Spotlight on Sophia Shorai

The University alum performs as a pop-jazz artist

by Jackie Renzetti

As an 11-year-old, Sophia Shorai saw jazz-infused musical comedy “Babes in Arms” and was awestruck.

The jazz-pop artist, who’s a University of Minnesota alumna, has been performing throughout the Twin Cities for about 10 years and released five albums. On Thursday, she will perform at the Dakota Jazz Club.

Right after high school, Shorai visited local bars and asked staff for a spot in their performing lineup. Most said yes.

And her music career began.

James Buckley, who often accompanies Shorai on bass guitar, said he remembers her early days.

“At the time, she was like super-duper young and nerdy looking, [she was this] very unassuming-looking younger girl that could sing her ass off, and I was just blown away because it was just her and the guitarist,” Buckley said.

Shorai seeks out lesser-known jazz standards to use in her shows while mixing in her original jazz-pop work.

Drummer Greg Schutte met Shorai in the early days of her career and, like Buckley, loved her performance. “She sounded just as good as she sounds today. I mean, she sounds better now because she’s more seasoned and has more experience, but right out of the gate she had the raw talent,” Shorai said.

He accompanies her a few times a month.

As part of her introduction to jazz, Shorai said she spent a lot of time in her bedroom listening to records of the masters — Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and John Coltrane.

Aside from early jazz standards, Shorai cites pop artists Stevie Wonder, the Meters, Brandi Carlile and Sara Bareilles as influences.

She teaches piano and voice lessons in addition to performing.

“There’s nothing more powerful than being able to give what you know to other people,” Shorai said.

And as a member of the Screen Actors Guild, Shorai lends her voice to national commercials for Macy’s, Target and JC Penny.  

Her first commercial, which she recorded at age 19, was for Barbie.

Shorai works outside of commercials as well — she’s recorded tracks for “Dirty Sexy Money” and the movie “Center Stage: Turn It Up.”

Last August, Shorai released “Try,” a four-song EP with electronic pop songs, which is a break from her normal style. She produced the album with Dory Kahalé, alias DJ Dirty McKenzie.

“Because of all the experience I have doing commercial music and learning how to double up my voice, I really wanted to incorporate that [experience] in the new process of the EP, ‘Try,’” Shorai said. “People haven’t heard that on a personal songwriting scale [from me].”

Shorai said she plans to release an all-original record in the next two years, potentially veering toward the country genre.

She has collaborated with many Twin Cities artists, including Dan Wilson, J.T. Bates and Jeff Bailey.

“The Twin Cities is just so ripe with talent, so I could just rattle off all the names,” Shorai said. “I get to work with the cream of the crop in the jazz room.”

In 2010, Shorai released “Long as You’re Living,” a live vocals and piano jazz cover album that she created with Prince’s former keyboardist, Tommy Barbarella.

“When I play with her there’s sort of this fearlessness that happens,” Schutte said. “Sophia is so comfortable as a musician that any kind of musical moves. She can take it back and enjoy it, or adapt to it and respond to it and potentially take it to another level.”

He said he rarely rehearses with her before their performances together.

Shorai is part of a musical family; her father plays trumpet and her mother sings.

Buckley and Schutte said they often see her sisters at shows.

“It’s a pretty cool vibe when you’re at a gig and you’re plugging away and … you have groups of friends that are really into the music, and family there to see their daughter or sister,” Buckley said. “I think that brings it out of a gig and makes it more of a cool thing.”


What: Sophia Shorai

Where: Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis

When: 7 p.m. Thursday