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Sophie’s identity “continues to evolve from poor immigrant to musical ingénue to a young mother.”

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Born in Russia, raised in Israel, now a star vocal performer from Canada, Sophie Milman is a captivating performer and speaker. (Photo: supplied)

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The first time I remember hearing Sophie Milman was in 2015.  I had just concluded a ‘Host Your Own Radio Show’ at JAZZFM.91 in Toronto.  I sat in the reception area and just listened.

She was singing the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, People Will Say We’re In Love.  What a beautiful voice!  How had I not heard of her?

A Russian émigré, born in 1983, she grew up listening to her parents’ wide-ranging record collection. The family emigrated to Israel in 1990 in search of a better life, where Milman learned Hebrew and started to listen to a wide range of musicians, citing Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sara Vaughan as early influences. 

“My parents were able to foster and model resilience and curiosity. Milman told me. “They taught me to be true to myself while taking the best of cultures that surrounded us from Russian to Israeli, ultimately to Canadian.  My Mom encouraged me to read Russian literature alongside English and Indian. At home, my Dad played tracks by Oscar Peterson followed by Rachmaninov and preceded by the Beatles. We were probably the only Jewish family in Israel blaring gospel music.” 

After moving to Toronto in 1999, the teenager had to learn a new language again. While her parents supported her music interests, she was urged to find a profession. Milman graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Toronto in 2011. Three years after moving to Canada, she was discovered at an Open Mic night and recorded two albums. She “became good at writing essays on red-eye flights to Japan and van rides across the United States” as she toured to promote her music.

Her debut self-titled album was released in 2005 in Canada by Linus Entertainment and in 2006 in the US by Koch. To date she has released five albums to critical acclaim, topping Billboard, Amazon and iTunes charts.

She won a 2008 Juno Award for Make Someone Happy, working with her long-time pianist Paul Shrofel, Randy Bachman and Guido Basso. Her producer Steve MacKinnon helped her make “a well-curated collection of songs that blended Sophie’s love for jazz with her life experiences,” according to her website. Take Love Easy, her third album, saw more risk-taking and experimentation. 

Her fourth album, In The Moonlight with Randy Brecker, Gil Goldstein, Larry Grenadier, Lewis Nash and Chris Potter, produced by Matt Pearson and arranged by Alan Broadbent and Rob Mounsey received even wider acclaim.

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Milman explained that, “Moving around the world twice, starting from scratch each time and having to reinvent and reimagine myself in a completely new context, cultures and roles – that’s the defining feature of my life. It has shaped me as a person and continues to colour my approach to music and to life, informing the kind of songs that I choose to sing and the way I sing them. My identity continues to evolve from poor immigrant to musical ingénue to my role (since 2013) as a young mother (with Winnipeg-born husband, the lawyer-executive producer Casey Chisick) and two beautiful kids.”

Her Judaism, for the most part, is very secular and cultural. “The idea of ‘otherness’ and the need to strive and do better has been ingrained and made me a perfectionist. Growing up, the idea of otherness also served my brother and me well. We weren’t afraid to be different, to speak up, to do our own thing.  So jazz – music that was pop 40 years before I was born – became my medium. I was listening to it as a kid and singing it for pleasure as a teen,” she said. 

Milman adds, “This approach to art, culture and life informed my music and my tendency to blend Eastern European stylings with the Great American songbook and classic pop/rock sensibility. An open yet critical mind, paired with a strong emotional and intellectual centre.  Are those Jewish things?  I’m not sure….maybe these qualities help secular Jews remain Jewish and keep us strongly bonded as a community.”

A reviewer wrote, “Sophie Milman deserves high praise for not playing it safe and taking some chances (with the album Make Someone Happy), which is warmly recommended.” (Photo: supplied)

Over the years, she’s dealt with bouts of illness and vocal cord issues.  But in 2015, her career took another interesting turn, taking part in a recording titled Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II.  University of Toronto professor Anna Shternshis approached her to sing some Soviet-era Yiddish tunes which she was hoping to revive, according to abcnews.go.com. 

There was a real historic family link. As a teenager, Milman’s grandmother fled to Kazakhstan from Ukraine as World War II began.

“One of the songs described the journey of Jews who fled the forests and seas of Ukraine to rebuild their lives in the windy mountains of Kazakhstan.  It’s a dark song filled with fear and anxiety and change and newness and a person’s mind racing and trying to make sense of life that went from normal to completely abnormal literally overnight,” she told ABC News.

Sophie Milman followed up her Juno award win with the 2009 album ‘Take Love Easy‘, styling contemporary pop songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell (Be Cool), Paul Simon (50 Ways To Leave Your Lover), and Bruce Springsteen (I'm On Fire). (Photo: supplied)

Learning phonetic Yiddish, she tried to put herself in the shoes of her then teenage grandmother to make the connection. Shternshis, as reported by The New Yorker, spent three years collecting Yiddish tunes stored in unmarked boxes. The songs were initially collected by a preeminent Jewish music scholar, Moisei Beregovsky, who had been arrested during the Stalinist era. His work was published after his death in 1961 , since Jewish studies were illegal in the Soviet Union.

Sophie Milman followed up her Juno award win with the 2009 album ‘Take Love Easy‘, styling contemporary pop songs by the likes of Joni Mitchell (Be Cool), Paul Simon (50 Ways To Leave Your Lover), and Bruce Springsteen (I'm On Fire). (Photo: supplied)

Shternshis and singer-songwriter Psoy Korolenko had “roped in classical and jazz musicians to create an album,” reported ABC News. Sophie Milman was one of them.  She told ABC News that she was “driven by the idea of contributing to the relatively unknown duality of the Soviet Jewish culture – victims of the Holocaust as well as heroes in the Red Army who liberated Auschwitz.”

The collaborative effort paid off – Milman’s participation earned her a Grammy Award nomination in 2018 for her talented voice and style in Yiddish Glory.

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr.com, the Canadian Partner of IPREX Global Communication.  He is a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary

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