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Singer silences skepticism

Stewart Oksenhorn
Sonya Kitchell belts out a tune Friday night at the Belly Up. (Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen Times)
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Friday evening, on the way to the Belly Up, I ran into my often skeptical friend Steve. Steve’s skepticism this evening was directed toward Sonya Kitchell, the 17-year-old singer-songwriter making her Aspen debut that night. A summation of Steve’s argument was that Kitchell was too young to have experienced enough to put emotional heft behind her songs.Steve should have been at the Belly Up an hour or so later, to witness Kitchell singing “Can’t Get You Out of My Mind,” a self-penned blues song from her recent CD, “Words came Back to Me.” Writhing, Kitchell drained the emotion out of her own words, reminiscent of a slightly restrained Janis Joplin. But in the performance, there was no sense of a teenager mature beyond her years, or someone playing the innocent/provocative sex kitten.From the moment she took the stage, Kitchell’s youth was no factor, because she doesn’t use her age as a gimmick. I couldn’t even describe her as precocious – a term, according to one newspaper profile, that she has become tired of hearing. At 17, having been performing for five years, Kitchell was very much just a singer on stage, armed with a usually whispery voice (that can be ratcheted up to a belt) and uncommonly sophisticated songs (think of the pop-jazz vein of Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones or Madeleine Peyroux). Kitchell’s songs – and “Words Came Back to Me,” her second album, comprises a dozen originals – don’t pretend toward grown-up emotions, but tend toward unpretentious, poetic observations of the world. One of her darker tunes was, she announced, inspired by seeing the recent Oscar-nominated film “Capote.”Steve was right to be skeptical. There have been enough 17-year-old pop idols with enormous voices, good looks – and nothing more behind them, save perhaps handlers willing to exploit them. But Kitchell is a reminder that the idea of a teenage singer with a mature, honest way of expressing herself is not an impossibility, just a rare occurence. Kitchell is, at the moment, that rarity, and it will be interesting to see how she progresses from here.


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