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Meet Armen Yampolsky of Tournesol Records in Silver Lake

Today we’d like to introduce you to Armen Yampolsky.

Armen, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was born in Russia, and raised in a traditional classical music family. Both of my parents are professional musicians who met each other when they were students at the Moscow Conservatory. We emigrated from the Soviet Union when I was still a child, and arrived at a place called the Tanglewood Music Festival, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. That place, with its lakes and woods, the ebb and flow of music carried over breezes, and the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who lived and worked there during the festival’s summer season, gave me my first and most indelible sense of home.

I received formal training in piano and violin, as well as in music history and theory. I toured Europe with high school orchestras, and eventually majored in Music Composition.

At some point in my early 20’s, my musical interests shifted toward popular songwriting and amplified music. I taught myself electric bass and started writing songs. At first the songs were written on the piano, but eventually I switched to writing on the guitar. I played in bands and tried to perform as often as I could.

A few years ago I had an opportunity to learn about modern digital music production. This knowledge opened a very important door for me: I could introduce sampled instruments to the tracks, and take advantage of production techniques that I had previously assumed to be beyond my reach.

Today I continue to write, record, and perform music. I enjoy contributing to others’ projects as much as I enjoy working on my own, and I look forward to becoming a part of the global music community.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Thankfully, my road has not been smooth, and it seems to show no signs of toning down the roughness of its ride 😉 I think my biggest challenges have been typical, and they remain mostly unmitigated.

I think my first and greatest struggle has been with the limitations of my technique. I did not inherit my parents’ virtuosity, nor was I born with a singer’s voice. Rock and Roll, as a genre, affords some leeway on these, but only to a degree.

At some point I realized I was struggling with finding my place in the music industry. The classical world is very different from the world in which I have been hoping to find a place, and many of the approaches taken by my parents and teachers to establish themselves professionally do not seem to apply to the world of popular music. In their world, novelty, youth, and physical attractiveness are not as central to success, and the very notion of success itself looks very different. For my parents and their peers, a lifetime spent playing with a single orchestra is the very height of success. It’s been over forty years, and many of the adults I knew as a child continue to occupy the same chair in the same orchestra, their contributions continually earning them respect, admiration, and no small amount of social status. But to someone with dreams of “making it” in popular music, their jobs differ little from any other boring, bureaucratic desk job. Old people playing old music is the typical look of high achievement in classical music; in popular, it is a look far worse than death itself.

Another challenge that comes to mind concerns performance itself. Performing for others is an essential part of my musical identity, and this endeavor is met with challenges constantly. Whether it’s keeping a band together or building an audience, the struggle to simply put on a show feels even more difficult today than it did 30 years ago. It’s actually pretty easy to book a gig in Los Angeles, as the venues are plentiful and many have reasonable policies. Anyone just starting out can find a place to perform. But the same urban qualities that allow LA to have so many venues also work against your act, as folks are less likely to venture to remote neighborhoods to see a show.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I run a unique music label, in that it is free of the temptations of modern capitalism. It is very modest and privately funded, so that we can focus on the work with minimal distractions. For anyone working with the label, the measure of success need not be a number; it can be a much more personal definition of progress.

Our studio is small and mobile, and we work quickly. I tend to value the form, arrangement, musical and lyrical content, and performance of a song over its production quality. Another take is preferable to post-production adjustment, and insincere performances tend to be scrapped.

Teaching has always been an essential part of the business. To be able to teach and to mentor is a remarkable gift for me, personally. It allows me to keep an unspoken oath that I feel is a duty of all artists: to share fully and freely what we know, experience, and believe to be true, and to pass on the training and traditions of our métier.

Tournesol Records doesn’t look like much of a business in the traditional sense, and that’s OK. Being small and private doesn’t get in the way of our primary business goal: to bring beautiful music to the world.

What were you like growing up?
My childhood involved a fair amount of movement across geography and culture, so the opportunities for forming significant roots were not available to me. My family did not feel the need to dilute our culture and values in order to live well in the West, so we always spoke Russian at home and my training and upbringing were unaffected by many of the norms known to American children. I was a smart kid who adjusted to new circumstances quickly. I was pretty good at language and I always had a fascination with science.

I was full of positive energy and I was generous with it. But serious things were treated with seriousness. I remember being called “intense”, and — no surprise — I still get that today.

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