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Sonya Kitchell: Young and gifted

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSonya Kitchell's CD, "This Storm," was released last month.
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ASPEN ” Sonya Kitchell, the 19-year-old singer-songwriter who has spent a good deal of time over the last year or so performing with jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, released her third album, “This Storm,” last month. On it, Kitchell doesn’t sound like a singer-songwriter, nor the kind of vocalist who would appear with Hancock. And she certainly sounds nothing like a teenager.

Oh to be young, gifted ” and not locked into that box that seems designed to straitjacket emerging female artists.

“I hope to continue exploring this,” said Kitchell by phone. “I love so many different kinds of music, and there are so many records to be made and people to work with.”

“This Storm” follows on the heels of 2005’s “Words Came Back to Me,” which could comfortably be called a singer-songwriter album. But in the three years between the albums, Kitchell has done the sort of changing, maturing and experimenting one might expect of a teenager. The unexpected part is how confidently she expresses these changes, given the reception which greeted the earlier album, the second ever distributed by Starbucks’ Hear Music program. Kitchell made the album with drummer Andrew Barr and guitarist/keyboardist Brad Barr, of the Massachusetts jazz-rock group the Slip, and with producer/bassist Malcolm Burn, known for helping a more established woman singer, Emmylou Harris, into new musician territory.

“It’s a completely rock ‘n’ roll record,” said Kitchell, who performs Friday, Oct. 17 at Belly Up, backed by the Slip. (Opening the show is John Shannon, who played guitar on “Words Came Back to Me,” and has a new album of his own, “American Mystic.”) “And I made that while I was working with [Hancock]. But that is the music I needed to make; that’s what was coming out of me. Malcolm, Brad and Andrew and I got together, and this is what came out. And it came out really right.”

If there is one clear nod to another artist evident on “This Storm,” it is to Joni Mitchell. But that influence is obvious only in spots, like the wistful “Robin in the Snow” and the delicate “So Lonely”; it is more subtle in the poetic nature of Kitchell’s lyrics, the fact that she accompanies herself on guitar, the way her voice swoops from note to note. Hancock surely noticed the similarity to Mitchell: He tapped Kitchell to sing Mitchell’s songs while he toured behind his Grammy-winning tribute album, “River: The Joni Letters.”

“I really admire her as an artist,” said Kitchell of Mitchell. “I admire how she changed a lot herself. And how she was so respected by other musicians. You want to be good, not just be a chick singer, for lack of a better word. She wanted to be a great musician, and say something meaningful. And she was always changing what she did.”

But on “This Storm,” Kitchell goes some places Mitchell never did. The heart-ripping “Fire” rocks along on guitar riffs lifted from the Rolling Stones; “Effortless” is bright pop music, with a catchy hook, but some bite as well.

Besides her abundant talent, Kitchell says the key ingredient in the new album was confidence. Much of that was instilled in her by Hancock.

“He’d say, ‘I love how you’re not afraid to take chances, how you always sing things differently,'” recalled Kitchell, who doesn’t hit the big 2-0 till March. “That’s really encouraging. He’s so respectful and wonderful. He liked that youthful surprise. When you’re young, you can either have that or not.”

Kitchell took that stamp of approval with her into the Maison Bleue Studio, in Kingston, N.Y., a town along the Hudson River some 60 miles north of Manhattan. After using a somewhat minimalist sound palette on “Words Came Back to Me,” she expanded with a string section, keyboards, and, on the single “Here to There,” harmonica, horns and pennywhistles.

“I went into the studio feeling much more sure of my judgment,” she said. “That’s what came out and it felt right to me. [Hancock] gave me confidence to trust myself. He’s very experimental, and this album is very experimental to me, all those sounds.”

Kitchell got the music bug ” actually, it was a singing bug ” at 7, at a concert by the gospel choir Amandla, in her native western Massachusetts. Her parents, both visual artists, signed her up for lessons with the director of Amandla. The first songs she tried out were popular old tunes: “Walking After Midnight,” “Blue Moon.” When it came time to perform, at 11, Kitchell had moved into jazz and was performing at jazz clubs around Massachusetts.

Three years later, she was named best jazz vocalist at the DownBeat Student Music Awards.

Kitchell’s stylistic path took a turn when she began writing songs, at 12. With an emphasis on the writing aspect, the sound moved toward the acoustic singer-songwriter realm, though with a jazzy flavor, reminiscent of Mitchell and contemporary singer Madeleine Peyroux.

At the Boston Music Awards a few years ago, Kitchell met the Barr brothers, who comprised two-thirds of the Slip. Kitchell must have admired the Barrs’ ability to evolve; the band began as a rock group, turned toward instrumental jazz fusion, then, on the 2006 album “Eisenhower,” emerged as a song-oriented, indie-rock outfit. Kitchell says there was a “magic musical connection” between herself and the Barrs, which has resulted in “This Storm.”

The title of the new record ” also the title of the closing track ” might be taken as a suggestion of teenage angst. But the song is soft, refined; besides, Kitchell isn’t given to outbursts. And her reflections on the song are thoughtful, rather than impetuous.

“I chose that because I feel like storms are really powerful things,” she said. “Before a storm, you feel like something is brooding and coming. And afterward it’s a relief, all beautiful and glistening. And I liked the idea that music could be like that ” it comes and it’s revealing, and afterward, it feels different.

“The song is about how a lot of my friends had different things going on that they had to get through. Everyone had a storm coming, I felt for people and wanted to reach out and acknowledge that we were all in it.”

The main challenge for Kitchell the last few years has been adjusting to the life of a touring musician. She has mixed feelings about whether she’s coping well.

“I would say yes and no,” she said. “Whether you’re young or not, I don’t think it’s an easy life, the life of a touring musician. There’s never any ground under your feet; there’s never any regularity. But I’m working on being as stable as I can be.”

Like Kitchell, Belly Up Aspen itself is branching out in some big, bold ways.

Among the upcoming shows on the club’s schedule are Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim (Sunday, Oct. 19); Austin psychedelic-rock group the Black Angels (Oct. 23); Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, and No. 26 on Rolling Stones’ list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, playing in his acoustic guise, as the Nightwatchman (Nov. 7); Henry Rollins, performing on his Recountdown spoken word tour (Nov. 8); alt-country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, in an acoustic trio with fiddle star Jenny Scheinman (Nov. 16); a cappella gospel group the Persuasions, who originated in 1960s Brooklyn (Nov. 21); and indie-rock faves Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Nov. 22); singer Amanda Palmer, of the cult duo Dresden Dolls (Dec. 7); and newgrass icon Sam Bush (Jan. 14). All will be making their Belly Up debuts, and all but Bush, their Aspen debuts.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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