Monday, May 20, 2019

John Sokoloff: A World United Music Interview



Hello everyone, and welcome to World United Music!  

In today’s interview, we’re going to get into who composer, musician and artist John Sokoloff is, his family history, where he grew up, how his story intertwines with his music and what inspires him to write the music he does.

{WUM} - John Sokoloff, hi, and welcome to World United Music. Let me first say that it’s an honor to have you here for an interview. I’m a big fan and have been since I first heard your music on YouTube back in 2007.

You’ve been around much longer than that of course and have even worked on American TV for a while, tell us a little about that, but first tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up, where you live today?

{JS} - Hi Stewart.  I grew up in Los Angeles – where I also reside today. I grew up in a Russian-American home.

My grandparents left Russia during the 1917 revolution as teenagers. We had an interesting childhood in that we experienced both cultures – American and pre-revolutionary Russian. We were in the anti-communist contingent as we had lost family members and friends to the scourge of communism. And the people I grew up with personally knew the Russia that existed before the Soviet “experiment”…

We cared deeply for America but we also honored our Russian roots. This mix of cultures informs my music. This ambiguity and lack of typical cultural identity sparked a search for who I was.

I would listen to American blues and rock like B.B. King and the Allman Brothers while also listening to the Svetlanov Brothers Balalaika ensemble and singer Ludmila Zykina. I would laugh watching Johnny Carson’s monologue on TV, then listen to Soviet comic Arkady Raikin on passed around cassette tapes. I would listen to The Osipov Balalaika Orchestra or a group like Kino followed by Muddy Waters or Paul Butterfield.

Music has different styles, but the source material is the same regardless of race or country. Humanity. A real connection.
I always would say that the common denominator was soul. 
No one has a monopoly on soul.

{WUM} - I can relate to that. Music truly does connect to the soul. So, with that in mind, “What is your music story, your professional history and early career?”

{JS} - I grew up playing classical piano then moved on to writing my own music in my late teens. My professor was Viacheslav Leonidovich Ordynsky. He was from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. (He died in 2000.) I loved him dearly. My university degree, oddly enough is in Business. But my true passion was always, and is, my music.

I worked in a regular business environment in my 20's running a floor covering distributorship…but was always playing…always writing...then I moved to working in television for Carol Burnett and Bonnie Hunt.

I was a composer for the Bonnie Hunt Show in the 1990's and was special project manager for Carol Burnett after beginning as a production assistant. I enjoyed the work but wanted to concentrate more and more on releasing my own CD's and doing my own music. So that is what I did and I’m doing now.

{WUM} – Such an interesting background! Did anyone in your family play a part in your music path? Was your family musical?

{JS} - Yes, My father, who is retired, was the musical conductor for the choir at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles for 55 years. My mother sang and played guitar early in life and my sister Natasha is a great writer and singer and has been recording recently

We grew up listening to music all the time at home. We would be put to sleep to Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and of course, Rachmaninoff. As a teenager, I would always voraciously listen to the older members of our community and I knew people who were personal friends of Rachmaninoff and Stanislavsky. I picked their brain endlessly to immerse myself in this zeitgeist. I read biographies and grew up in a community of old world Russians who longed for the past. This longing is felt in my music. These older people lived on suitcases…hoping to return to a country that was no longer there…to a time that would never be again. This spirit of loss permeates my music.

{WUM} – You’ve certainly captured a melancholy longing in your music. Who inspired you to play music? And who was your first teacher?

{JS} - We took classical lessons as kids. I began playing piano at 6 years old.  As we would drift off to sleep we would listen to Brahms or Tchaikovsky and I would feel this incredible sense of perspective. As if I was looking down at the entire world. Years would evaporate and the timeless questions…and sometimes answers…would appear. The music revealed to me that we were part of one whole. The paradox of absolute and relative would be reconciled for me while I listened to this. I was transported. Music became a beacon…Music became the source of understanding humanity. 

{WUM} – That’s very interesting and quite profound…on a personal note your explanation helps me understand my own connection to music. Thank you for that. “Do you play other instruments other than piano?”

{JS} - I only play keyboard instruments, but interestingly enough – I grew up mostly intently listening to blues/rock guitarists in addition to classical pianists. My list would include Roy Buchanan, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Van Cliburn, Evgeni Kissin, Sviatoslav Richter….

{WUM} - What are your fondest musical memories? In your house? In your neighborhood or town?

{JS} - There are many…Very different...Like going to see Roy Buchanan at McCabes, the Aleksandrov Choir (then known as the Red Army Choir) at the Shrine Auditorium, seeing Bob Dylan or Rick Danko / Gary Busey at the Roxy, meeting and working with Van Cliburn at the Bass Hall in Texas while I was with Carol Burnett. 

From a personal standpoint, when I reach rapture in playing – my spirit goes somewhere else.  At that point one is very vulnerable and if you come up behind me you can scare the hell out of me by just putting your hand on my shoulder.  It is a state of bliss...But to achieve it you have to feel safe.
When you achieve it, you are not there…you go somewhere…It is a place where other artists have been…we do not stay there.

{WUM} - Your music is very emotive that gently builds and builds, does your music reflect your life experiences, neighborhood and community? Can you give us an example?

{JS} - It is all real. I do not bullshit in my music. It is deadly serious. The key to art is not to lie. To be inside out and not outside in. Not to try and please. To tell your truth. We have other’s expectations put on us all the time and it is not to be listened to. Follow your own muse. Tell the story – wherever it may lead.  Not always easy. But if it is honest – it will last.  Because absolutes are just that. Someone will love a girl in 200 years from now and their pain will find refuge in your honesty.

John Sokoloff Music



{WUM} - Being a musician, what inspires you the most to create your music?

{JS} - Women… Women…Did I mention women? Just kidding. But the simple answer is interaction with life. Life will offer you enough stuff to create if you are open to it. The slippery slope for an artist, however, is not to gratuitously create your own drama in order to fulfill your need to create.  This is what I called the masochism of the artist. To grab for the thorns when the rose is readily available. This is not necessarily healthy. 

{WUM} – Sound advice to be sure. So, with all the music that you’ve created, which song do you believe is your biggest fan favorite? Where does it place with you and the other material you write?

{JS} - The most popular song on YouTube for example, is “Valleys”. It’s not my favorite song and it may be one of the more simple songs structure wise, but many around the world have made videos with it and it has over a million views.

There is an interesting story to this song.  I was offered to write music for a big company (will remain nameless) and I wrote 20 minutes of music. They then refused to pay me for it and wanted to have it without paying even my expenses. They said it would “help my career” and promised “future benefits”. We went back and forth for weeks. And finally, I said: If you do not want to pay my expenses, I am keeping the music”. And I kept it. This was in 1994. One of the songs in that 20 minutes of music was the roughly 3 minute song Valleys. I chose to put it on my second album and later it found an audience on this new thing called Youtube. Moral of the story: stick to your principles.

{WUM} – I have to say my favorite song by John Sokoloff is, “Valleys” as well. However, “Vanowen Girl”, “Waltz for Anastasia”, and “PerrisCalifornia” are also up there in my favorites...but you have so many wonderful songs that I like, it's really hard to pick just one... “Do you have any favorite artists?


I have been listening to old Rolling Stones records recently. The spontaneity of those records is something to behold. To capture a moment, it is sometimes best to not plan. The balancing act is to plan, then throw all that away. The best producers are genius’ at this. David Briggs and Daniel Lanois come to mind.

“Performing” can be the death knell to art. Capturing the moment and thus, a timeless human absolute is the beautiful paradox of brilliant recording. 
The recording becomes of a time, and of all time.

{WUM} - If you had the choice, who would you like to co-perform with at a concert venue? And why?


{WUM} - You’ve produced 6 albums to date, what’s next for John Sokoloff? Are you working on new material? Do you have plans to release another album? If so, can you tell us about your new album and what inspired you to write it?

{JS} - Yes…I have a 7th album coming out in July 2019. The new album is called “He has the Sky”. It refers to the Camus quote: “Rich people have things, poor people have the sky”.

The way I see it is that we should strip away all that is gratuitous when we write. We go directly to the essence. And that is what the title symbolizes.
I am joined by some great players on this album…Tony Mandracchia on guitar, Denny Croy on bass, Craig Fundyga on vibraphone, guitarist Rich Estes, soprano Mariana Popzlateva, drummers Ellington Peet and Todd Tatum. Some of the music is very much unlike my previous stuff.

Wayne Peet of Newzone Studio co-produced and engineered the album.
Some piano tracks were recorded by Bob Wayne of Sunburst Recording.

{WUM} – Well it all sounds very interesting and so I for one am looking forward to your new album when it’s released in July 2019.

How do you find this new age of online interaction? Do you believe social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook have helped spread the word of your music to a wider audience?

{JS} - Yes...Double edged sword. Great for distribution. Not so great for music sales. Not for a long time now, but it forces you to be creative in marketing. Creating non-duplicative experiences for your fans. But streaming is picking up some of the slack and the “rising tide lifts all ships” theory still holds interest to me…It definitely allows for the growth of audience. But the big companies have clued in to this and are limiting the ability to find new audiences for free. More and more they intentionally isolate us in order to charge for access to new markets. Understandable. But we were lucky to get in under the wire. Your site and others are so instrumental in creating the egalitarian spirit needed for artists. Thank you.

{WUM} – well World United Music is all about the artist and their music, so thank you for sharing yours. If I had not found your music and music by others on YouTube, World United Music would never have been born.

“Is there anything you would like to change in today’s music industry?”

{JS} - Pay more artists more. I guess that is a naïve statement at ANY time in the history of the music industry. But it is true. At any time, this inevitable tension will exist. The idealists/artists will run up against the wall of cynics, pragmatists and legitimate business people. The best I can offer: Go into any situation INFORMED. It will give you your best chance, even if the deck is stacked against you. Because being an artist – it will be.

{WUM} – Good advice! Do you have any additional advice for new musicians just starting out?

{JS} - If you truly love your art. Then follow it. But do not go into it for other reasons. The art will sustain your spirit (if not your bank account) in down times – of which there will be many. If you go in for some other reasons – you are doomed.

{WUM} - What is your message for fans around the world?

{JS} - I get letters and e-mails expressing kindness towards my music from people all over the world. From Taiwan to Syria, from Brazil to Poland, from the USA to Russia. Different countries, different religions, different races…
They all appear as one to me. Souls know not Faces.

{WUM} - John Sokoloff, thank you for being here today on World United Music, it’s been an honor and a pleasure. I’m looking forward to your new album, He has the Sky” in July 2019.



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