Sonya Kitchell's rare gift may result from some fortuitous conspiracy of genetics and environment, or it may be the manifestation of something more mystical -- but there's certainly no denying her exceptional talent. Kitchell is an eloquent songwriter, dazzling singer and old soul who just happens to be 17 years of age. This budding artist's extraordinary gift lies not just in her songs and singing but in the decisions she makes within both realms. To hear where Kitchell chooses to go, one moment to the next, in any of these songs is to experience, all at once, her taste, her preternatural musical savvy and her depth -- as in deep. Once the novelty of this has worn off, the listener can simply soak up the myriad pleasures and insights of Kitchell's debut album, Words Came Back to Me (to be released April 4, 2006, by Velour and Starbucks Hear Music), because this artist's achievements are without caveat -- Kitchell is the real deal, pure and simple.
The album is an understated, largely acoustic affair, seamlessly melding elements of jazz, R&B, folk and other roots forms in a song-serving, rather than genre-adhering, way. There is undeniable warmth and wholesomeness to Kitchell's dusky alto, but just as evident is a knowingness that is ageless and timeless. From song to song, she manifests a warmth reminiscent of Carole King ("I'd Love You"), the gossamer touch of Joni Mitchell ("Words"), the soulfulness of Van Morrison ("Let Me Go"), the yearning of Al Green ("Can't Get You Out of My Mind") and the structural sophistication of Burt Bacharach ("Tinted Glass"), and yet the sound is all her own, unadorned, authentic and from the heart.
"My whole life I've been a sponge for everything around me," Kitchell says. "I soak it up, and I want to take as much of it as I can and make it part of myself. When I listen to something that I think is amazing, rather than think, 'I could never do that,' I think, 'I want to do that, and I'm going to do that.'"
Sonya's experience with deeply felt self-expression dates back to the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, when the twelve year old came home from school struggling to cope with the enormity of what had happened that morning. She jotted down some therapeutic writing in her journal, and as she wrote, a melody formed in her head -- a song was born. She sang it for her mother and a local folk artist who told her, "People need to hear this song, Sonya." At that moment, making music, which had been "a thing I did," she says, became her vocation and passion. It was then, too, that Kitchell came to see the act of songwriting "as a way of processing what I'm going through. 'Train' is about things going really fast, and wanting it to be fast and wanting it to slow down at the same time, and not being able to make up my mind. 'Let Me Go' is about my parents and me coming into my own as my own person. And then, a lot of the songs are about different guys -- that's never been done before," she says with a wink. Kitchell grew up in a hothouse atmosphere of creativity on forty picturesque acres in rural western Massachusetts, where the family home has always been flooded with music and art. Sonya's father is a top-selling poster artist with a passion for world music, and her mom is a graphic designer whose tastes run toward female singer/songwriters. For as long as she can remember, one of Sonya's favorite pastimes is to tinker on the piano that sits in the living room, which her grandfather, a classical pianist and Vietnam war correspondent, brought back from Hong Kong.
The natural environment around Sonya's home is one of her major inspirations. "A lot of my writing comes from where I live, which is in the country," she says, "and it's spectacular at all times of the year. Whenever life is crazy for me, I go for a walk in the woods near my house. It's like clearing my palate, and then I can write and reflect. And a lot of times I write sitting on my bed and looking out my window at the hills and the trees. It's just a really amazing place to create art from." Sonya's first performance came at the tender age of eight, when she sang during a piano recital. In 1999, at the age of 10, she began studying voice with the jazz singers Sheila Jordan and Rebecca Paris. Soon after she'd written her September 11 song, Kitchell became the subject of a story in the local paper, and she was asked to gather some young musicians for an appearance at a local club, the Iron Horse. Over time, a formal group coalesced, the Sonya Kitchell Band. Meanwhile, one of her compositions, "Romance," was awarded best jazz vocal and best original song at the 2003 DownBeat Student Music Awards, and she was one of 40 composers under 30 years old to be selected for a weeklong workshop in jazz composition for the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
In 2004, Sonya was spotted by Velour, who began work as her manager and record label. She recorded and released the EP Cold Day for Velour and began performing live with her talented band, sharing bills with such artists as Taj Mahal, Dar Williams and Susan Tedeschi. In 2005, she recorded her first full-length album with co-producers Steve Addabbo (Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega) and Jeff Krasno. As advance copies made the industry rounds, Words Came Back To Me so impressed the principals of Starbucks Hear Music that Words will be Hear Music's second-ever release on their Hear Music Debut CD series, making the record available in all Starbucks Company-operated locations in the U.S and Canada beginning April 4, 2006. The album will be available at all traditional music retail outlets on the same date.
When asked why adults relate so strongly to her songs, Sonya replies, "My dad was an abstract painter, and when people look at art that is nothing but washes of color, they see what they want to see, or what they need to see in it. So I try to write in a way that people can take from it what they need to take from it, and they can hear what they need to hear. So I think maybe that's why it works. Besides, teenagers feel things so intensely, and maybe people forget what it was like when they're past that point." Does she have an ultimate career goal? "In the long run, I have high goals," Kitchell says. "If I could create even a fraction of the amazing body of work of a Joni Mitchell or Carole King or the Beatles -- or last as long as U2. To be able to support myself. And to have a family some day. I also want to be politically active and make a difference. But really, what I've always wanted is to write a lot of songs that stick around.
Sonya Kitchell holds the distinction as being the youngest performer at Bonnaroo this year at the tender age of 17 - but I wouldn't hold that too much against her. After giving her a quick listen she sort of reminded me of a female version of Ray LaMontagne - though I'm sure she gets compared to the likes of Norah Jones a lot more. Here she is with "Let Me Go"....
Man I seem to be striking out lately on finding shows to download, but you can out this NY Times video feature on Sonya which includes a performance from SXSW....
Sonya Kitchell - NY Time Video Feature
And here's one more live performance....
Sonya Kitchell Live At Copley Square - Boston, MA
One have one video for ya, her she is again with "Let Me Go"....
For more info head on over to her official website. Oh and if her name sounds familiar it probably because you've seen her album Words Came Back To Me on the music kiosk in your local Starbucks - it's the album that sort of looks like the cover of a Joni Mitchell album.