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Friday, Sept. 16, 2005
Keeping up with the Norah Joneses
By DAVID HICKEY
She may only be 16 years old, but Massachusetts native Sonya Kitchell talks with the assurance of a musician twice her age. It's a couple of days after Kitchell played a live showcase to a largely music-industry crowd in a tiny Shibuya jazz bar, following the recent Japan-only release of her debut album, "Words Came Back to Me." The album remains off the shelves in the rest of the world due to record company wrangling, but Kitchell brushes off the delay nonchalantly as something she's "not supposed to talk about."
Clearly, the young singer has learned a few industry tricks, having been on the road with veterans like Taj Mahal and Richie Havens. At the interview, held at her Japanese record company's office in Tokyo, the only sign of her age is the additional presence of Kitchell's mother, Gayle -- a graphic designer who's come along to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.
"Words Came Back to Me," co-produced by Steve Addabbo of Suzanne Vega fame, is a mature set of largely acoustic folk-soul songs penned by Kitchell and delivered over a lithe jazz backing. At its core are the teen's smoky, somersaulting and remarkably assured vocals. It's the kind of album that could be slipped into the car CD player on a family outing and no one would complain: not Dad who digs jazz and "adult contemporary pop"; not Mom, who favors female folk like Joni Mitchell; not older brother who is into sensitive singer-songwriters like Nick Drake; and not little sis who's looking for something beyond manufactured teen-pop sensations.
While the record industry doesn't seem quite sure where to place Kitchell, the pop conveyor belt seems an unlikely destination. This is one teen more likely to be seen on the same bill as Rickie Lee Jones than Ricky Martin.
"I go to a performing arts school in Northampton, western Massachusetts. I make my own program. I take my work on the road, and e-mail my teachers assignments. Hopefully, I will graduate in two years time. I have decided I'd like to go to college and I could even do it while continuing to tour. I think I'd probably be an English major.
"The best advice I've ever received? Um . . ." (Mom interrupts, saying): "[We've been told by other artists] 'You have to love it. You can't be doing it for any other reason.' "
"I went to an arts integrated elementary school. We had a thing called 'All the School Sings' on a Friday afternoon. I would harmonize with friends, sometimes I would solo . . . and sing 'Walkin' After Midnight' by Patsy Cline, 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning' from 'Oklahoma!'
"I started playing guitar three years ago. I've been singing my whole life, and started voice lessons when I was 7. I started as a jazz singer, and would go to jam sessions and sing jazz. I learned [jazz] toning, phrasing, styling; I love to improvise.
"My dad's a painter. Through a recording engineer friend of my dad's, he traded a painting for studio time and I recorded demos to sell at shows. I started playing shows at age 13, [playing] mainly jazz standards. I had written a song on 9/11, a promoter got to hear it and asked how he could put on a show of mine . . . and he became my booking agent."
"Where we live [home is 500 hectares of land in Ashfield, Mass.] is very isolated. We had a TV but no channels [no cable]. But my dad has a great record collection -- Miles Davis, Latin music, reggae, Talking Heads, the B-52's, Tori Amos, Sam Cooke, opera, classical. My grandma was a classical pianist. I like listening to Billie Holiday on record too, the crackling [of the record], it's the real thing.
"I liked the Spice Girls when I was 8. That was my one teenybopper moment!"
File under . . .
"All the musicians I know are jazz musicians. We all appreciate improvisation and making things different every time, but we are playing pop music . . . jazz-soul-folk-alternative pop, whatever you wanna call it. Everyone likes to compare me to Norah Jones. I'm in the pop section in the music shops. I'm like 'alternative pop.' I like to say I'm a jazz singer sometimes, but I don't feel like I'm on a par with the jazz thing. I feel like I wanna learn more music theory. My band's so good it's made me a slacker.
"I feel very in control of my music. I can't make things any bigger, but I can slow things down. My career is a collaborative thing; I listen to my band, my manager. I trust them. I wanna write great albums that have classics on them. It's not something I really try to do. I know [the people around me] would like it if I wrote a catchy pop song."
"There's as much pressure as in any career to succeed. All the pressure is from me to become a better guitarist, writer and performer. [I'll avoid the pitfalls of fame by] keeping on writing good music, working with the people I trust."
(Mom): "Everybody is looking at this as a very long-term career, instead of how can we make her a pop star, dress her up in sexy clothes."
"I'd like for my music to be not . . . over-produced, [but] produced in an interesting way, and writing songs that are not about that pop chorus, but writing songs that are about great lyrics and a great song, so I guess in that sense I want to bring music back to its roots . . . like The Beatles, straightforward and interesting at the same time."
Not a novelty
"I hope [being compared to Avril Lavigne] is a joke. I don't want to be a novelty. I hope the music is more received across all ages. I don't want to be a megastar. The idea of it being so superficial, being such an icon doesn't really appeal, even if that is a possibility. What does appeal to me is being an artist that a lot of people respect, full of integrity and [who] has an effect on current music. Like Beck. He's cool, he's cutting-edge, he's interesting and he's not like Britney."
Jazz in Japan
"In Japan I'm being marketed as a jazz singer, they said there's so many [female singers] that I wouldn't stand out [otherwise].
"I couldn't tell if [the audience at the live show] were being quiet because they're dead polite or simply enjoying the show. The music can speak for itself."
"The songs are mostly about where I am now. A lot of my songs are very teenager-y, [about] longing, confusion and angst. A lot of people ask me, how can I understand longing? When people listen to my music I'm sure people are listening to my words and thinking things that I wasn't really thinking.
"We all feel these same emotions, but we just feel these at different levels. The feeling is more universal than people realize and it's relative to people's life experiences. Mine are just as intense as somebody else's."
Sonya Kitchell's album "Words Came Back To Me" is out now on P-Vine. For more info see www.sonyakitchell.com