Sophie Solomon is relaxed. Despite an eye-wateringly early call to accommodate the time difference in Los Angeles where she's currently promoting her new album, she's on great form, talking enthusiastically about her life and music. It's not the Sophie Solomon I remember from back in the early 2000s, when she was lead performer of the trailblazing British klezmer band Oi Va Voi. Back then, her wild stage persona was one of the main draw of the band's vibrant gigs - bringing a heavy metal style physicality to a Jewish music scene which didn't quite know what had hit it. She attacked the violin with a vicious energy; her performances were profoundly joyful, but also passionately furious.
That energy is still present on her new album, Stop the Parade, but infused with a greater dose of lightness and wit. The album is a hymn to all things Russian - a country which has inspired Solomon for years. "I first read a book about the last tsars of Russia when I was about twelve and became really fascinated. And then my older brother married a contemporary dancer from Russia when I was a teenager and she had this extraordinary group of friends - a very bohemian St Petersburg crowd, musicians, painters DJs. This was the early 90s when Russian was opening up, Perestroika, Glasnost…and I would go and stay with them in my school holidays, go to weird museums and squat parties." Solomon last visited Russia three years ago and the album is less of portrait of contemporary Russia under Vladimir Putin and more rooted in the culture and history of the Soviet Union.
It is also an attempt to capture a broader sense of Russianness; mythology, aesthetics and national disposition. Solomon characterises Russia as "a land of extremes…extreme weather, extreme poverty, extreme richness." She suggests that "Russians need to abnegate themselves before a strong leader, whether a Tsar or Stalin." A Stalin-esque figure is the subject of the title track, in which Solomon imagines a dictator on their death bed in unusually repentant mood: 'Cancel the fireworks / Stop the parade / And leave me in peace to grow old in the shade'. Other tracks feature equally rich back stories: Microscope Man refers to the elaborate subterfuges engaged in by ordinary Russians such as smuggling out life stories on the pack of postage stamps, Black Moon tells of spies leaving messages for each other in anonymous boxes, and Yellow Chrysanthemum depicts dissidents being replaced by flowers in official photographs.
Barbed Wire Love Song has a particular Jewish resonance - written for a film depicting the story of Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor. Rosenblat's story was that he managed to survive because a Polish girl threw him apples over the fence of Buchenwald, a girl who he met sixty years later on a blind date and married.
The story turned out to be invented, Rosenblat said he had just wanted to "bring happiness to people," and the film never got made. Solomon's song is all the sweeter for this, depicting the desperate need to give Shoah narratives some kind of happy, redemptive ending.
It's amazing what having children does for one's sense of self
Although Russian folk music features prominently on Stop the Parade, klezmer is central to Solomon's violin sound. She is Jewish on her father's side and identifies the cultural Jewishness of her childhood with "deli food at the weekend" and her father singing what he called "ya ba boi songs" in the kitchen.
At university she discovered klezmer and had a light-bulb moment "Oh…I'm a violinist, I know all these ya ba boi songs, this is klezmer! And it all kind of made sense." She went on to found Oi Va Voi with Jonathan Walton and has studied and collaborated with the greats of the contemporary revival such as Alan Bern, Frank London and David Krakauer.
Her career now spans pop and rock, collaborating with artists such as Paul Weller, Rufus Wainwright and other singer songwriters. Although she has previously composed songs (such as on her previous solo album Poison Sweet Madeira) this album is the first time she has sung on record. Her voice is light and breathy, but brings a directness and honesty to the songs which would be absent with a more polished vocalist. Solomon describes this process as her finally "owning" her own songs and attributes the confidence needed to do this to having had two children since the songs were composed. "It's amazing what having children can do for one's sense of perspective, one's sense of self."
The intimacy of Solomon's voice stands in contrast to the rich instrumental arrangements on the album, overseen by Solomon's collaborator, record producer Marius De Vries.
The orchestral scoring is often filmic, though one of the most effective tracks, Swing, captures the energy of a wildly energetic wedding band, operating as if in some imaginary zone between the Balkans and Havana. At times the album doesn't quite know what it is - it feels like an attempt to gradually rebrand a high class folk-jazz violinist as a singer songwriter, and it doesn't always come off. The most beautiful moments are instrumental, like the atmospheric, ghostly opening number Misha. But while Stop the Parade sometimes struggles to find its identity there is a great deal to enjoy: plaintive and unusual melodies, rich symbolism, and that unmistakable Sophie Solomon energy.
Alongside performing and recording, Solomon is deeply invested in building and improving Jewish music in the UK. She is Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute and her album launch at the Jazz Cafe was part of JMI's recent JAM Festival. Solomon oversees programming for the JMI, and defines her mission as "expanding the reach of Jewish music and taking it to a wider audience." She singles out Drawing Life, a multimedia composition by Jocelyn Pook featuring poems and drawings made by children in Theresienstadt, as a particular success, following its Barbican performance and UK tour. Contemporary Jewish music in the UK is "super healthy," she says, identifying bands like Tantz and Don Kipper as particularly promising developments. Were Oi Va Voi ahead of their time? She agrees that they were "pioneers," saying that now "a whole generation of musicians has grown up and matured in a really interesting way," praising the way that recipients, like herself, of JMI's Millenium Awards, are now the teachers of a new wave of klezmer performers. It certainly feels like that - the hundreds of people at Klezmer in the Park in Regents Park a couple of weeks ago experienced a showcase for a contemporary Jewish scene that overflowed with creativity, confident enough to engage in collaborations with other musical traditions such as Ghanaian drumming, Indian classical guitar and Bulgarian choral music. The activities of the Jewish Music Institute lie at the centre of this vibrant scene, and Solomon, both as performer and organiser, can take a lot of the credit.