Emily Slomovits grew up on the stage of the Ark. Her father, Sandor Slomovits, is half of the musical duo Gemini (the other half is his twin brother Laszlo). “I’ve been playing on and off with Gemini since I was eight or nine,” she recalls. “I would go up with my squeaky little fiddle and play two songs.”
Now twenty-three, she has formally declared her intention to follow her father and uncle in making her living in the arts. In addition to fiddle, she plays guitar, sings, and writes songs. “I’m working everywhere,” she says. Her frenetic musical life assigns top priority to two trios she’s part of, “then I do freelance: fiddle, singing for anyone who will have me.” She supplements performing gigs with teaching and freelance writing, and working in her second love, the theater: she’s a member of Spinning Dot Theatre and often works with the Wild Swan Theater. She also holds a part-time desk job as the Ann Arbor Senior Center’s recreation programmer.
Almost preternaturally warm and sunny, she grew up friendly with the local folk royalty, including Peter “Madcat” Ruth and the Chenille Sisters. Grace Morand, one of the Chenilles, came up with the name for one of the trios Emily plays in. “Grace and I were backstage at a benefit for the Wild Swan,” Emily recalls. She told Morand that as a semi-regular member of Gemini she was beginning to feel that “Gemini plus me” needed its own name. “Grace said ‘You should be Gemily!'” And now they are.
Her other trio, with her dad and bassist Jacob Warren, goes by the dry but accurate moniker “San, Emily and Jacob.” She and Warren met in kindergarten at the Rudolf Steiner School, and have been best friends ever since. Currently in the master’s program at U-M School of Music, Warren describes the music they play together as “genre-bending.” Five tracks of theirs (posted on SoundCloud) are mostly fresh reinventions of classics, including “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Guantanamera.” Emily sings and plays fiddle, including a vivacious and slippery klezmer number on a Gemini favorite, “Deli.”
Emily’s upbringing was open-minded and nurturing. As Gemini, San and Laz became popular with their warm and easy rapport with their audience, their playfulness, and an emphasis on tolerance. Born in Hungary, the children of Holocaust survivors, they moved to Israel and eventually the States. Both brothers live close to each other on Penncraft Ct., a tiny dirt street on a hilltop between Dexter Rd. and Arborview. The land was bought collectively in the early 1940s by a group of U-M grad students who had worked at the original “Penn-Craft,” a Depression-era Quaker project that built homes for displaced Pennsylvania miners. The founders helped one another build their homes, and most lived in them for decades before passing them on. Laz and his wife, Helen, moved there in the late 1970s, followed ten years later by San and his wife, Brenda. (Helen passed away in 2012. Brenda works at Ronald McDonald House of Ann Arbor, but she, too, is an artist–twenty of her collages have appeared on the Observer’s cover.)
Emily’s first music teacher was long-term Penncraft resident Anne Ogren, who played violin with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. “Anne would practice with the window open,” Emily recalls. “The story goes that when I was seven, I was passing her window and said, ‘I want to do that.'”
Emily has never left Penncraft Ct. and doesn’t have any immediate plans to. She admits that EMU was a stressful leap after the nurturing Steiner School, but she thrived, majoring in German and minoring in musical theater. She is tiny, just under five feet. The boots she kicks off at the front door are “size two or three. I have to buy them online.”
In the acting world, being small is not a handicap, especially since she has a large, expressive face with piercing gray-blue eyes and adult bone structure. But as a musician, her size has presented technical challenges.
“As you can see, my hands are not super big,” she says. “I have to play a three-quarter-sized violin. By high school, most people have graduated to a full-size instrument, and I was struggling to be heard.” Because three-quarter instruments are built to be outgrown, it’s hard to find a good one. “So my mom did some research and found a place in Ohio.” Her custom-made three-quarter violin from Peter Zaret and Sons in Cleveland is fitted with an innovative thick, wooden bass bar that amps up the volume.
She tunes up her fiddle to give an impromptu concert, first playing “Ashokan Farewell.” The sweetly mournful waltz famous as the soundtrack for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, showcases her classical training–not many fiddlers can execute her honeyed vibrato. Then she dives into a quick, percussive klezmer tune. Next, she tunes up a guitar and sings “One Song Glory” from Rent. Her voice is high, with a warbling, airy lightness, like Joni Mitchell. She says she has the same upper range, though Mitchell “can sing lower.”
She characteristically sidesteps compliments, reframing them to expose a weakness of hers. She similarly deflects one about her classical training, saying that it’s not always an advantage. True, it gives her “the freedom to manipulate sound,” but the ability to reproduce various styles of music makes her very conscious of “retaining a feeling of authenticity. I don’t want to co-opt a style. I know where everything is on the instrument, and I know how to make a pleasant tone, but there are fiddlers who have never been classically trained, and they can …”
Told that it sounds as though she really doesn’t like to brag about herself, she agrees. “I’d rather not …” she says gently. “I’d like to think I’m not riding on my dad’s coattails,” she says. “I like to think that because of him, I have a structure in place.
“Both my parents know the reality of being a working artist. They’ve said, ‘She wants to do this. Let’s help as much as we can, and do what we can’ not to slow my dream down.”