In an encore presentation, the Frenchmen Street singer reveals how opera indirectly pushed her toward jazz before she plays Jazz Fest today.
[Today Miss Sophie Lee plays Jazz Fest's Lagniappe Stage at 12:55 p.m. In this encore presentation from last summer, we traced her path from Chicago to her then-new album, Traverse the Universe.]
Miss Sophie Lee didn’t start off looking to be a jazz singer. She has been on a musical path all her life, playing piano and violin as a child, and she went to a performing arts school in her native Chicago when she was five. “Love of music happened very early,” Lee says. She started taking singing lessons when she was in junior high and went to college for classical piano performance. The classical music career she’d been aimed at since childhood didn’t happen, though. After two and a half years, her teacher embodied all the stereotypes when he told her bluntly to quit, that she didn’t have what it takes, and that she should teach instead.
At the time, Lee was also taking vocal music because she had to, not because she wanted to. Singing opera had never been a passion, and when she was called on to sing an aria—something she knew would happen one day—she froze. It didn’t help that she was unprepared, but she realized she was unprepared because it didn’t interest her to do the specific work necessary to be better prepared. Lee left that class, went to the registrar’s office, and withdrew from music school.
Tonight, Miss Sophie Lee and The Parish Suites will play a CD-release party at The Spotted Cat for her new album, Traverse the Universe, but Frenchmen Street wasn’t the next stop after the conservatory. She was in her early 20s and played in a rock band for the next five years. At the end of that band’s run, she spent some time taking care of her mother then she moved to New Orleans with two things on her mind.
“When I moved here, it was to learn jazz and to learn food,” she says.
All that history is particularly relevant because she wrote songs in her rock band, and on Traverse the Universe, she co-wrote six songs after leaning heavily on covers in the past. “I want to let people know that that part of me exists too,” she says.
Her first two albums—Miss Sophie Lee With New Orleans Jazz Vipers and Special Guest Bart Ramsey and Tallulah Moon—were almost entirely covers as she learned the craft of singing in a swing band. In 2013’s Love Street Lullaby, Lee started to show herself as a writer.
“A lot of melodies were coming to me in dreams,” Lee says. As a mom, she has experience with waking up in the middle of the night and getting right back to sleep, and that made it possible for her to wake up, make a note or sing a snippet of something that came to her in the night, then drop back off. She worked them out to some degree on piano or ukulele, then gave four songs each to Luke Winslow-King, Ben Polcer, and Earl Scioneaux, who collectively produced the album. “I purposefully gave them songs in their genre,” she says, and she asked each to pick two songs to arrange. “Fortunately, none of them picked the same song.”
Lee chose them because she had worked with each before, sharing stages with Polcer and Winslow-King, and Scioneaux had produced Winslow-King, engineered sessions for Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and remixed some of Lee’s Love Street Lullaby. They also brought very different strengths. “Ben is an amazing on the spot arranger,” she says. “Earl is a composer, and Luke does his homework. He took this folksy, 45-second thing and added a third part and turned it into a salsa for ‘Someday,’” one of the songs on the album. Countless small choices like that keep the album from sounding too familiar, and Lee certainly does her part. “You and Me (the Universe)” talks about love in a way that no love-starved canary ever did on old records. She is proud of the songwriting on the album and hopes that it gets people to think of her as a writer as well as a singer.
Although Traverse the Universe doesn’t sound like a pure product of Frenchmen Street, there’s no escaping the album and Lee’s relationship to Frenchmen. It is where she honed her talents and made musical friends, and she was able to pursue her interest in the restaurant business as one of the people behind Three Muses. Since she performs regularly at The Spotted Cat, that’s where she sells CDs, and she has to think at least some about that reality. Almost half of the songs on the album are covers including “Ain’t Misbehaving” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).”
“I had no desire to do the ten-thousandth version [of “It Don’t Mean a Thing”] until it came time to record,” Lee says, laughing. She also recorded the crowd-pleasers “Dream a Little Dream with Me” and “A-Tisket A-Tasket” for the album, but she wasn’t happy enough with either to include them on the album. Those songs are the pragmatic part of the album for her, and as much as she’d like people to buy her albums for her own songs, the same logic that gets the standards into her sets gets them on to the record.
“I’m done with them now,” she says.
When Lee tells the story of the album, the narrative is driven by her recent experiences with songwriting. The process of moving from snippets of ideas through the collaboration phase through the recording to getting the finished songs in front of audiences clearly excites her—so much so that songs are still coming. Lee didn’t feel comfortable writing in the jazz idiom while she was trying to learn it; now she’s so pleased with her work that she’s open to the prospect of writing for others.
“It wasn’t a job. It was songs that had to get out,” she says.