For young jazz star Sophie Milman, the first and second times were good, but the third is most definitely a charm. She’s talking, on the phone from her home in Toronto, about her albums.
“The first record put me on the map, and I’m very, very proud of my second album, but this record is the one that makes me feel like I really came into my own and became an artist I can respect,” she says. “I wish it were my first record, to be honest.”
The bombshell chanteuse performs for the first time in Arizona on Thursday. Her concert is an unofficial but attention-getting kickoff to the city’s annual Jazz Festival going on April 4 and 5; Milman is, quite frankly, one of jazz’s hottest tickets.
Her last album, “Make Someone Happy,” earned a 2008 Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, and its title track beat out jazz heavyweights Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. for “Best Song” honors from iTunes Jazz.
Milman’s next release, “Take Love Easy,” is due out in June.
“I really wanted to call it 'Take Life Easy,’ because that’s something I’ve never been able to do, and this record is about that — not where I’ve been but where I’m going. I’m learning to take it easy,” says Milman, 25.
Born in Russia, she immigrated with her parents to Israel at age 7. At 16, the family moved again, to Canada. She says the experience of being the odd kid out helped her develop more of a bookish, introspective personality than a natural performer’s comfort with attention.
“I used to be very shy. I’m a little better now, but to throw myself in front of audiences was not a natural thing for me. When you’re an emigrant and your parents don’t speak English and you have the responsibility of helping them, you have no connection to the music industry. You don’t know what’s good, what’s not, what your voice is like. I had no idea what to compare myself to. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past six or seven years.”
It’s a learning curve that can be traced through her three albums.
Her 2004 debut, the self-titled “Sophie Milman,” is painfully reminiscent, she says, of where she was at 19, when record company execs signed the University of Toronto commerce undergrad to a deal after hearing her sing in coffeehouses.
The greenness shows.
“You hear a lot of musicians wish they could go into the record store and just burn all their first albums, and that’s kind of how I feel about that one. It did so much for me, but sometimes I’m not sure why, when I listen back to it. The musical performances are fantastic, but as a vocalist — sometimes I can’t even listen to it. I’m so far from there already.”
Even her popular sophomore effort, “Make Someone Happy,” could use some vocal tweaks, she says. The album was also heavier. Each song, from jazz standards like “Fever” and “People Will Say We’re in Love,” to unexpected choices from Stevie Wonder (“Rocket Love”) and Kermit the Frog (“It’s Not Easy Being Green”), were autobiographical, revealing something of her vigil to please fans, her label, her professors and her parents.
The new album brings back the trend of the unexpected with songs written by Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon. But it’s coming from a happier, more mature place.
“This record’s for me. This one is about making me happy. It’s a hopeful, subtle album, more modern and jazzy than anything I’ve ever done, and I’m improvising more; I’m freer. It’s more me than anything else I’ve ever done,” she says.
Songs from all three albums will be on the playlist for Milman’s Chandler show, even tunes from the debut album she’s critical of.
“Live is a different story,” she says, laughing in a voice that lilts between husky and bright. “That’s the beauty of jazz. I think when I grow up a little bit, I’ll be able to look back at them with humor and affection, just like people look at drawings they did when they were 4 and have a laugh. I guess you need that first album to get to the third.”
“We’ve never played Arizona before, so it’s very, very exciting to be coming there. We flew through once. We were stuck on the tarmac with no air conditioning for three hours in August. I’m thinking it will be better than that,” she says with a laugh.
Here is our interview with the blue-eyed blonde with the smoldering voice.
Q: You’re home now, between tour stops. Where were you last?
A: I’m on and off tour all the time. The last couple of shows were in Michigan. I love it there. They’re hit probably the worst in terms of the economy right now, but the shows were packed, and people were really having a good time. They were great.
Q: What’s home like for the glamorous Sophie Milman?
A: I wear pearls all the time — to bed, even. (laughing) No, really, I’m so not the super-classy thing that people think. It’s nice people see me that way, and, yes, I’m capable of putting myself together when I need to, but right now I’m staring at our totally cluttered living room. My fiancé really has a problem with it; I’m the messy one. There’s my accounting stuff on the couch and the Juno (an award for her album “Make Someone Happy”) on the mantle and things all over the place. It’s normal.
Q: In addition to being a famous jazz singer, you’re a college student. What do you do for fun when you’re home?
A: Well, I cannot party or drink. It’s just not allowed. I’m constantly protecting my voice, and that’s not my personality anyway. I lead a pretty low-key life. We see a lot of music and go out to a lot of music shows. The thing is, I’m so rarely home for long periods of time, that when I’m here I really just like to connect with people who are important in my life.
That’s the hardest part of leading the life we lead; relationships are the first to be compromised when you lead the life of a touring musician. So, I spend time with my family and friends. And working out. When I’m home, I try to lead the most normal life possible — see my family, cook from time to time. We really want a pet. But our lives are such right now that we think a Labradoodle or a Goldendoodle would just die.
Yes, we could hire dog sitters and dog walkers and all that, but then it really wouldn’t be our pet; we wouldn’t have that bond with it, and then what’s the point? We’d love a dog, but we’re waiting for things to slow down a little bit.
Q: Is your fiancé able to accompany you on tour?
A: He often comes with me, but he’s a partner at a law firm here, and he has to work. He takes off when he can. That’s why I got a Blackberry, so we can be as connected as we possibly can.
Q: Congratulations, by the way. When is the wedding?
A: This summer. I’m so not a wedding person. We’re spending all this money on photography and things, and every single person says I have to get a wedding dress, and I’m just sort of going along with it. I don’t know. We hired an amazing band and the food is to die for — that’s all I care about. Does it matter what color candles and tablecloths we have?
Q: When you are home, are you able to get out and about fairly anonymously, or has being an international jazz sensation interfered with getting through everyday life without being recognized?
A: It’s mostly anonymously. I do get recognized, but not all the time and not everywhere I go. It helps that on stage and in press photos I have a very specific, old world jazz kind of look — dresses, pearls, hair and makeup. When I go out, I look quite different. I’m in jeans and a plaid shirt, and that makes it harder for people to make the connection.
But more than that, I think, jazz artists are pretty anonymous at the end of the day. I think Diana Krall could walk down the street and not be recognized, and she’s a huge, amazing artist. Even Herbie Hancock probably could, unfortunately. Their fans might know who they are, but not so much with the general public. People don’t have the same obsession and mania for jazz singers like they do for other entertainers. I like it that way.
It’s nice to be recognized, for people to come up and say, 'I’m a fan,’ because I’m still a new artist and building my fan base, and for someone to think enough to come over and tell me, 'I like your music,’ that’s still a very big compliment for me. But at the end of the day, I’m private. I like a normal life. I can’t imagine the lives of Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears. It looks awful to me, like hell, really, to have every pound you lose or gain talked about and photographed.
Q: You’re still taking classes at University of Toronto, right?
A: I’m trying. It’s getting really hard because I’m touring all the time. I have four, half-year courses left in my degree and — who knows? — I may be 80 when I’m done! I signed a record deal in the middle of my first year, and success came very quickly and the number of classes I’m able to take each semester has dropped in relation to that. But that’s OK. I really enjoy learning, and I don’t want to be there just cramming concepts and things in and just going through the motions, not really learning. I want to be able to digest things and really study them and do well, so if I have to go slowly with school right now, that’s OK. I can always come back to it. The music may not be that way. With music, you have to seize it when it comes to you.
Q: If you hadn’t made that first jazz record — if you’d just gone on singing in coffeehouses in your spare time — where do you think you’d be now?
A: I’d probably be working in some government economic policy office, studying the correlation between economics and social justice or something. I don’t know if I would be singing, because I really didn’t think I had any real ability as a singer. Call it serendipity, or luck, that I got good feedback and was signed a record deal. Life has a way of when you get on a path, it’s hard to get off it, especially for someone like me who’s twice an emigrant. You get started on something and it goes well and you keep going with that. I can’t imagine going on to sing at coffee shops my whole life, but at the same time I can’t imagine not singing. I don’t know, you know. Maybe. Who knows what would have happened?
Q: What kind of music do you listen to?
A: A ton of jazz. Carmen McRae, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of India Arie. I love her. She’s so soulful and deep, and her songs are kind of therapeutic. At the gym, you know, gym stuff and a lot of fast-paced, crazy, experimental jazz.
Q: Do you see yourself branching out from jazz? Would you want to sing any other genre?
A: I don’t see myself going into pop or anything like that. Jazz is the music I love most in the world, and — it’s funny — I fall under this 'Jazz Vocalist’ label, but I don’t really see myself that way. I just sing what I sing, and I suppose that style is what is most natural for me and fits nicely under that category.
Q: Your second album, “Make Someone Happy,” was lauded for being diverse and surprising. What can fans expect to hear on your next album, “Take Love Easy”?
A: It will continue on the same trajectory. I branch out from jazz with songs from Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt. But I take them into the jazz realm. The Springsteen song (“I’m On Fire”) has been going over awesome. I love it. It’s funny because when sung by a man, it’s kind of like a stalker song, but our arrangement of it is totally different.
Q: How did you select the songs?
A: Generally, every song on there is there because I wanted to do it, and that’s it. But of course I take suggestions and listen to people’s feedback, too: my producer, Steve MacKinnon; my band; my fiancé. But at the end of the day if I don’t like it, I don’t sing it. I’m very open, but if I’m not connecting with it, it ain’t gonna happen. Just like my two previous records, (the songs are) connected to where I am in life and where I want to be. It’s a snapshot of that moment in my life. It was recorded about five months ago, and in maybe three months I’m already going to be ready for slightly different songs, because I’m already moving into a different place in my life. But the songs are current and appropriate for me. It’s about the complexities of love and life, trying to be comfortable with living in the gray areas and beginning to understand what life and love are all about. You know how when you’re 18 or 19, you think, 'Oh, I get it all. I understand myself and my parents. I have everything figured out’? Then you hit your mid-20s and you realize, 'Boy, I don’t know anything!” That’s kind of where this album was. It’s about learning to live with ambiguities and uncertainties and being fine with it.
Jazz in Chandler
What: The international jazz sensation sings songs from all three of her albums.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chandler Center for the Performing Arts, 250 N. Arizona Ave.
Cost: $22, $26 and $32
Information: (480) 782-2680 or http://chandlercenter.org
Chandler Jazz Festival
What: The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra Allstars with Irvin Mayfield and BeauSoliel with Michael Doucet headline this annual live music extravaganza.
When: 4:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. April 3 and 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. April 4
Where: downtown Chandler
Information: (480) 782-2735 or www.chandleraz.gov/jazz