Miss Sophie Lee does a lot of dreaming nowadays—a lot of the songs on her new disc, Traverse This Universe, were literally dreamed up. And when it comes to her life and work in New Orleans, she’s dreaming big. Before the year is out she’ll have opened two new music and food hotspots—to join the one she’s already got, the popular Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. Meanwhile she’s released her fourth album, first in three years, and most accomplished one yet. In a city where the music and restaurant biz are equally exclusive, the Chicago-transplanted Lee is pulling both off in style.
“If you ask me what I do, being a mom would come first, then a singer. And I guess I’m a reluctant restaurateur, but one that really loves it. Before Three Muses happened I probably spent my whole life taking notes, looking at what worked and didn’t. And music’s been part of my life since I grew up taking piano lessons. So things just happen at the right time—and sometimes they all happen at the same time.”
Born in Chicago from a racially mixed background—her mother was Korean, her father was black with roots in Mississippi and Tallulah, Louisiana—Lee grew up studying classical piano and later took up guitar as a rock/pop songwriter. Moving to town before Katrina, she worked at the Belle Fourche restaurant (now Vaso) on Frenchmen and immersed herself in jazz, figuring that her own writing would benefit from a dose of the classics. The Spotted Cat became one of her first regular gigs; she still plays there weekly even though it’s across the street from her own place. As she told OffBeat in an earlier interview, “They say that New Orleans is a place where you either lose yourself or find yourself. I’m one of the lucky ones.”
There’s a bit of elegance in everything Miss Sophie does. Three Muses is one of Frenchmen’s more inviting spots, with its dim lights, acoustic music and room for conversation (and the cocktails absolutely don’t hurt). As a singer she’s become known for a silky approach that harks back to an earlier, more romantic era of jazz singing. The new disc’s opener “You & Me (The Universe)” is a prime example: The lyrics promise both undying love and a trip round the planet; Aurora Nealand’s clarinet curls around Lee’s voice, and Matt Bell’s Hawaiian-styled guitar solo adds to the exotica. It conjures visions of a long-ago time when lovers and world travelers really knew how to live.
The catch, however, is that she wrote that one herself (with help from lyricist Kimberly Kaye), as she did six of the album’s eleven tracks. And the album isn’t tied to nostalgia, or even to jazz; even longtime fans are likely to be surprised by the reggae groove on “Under the Moon” and the lead electric guitar and loops on “The Way That Love Can Be,” both of which lend the album a suitably dreamlike flow. Joining her regular band (guitarists Bell and Matt Johnson, pianist Bart Ramsey, bassist Tommy Sciple and trumpeter Dave Boswell) are eclectic players like Nealand, cellist Helen Gillet and saxophonist Khris Royal. The covers include a few perennials plus a surprise Elvis tune, and her own songs go deeper into the ideas of love and family—and along with the cover art (drawn by her daughters Eleanora and Una Mae) show that being a mom really does come first.
That’s especially true on “A Safe Place,” a Luke Winslow King co-write that’s the album’s emotional centerpiece. “The songs I’ve put on have always been personal, but especially that one. I started writing it when I heard about the Domino’s pizza man who was murdered in the Lower Ninth Ward—that really affected me because he had three children around the same age as my girls. Murders and tragedies always affect you, but that one had a pretty lasting impact on me the summer I was writing. So that’s for his family and his parents, and for anyone who’s had the tragic loss of their children.”
One key to the album was her discovery of an instrument that’s not even on the record. But having ukuleles around the house proved a stimulus for songwriting. “My husband went on a collecting frenzy and started buying ukuleles and banjoleles off the Internet. Then I got bored over Christmas break and started messing with one—‘hey, this is relatively easy, only four strings.’ First I went online to learn some easy uke songs, then I took my own charts and learned to play a couple of my own songs. So I thought, hey, I can at least play a dozen chords and this could be a tool in songwriting, as a voicing tool so that different emotions and flavors come out.” Then she started rescuing song ideas that came to her in dreams. “I’d always be dreaming songs or melodies like musicians do, but I never put them down before. But I started waking up and humming them into my phone. I built up quite a collection of those, picked a few and set them to chords on my ukulele.” The next step was to bring on other songwriters and producers—King, Earl Scioneaux III and Ben Polcer—all of whom she’d known from the Muses circuit. “I decided that it was going to be mostly originals, without even the intention of keeping it in the jazz genre.”
Scioneaux’s tracks push the furthest, but the album flows well enough that the loops and grooves (and Gillet’s typically inventive cello) don’t sound too odd on a Sophie Lee record. Especially since that’s followed by the two most familiar songs on the album, if not her entire repertoire: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing.” As she explains, those are only on the album because people kept asking for them. “I didn’t really feel like putting on songs that have been recorded gazillions of times, but those are the ones people ask about when I’m trying to sell CDs. So I figured I’d juxtapose things people have heard before with the originals that they’ve never heard.” A less obvious cover, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” came about when she surfed the Sirius channels and landed on the Elvis Presley channel (he hit with the song the Ink Spots had originally done). “Once you take out that corny spoken bit that Elvis did, it’s really a beautiful song.”
While the album was being done, Lee also made her movie debut. And while she’s got no designs on an acting career, she did wind up with a two-line cameo in the critically praised, New Orleans–shot movie The Big Short—in a scene with Selena Gomez, no less. Turns out the director and screenwriter, Adam McKay, was a Chicago connection. “We knew each other back in our struggling-artist days in the early ’90s. We were all friends, musicians and actors and comedians. They’d come see and support our shows and we’d go to theirs. My first gig in a band ever was at a party in his basement apartment in Chicago. When he was in town, we re-connected and he graciously entrusted me to a small role in his movie, which was outside of my zone but great fun nonetheless.”
Her dance card is about to get fuller in the coming month, as two new venues will be opening: the long-rumored expansion of Three Muses and the formal relaunch of Seoul Shack, which she ran for a time last year behind the Dragon’s Den. The partners who run Three Muses—Lee mainly handing the music, Daniel Esses the food and Kimberly Patton Bragg the bar—have settled on an Uptown spot for their second location, which they’ll unveil as soon as the ink dries for a mid-summer opening. It promises to be the same as the Frenchmen spot, but different.
“It will be less of a Frenchmen concert-type experience, more like dinner with acoustic music you can talk over,” she says. “On Frenchmen there’s live music from the moment we open our doors, that location demands it. For Uptown I’m thinking that will be scaled down a bit. We’re still going to focus on all three things, the food and the drinks and the music, but the music will be a little more in the background, maybe with acoustic trios.”
There will also be music at the new Seoul Shack, set to open in mid-summer on the 2700 block of St. Claude. But the place will really be about tracing her family history through food—her mother’s Korean recipes and her father’s Southern roots are both referenced in the punning name she chose for the place. “We want to focus on the soul foods of the world; I know for sure I’m going to put a Chicago hot dog on there, and local soul food like jambalaya and gumbo. Definitely nothing crafty or fusion. And it will be built around the Korean food concept, the dishes I was taught by my mother. Once a month we’ll take a different city and a different culture. Since I’m half Korean and half black, I wanted to include the city that adopted me as well as the city I was born in.”
If it seems that Sophie Lee quite literally has a lot on her plate, she still points out that it’s nothing compared to what she grew up around. “My mother literally didn’t stop working until she got a brain aneurysm. Before my parents divorced they ran a Chicago hot dog stand together, which they turned into a grocery store. My mother would work 18-hour days, up every day at 4 a.m., and I’m sure I got that from her. That Korean work ethic—you can’t beat it.”