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Sophie Armstrong talks new music and returning to the stage

By Troy Hasselman, October 18 2019 —

Calgary-based Australian violinist Sophie Armstrong is back to performing after taking some time away from the spotlight and has began releasing new music and performing, including an Oct. 5 concert at Bella Concert Hall on the Mount Royal University campus and a new single that embodies her unique take on classical music.

Armstrong’s return to recording and performing comes after giving birth to three kids in a relatively quick time frame. Armstrong says that while the last four years have been heavily devoted to her family, she is excited to be getting back into music.

“It’s been interesting for me because I had three little ones in a row. I had my son in 2015, then I had my daughter 15 months later, then I had my third,” Armstrong says. “I had them pretty much back to back so I’ve kind of been on maternity leave for the last four years. As a musician you have the luxury of not having to be somewhere nine-to-five, Monday to Friday so I’ve definitely been doing less and I’m excited to get back into it now. In terms of the adjustment, it’s totally different wanting to take your kids everywhere. The business is evolving and I’m changing as well, I’m not gonna be on podiums in clubs playing electric violin across Europe six nights a week.”

While Armstrong hopes that she will be able to bring her full family with her next time she heads out for a tour, she is unsure if the logistics would work. 

“At this stage I don’t know if that’s possible,” Armstrong says. “I know that one of my mentors and favourite artists Pavlo does take his family pretty much everywhere and he’s one of Canada’s hardest working musicians and is performing all of the time. We’ll see, I’ve been able to take them many times so far, so we’ll see if I can manage a full tour which probably won’t happen until later next year.”

The new track “Unvanquished” is inspired by Armstrong’s Scottish family heritage, with the title coming from the Latin phrase invictus maneo, meaning “I remain unvanquished.”The track is built around a soaring violin line from Armstrong that morphs into an electronics-fuelled track with pulsing rhythms and danceable groove, all while remaining built around Armstrong’s violin. Armstrong says this style of music is something that has been fused from different styles she grew up loving and her experiences performing in different places.

“I started experimenting with different sounds when I was 16, because I played and had been taught classical my whole life,” Armstrong says. “I found that in some of my favourite genres like rock and pop, there weren’t many violin-led groups at the time when I started doing this. For me, I was able to do a lot of travelling with my violin because I was invited to performances in some cool places so I started hearing different things and putting it together.”

Armstrong’s current style did not come early on in her career, however, she began performing pop music after her first deal at the urging of a local production company, with her producers hoping she would be able to emulate wildly popular performers like Britney Spears.

“When I first started, I had a production deal with a local company and I was pushed to do vocals and they said ‘Okay, we don’t know what to do with your violin so let’s just do a pop record,” Armstrong says. “I was 17 years old and they were trying to put me in the Britney Spears box I guess, they weren’t interested in the violin. After a few years of that, it just wasn’t me and I decided to put the violin to tracks I was doing, and then playing for different groups and travelling the globe and hearing different folk music and different world music. At the end I just stopped trying to be what people were telling me what was going to sell.”

While Armstrong does mix together a wide array of influences into her work, she doesn’t think her following looks at her fusing of styles as the reason why they listen to her music.

“I just started putting together the things that I like and the people that followed me seem to love it and when I ask them what are the key things that they like about me, it’s usually down to the tone of the violin and the passion and delivery,” Armstrong says. “I’ve never had anyone come back to me and say ‘I like it when you do classical pop or I like it when you do Middle Eastern music.’ It comes down to how I play the violin, so I just keep doing that. Whatever’s inspiring me or whatever I come across and am exploring at the time.”

Armstrong is the founder of the Every Woman Foundation (EWF), a charity that uses outreach programs and cultural events to promote the equality and inclusion of women from all backgrounds. The organization is currently on hold due to the massive workload Armstrong has with three young children and a music career, but she hopes that it will be back running in the near future.

“Unvanquished” album cover. // Album photo taken by Ivan Otis.

“The organization’s currently on hold at this point but we do have plans in the future,” Armstrong says. “It just comes down to the fact that I’ve always ran it and funded it, of course we’ve had lots of sponsors but it’s always been me sort of leading. Having three kids and a music career it’s been really hard to pull it all together. We really need to hire a full-time team. We’re reassessing where we’re gonna go with that.”

The organization was formed over a decade ago and grew into an international organization with committees in cities around the world. 

“It started in 2008 at an event in Paris that three female musicians and myself put together, we raised funds for a local non-profit and came back to Australia,” Armstrong says. “We did the same thing there, changed the name and partnered with a local magazine, we had some support and sponsorship. We were supporting a shelter for women and all of us started volunteering at the shelter because music is so healing and it seemed like a way for us to give back through music. We started expanding and when I came to Canada and we started formalizing it. It wasn’t just musicians at that point, we had lots of different people volunteering for us and the program started expanding and we had songwriting and creative writing practice and started to bump into some legalities. It was the program defining what we were gonna do, it was all about healing through self-expression and we celebrated International Women’s Day and celebrate women in their local community. We’ve had committees in Boston, Edmonton and Sydney while I was here in Calgary and it started expanding at a rapid pace. Being a musician, I just haven’t mastered the business of delegating and once my third little one came, along the load on my plate had gotten too big and I hadn’t gotten the chance to sit down and look at who will take over from me. I just want to make sure I make all of the right decisions rather than do something quickly because I’m busy. This is something important to me and I’ve been doing it for almost 12 years.”

Armstrong moved to Calgary in 2011 and has lived here ever since. Despite her experience living in both Australia and Canada she is hesitant to point out any major differences between making music in the two countries. She has performed in and made music in many different countries around the world and hasn’t consistently made music in any one place during her career.

“For sure there are a lot of differences but it’s hard to give a conclusive and fair answer because I did a lot of recording remotely with producers in the States,” Armstrong says. “I also recorded a record in Istanbul, where I was in the studio in Istanbul and the producer was in Los Angeles. There was a program called Glass that beamed him in from Los Angeles into my headphones in Istanbul and I went back to Australia and launched it there. I did an album where one track was recorded in London and some in Paris when I was on the move, I had a tape recorder where I was recording sounds from prayers when I was in Morocco. The studio process is not crazy different, though I can’t remember the last time I settled down and did a record in Australia with Australian producers and Australian musicians.”

Armstrong’s new single “Unvanquished” is available on all streaming platforms. Information about future tour dates and new music can be found on her website.

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