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Stacey Kent, The Interview

Stacey Kent Stacey Kent
Stacey Kent’s ability to get into the heart of a song-and into the hearts of her listeners is slowly becoming evident, not only among jazz enthusiasts, but also among the general listening public. Defying the sometimes stultifying need to categorize music, Kent instead places the emphasis of her music upon its ultimate objective: touching a place of inexpressible meaning within her listeners’ consciousness.

Ironically, Stacey Kent found her initial success in England, even though she grew up in the New York metropolitan area. Coincidence played a big part in Kent’s success and if there is a lesson to be learned from her experiences, it is that being receptive to unexpected opportunities has the potential to change lives for the better, even as those lives follow paths that had never even been thought of.

With the release of Dreamsville, Kent’s popularity is gaining momentum at an increasing rate. The fact that she listens to her listeners, even as they listen to her, was important in the production of Dreamsville, for the album consists almost entirely of songs that her fans and friends requested. This reciprocal relationship between Kent and her listeners has had beneficial results, as the following interview reveals. The meaning of Kent’s music has had a deep impact on some of her fans, and their words of appreciation have helped Stacey Kent maintain the high level of joy that music has provided her throughout her life. This is your last day in the United States for a while?

Stacey Kent: Yes, I have a television interview tonight, but I’m fine for time. You just performed at the Hideaway?

Stacey Kent: We opened up this new place, the Hideaway, by doing two nights there. It’s on 37th between Fifth and Sixth. I was the first act on the first night. How did you arrange for that engagement from overseas?

Stacey Kent: I have an agent who takes care of me over here. I was coming to the U.S. to do some press for Dreamsville, and so this was an unofficial tour. I only had a few days over here, and so they said, "Oh, we’ll just sign up a few dates for you." We played at Scullers in Boston the night before. Then in New York they said, "We know some folks who are opening a new club."

I fly back to England tomorrow and sing with George Shearing at Symphony Hall on Saturday. Things are pretty busy at the moment. Have you performed with George Shearing before?

Stacey Kent: No, I haven’t. So I’m looking forward to it. So there won’t be much rehearsal?

Stacey Kent: We’ve spoken, and we’ll meet in the afternoon. These kinds of things just get put together, and away they go. I like it that way. It always works out well when you work with great musicians. Sometimes people say to me at a gig, "You only met these guys seventeen minutes ago?" And you’ll be performing with the BBC Big Band.

Stacey Kent: They have the charts, and they don’t need me for rehearsal. You sound nonchalant about it.

Stacey Kent: You know, I am because I work with great musicians. I never worry. They know what they’re doing, and I know what I’m doing. Obviously, if you play with the same band every night, it’s more than tight. Things are happening because you know each other so well. Magic evolves out of that.

For the most part, I travel with my own band that I love. It consists of four British guys I think are amazing. I play with the same band whenever I play all over Scandinavia. And we do mixing and matching. Just this last week in New York, Dave Newton, my piano player, and Jim Tomlinson, my tenor sax player and husband, were here. We met up with an American bassist and drummer. Who has accompanied you in the U.S.?

Stacey Kent: I’ve played with Tom Melito on the drums and Michael Moore on the bass. Sometimes I meet American musicians in Europe with whom I haven’t sung in the U.S. I’ve gotten a chance to perform with Dick Hyman, Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden, Warren Vaché and Scott Hamilton at the Edinburgh Festival.

But, there’s something fun about coming together with people you don’t know--being on your toes and watching what happens. That happens a lot because I travel around the world. I may play with people in Scandinavia I don’t know. Maybe their English isn’t even good, but the music is a universal language. You can never go far wrong once you figure it out.

You know what? The same sort of thing goes on with the listeners, even though you’re not playing with them. Just to use an example, I was in a music festival in a big hotel in Poland a couple of weeks ago. I played for an audience of people who’s English was very bad. I know that only from speaking to people who asked for autographs afterward. Their English was very poor, but my Polish was ever poorer. Yet, we had the most wonderful, delightful evening. The warmth that emanated from them was tremendous. And it was fun. The people got involved in the performance. The people in the front of the audience were throwing out Polish phrases and teaching me things. The language differences didn’t really matter because we had a great rapport. The music helped the differences melt away. When you take great music with a great feel, none of the differences matter, and I like that. People are just ...people. Mother Nature made us all approximately the same. Even though there are cultural differences, we all have the same emotions. How has the reception for Dreamsville been?

Stacey Kent: It has been fantastic. It was released in Europe five or six months before its release in the United States. We saw a big crossover with Dreamsville when we toured Europe. We hadn’t seen that before.

All of this started in England, where things were going very well for me. I have a great following in England for a lot of different reasons. I do other things as well that put me in other realms besides the jazz world. For whatever reasons, I started to appear in the press other than the jazz press. We started to find that people came to the concerts after they heard me on more mainstream shows. They were very young and didn’t know anything about this music. The just loved what they heard. They thought it was hip and romantic. So we started to get an eclectic following of very young people and older people. I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve heard people say, "I’ve never been in a jazz club before." A girl told me the other day that she discovered who Ella Fitzgerald was by listening to my music. She just loved what she heard without knowing what it’s called. It could have been very easy to miss her music if Ella wasn’t played on the local radio stations. Often, critics slice jazz up into categories, but that doesn’t help someone who’s coming in to enjoy the music.

Stacey Kent: The categories don’t mean anything. I understand that the critics need to categorize, and the music needs to be categorized on a marketing level so that people can find the music in a record store. Yet, under all of that, none of it really matters. I think an artist’s responsibility is to focus on what that person loves, and not to think about whether the music will have mass appeal. I think that your music will be infectious if you love what you do. As corny as it sounds, there’s nothing I like better than people coming up to me after a show and saying, "I’ve had a really bad week, and you just made me feel so good." I feel genuine excitement for the songs that I sing. I don’t think about what kind of music it is. You have direct communication with the audience. What accounts for that?

Stacey Kent: I think I’m a good story-teller, and there’s honesty in the music. These romantic, beautiful songs make people feel good for the same reason that they make me melt. Not everybody in the world wants to feel that way, and that’s OK too. Entertainers are there to make people feel good. All I’m saying is that it’s a very eclectic world, and I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. You’re compared to Mildred Bailey and Billie Holiday, but they weren’t your influences, were they?

Stacey Kent: No. I do have an understanding for the need to compare. As a comparative literature student, I know that people are always looking to relate things to other things. So, I don’t mind that. Fans have compared me to every singer there ever was! I haven’t even heard of half the singers I’ve been compared to. I feel closer to singers who aren’t even in the jazz genre. In my formative years, I was influenced by storytellers like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel. Yes, I listened to Billie Holiday when I was going through my girl-in-college melancholy years, as most girls do. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true. And yet, I wouldn’t consider her one of my biggest influences. I didn’t discover Mildred Bailey until later. I loved her when I heard her, but I had no idea who she was when I started singing.

I feel very much my own singer, and of course I’ve absorbed everything. But I don’t have one primary influence. When I tell people that I love listening to Nat "King" Cole, they say, "That can’t be. He’s a male singer." What’s the difference? Pink Floyd is as much in my head as all of these other influences. Which category does Pink Floyd fall into? I can’t possibly be utterly influenced by one single person. I’m Stacey Kent, who was born at such-and-such a time and who was listening to this music while I was growing up and playing tennis and eating sushi and listening to Simon and Garfunkle. That makes me my own person. I can’t be Ella Fitzgerald. We heard different things and came into the world in different ways. Therefore, I tell a story in a different way.

I think that’s a valuable lesson my mother taught me: She always made us read aloud. Her life was about literature. She was a teacher of women’s literature, and then she went on to publish a magazine. The idea of passing along stories in the oral tradition was very important to us. I think she taught me a sense of individuality so that I thought about who I could sing like.

I’ve been put in the jazz category, and that’s fine. I don’t care which category I’m in. I play with jazz musicians, and I love a swing groove. But I listen to all kinds of music. I love classical music, and I listen to Barbara Streisand. I’m influenced by Ravel as well, even though it may not be directly evident. The music in your heart makes you feel a particular way, and that influences how you tell a story in your song. I love it when people come up to me and ask, "Is that jazz?" It creates more questions. Do you think you’re building an audience for jazz?

Stacey Kent: I think I am inadvertently. I’m out there proselytizing. I mentioned Jimmy Giuffre that other day to a guy. He e-mailed me and said, "Oh my God. Thank you. I’ve fallen in love with Jimmy Giuffre." I’m not out there telling people to listen to jazz. I just want the world to be full of music, whether the people are listeners or performers. If people discover things through me, that’s terrific. If they don’t, that’s fine too. I tried to look up your birthday and found April 30, 1968. Is that right?

Stacey Kent: No, it’s not. I was born on March 27. There seem to be many mistakes like that occurring throughout jazz journalism all the time.

Stacey Kent: That’s not true of just jazz; that’s true across the board. I only say that because my sister, Debra, is in the film business. She tells me about all kinds of mishaps and continuity problems. The wrong birth date doesn’t matter. I read all sorts of things about myself. No matter what people read, it’s not going to affect how they feel about the music. You had grown up singing with your sister Penny. Did Debra sing too?

Stacey Kent: My whole family sang; we still do. Even if I hadn’t become a professional singer, we’d still be singing. Music can still be a person’s entire life, even though he or she isn’t a professional. My family just loved music. But I was the one who obviously had an ability to do certain things. I was always asked to sing for family and friends at parties. That’s an important point about being immersed in music, even though you’re not a musician. It still can enrich lives.

Stacey Kent: That’s right. Even though I’m not involved directly in the fine arts, I may go to a museum. I’m not outwardly going to gain anything by going there. I go there because it opens my mind.

We listened to everything when I was growing up. My parents were very oriented to classical music. There was a lot of opera and classical performances, and we also grew up on the MGM musicals. I loved Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. I had a pretty big repertoire when I came in to the music because I knew so many of these songs from the movies. Were you in any plays in high school?

Stacey Kent: Yes, I was in plays in camp and school in the same way that my other friends were. Those people went on to become artistic directors and doctors and other things. We all joined in the plays because it was part of the life-enrichment thing.

The other day, Penny told me something that I thought was interesting. We grew up listening to Carole King’s Really Rosie. Talk about a big influence! I used to pretend that I was recording with Carole King, even if I said things like "rolling" out loud. I used to harmonize with her because it was fun, and I didn’t realize that I was studying harmony. Anyway, Penny told me that I said, "I’m going to record this song someday." She always remembers things that I forget. You grew up in New York City?

Stacey Kent: I grew up partly in New York and partly in New Jersey. It was one of those typical stories about divorced parents moving around. One thing that strikes me is how serendipitous your career has been.

Stacey Kent: Serendipitous is exactly what it was. I wake up in the morning and realize that I’ve been very lucky. I love my life, and I love what I do. I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be successful at it. I’m grateful for that because there are many talented people out there who don’t get lucky breaks. I think that I was in the right place at the right time many of those times.

Here’s an example of the serendipity. I sent a demo tape to somebody at Verve in London. The person who received it liked the tape and called me to ask me to come in for a meeting. We discussed a few ideas, and a few months later a film-maker, Trevor Jones, called me and said he needed a singer for his film, Richard III. Since he had a small budget, he couldn’t get a major singer like Madonna or Annie Lennox. He was looking for a young up-and-coming singer who could do the movie "for less than a million dollars." After I auditioned for Trevor in his studio, he liked me on the spot. Two weeks later, I was making the movie. That’s what I mean by serendipity. Yes, I made my luck by sending in the tape, but it would have been very easy for Verve not to have called Trevor. Didn’t Richard III expose you to an even larger audience?

Stacey Kent: Oh, yes. Richard III didn’t turn out to be a box-office smash, but it was still important for me because a lot of movie-goers all over the world saw it, got the album and discovered who I was. People e-mailed me to tell me that they found out about me through the movie. You say that people e-mail you. How do they find your e-mail address?

Stacey Kent: People are resourceful. They go to my web site. It happens to me constantly--every day from all over the world. Some of them say, "I’ve never written fan mail before, but I had to contact you." I think that people weren’t as forthcoming in writing fan mail before the advent of e-mail. People say, "I love what you’re doing. Keep up the good work." And that’s so nice.

We take e-mailed requests. They’ll write, "I’m coming to your show tonight. Can you sing ‘Violets for Your Furs’?" When I’m on stage, I’ll say, "I got an e-mail today from someone who asked for this song." People love that because it shows I’m in touch with them.

Also, I travel with my laptop, and it’s nice to get e-mails from people right after a show when I get back to the hotel. I find that some of the people in the audience are still excited about the performance, and that’s such a great thing. Didn’t the Dreamsville album come together from requests?

Stacey Kent: Oh, yes. People were e-mailing me all the time to tell me their romantic stories. I think that one of them in particular is phenomenal. A listener wrote to tell me that he and his high school sweetheart had lost touch. Neither of them got married because they always pined for one another. Twenty-five years later, they met through a friend and found that the other one had never married. So they ended up falling back in love and getting married. He wrote me the e-mail because he wanted me to know that he had planned his whole evening to play my version of "They Say It’s Wonderful" when he brought her back to the apartment. The track lasts four minutes, and he said, "At four minutes to midnight, I’m putting on ‘They Say it’s Wonderful.’ At midnight, I’m going to open the ring box and propose to her." "They Say It’s Wonderful" is such a good song for that story because it’s about people who think that everyone is falling in love but them. Then they wake up one morning and find that it happened to them. I was so moved by that story because I was a part of it. As corny as that sounds, the fact that people bring me into their lives like that is a tremendous feeling. The other day, a woman told me that she brought Dreamsville into the labor room when she gave birth because she said, "This album makes me feel so good. I wanted to bring my baby into the world with that music." My God, that moved me so much! You know, people may say that I made them feel so good, but when they give me that kind of feedback, they make me feel so good. The other side of the coin is the ease of providing criticism through e-mail.

Stacey Kent: It doesn’t matter because not everybody in the world is going to like the same things. It seems that your life proves there are benefits to being flexible and receptive to opportunities.

Stacey Kent: That’s absolutely right. You have to be ready to move. I wasn’t settled into a particular type of life where it was hard to get away from a job. I was young and malleable, and everything sort of fell into place. That’s why I ended up in England. I didn’t plan on moving to England. Didn’t you go to Germany first?

Stacey Kent: I went to Germany because I was working on my master’s degree. German was my least strong of the foreign languages, and I needed to improve on that language. I went to England from Germany and auditioned on a course. I started to study music as a post-grad for the heck of it. It was still academic, but it was fun and I wasn’t taking it seriously. That’s where I met Jim Tomlinson, and I started to get a lot of job offers. How did you and Jim meet?

Stacey Kent: It was the result of a series of coincidences. I had visited some friends at Oxford before I moved to England. Jim had just graduated from college, and some friends of friends had introduced us at the Corpus Christi Music Room in Oxford. We fell for each other instantaneously. It was so obvious to both of us. He had a girlfriend at the time, and I had a boyfriend at the time who was pretty meaningless. Jim and I stayed in touch. The great coincidence was that both of us applied for the Guildhall School of Music and got in. We didn’t know the other person was applying. We found that out later. In England, they have a program called "PPE," which means "Philosophy Politics and Economics." He was a musician, but he got his degree in something different, PPE. So his background is similar to mine. Still, he was very serious about his music. He played saxophone and clarinet in the college bands. He decided to take the music course not because he was thinking where it would take him, but because he was a music lover.

Then even more coincidences started to fall into place. London is a massive town, but we ended up renting rooms one block away from each other. We even ended up on the same bus route to the Guildhall. You know, how lucky could we have been? I had a huge crush on this guy, and I got to see him morning and night. We had so much in common: We loved the same music and the same books. That first day, he invited me to his room, and when I saw his music collection, I realized that it was exactly the same as mine. When we got together, we had to get rid of half the collection because of all of the duplicates. Jim had all of these John Irving books on his bookshelf, and John Irving is my favorite American writer.

Our meeting was so meant-to-be. If I hadn’t met him, I might have gone back to America, and I might have continued my studies. I would have always been a music-lover and a singer, but I might not have done it professionally. We inspired each other. The best way for us to be together was to play together. We didn’t say, "Hey, let’s go out and start a band," but we started to get job offers when we were in college. How did you start the band, Vile Bodies?

Stacey Kent: Jim joined that band in Oxford when he was in college. The man who was writing the Evelyn Waugh biography started the band with other Oxford academics that just played a little music on the side. I auditioned for the band when I met some friends who knew about it. The previous singer was leaving the band to become an actress. The band had a gig for dinner dances at the Ritz Hotel on Friday and Saturday nights. This was incredibly good luck. I had this mad crush on Jim, and we had these gigs at the Ritz on Fridays and Saturdays. It was a great time. It was so much fun and so exciting. Was it Jim’s idea to send your demo tape to Humphrey Lyttelton?

Stacey Kent: No. I sent the tape to three key people. I sent one to the Verve people, who helped me with Richard III. I sent the second tape to Humph on a Tuesday. Two days later, I got a call from him. I had no idea I was ever going to hear from him. I recognized his voice immediately because it’s so distinctive. He’s such a well-known British radio personality. I listened to his show, The Best Of Jazz, on BBC Radio 2 on Monday nights. When I got his call, my heart was just pounding. He said, "I got your tape, and I loved it. Listen to my show on Monday night because I’m going to play it." I tuned in, and he told a hugely long story. His producer later said that Humph never tells stories like that, but for some reason he got terribly excited about me. Humph told how he gets tapes all the time. He usually picks up a bunch of them on his way to gigs. My tape happened to be the first one he put in the tape player. He said he listened to it all the up to Oswestry and all the way back. Oswestry is hundreds of miles away from London. The reason I remember that he went there when he listened to the tape is that now Humph says that if he tells a story too often, it becomes an "Oswestry." His support was important for me because it meant national airplay. Since he played that tape, a real relationship with Humph has evolved. Jim plays in his band, and I play with him sometimes too.

That was the Humph connection. The third tape was sent to Alan Bates, the producer. I went in those three different directions, and they happened at the same time. Humph used to record on Alan’s first label, Black Lion. I ended up signing with Alan. How did you produce your first CD?

Stacey Kent: We just went in and did it. I knew the musicians very well. It was a scary endeavor. What started to happen was that Jim produced me. I totally trust him with everything. He’s so smart, and he has great ears. Not only that, but he knows me so well that he knows what I want for myself. I wanted to ask you about your appearance on CBS Sunday Morning.

Stacey Kent: I think that was the biggest boost to my career. That came about because a publicist sent out my music when Close Your Eyes had been released in America. For whatever reason, the CD struck a chord with the producers at CBS Sunday Morning. More than that, they liked my story: the girl who was studying comparative literature and went to England to create a career in a whirlwind amount of time. CBS came to England and followed me around to gigs. The reaction after that show ran was huge and completely unexpected. My CD ended up on the Billboard charts the next week.

I ended up Number One on the chart. The reason was that I didn’t have much distribution in this country. No one had heard of me in this country. Again, the resourcefulness of people on the Internet happened again. People looked for Close Your Eyes in the stores, but when they couldn’t find it there, they ordered it from Amazon. So the CD went to Number One there within hours-not just on the jazz charts, but on the regular charts.

That reaction happened twice now. It also happened on NPR. The other night at the Hideaway, someone told me that he was listening to NPR in his car, he wrote down my name and then he came to hear me. So that exposure on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR spurred this coming-home for me, and I love coming home. Why do you think you found so much popularity in England as an American singer?

Stacey Kent: I happened to be there. I could have settled in any country. Sometimes when people talked to me after gigs, they would say, "Oh, you’re American. I thought you were British singing with an American accent because you were singing the great American songbook." That’s because they had only heard me sing, instead of hearing me talk. Now, I’m settled into a life in Britain. With a job like mine, I have to tour everywhere, and I love coming home.

I’ve settled happily into England, and I’m doing things that I love, like working for the BBC. I do two shows now: Jazz Lineup on Saturday afternoon and Big Band Special on Monday evenings. Do guests appear on the shows?

Stacey Kent: Next week, I interview Rosemary Clooney. I’ve interviewed Tony Bennett, Bela Fleck and Joshua Redman. That thing I find amazing about Humph is that he’s eighty years old, and he has so much enthusiasm for the music. All sorts of music. I think about him in terms of what I’m doing now. It involves sharing music I love, even though it isn’t my music. This goes back to what we were saying about the commonality of all music. When people call in on the show, I love knowing that there are so many different points of view. And it’s fun for me to get to talk to musicians about records they made. The thing that I fell in love with in England--besides Jim--was the BBC. BBC Radio is so vast and so mixed. One minute, you’re listening to a program about the goodness of watercress, and the next minute you’re listening to a program about great music. To be asked to be part of the BBC team was a huge honor for me. Didn’t you sing for Clint Eastwood’s birthday party?

Stacey Kent: Yes, that was really nice. He’s a lover of the music. His company wanted me to perform for his birthday and for the opening of Space Cowboys in France. He was very complimentary. It’s a wonderful thing to play for famous people who like the music. But the fact that famous people like the music isn’t any more impressive to me than whether, say, Mr. Sampson from Canada likes it. Mr. Sampson happens to be a builder. When people love the music that makes me very happy. I don’t mean to sound cynical because that’s an interesting talking point: "Oh, look who Stacey’s singing for." Jay Livingston is a fan of yours.

Stacey Kent: I did meet him, and he gave me his music to record. That was a great moment for me because I never had the chance to sing for a songwriter before. I was singing in London, and a woman came up to me and asked, "Could you sing ‘Never Let Me Go.’" I showed a lot of enthusiasm. I said, "Oh, I love that song! Thank you for such a nice request." Then she pointed to a man across the room and asked, "Do you see that man over there?" I said, "Yes." And she said, "Well, he’s my husband, and he wrote the song." After I sang it, Jay came up to me and said, "That’s exactly how I want my song to be sung. Thank you." And I said, "Thank you!" We stayed in touch, and he sent me some of his material. So I sang "Dreamsville" for him on my CD because I was so moved by the song. Didn’t you record some of the songs on Dreamsville as a tribute to your fans?

Stacey Kent: Most of the songs on the CD were the result of e-mailed requests. However, a couple of the songs are special. When I told my sister that I was doing a request album, she said, "Please do ‘Hush-a-bye Mountain.’" That was a favorite childhood song. I also recorded a song for Lucy Scott, who was the producer of CBS Sunday Morning. One of the questions they asked me in the interview was, "How do you feel about singing songs that aren’t of your gender? Does that affect you in any way?" So then, I told them about "Polka Dots & Moonbeams." I said, "No, a song becomes a metaphor for something else." I become that person who dances with a pug-nosed dream in a pink polka-dotted dress. Even though I wouldn’t do that literally, the song has full meaning to me. The CBS Sunday Morning people came to a gig that night and said, "Would you do ‘Polka Dots & Moonbeams?’" I did, and she said, "I hope you record that song someday."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stacey Kent
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