warmly counters, “Well, what about Mick Jagger and the whole dropping out of the London School of Economics thing?”

Fluent in Russian, Hebrew, French and English, Milman was born in Ufa (the same Siberian border town that gave the world Rudolf Nureyev), relocated to the Israeli port Haifa when she was 6, then moved with her family to Canada a decade later. It was during her formative years in Israel that she fell in love with Western singers, beginning with Mahalia Jackson. “The first North American record I ever heard was Mahalia,” she recalls. “At first, it freaked me out completely and I started crying. I said, ‘Dad, why are you playing this? It is so loud and so moving that I can’t handle it.’ Of course, my parents don’t do anything halfway; it’s always cranked up, full volume. We were probably the only Jewish family in Israel blaring gospel music out of our little apartment.” From Jackson, she moved on to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Nat “King” Cole and her biggest musical hero, Stevie Wonder.

After Russia and Israel, it was tough for 16-year-old Sophie to adjust to Canada’s vastly different culture, but she gained welcomed support from her music teacher, who encouraged her to sing as much and as often as possible. One night, Canadian jazz veteran Bill King happened to hear her and invited her to join in a “diva night” he was organizing at a downtown Toronto club. That gig led to her signing with Geoff Kulawick, owner of the local Linus Entertainment label, and the 2004 release of her debut album, an eponymous collection of mostly jazz standards, produced by King.

Earlier this year, preparing to record her sophomore disc, Make Someone Happy, Milman borrowed producer Steve MacKinnon from fellow Canadian Molly Johnson and, dashing between classroom and studio, remembers that, “Everything just sort of happened and we were done in a week. I sang 12 hours a day and was totally pooped at the end. I couldn’t even think. Then I had to head home and study for a midterm exam in Economics of Income Distribution that I’d deferred. It was like, ‘God help me!'”

With just one research course on her current syllabus, Milman is busy crisscrossing North America for club and concert dates in support of the new album. (When she played Yoshi’s in Oakland earlier this year, her lawyer boyfriend flew down and not only surprised her with Stevie Wonder tickets, but arranged for her to meet her idol backstage, a gesture she gleefully describes as “so romantic, so awesome!”)

Yet despite rapidly increasing critical and popular success in the United States, she’s determined to stay put. “Toronto is home,” she insists. “I’m done moving. Sure, everybody wants to break into the States. [The market is] 10 times as large and the opportunities are huge. I’m still planning to tour every year or so, but packing up my life and moving again holds no allure.”

As for her professional future, Milman points out, “I’m 24 and I’ve only made two records. I’m pretty new at this! If I’m in this, I’m in it for the long haul, and I hope I continue to make records that are better and more interesting than the ones that came before.”

With no current aspirations to try songwriting (“I can interpret, but I can’t necessarily create a song from scratch,” she avers, adding, “I always say I’d rather sing good standards than bad originals”), she instead hopes to “experiment with more modern standards. I’m not going to make a whole Stevie album, though that’s a dream, but I’d like to [examine] songs by the great modern songwriters like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Springsteen. One thing I know is that no matter what I do, I’ve got to be the driving force. I don’t need to be a singer badly enough to sing things I don’t believe in. So, whatever direction I go in, you can be sure it’s going to be all me, and not my listening to a major label or being molded into anything. If I can’t do what I like I can quit and go make money elsewhere. I always have the commerce thing.”

Originally Published