Miss Sophie Lee is surveying Frenchmen Street from the balcony of Three Muses, the restaurant and music club that she co-owns and where she’s played many a show with her band. “They say that New Orleans is a place where you either lose yourself or find yourself,” she notes. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Lee’s recent CD, Love Street Lullaby (Threadhead) testifies to the new life that the Chicago-born singer has found here. It’s an elegant jazz album that this writer pegged as a love letter to New Orleans. But Lee wishes to expand on that: “It’s really a love letter to Louisiana, to my husband, to my children, to my parents and to myself.”
Finding herself musically was the first part of the picture. In Chicago she’d studied classical piano at the DePaul School of Music, then took up guitar as a rock/pop songwriter. But nothing clicked until she came to town, took a job at the Belle Fourche restaurant (now Vaso) on Frenchmen, and frequented the clubs. “The goal was to immerse myself in the classics, and let that flavor my songwriting. I had friends in Chicago who could walk into any gin joint and say, ‘“All of Me” in C’—I needed to learn to do that. In classical, you’re supposed to regurgitate pieces that have been around for centuries. Songwriting’s just the opposite, you make your own rules. Jazz is some of both, you can improvise and find your own voice. And in some ways I’m still searching.”
But Lee’s musical story is also about family ties. Before coming to New Orleans she’d been in Tupelo with her ailing mother, who also agreed to make the move here. “She saw me play the Spotted Cat a couple of times. And I remember seeing her during my first Krewe de Vieux—There she was, this elderly Korean woman who’d had some brain surgery. And she was saying, ‘I couldn’t just stay inside, look at all this loot’.” Lee largely put her music on hold until her mother passed away in 2004.
But her life kept coming back to Frenchmen Street. It’s where she met her husband, guitarist John Rodli, between sets at the Apple Barrel. And it’s where she heard about a restaurant space that was up for grabs. She and her two partners, Christopher Starnes and Daniel Esses, bid successfully for Three Muses which opened in August 2010, and has been successful enough that a sister location is now planned on Freret Street. “Not many people do this, because it’s tough,” she says. “The size of our place dictated what we could do; we knew that the best way to do food without being overwhelming was to have small plates. Music and food are what I’ve always loved, but I never said ‘Some day I’m going to own a place.’ Like a lot of things, it just happened.”
What’s also happened is that her family’s reappeared in startling ways. When she first moved to town, she resolved to forgive the father who’d deserted her family when she was four. “When I came here it had been 25 years and I still had a lot of anger, abandonment issues; but I wanted to let go of all that. Two or three days after I decided that, I get a phone call from his sister. And that day I learned that his father, my grandfather, had been from Tallulah, Louisiana [and was of African-American heritage]. I never knew I had any local roots. So it all came together, I was down here for a reason.” Thus her second CD Tallulah Moon, whose title paired her grandfather’s birthplace with her mother’s given name.
A similar revelation happened when she was finishing work on Love Street Lullaby. For the final track, she decided to include a tune she remembered her mom singing at bedtime—a traditional Korean piece, she figured, and gave it the title “Korean Lullaby.” Then she called her aunt to ask about it. “What she said was, ‘As far as I can tell, your mother wrote that just for you.’ I have three older siblings and she used to sing it to all of us but we never knew that she wrote it, or that she wrote songs at all. She’s given me many gifts, in life and in death, but that may be her greatest one.”
Her family journey colors a lot of what Lee’s done musically: Even the formal title in her stage name is a nod to her mother, who was known to neighbors as Miss Moon. There are family photos on the cover of Tallulah Moon, and the sleeve of Lullaby shows her childhood home, also the site of her mother’s grocery store. “She was a single mother, a businesswoman—That’s where I got that stealthy, hardcore Korean work ethic. She worked her ass off and taught me to never do a half-assed job. And she was a very nurturing lady, and I picked that up from her. So I’ve actually become my mother.”