A JAZZ DIVA & HER NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI.
Text: David Moreu
Stacey Kent, the Grammy nominated artist and million-seller jazz diva, returns to the music scene with an album titled “I Know I Dream” that has been produced by longtime collaborator Jim Tomlinson and which includes several songs co-written by Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. An interview to get a deeper understanding of her humble beginnings, her amazing music career and the challenges behind her new orchestral sessions.
Lets travel back in time. How do you remember your days at the Sarah Lawrence College in New York and when did you decide you wanted to be a singer?
When I was a student at SLC, I was not yet thinking about being a singer. There are no musicians in my family, music was only something we did as a hobby, so it hadn’t occurred to me. I was pursuing my degree in language and literature. I always sang, for friends and family, and I was known as being a a person with good ears (to imitate, to play things I had heard back on a piano) and that I had a good voice. But I had no idea that this is what I would do. I loved what I was studying and envisioned a career in academics. After I graduated, fate stepped in. I wasn’t pursuing music, but it kept pursuing me. I met musicians by accident and I was invited to sing along. Then, I was in the UK visiting friends who were studying at Oxford (while I was a German student in Munich at the time) and I saw and advertisement for a 1-year course at Guildhall School of Music. I decided to audition. It was on a whim. I didn’t think I would be accepted because everybody on the course had done undergrad degrees in music and mine was in Lit. But the school accepted me. That’s when everything changed, I got job offers to come and sing at parties and events. Word spread about me until I was actually working as a singer and got a record deal, an invitation to sing on radio and also in the film “Richard III” with Ian Mckellen. I was lucky because of word of mouth. Then when it looked like as though this was meant to be, I continued on the path…
During your career you have gone beyond the “great American songbook” and have included French and Brazilian songs in your repertoire. What do you enjoy about these musics and its culture?
I was always interested in foreign language and poetry because my Grandfather grew up in France and only came to USA as an adult. He gave me this love of the outside world and other cultures, other languages. He is the reason I went on to study language. So, to sing in languages I had already learned and studied made perfect sense to me. I grew up listening to French music, speaking French, so having all this repertoire gave my own repertoire such a richness. I grew up loving the music of Leo Ferré, Gainsbourg, Michel Le Grand. And I discovered the Brazilians when I was 14 and heard Getz/Gilberto. I went to Tower Records on 66th street (across the street from where my father lived) and they had a great section of Brazilian music, so I found Tom Jobim, Edu Lobo, Marcos Valle, Roberto Menescal, the Caymmi family, Joyce, so much music that completely captured my heart! French and Brazilian music is as natural to me as American Songbook songs. But I would never sing in a language that I don’t speak. For me, the poetry needs to be internalised to be able to convey the story and words.
Your new album is called “I Know I Dream” and has been recorded at the Angel Studios in London with a big orchestra. When did this idea come up and what was the biggest challenge of the project?
I knew for a long time that I would eventually sing with orchestra. It is a format that suits me so well. To be surrounded by all that harmony and colour is sublime. I was patient, I did’t need to make this album immediately. I have been gathering material, thinking of ideas… When Sony , my label, came to me and said that they would like me to make an orchestral album, I was ready for it, had so many ideas already in place, what kind of sounds and instrumentation I would like that would suit me well, what were many of the songs, etc. Some of the songs got this album have been on my orchestral wish list for a long time because to me, their images are so visual: Double Rainbow, Photograph, and the songs / stories written for me , The Changing Lights, Bullet Train. They are cinematic and singing with orchestra feels cinematic.
This new album includes new songs written by Kazuo Ishiguro and Jim Tomlison. How was it working in music with a Nobel Prize-winning author? Was it also a challenge for him?
This is one of my favourite parts of my work. These songs are tailor-made for me. Tomlinson/Ishiguro know me so well and compose with my voice inside their heads and imagination, and they get the atmosphere just right for me. These songs are so beautiful but also stories I love to tell. Often so sad but with a sense of hope. Often so intensely emotional but that I can express without drama. The protagonist is often talking to herself, reflecting on her life and choices and where she ends up, looking back on the events that led her there. I love that sense of time and memory and reflection. This is a happy collaboration, between the 3 of us. Challenges, of course but always that thrill us. Ishiguro has said to me that one of the parts he enjoys is that this is in fact collaborative work, as he is used to working on his own as a writer.
The title of the album is very evocative. What are your dreams for the future as a musician? Do you think music still can change the society in some way?
My dreams as a musician. To continue to develop and be the best I can be, in my delivery, in my expression, in my singing and technique. I am working on this all the time, I am impassioned by the process and continue to grow. I am a better singer than I was a few years ago and I hope to look back on myself from 2018 and think I am better in the future than I am today. Yes, I think music can help to change or influence society. To make music is human and we need to connect to our humanness. It’s a need. These are not big, sweeping changes but the experience of listening to music in the theatre or alone at home is to make contact , it makes us feel connected, the feelings are infectious, it helps to spread a collective feeling, it is to engage as human beings.