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Big Time Faced
with the prospect of imminent success, singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell is, it seems, more than ready

By Shawn Stone
photos by shannon decelle

Sonya Kitchell knew she wanted to be a singer before she was 10 years old. By the time she was 14 she was fronting her own band and swinging out—convincingly—on jazz and blues standards in venues around the Berkshires and the Capital Region. (Kitchell, for example, can sing the hell out of “House of the Rising Sun”; most singers shouldn’t even be allowed to go near that old warhorse.) Now, at 16, Kitchell is about to go national.

On April 4, her new album, Words Come Back to Me, will be released on the Velour and Hear Music labels. That’s right: Hear Music. Starbucks. Kitchell’s CD is about to be featured right next to the cash register at thousands of coffeehouses across the country.

This is no small deal in today’s beleaguered music marketplace. As Billboard’s Melinda Newman told Michael Y. Park of on Jan. 4, Starbucks has “become a power in the industry.” And the power is directly related to customer loyalty, Newman explains: “People feel they have a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, that any CD they see in a Starbucks already has the Starbucks seal of approval, and therefore they’re going to like it.”

The thing is, none of this fazes Sonya Kitchell. Talking about it, she’s as cool as the jazz she doesn’t sing anymore, or the dry martini she’s too young to drink.

Kitchell is really pleased, on every level, with the way Words Come Back to Me turned out. She’s eager to talk about the kind of music she’s making now, which she describes as “folksy-rocksy-soul, as opposed to jazz.” (From the tone of her voice, it would seem that her jazz period has already receded into the mists of antiquity.)

In the past, her songwriting was very formal, both lyrically and structurally. Example: “Romance,” which won her Down Beat magazine’s student competition for best original song, sounds like it was written 50 years ago. Not that this is a bad thing—writing a song that would be perfect for Peggy Lee or Jo Stafford is no mean feat. Now, however, while her music remains carefully crafted, her lyrics are more personal and, she says, better reflect her own life.

“[The album] paints the picture of the entire year, and it covers all my different musical styles,” Kitchell explains. “It’s a pretty good representation of where I’m at now.”

Asked what other artists she’s listening to now, Kitchell pauses before she replies.

“I’m listening to so much different stuff. Somebody just gave me a CD of the Wood Brothers which I listened to today, and I really like.”

She pauses again, and adds: “I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone, the Beatles and Bill Withers . . . and Debussy and Donny Hathaway and Erykah Badu and Gillian Welch and, I don’t know, Jeff Buckley. . . . Lots of stuff.”

She just returned from the West Coast: “It was great, it was really fun. We flew into San Francisco, we played in Sacramento, and then we drove to L.A. and played two shows.” After that, she “flew up to Utah for Sundance.”

Starbucks, it’s worth mentioning, was a co-sponsor of the festival; she played in the festival’s Starbucks Lounge.

Unfortunately, Kitchell reports, there was no time for moviegoing. It was back on the road again: “Then we flew to Portland, had a show in Portland and then we drove to Seattle, where we did some shows and lots of radio.”

Next on the agenda is her performance tonight (Feb. 2) at New York’s Carnegie Hall as part of a Joni Mitchell tribute. As of press time, Kitchell is going to be singing in rarified company. The other artists on the bill will include Laurie Anderson, Don Byron, Shawn Colvin, Richie Havens, Nellie McKay, Me’shell Ndegéocello, Tom Rush, Neil Sedaka, Martin Sexton, Suzanne Vega and ex-Destiny’s Child (and gospel fave) Michelle Williams. How did this not-so-shabby gig happen?

“Well, I got involved with that because the band that I am guesting with, Assembly of Dust, decided that they wanted a female vocalist to sing with them,” Kitchell says. “And I guess that their manager is friends with my manager, and they kind of just hooked it up. So, yeah, I got really lucky.”

After the Carnegie Hall gig, she’ll play some gigs in New York and around the Northeast. But real work doesn’t begin until the month before her album hits the street.

“Starting in March, I’ll be really busy,” Kitchell notes. “I’m gearing up for that right now.”

One thing she doesn’t have time for is high school: “It got to a point where it was kind of impossible.” She’s studying with a tutor to finish her last two years.

“I work with her when I’m home,” Kitchell says. “There’s no way I would do what I’m trying to do musically right now and be in school.”

Three years ago, Kitchell told Seth Rogovoy in the Berkshire Eagle that she wouldn’t mind having Norah Jones’ career: “Look at how [Jones] is kicking off, I would love that. I’d like to be touring the world because I love to travel and I obviously love music.”

That hasn’t changed. When asked about her Fall 2005 visit to Japan to support the release of her album (she has a separate label deal there), she remembers the hectic experience fondly: “I played a show and did a lot of press—about six hours of press every day the week I was there. We were in Tokyo the whole time.”

This sounds a little like the dizzy dislocation portrayed in Lost in Translation. When asked if it was a kind of fishbowl experience, she says, “very much so.”

But did she enjoy it? “Yes.”

If anyone’s capable of handling the attention that’s clearly coming her way, it’s Kitchell. Norah Jones should watch out.


-no rough mix this week-

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