Kostia Efimov is a pianist, composer, and teacher who was born in the Soviet Union and performed to his first American audience at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1989. He’s worked on a number of film soundtracks, tribute recordings, and solo albums over the span of decades. His most recent record is 2018’s “Still, Still, Still” on which he plays Russian impressions of Christmas music.
ME: My first question is, how did you get involved with Wisconsin Music Ventures?
KOSTIA: Carmen Nickerson, myself, and bass player John Wheeler played a house concert when we met Allison. She invited us to participate in some events that were sponsored by Wisconsin Music Ventures, and then we became members and friends, and here we are. It was kind of straightforward.
ME: Yeah, it seems to have been straightforward for many.
ME: So, you were in Iowa today. What were you up to?
KOSTIA: Well, that’s actually a long story but I will try to make it short. Carmen and I work together on a lot; she’s a wonderful singer and works with Willy Porter, and she’s from a little town in Iowa called St. Ansgar. We go to visit her family and friends, but this time I was actually meeting Carmen’s sister, who has a musical theater in Osage, Iowa. I’ve worked with them already three seasons; I play piano and rehearse with them for at least one production every year. So we went there for a few days and talked about the musical this year, which is “Legally Blonde” and it starts in June.
ME: Very nice! That was probably a lot of driving today, huh?
KOSTIA: Certainly a lot of driving. But it was a lot of fun; I’ve been there so many times and know a lot of people, so it was a very sweet visit.
ME: Well that’s fantastic. I’m glad you had a nice time.
ME: Looking at your website, I checked out the music that you have on streaming platforms, and your most recent record was the Christmas album “Still, Still, Still.” I’d love to hear more about what went into this body of work and what it means to you.
KOSTIA: Sure, well first of all, you probably know by now that I’m actually from the Soviet Union which now doesn’t exist (laughs). I came to the United States back in 1989 and signed a contract with Narada Records, playing with Daryl Stuermer from Genesis and Phil Collins, and after I left in 1998 I started doing projects with other recording companies as well. I think the day I came to the United States was the 21st of October, right before Christmas. I started hearing all this beautiful music and it seemed that everyone knew what it was about and familiar, but for me it was terra incognita – something I’d never encountered or heard before. I was really amazed by how beautiful this music is, and I know a lot of people just look at it like they’re sick and tired of Christmas music, but I wasn’t. I really loved it. For me as a newcomer and outsider in many ways, I was able to appreciate it a lot more than people who have lived here their entire lives. Some songs I found familiar, like “Carol of the Bells” I’d known since day one, but a totally different version of it. To make a long story short, this body of music was really moving and haunting, and for a long time I’d really wanted to do this album. Finally, my friend Ted Klumb just asked me if I wanted to record an album and said that he’d help in any way he could, and I opened my mouth and said “Christmas album.” He said, “I’m so glad that you said it because I was going to suggest it (laughs).” We were on the same wavelength, and he was instrumental to the idea. We recorded it in a beautiful studio, Tanner-Monagle, in downtown Milwaukee. Being a composer myself, I wanted to find a different kind of angle which would be interesting, so I tried to bring some of the compositions to their roots. I have many more Christmas songs and want to do another CD; as of now I haven’t done it yet, but I’m working on it.
ME: There you go; there’s still time. As you said, there’s plenty of Christmas music and there’ll be many more Christmases coming. It warms my heart that you found such meaning in the music when you were exposed to it.
ME: Now that it’s springtime, what are you currently working on?
KOSTIA: Well, several things. Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Lake Geneva recording with my great friend Alan Williams, who had a band in Milwaukee called One Lane Bridge. He’s recording a new album and I’m doing a couple songs with him. My other main focus is playing with Carmen Nickerson on the album she’s recording, which I have to say is absolutely fantastic. Willy Porter is producing it and it sounds just incredible. John Wheeler is playing bass and John Clark is playing drums. Dave Adler is playing some keyboards in addition to myself, and there’s some other people that’ll be involved in it as well. Hopefully in a couple months it’s going to be done.
ME: Very exciting! I’m looking forward to hearing it.
ME: Do you have any shows coming up?
KOSTIA: Carmen and I play in different venues when we’re both in town; we play The Packing House restaurant every other Wednesday, and every other Thursday we play at St. Kate Arts Hotel. Carmen’s CD release party will be in Iowa in St. Ansgar, but no date is set yet.