Original interview conducted August 14, 2010.
Vocalist Sophia Shorai is based in the Twin Cities. You may have heard her distinctive, clarion voice in commercials for Target and other corporations, or you may have seen her at The Dakota, Hell’s Kitchen or Honey. Shorai’s voice is a combination of sweet and sultry, and is particularly expressive on ballads like Black Coffee, where the darkness of the tune is only slightly leavened by the sweetness of her voice, and Old Devil Moon. This is a slightly edited version of our talk in the KFAI studio shortly before the Release of her album As Long As You’re Living.
LE: The last time you were on this show was a couple of years ago, when you did the Brazilian album.
SS: Right, called Wave.
LE: Now you have a new one out, Long As You’re Living. Is it just you and Tommy Barbarella.
LE: What made you decide to go with that approach to a record?
SS: Well, I’ve always wanted to do it, and I’ve been looking for just the right piano player, and Tommy and I have had a good rapport over the last couple of years. We have mutual friends, so we’ve known each other and I always wanted to work with him and thought, “What a Perfect Opportunity.”
LE: He’s toured with Prince, Stevie Wonder, Art Garfunkel, Ziggy Marley. He’s also a composer and arranger. A veteran of the music business.
SS: He absolutely is. He’s fantastic, and such a delight to work with. A good friend
LE: I’m looking at the list of tunes on the CD. Long as You’re Living, Black Coffee, Brother Can You Spare a Dime. You also do Hellhound on My Trail, the Robert Johnson tune, as well as In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Old Devil Moon and a Hank Williams tune. How did you choose these tunes?
SS: I know, it’s kind of all over the map in terms of songwriters. I’ve just loved many of these tunes for many, many years and always wanted to record them. I thought let’s put them all together. They kind of have an underlying theme of politics, and loss, and also love found, and redemption, so I weaved them together to tell a story. I think it works. I hope it works.
LE: As Long As You’re Living, the title song, is an Oscar Brown tune. Where did you first hear that? How did you decide you like that particular song?
SS: I’ve been listening to jazz since I was a little girl, because of my father. I first heard Abby Lincoln’s version on Abby Lincoln is Blue and absolutely loved the song and then Karrin Allyson, whom I’m completely in love with, also covered it, so I thought “Hey, Whatever.” It sets the scene for the record.
LE: As we mentioned earlier, it’s been a while since you’ve been up here, so what have you been doing in the last 4-5 years?
SS: Well, I’ve been kind of busy. I got my Bachelor of Arts from the U of M in psychology, That took a little too long so I’m glad that’s done. And I got married to a wonderful man. He’s also a musician, Jeremy Gordon, so that was nice
LE: And I’ve noticed that in the last year or so, you’ve been out performing again.
SS: Yeah, I took a little hiatus, and started performing again. Then I hooked up with Tommy and we started working on tunes together last fall, and that catapulted me into wanting to play live.
LE: I’ve seen you performing with Supreme Privacy and some some bands that you put together.
SS: Trying to find my way in.
LE: As you are working with different folks, how does it help you to do so?
SS: Well it definitely allows me to stretch my boundaries and also make new friends and learn about new people and that also inspires me, to have special relationships with musician types. Just allows me to grow
LE: Tell us about the Hank Williams tune.
SS: I think it’s one of Tommy’s favorite songs and definitely one of mine now too. It’s called I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. It’s a really sad tune
LE: It’s a very sad tune. You take it much slower than many versions that I’ve heard, and certainly much slower than the original Hank Williams version. BJ Thomas had a hit with it in the early 70s, I think, and his was much faster. How did you decide to go with such a slow arrangement?
SS: Well, honestly, this whole record was almost completely spontaneous. Tommy and I talked about it for a month or two and then we got together for about two hours the night before the session and ran through the tunes and then went into the studio. So all of these songs are kind of based on our communication with each other and its almost spontaneous.
LE: But you talked about what tunes you would do?
SS: We talked about the names of the tunes, who wrote them, what they’re all about, not necessarily about how they make us feel, but just talked about them objectively and then went in and did them.
LE: And the decision to do this one so very slow. Did Tommy just say Let’s take this one really slow?
SS: Yeah, yeah. He just came up with this one since it’s one of his favorite tunes, and I just followed him and it worked out perfectly. I think we maybe took three takes of this song tops.
LE: Is there a particular challenge that you face as a vocalist, to sing so slowly?
SS: No I actually prefer to sing ballads. I’m a balladeer, that’s for sure. I feel you can emote a lot more.
LE: I’m reminded of a remark that Jimmy Scott once made, talking to another singer, he said something like, “Go as slow as you want, the band has to follow you. Whatever rhythm you want to do, do it.”
SS: yes, indeed.
LE: When you’re playing with other bands, do you just say, “Here’s the songs that I know”
SS: I have a general book of charts and just throw it at them and hope they can read my charts. I am a piano player so I understand the keys and chords and everything, but I feel bad for my musicians at times, because I’ll pull out a really esoteric tune and they’ll go, “Oh! Well, let’s see how this goes.”
LE: But it’s not that your chart itself has bad penmanship
SS: No, no. I choose very colorful chords…. I’ve heard.
LE: Isnt’ that what jazz is all about, playing some of those colorful chords?
SS: I hope so, yeah.
LE: Tell us about the last song on the record.
SS: It’s called Waters of March and is by Antonio Carlos Jobim. And I figured, what’s a well-rounded jazz record without a bossa nova. Also I’ve always been way too nervous to cover this tune. I’ve known it for years because it’s really wordy and seemingly simple, and you can do so much with it, and it’s such a joyful tune I thought it was a great song to take the record out with.
LE: You mentioned that there are lots of words in that song and there are…
SS: There are. It’s really tough memorizing all those words. I have to make some up all the time. I feel bad about that.
LE: In terms of having to sing many, many words like that, what challenges do you as a singer face, or does any singer face when they have to enunciate so many words.
SS: I don’t want to speak for everyone. We all have our own instrument and use it differently but I have to drink a lot of water, be very hydrated and have to muster up the excitement and hope for the best.
LE: do you find that when you sing it at different times, where you breathe is different?
SS: Absolutely. I like to change it up every time I do it, just to keep it interesting. Yeah and there definitely are a lot of places to breathe. You have to be strategic about where you breathe
LE: You don’t want to run out of breath
SS: That does happen, you just have to fine a graceful way out of it and come right back in.
LE: I suppose you’re finding ways to distribute the CD other than at your gigs.
SS: Yes. It’s actually on band camp right now. It’s bandcamp-slash-sophia-shorai.com You can download it for 12 bucks. You can listen to the whole thing and don’t have to buy it… But you should buy it.
LE: Well, thank you so very much for coming in
SS: Thank you for having me Larry