Award-winning Jazz Singer Sophie Milman Puts the “Biz” in Showbiz

If you’ve never heard her before, the moment Sophie Milman’s voice croons through your speakers, you might find yourself transported back in time. With a low, dusky voice and a sultry jazz sensibility, Milman’s songs will make you think of smoky dive bars in New Orleans, in the golden age of jazz. On her latest album, In the Moonlight, she reinterprets jazz standards like “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ces Petits Riens,” as well as modern pop classics like Feist’s “So Sorry.”

Her renditions of jazz hits and contemporary classics alike have earned her a Juno for her 2007 album Make Someone Happy, as well as accolades from a myriad of sources. The Globe and Mail said this about her third album, Take Love Easy: “It’s clear that this is no pop jazz confection. Between her honeyed tone and relaxed, back-of-the-pocket phrasing, Milman sings with a maturity beyond her years.”  The LA Times goes further to proclaim her as “not the next Ella or Sarah but the first Sophie Milman. . . . She is one of a kind.”

But no mere lounge singer, if transported back in time, Milman could play the role of singular talent as much as strategically calculating talent agent. The Russian-born, Israeli-raised, Toronto-based singer may be known for her three Juno nominations (including one for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for her latest album, In the Moonlight) as well as for her SiriusXM Indie Awards nomination for Jazz Album of the Year (again for the latest album). But what many may not realize is that there is a sharp business mind beneath that perfectly coiffed bob. The multi-talented artist also has a solid educational background in business, having received the Gold Medal upon graduating from the University of Toronto with a degree in commerce. Although she’ll easily confess to having never worked in a corporate capacity, there is an undeniable benefit to being able to easily navigate the “business” side of showbiz.

“[It helps] in terms of thinking critically and applying myself intellectually to what I do . . . and at the end of the day, being able to crunch some numbers and not necessarily be afraid of things like that, and just participating in business conversations,” Milman says in a phone interview with Cadence from her Toronto home. “Not just being an artist who goes, ‘Do this for me,’ or ‘Do that for me,’ or ‘Take care of this.’ ”

Given that the latter is exactly how most artists are expected to behave when faced with business decisions, the idea of artists as single-dimensional beings with only one talent to stand on is still a pet peeve for her.

“There’s a real irritating tendency I find among people to assume that all we do is, we can sing or we can play guitar,” she says. “Or actors, all they can do is be in movies. There’s no understanding that behind these talents there can be other talents. In order to be able to do music well, I think you need to be pretty well rounded. You need to be interesting and you need to have a full personality. I think people are surprised because they assume that – just because I’m a singer – all I can do is sing, and look pretty and be blonde, you know?” Milman takes the edge off her words with a laugh and adds, “So that’s something I like to challenge.”

Despite her knowledgeable grasp of the industry, however, Milman makes it a point to separate the business and the music into two separate spheres of her life, something she has been doing ever since she first landed her record deal while still a student at U of T.

“Certainly there were conflicts, because when I started, I could not in my wildest dreams imagine I would have this career,” Milman says. “I was a very focused student; anything below 90 was unacceptable. And I suddenly got a record deal and recorded my first album and went on the road. With every semester, I wound up having to take fewer and fewer courses because I just found I couldn’t study the way I wanted to and actually get a proper education, and really benefit from it and enjoy it while being away six months of the year.”

In order to make the most of her career and to avoid having a lacklustre educational experience (“It got to the point I was writing papers on planes to Asia or northern Europe…”), Milman made the decision to take a few years off from school in order to focus on her career, and towards the end of 2010 she returned to complete her degree, an experience she found richly rewarding.

Now that she has completed her business education, however, Milman says that, while it gives her an edge in terms of understanding and participating (in how her career is being managed), she finds it necessary to avoid focusing too much on the business side of things.

“As an artist I find I really need to separate the two,” she says. “If you become too focused on the business, to be honest with you, it’s really hard to maintain the positive energy you need as an artist, because the business side of things is really bleak right now.”

She notes further that being in such a niche genre, as opposed to the pop mainstream, means that the opportunities are fewer. And even being one of the more successful artists in her field doesn’t always necessarily translate to dollars and cents.

“I don’t know whether any artist you talk to will tell you, ‘Yeah, the business is great and we’re all making a living.’. . . It’s like trying to get water from a stone; especially in my genre. In order for me to go up on stage and deliver a compelling show, or go in the studio and deliver a compelling record, I need to not think about the business.”

What she does think about, though, is the state of the music industry in terms of content, and frankly, she doesn’t think too highly of the latter when it comes to current mainstream pop music.

“In a genre like jazz, . . . it requires a lot of intellectual and emotional ability to do this. I’m sorry to say this, but you don’t need anything to sing like Ke$ha,” Milman says. “You don’t need any emotional life; you don’t need any real talent; it’s all auto-tuned. I’m sorry that I’m singling her out, but to me, she’s like, huge. People like Ke$ha, even though they’re at the top of the charts as well. It requires no emotional world. It requires no intellectual capacity. You just need to stand there and look vulgar, and sing vulgar.”

Not all of it is bad, though; Milman points out that mainstream pop has produced some incredible talents.

“To me there are some great pop artists out there like Beyoncé and GaGa, and Whitney Houston when she was younger. There’s some incredible, incredible talent out there. And Adele – I really respect what she does. But those people, you can tell they’re a level above.”

That aside, Milman herself isn’t doing too badly. Her latest album, In the Moonlight, came out towards the end of last year to rave reviews and, as mentioned earlier, a Juno nomination; and this spring marks the beginning of her tour. And for a Canadian artist in a niche genre, Milman has a relatively robust international following. Her international career began in a rather unusual way, though.

“ITunes has been a giant help for me, because that’s what helped launch my career in Japan,” Milman says. “ITunes US picked up the first record and put it on the front page of the jazz section and got excitement building. And a bunch of Japanese retailers check out the US ITunes page; say, ‘It’s a new jazz singer”; and start importing my record. So even before my record officially came out on JVC – which is the distributing label in Japan – the record was the number one jazz import in a few enormous flagship Tokyo record stores.”

The jazz singer also has a fan base in her native Russia – in fact, she’s kicking off her tour with a show in Moscow on April 7 and is working to break into the European market. So despite her skepticism at the state of pop music, Milman is well on her way to becoming more of a household name internationally in her own genre – if she isn’t already – and she doesn’t hesitate to share tips on how to get there.

“The key is to be in the market, be in the territory,” she says. “Go out and tour and make connections with audiences.”

At the end of the day, though, international audiences or not, Canada is where this singer calls home. For Milman, who migrated with her parents to Canada twelve years ago after a childhood spent in Russia and Israel, it all comes down to the place where she got her first big break.

“My parents are pretty blown away,” she says. “They recognize what a hard road it is in terms of the stress and the travel. And sometimes there is recognition and sometimes there’s a lack of recognition, and they ride the rollercoaster with me. But at the same time, it’s amazing to them. When I was offered the record deal, we’d been in the country for three and a half years. We knew no one. I had to look in the yellow pages for a lawyer to look over the deal, which is really not how these things usually happen. So to have come this far is mind-blowing and is really a testament to what this country can offer for immigrants who are really willing to open themselves up.”

That chance has certainly paid off, especially this year, with her fourth record being nominated for both a Juno and a Sirius XM Indie Award.

“I’m thrilled and I’m humbled. And I’m appreciative of my recognition from my peers and people who know music, who’ve chosen to nominate me for these amazing awards. I’m really excited. I’ve won a Juno before, and I’ve won an Indie, but never been nominated for both in the same year, so it’s great.”