How one artist in Ukraine is bringing her music to the world

Sophie Villy

Singer/songwriter Sophie Villy fled her home in Georgia (the country, not the state in the southern USA) when war broke out in 2008.

She made a new home for herself in Ukraine and established an independent music career that has taken her from Kiev to Budapest to London to NYC to LA and back again. Sadly now, “Russian tanks are haunting” her again.

With an album release scheduled smack dab in the middle of the recent turmoil in Ukraine, Sophie has had to alter her strategy for promoting her new music.

I interviewed Sophie recently and asked her about the music scene in Ukraine, how things have changed over the past six months, and what her Plan B is in terms of performing in Eastern Europe.

Here’s my conversation with Eastern European pop singer Sophie Villy

CR: First, with so much uncertainty in Ukraine these days, let me first ask: how are you doing?

SV: I’m fine, thanks. Honestly, I stopped getting information for a while as the coverage is rather contradictory and it’s becoming increasingly hard to discern the truth. My drummer and guitarist live in Kharkov, where things still go crazy and it’s difficult for us to make any plans in such uncertain situation.

Why did you initially move to Ukraine from Georgia?

I decided to move because of the war in Georgia, in 2008. My mother is Ukrainian and the first easiest way to change the place was exactly Kiev, where I continued making music and studying at the University of Tourism. I was hoping to find some calm and peace in my motherland but after a few years Russia attacked Ukraine too and now my friends make jokes about Russian tanks haunting me.

What was the music scene like in Ukraine before the recent upheavals?

For a long time Ukrainian pop artists were trying to draw the attention of the media at any cost, because it’s a guaranteed income for private and corporate performances.Ukrainians have not yet learned how to buy music legally, preferring pirate ways. The live shows were not so popular, because the level of even the most famous artists was pretty low.

In spite of this, the alternative scene is pretty active. There are a couple of amazing bands creating really interesting music from folk, jazz and electronica to punk and ska, but the recent upheavals influenced their concert schedule and suspended them.

What has changed since? Have your plans for creating, performing, and promoting music changed as a result?

Yes! Unfortunately we can’t afford to tour today, in this situation. Many major artists like Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos and Aerosmith cancelled their shows and promoters are scared now. They can’t plan anything, because nobody knows what kind of “surprise” comes next. Festivals that were usually held in Crimea moved now to another location. It’s still so chaotic. People here can’t think today about new releases and music at all. But local bands still try to perform and show up to protest. We played on May 29th for our recent album presentation show in Kiev. But now is not the time to tour in the East.

What can music do in the face of such loud political and military noise?

It can speak for the truth! It may require justice! It can change people’s mind and view. It can wake them up. I think music is the only weapon to remind everybody about peace and love, never war!

Your songs are somewhat reminiscent of Portishead, a little ambient, a little noir, a little garage rock, a little 60’s psych. But then there’s this other haunting element, which I think you’ve cited as an “echo” of the past… going all the way back to 12th Century Georgian poetry. Do you consciously think about making a bridge between more modern sounds with elements of your heritage? Or is the past just kind of like a living ghost that’s rattling around somewhere inside all the time?

I’m not going to stop the process of searching.. and step by step, time will change the color of my mind and I will be finding something new and unique. Today I’m creating and recording the sounds I love and the sounds I feel comfortable with. It’s more analogous and I feel more texture in it. I don’t think about trends. I let it float organically.

Sophie Villy interviewWhy write songs in English? Does it make it easier to establish a pan-European (and American) fanbase?

I was raised on British and American music. My father used to have a big collection of vinyl and I started loving music at the age of three with The Cure, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Ray Charles etc. And then when I started writing my own songs it happened automatically. All these voices from the Georgian heritage and culture, they just follow me wherever I go and my thoughts pour out already in the international language. So it becomes available for everybody.

What do you think the main differences are between the way an Eastern European musician and an American musician go about establishing their music careers and fanbases?

The audience in the US still looks for some new artists even though there are millions of them. It seems that they kinda give young newcomers more chances to express themselves and show what they create, and only after that they’re able to estimate objectively. In EE it’s a bit different. Until someone important says something loud about you, or you win a Grammy, nobody will pay attention. And of course it all works as a motivation for an artist. Where the audience opens its heart to your art, you feel more comfortable and motivated to keep going.

What’s your experience been like performing in the US?

Oh, I loved playing in the US. It started with the Fall Arts Festival in FL in 2012; then I went to NYC and played couple of shows in the East Village. The following year I played in LA with an amazing musician and my friend Omar Torres, who used to play with Tom Waits. I adore legendary places like The Bitter End and Rockwood. It was so intimate and warm playing there. This Spring was very interesting. KCRW took our song “Position” in heavy rotation and we played the School Night at The Brooklyn Bowl. The audience was very attentive and open to us. I loved it.

Any advice for American artists who are looking to tour in Europe?

Just find a good promoter and everything will be fine.

What’s been the most effective tool for building your fanbase? YouTube videos? Putting tracks on SoundCloud? Playing live? (And why do you think it’s worked for you.)

Well, I started with MySpace. Then Soundcloud, which helped me to find my audience. But you know, today people wanna watch, not only hear and this is why YouTube/Vimeo videos work better for promotion. But for me, live shows are most important. I live when I play live, because people help me to create magic right here and right now and this moment lives with me until the next show. This makes my listeners want to share the experience with their friends and of course direct recommendations work better then anything else.

What has CD Baby enabled you to do in your music career?

It enabled me to share and sell my music all over the world without being signed to a label.

How has your recent album launch been going? What’s the rest of 2014 look like for you?

It’s going okay. But we couldn’t run the full promotion campaign because of the big stress. There were many difficulties. Now we plan to work harder on it. We look for a tour manager now to tour in Europe and the US.

Any words of advice for young singer/songwriters?

Keep creating no matter what. If it’s the thing you really love to do, let it be your guide to the amazing journey.

Band photo by Kate Kondratieva. Photo of Sophie solo by Dima Taranenko.

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For more information about Sophie Villy, check out her official website.

To purchase Sophie Villy’s music, visit CD Baby.

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