Music Interviews

Interview: Sophie Solomon

At a first, quick glance, Sophie Solomon, whose debut solo record Poison Sweet Madeira is released on Decca Classics in March, looks likeshe might be a singer-songwriter along the lines ofDido.

But enough assumptions already, as it’ssoon clear in our chat that for Sophie, an extremelyopen approach to music – classical, gypsy, klezmer or popular – is theway forward.

“What an amazing day!” she exclaims as we open ourchat, and certainly the sky – if not the temperature -bears all the hallmarks of spring.
The violinist’swhole demeanour goes in with that, as she’s a sparkyconversationalist and extremely enthusiastic.

Now you or I might start learning a musicalinstrument at school or as a side hobby – I begancello at the age of eleven for instance. Incredibly,Sophie started at two! “I did Suzuki method when I waslittle, and when you do that you play entirely by ear,so that’s what I did between the ages of about two andseven. I think that’s how the ability to improvisecame into it.”

And on the type of tuition shereceived, she offers the opinion that “certainlytwenty years ago, there wasn’t anything likeunorthodox violin teaching, so I wasn’t a great pupilbecause I wasn’t completely cut out forclassical.”

This raises the potential problem of a moreregimented approach to musical tuition at a relativelyearly age. “I think definitely, technically thetraining with the violin is really amazing, becausethere’s obviously things that you need. I suppose it’slike learning to play tennis, you know, you need tolearn the ground strokes, to lay the foundations forwhat you do, but at the same time I think peoplebecome kind of prisoners of reading music, and thenthe parameters by what people judge as good or bad arenarrowed.”

Sophie met Yehudi Menuhin at the age offour, and seems to have enjoyed a prodigiouschildhood, both musically and academically. “I studiedRussian from age twelve, my brother married a Russiangirl. I used to go there in my school holidays, andthat’s where I learnt to DJ, in underground nuclearbunkers in St Petersburg. I think my ears were kindof pricked up by the whole DJing thing, butunfortunately I decided to sell my decks to get anaccordion.”

All of which proves the point regarding dangers ofassumption, as Sophie feels totally at home no matterwhat style of music is on the agenda. Her DJ music ofchoice was principally drum and bass, though she soldthe decks in the end “because I didnt have the timeto use them properly, and they were taking up too muchroom!”

Although signed to Decca Classics, Sophie’s debutalbum takes in a diverse range of influencesthroughout the world, including Eastern Europe andAfrica, and yet it somehow hangs together as acoherent work. “I think the unifying thing is thevoice – as in the violin – and the fact that I wroteit all. Most of the record is the same players fromtrack to track, and it feels like it was made in ashort space of time with these people.”

High profile guests on the album include K TTunstall and Richard Hawley, whosecontribution to Burnt By The Sun features an unusuallyprojected vocal line. However, Solomon notes it wasn’tconceived necessarily with him in mind. “No, notreally, it’s based on a favourite tango and Richardhappened to be in the studio next door when I waslaying it down, and he said he’d absolutely got tosing on it. He sings inordinately low, it’s an amazingvocal!”

Discussing the reaction to her new record,Solomon’s enthusiasm ignites. “It’s been fantastic,and interestingly that’s also been the reaction fromthose who really like classical music. They appreciatethe fact that I am what I am; I’m not trying to beanything other than that, and also the fact that Iwrote the whole album. I like to think there’ssomething in it for everyone. There’s the trackSlavonic Fantasy, which uses Dvorak and has a bit of aclassical aesthetic to it.

“Have you heard the Shostakovich Jazz Suites? They’recompletely awesome…Just as youthink you’re kind of getting it, then he says “and nowIll surprise you with this!””
– Sophie Solomon.

“It’s definitely an eclecticmix of music but it all seems to work together. Thatsaid I do only use something if that something makesmusical sense to me, I wouldn’t randomly pick music. Ido love that kind of Eastern European music thatinfluences a lot of the album though, and the culturethat goes with that, the accompanying beverages! Butwhat I really wanted out of it was something that wasa composite listening experience. I guess it’s like asinger-songwriter album, only it just happens that theviolin is my voice!”

Bearing in mind the recent history of someclassical violinists being marketed ratherprovocatively, I wonder if Sophie is conscious of thatpast? “Yeah, obviously one is conscious of thosethings. That said the only thing we really have incommon is that we’re violinists. I feel my music, it’sso integrally about me – it’s all about me! – and Ithink that’s a big difference too.”

It seems artistic freedom is one of the greaterrewards of her contract. “Yeah. I mean, it was funny -it was an ongoing process with Decca, and they had alot of foresight with it – they’ve never really donethat with an artist before, handed over the wholecreative process.”

And does she sing as well? “I dosing – kind of – but I’m not really a singer. I thinkpeople should stick to what they’re good at! It’s thesame with the violin as well, I don’t tend to playpurely classical stuff. I love listening to classicalmusic though, and I’ve been on a mission to listen toall the Shostakovich symphonies recently, Brahms also.Have you heard the Shostakovich Jazz Suites? They’recompletely awesome. I love his music, just as youthink you’re kind of getting it, then he says “and nowIll surprise you with this!”

It seems Solomon won’t be performing core classicalrepertoire, not for a while at any rate. “Well, I’vereally admired a lot of classical artists, but it’snot like you’re going to go over to JohnWilliams and say “where are your pedals, mate!”are you?!”

“Well, I’vereally admired a lot of classical artists, but it’snot like you’re going to go over to JohnWilliams and say “where are your pedals, mate!”are you?!”
– Sophie Solomon.

And with that she’s off, doubtless rehearsing forone of several upcoming live concerts, not to mentionthe album she has to promote. Decca’s newest signingcertainly has the energy and enthusiasm, along with adown to earth approach that becomes her well – and itwill be very interesting to see how many classicalheads she turns with her music.

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Interview: Sophie Solomon