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Sonya Kitchell Biography
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sonya Kitchell has delivered the goods on her new album This Storm — 12 timeless tunes that document her evolution from emerging artist into a sophisticated musician and songwriter with something meaningful to say about the human condition. Her lyrics are sometimes personal and often political, but all are insightful and deeply felt.
Kitchell’s growth as an artist is apparent from the opening moments of the album’s breathtaking lead track, “Every Drop.” A clear departure from mild singer-songwriter fare, the track’s jittery heartbeat pulses over a lightly tinkling piano before building to a massive chorus, where Kitchell’s otherworldly voice rises commandingly over unrestrained guitars. Musical surprises abound throughout, from the edgy, impassioned rock of “Fire” to the country-blues twang of “Running” to the drifting, textured alt-pop of “This Storm” and “Who Knows After All.” Not that fans of Words Came Back To Me will be out of luck, either: tracks like “Walk Away” and “Robin In The Snow” are quintessential acoustic Kitchell.
At all times, the songs are a showcase for Kitchell’s worldly voice, which, with its intimate tone and feathery falsetto, has earned her attention not only from critics, but also from one of the most respected figures in jazz: Herbie Hancock. After hearing Kitchell sing, Hancock invited her to perform with him and his all-star band at the Sonoma Jazz Festival in 2006. The two developed a warm rapport and Hancock tapped Kitchell to sing in his band as he toured the West Coast last year in support of his Grammy-Award winning album River: The Joni Letters. (Kitchell also sings on “All I Want” on the Amazon and ex-U.S. iTunes versions of the album.)
“Herbie encouraged me as far as improvising goes and gave me the nod to go ahead and experiment,” Kitchell says. “If he thinks I’m a good singer, that’s a huge compliment and a pat on the back. It made me realize, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ Each night he’d stretch out and improvise, and I’d stretch out and improvise. It was like this dance we did every night. And to do that with someone like Herbie Hancock makes you feel like you can do it with anyone.”
Not that Kitchell is lacking in admirers. Her debut album, 2006’s Words Came Back To Me, released when she was only 16, had critics falling over themselves to offer praise. “Such warm honey-textured tones, arching smoothly through shifting layers of emotion, don’t usually emerge from a 16-year-old,” raved the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post noted that her jazz and folk-laced debut “reveals Kitchell’s great promise without once betraying her age.” Other critics were as impressed with her songwriting as remarkable as her voice; Jazz Times called them “remarkable treatises on life and love.” People magazine summed it up presciently: “Sonya Kitchell is destined for great things.”
This Storm was recorded with Grammy Award-winning producer Malcolm Burn (Daniel Lanois, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris) after her tour with Hancock ended. “I wanted the experience to be the kind of thing where we all sat down with these songs and let them grow and unfold and become creatures on their own,” Kitchell says of her time in the studio. “And that’s exactly what happened.” With Kitchell on electric and acoustic guitar and Burn on bass, the two were joined by multi-instrumentalist Brad Barr and his brother, drummer Andrew Barr (both of the band The Slip), at Burn’s home studio in upstate New York. In this comfortable setting, Burn drew remarkably deep vocal performances out of Kitchell, setting off the classic feel of her songwriting with his thoroughly modern production, which layered dry vocals over a wide-spectrum bed of multi-tracked guitars and mysterious sounds. It’s an album where every part and sonic nuance exists for a reason.
Creative camaraderie is something Kitchell became accustomed to as a child. She grew up with her artist parents — her father is the noted fine artist Peter Kitchell, and her mother, Gayle Kabaker, is an accomplished illustrator — on a tranquil 45-acre spread in rural western Massachusetts. Sonya, now a serious photographer in her own right, was surrounded by art and music from an early age, and became enraptured with her parents’ record collection, which included Billie Holiday, The Rolling Stones, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, The Police, The Ramones, Igor Stravinsky, Talking Heads, Slim Harpo, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell, Kitchell’s idol (whom she got to meet and perform with while touring with Hancock — an experience she says “couldn’t be any better.”)
“How I grew up had a huge impact on who I am as a person, the kind of music I make, and what I appreciate in life,” Kitchell says. “It was this magical place in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by gorgeous landscape and acres and acres of land. One of my favorite things was to just go walking in the woods and write songs.”
Kitchell decided she was going to be a singer at age seven, and by eight, had made her debut performance at a piano recital. By age ten, she was taking voice lessons with jazz singers Sheila Jordan and Rebecca Parris, followed by learning to play the guitar and writing her first song at age 12. Soon after, she formed the Sonya Kitchell Band, which earned an enthusiastic following through regular appearances at the Northampton, Mass. club, the Iron Horse. Meanwhile, one of her compositions won two awards at the 2003 DownBeat Student Music Awards, and she was one of 40 composers under 30 – and at the age of 14, the youngest by four years – to be selected for a week-long 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 the head of the artist-friendly Velour Music Group, which signed on as her management and record label. Kitchell recorded and released the EP Cold Day for Velour and began performing live, sharing bills with such artists as Taj Mahal and Tuck & Patti. In 2005, she recorded Words Came Back To Me, and as advance copies made the industry rounds, the album so impressed the principals of Starbucks Hear Music that they decided to make it their second-ever release in their Hear Music Debut CD series in 2006. Velour subsequently entered into a venture with Decca Records to co-release future albums by Kitchell, and the three companies — Velour, Starbucks, and Decca — will promote This Storm when it is released on September 2nd, 2008.
Over the last few years, Kitchell has performed with an incredibly diverse set of artists, including Angelique Kidjo, Ben Harper, Richie Havens, Jamie Cullum, Martin Sexton, Indie.Arie, Susan Tedeschi, Los Lonely Boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and Kaki King. She also appeared at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall, alongside Judy Collins, Tracy Chapman, and Suzanne Vega among others, for “The Music of Joni Mitchell” — a live tribute to her idol. It’s been a whirlwind journey, and now she’s ready for audiences to hear her new songs.
“I want people to feel excited when they hear the album,” Kitchell says. “That ecstatic, elated feeling you get when something is so good that it makes you want to listen to it over and over again. I hope to create music that has as much of an effect on others as artists like Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, and Leonard Cohen had on me. I know that’s setting the bar very, very high – but