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Stacey Kent: Trans-atlantically Yours

David Adler By

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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 young—sometimes 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 affectation—I 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.

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