Lydia Salnikova was raised in Russia, but she came of age in America.
Since 1998, she’s called the United States her home, and when she returns to her mother country, as she did recently during the holidays, she feels like a stranger in a strange land. It’s a source of ironic amusement, considering she experienced the same feelings the first time she came to Tennessee with her old band, Bering Strait.
“I remember we stayed in Nashville, and I was unused to how much people smiled,” she told The Daily Times recently over breakfast at Midland Restaurant. “I think when you’re growing up, everything is a shock anyway. You feel like a fish out of water, trying to find perspective on your changing body and your mind, so this was just an added dimension for me.”
With her exotic features and slight accent, Salnikova is still something of a fish out of water in the East Tennessee music scene, but she’s slowly finding a home for the piano-based pop ballads she sings with such exquisite beauty. She’ll celebrate the release of a new album, “Valentine Circle,” next weekend and preview that performance on Monday’s WDVX-FM “Blue Plate Special.” She still feels like an outsider, but she feels more and more at home in America these days, she said.
“And I think and write in English now,” she added with a laugh.
The daughter of a scientist-turned-web-designer father and a mother who’s retired, Salnikova was introduced to classical composers in music school. She experienced her first love of American music and culture when she saw the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film “The Bodyguard” and fell in love with Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s classic “I Will Always Love You.”
“It seemed like music was always there,” she said. “I’m better at this than anything else, and it’s always been satisfying.”
She dabbled with studying law, but by 1995, she had joined a Russian bluegrass band that was transitioning into a country outfit. At first, she worried there would be little for her to do given the distinct lack of keyboard parts in bluegrass songs, but her sensual, heartfelt vocals and instrumental prowess was a big reason Bering Strait made such a splash when the members came to America.
The music was strong enough to warrant interest from various record labels, and the band signed with Universal South; “60 Minutes” aired a segment on the group, and Bering Strait toured the country with such artists as Trisha Yearwood, Diamond Rio, Wynonna, Phil Vassar, the B-52s, Ricky Skaggs, Kenny Rogers, Kathy Mattea and Bela Fleck. There was even a Grammy nomination for best country instrumental performance (Bering Strait lost out to the Dixie Chicks), but a lack of album sales sent the project off the rails.
Moving with her boyfriend to East Tennessee, Salnikova was determined to start over as an independent artist. She makes her living as a studio vocalist, loaning her exquisite pipes to projects locally and in Nashville, but she takes particular pride when it comes to Music City — she’s “with them but not of them,” she said.
It’s not an easy road to travel. The path isn’t always sunny and bright, but that’s OK; her muse functions best in the shadows, specifically those cast over the emotional center of her being.
“I don’t necessarily write sad songs, but those are the things that tend to stay with me,” she said. “Happiness needs to be earned, I think. I try to make what I write personal, but not so personal that people can’t relate. I try to capture a universal angle.”
With “Valentine Circle,” she’s crafted an album of introspection and heart-gazing based on the cycle of relationships. She’s happy in hers, she added, and not every song is autobiographical, but even when she’s content, her art tends to manifest itself in melancholy ways.
“They’re relationship-based, melancholy songs,” she said. “‘Valentine Circle’ is an exploration of love and its many facets. Until you find ‘the one,’ relationships are circles. You meet someone and feel infatuation and bliss ... then come doubts, and there’s trouble on the horizon ... you feel regret, and then there’s the breakup. And the circle completes, until you find your happily ever after.”
Whether Salnikova has found hers remains to be seen, but she knows this: Her life here, with her piano and her friends and her work and her man and her music, is as close as she’s come so far.
“If I still lived in Russia? I know I wouldn’t be making music,” she said. “The music business in Russia is in a deplorable state. So many artists who perform, they’re not singing live, or even to tracks — they’re singing to a record. Here, I wear a lot of hats, and I have to be my own leader. I’m responsible for my own creation. That’s the scariest thing, but also the most exhilarating.”