September 27, 2008

An Interview with Sonya Kitchell

Only when the topic turns to guys and their heartbreaking ways does Sonya Kitchell sound like any other nineteen-year-old girl. In all other respects, the Massachusetts-native singer/songwriter conveys a sense of purpose and self-awareness that belies her youth.

She evoked aspects of that sophistication on her eloquent 2006 debut, Words Came Back To Me. Yet, as illustrated on her current sophomore effort, This Storm, Kitchell has broadened her creative canvas to explore a wellspring of sound and substance. “I wanted to make a record that felt more expansive,” she says, “and more interesting musically and [one which] had a little more depth politically.”

Her versatile talent and fortitude resonated early on with Herbie Hancock, in whom she found an invaluable source of insight and assurance. “He’s been a really big mentor and person in my life in the last year or so,” Kitchell says. She’s toured at length with the jazz legend as well as having worked with him on River: The Joni Letters, his 2008 Grammy-winning Album of the Year.

Presently headlining her own tour, Kitchell discussed This Storm, expounding on the craft and conviction with which she invested the work.

This being your second album, how do you measure your progress as a songwriter?

A lot has changed. And one of the more obvious changes is that when I wrote my first record, a lot of the songs I hadn’t yet experienced. There were life things that I was writing about—from and about the people around me or things I projected or things I imagined or things I’d seen—[but] hadn’t lived myself. As two or three years went by, I started to live all of those songs and understand them more deeply. And then on this record, it was more from personal experience.

Also, it’s very important for me that songs make people feel and that there’s a political element in records, because I feel there is a lot that needs to be touched upon right now and a lot that’s going on that needs attention. That’s always been a desire of mine to focus on. And I think on this record, moreso than on the last one, that’s present. Hopefully, on the next record, it’ll be even more present. But as a writer I’ve been able to incorporate that a little more this time.

You recruited Malcolm Burn (Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp) to produce the album. What did he bring to help facilitate your creativity?

He brought a huge amount to the table. He has a way—I wouldn’t say he has no patience for things—but, [more like he believes] you just do it. Whether it was getting a take or anything, it was all about the raw emotion rather than the perfection. We didn’t fuss around with things forever. The vocal take, I was singing it the same time that the band was playing. And it was fun working with someone who’s just such a mad scientist, who pushes you in a great way.

There seems to be an underlying theme of impermanence, fleeting love as well as the shortness of life. Was that a theme you consciously wanted to write about or is that something that just came out?

That just came out. I did not consciously mean to do that, and you’re absolutely right that that’s something I tend to focus on. But no, I didn’t mean to do that.

In songs in which the lyrics don’t explicitly convey a sadness or melancholy, your vocal often does.

That’s unintentional, too. Yeah, that’s just there.

Even on songs like “Here To There,” songs that aren’t necessarily sad…

Well, even that song is sad, actually [Laughs]. It’s about a lover who’s far away and it’s like, you’re here and I’m there or I’m here and you’re there. Who knows what’s gonna happen and how it’s gonna work out?

“Robin in the Snow,” with its imagery and the sentiment—“Who will miss you when you’re gone?”—is quite evocative.

I was sitting in the kitchen, looking outside. It was February, I think, and it was snowing, freezing cold. I saw this bright red robin and it was really beautiful. Then I realized it was going to die… because it was February and cold. How could it possibly survive? So that was the trigger for the song, the idea [of] who will miss you and who will miss me? It’s definitely a question we ask.

How has working with Herbie Hancock affected you?

He always encouraged freedom and freedom of expression. He would say to me, “That’s what I love the most about your singing is that you’re not afraid to experiment and you’re not afraid to fall on your ass, even though you don’t.” That’s the way he plays and that’s what he really loves in other people’s playing: that abandon and trying and not being afraid. To have someone like him tell you that you can do that and you’re good at it is huge and very liberating.

It’s got to be encouraging.

Very encouraging. He gave me a lot of confidence. When I started working with Herbie was when I went into the studio [for This Storm]. And even though I made a rock ‘n’ roll record, I was getting from the jazz end of things that if it was good music and you’re true to it and you’re passionate about it and you’re honest with yourself and not afraid, then [the album] will be good. That was really huge for me.

What’s the sentiment behind “Soldier’s Lament?” It’s certainly sympathetic to the soldier.

It’s about the idea that we don’t want to see something that we believe to be glorious fail. We only want to think about the accolades and wonder that goes with winning battles and fighting wars. When someone falls, we look the other way because it’s a reality we don’t want to accept.

In “Borderline,” you seem to be dissuading against apathy. Is that a fair analysis?

Sure, yeah.

Do you think that that mood is changing—in the context of the election?

I hope it’s changing; it’s hard to say. Elsewhere in the world, I think people are almost more excited for Obama to be president than they are here. I hope that’s not true, but you do get the feeling.

Is there a particular story behind “Fire?”

I was on a really terrible tour and I was really mad. [Laughs]

It comes across.

It’s about a few people rolled up into one, really. I wrote that song about those kinds of guy musicians who go around breaking hearts. And I always like to warn my friends who aren’t musicians and don’t know them and don’t know what they’re in for: Watch out!

Dates and venues for Sonya Kitchell’s current tour can be found at the artist’s official website. This Storm is available at all retail and online outlets.