Stacey Kent: Trans-atlantically Yours
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in June 2001.
Stacey Kent left the States in 1991 and unwittingly became a British-based international singing sensation. She met her present husband, tenor saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, while visiting friends in London, and one thing led to another. Her first demo received airplay from an excited Humphrey Lyttelton on his well-loved show on BBC Radio 2.
She landed a singing part in Ian McKellen's film "Richard III," which gave her crucial exposure.
And in 1996 she was signed by Candid Records, for which she has recorded four albums, the latest being Dreamsville, a ballads outing culled from fans' requests over the last few years. Kent's brassy, almost trumpet-like voice, her often girlish delivery, and her inviting sense of swing have won her a loyal worldwide following. She regularly tours the world, sharing bills, for instance, with Georges as famous and diverse as Benson and Shearing.
Ms. Kent visits her homeland fairly frequently, most recently for a two-night stint in early June at New York's new Hideaway cabaret, which used to be John Barrymore's apartment, then the swingers' club Socrates' Retreat in the 70s. We caught up with the vivacious and voluble singer on a windy Sunday afternoon near her family's digs on the Upper West Side.
All About Jazz: So where'd you grow up, exactly?
Stacey Kent: I grew up in New York and in New Jersey. I've got a parent in each state.
AAJ: When did you leave the States?
SK: When I graduated college. So I've never really lived here as a full-fledged adult.
AAJ: Tell me about the course of events that led to your move to England.
SK: I got my degree in comparative literature and I started working toward my Masters. I went over to Germany first because I was doing languages, and German was my least strong. So I thought I'd work that out. When I was there I realized that I was just a little bit fed up. I had been doing all-year-round academics and I was burnt out. The England thing was such a serendipitous series of events. I went over there to visit some friends who were on their junior year abroad over at Oxford. Jim [Tomlinson] was just graduating from there, and we met, and some people I ran into were auditioning for this course at the Guildhall School of Music. I thought, "I could do this." I don't know why, it just seemed safe. It was still academics, but it was music, which I had never "officially" studied. I didn't think I'd get in.
Anyway, Jim and I fell for each other in a second. And he happened to be auditioning for the Guildhall course too, but like me, he thought he'd just dabble in music and then go back to "real life." But we had so much in common and we played so well together. We inspired each other. We were meant to play together. When the Guildhall ended, there was no question about staying in London. I just wasn't gonna go home. It was fate, to meet Jim and to wind up pursuing a music career, which I never thought I'd do. The whole thing kind of fell into my lap. I didn't go out there like Madonna, pursuing this thing with hunger. Although when it all got started, I did get hungry for it. But I didn't really have to pound the pavement. Things just started to go down.
AAJ: What's the scene like in England, and what's it like as a home? Do you miss the States?
SK: Very much so. It's a complicated answer. You can't be everywhere at the same time. I fought against loving England. In this career you travel, so in a way it really doesn't matter where you base yourself. I love my little home. But it took a while for me to feel integrated. I'm more Anglicized now than I even realized. I love the Brits. But I consider myself extremely American. You never feel more American than when you're abroad. Musically, it doesn't matter. You travel the world, and it's a universal language. The other day I played in Poland, and the audience didn't really speak English, and yet we had this wonderful chemistry going.
In Britain and Scandinavia, particularly, I have a really young following. I mean really youngsometimes 15 or 16 years old, into their 20s. They think the music is young, and hip, and romantic, and they swoon just like kids would have done once upon a time to Frank Sinatra. They have no idea it's called jazz. I try to explain that "jazz" is as big a word as "art." Ultimately the categories just start to fall away. I mean, "jazz," "rock," "pop," what does it all mean?
I think in a way I'm closer to folk musicians. I feel closer to the people I grew up loving, like Carole King and James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash and Simon & Garfunkel, who told romantic love stories. I feel as close to them as I do to Ella. For me it's more about the song than it is about me. It's without affectationI mean, obviously my voice has something to do with it. But I want to become part of the song I tell. I'm a vehicle from which the song needs to emerge. That's more the Rosemary Clooney way than the Mel Torme way. Mel had great chops, and he was showin''em off.
AAJ: How are England's jazz clubs? One of the things that keeps a lot of young people away from jazz in New York is expensive cover charges and drink minimums.
SK: I think it's better over there. I find it pretty shocking, I mean, you get shows like last night [at the Hideaway] where it's two sets, but it's two separate shows, and you come in for one hour and that's it. Over there, you don't pay per show, you come in for the night. Also, the clubs in the States don't have student prices. That's awful. In England you have student deals. If you're a student you can get into Ronnie Scott's for five pounds, and there's no minimum.
AAJ: Can you talk a bit about the making of the new album?
SK: I loved making Dreamsville. It was a real challenge and yet a real delight. I was a little apprehensive about making a ballads album. I wondered, how are we going to keep people excited? We didn't want to drain ourselves with ballad after ballad. We took an extra day to make the record, so we could take breaks and go play ball or something. It turned out great, we had a great time. And people really like it too. A woman told me the other day she brought the disc into the labor room and had her baby to it. People say the greatest things. It's so meaningful to me that we can touch people's lives like that.
AAJ: Speaking of touching, there's Dave Frishberg's "You Are There," from your new album...
SK: That song blows me away. I can't even sing that song, it's too sad. The way I interpret it, it's this personfor me it's a womanwho loved somebody so much, and she doesn't miss the person because they're away, but because they've died. A lot of people might just think the person's away, but I think it's worse than that. I just can't stand it. It was hard to record it.
AAJ: Who are some of the other British musicians you admire?
SK: Britain is full of phenomenal musicians. I don't have a lot to do with the singers over there, because I don't deal with them on the gigs of course. But of course I know them, and especially since I have the radio show I hear a lot of them. You heard my pianist David Newton, who's just great, he's got everything. We feel the groove the same way. Sometimes we go out as a little chamber groupDave, Jim, and myself. And Dave is a one-man orchestra. He can be the whole rhythm section. His time is phenomenal. He's a joy to play with. Colin Oxley, the guitarist on my recordsoh my god. I love Colin more than just about anyone in the world. He gets me so excited. What an amazing groove. Beautiful soloist, and I think Colin's the greatest rhythm guitarist alive today.
AAJ: You have two radio shows on the BBC. What's that like?
SK: I love doing that. One just started in April and the other I've been doing for two years. I get to spin records and interview other musicians, people like Tony Bennett, Joshua Redman, Bela Fleck. Next week I get to interview Rosemary Clooney. It's a great opportunity for me, because I'm just a girl with big ears, and I love all sorts of music, and I get to share that. I think anybody's responsibility as an artist is to be focused on the things that you love. Not everybody's gonna have the same taste. And that's coolwe don't want a homogenous world. I want some people to love spaghetti and hate sushi, and love Bela Fleck and hate Warren Vache, you know what I mean?
Music, to me, is everything. Man makes music because man is compelled to make music. It makes us feel better. There's nothing that touches me more than when someone comes up after a show and says, "I had a terrible week, and you just made me feel so good." It's corny, maybe, but I feel touched by that, because that's the way I feel about music.
AAJ: You've talked about how when you were little, you used to sing Paul Gonsalves's tenor solos on Duke Ellington records, and you didn't know they were improvised solosyou just thought that was how the music went. What a great way to establish an immediate connection to the music, without getting caught up in the technical aspects.
SK: Yes! Nobody told me what the word "improvisation" meant. I just accepted it at face value. And I loved it. It was this great, spirited, frenzied music. Ella and Duke at The Cote D'Azur was the record. I knew every note, back to front. It taught me a really valuable lesson. If I had known what I was listening to I would have heard it differently.
AAJ: Sometimes one yearns for that, to go back to an "unspoiled" state, a totally fresh outlook.
SK: Isn't that weird? You want to go back to that spot that you can never go back to.
AAJ: You've also said that studying foreign languages is largely an "ear" thing, much in the way music is.
SK: Yeah. I studied French, Italian, and German. My German was never fluent, but I was reading Proust in French and that sort of thing. I was good. For me language and music were precisely the same game. Both came very naturally. I'm always fascinated by what makes one person a good singer, another a good impersonator, and so on. I often wonder how it is that Mother Nature gives us these different skills.
My mother taught literature, and she taught us to read aloud to each other, and that was a huge influence. As soon as we were able to read, she made us do the reading. So my sister would take a turn reading Dickens out loud, or whatever it wasthere was a lot of Dickensand then I would take a turn. We all learned the love and the art of telling stories with our own voices. And the way we each told them was so different. I think that's very telling in regard to what I do now. I'm telling stories that aren't mine, but they become mine.