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Stacey Kent

Stacey Kent Stacey Kent Jos L. Knaepen
Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson have been making music together for 15 years. Their latest collaboration has the celebrated jazz singer making a special guest appearance on husband and saxophonist Tomlinson’s The Lyric. The effort has resulted in no less than album of the year honors at the 2006 BBC Jazz Awards.

"This album was pure joy," said Kent, who attributes the success of the CD to its collaborative spirit.

Kent, who sings on nearly all of the songs, tells about the making of the album and what’s ahead for her and Tomlinson. What makes The Lyric different from other projects that you and Jim have done?

Stacey Kent: That’s an interesting question. What is not at the forefront of our minds is how to make the next project different. It’s more about how do you make an album that is a statement of where you are at that time, and what it is that you want to say and express. We weren’t looking back at the catalog and thinking what can we do that’s new. Different artists approach music differently. That’s what makes it so interesting. That’s what makes it great that you have people like Madonna out there. She’s a good example. She’s someone who disappears and then re-emerges with a new style, a new haircut, and a new sound. Then she will go away and then re-emerge. That’s who she is. For artists like Jim and myself, there is more of a consistency in what we have been doing and trying to achieve. Of course, what you want is for every album to be better than the last. It’s interesting to learn from the last project and think what you can take to the next one. We are lovers of song, lovers of melody, and lovers of lyric.

I think what was different about this project, and this is something that we did discuss, was that on every one of my albums Jim was very much in the role of producer, so he did not get to play very much. And, on his records, my role was to play a little bit. We’ve been a guest on each other’s records all the time. We are very much a duo. I think we felt that our records were not reflective of what it is we do live, which is to play with one another in the literal sense, with all of that interplay and that dialogue that is going on night after night. I think that our goal on this one was to concentrate on that and make it our most collaborative project, so therein lies the difference. I think the band has pretty much remained the same, and the repertoire from which we are pulling is still within the genre. We wanted to achieve something specific, which was to play together. That’s what makes us so proud of this album. This is a band full of people who love song, not just me and not just Jim, but all of the guys. Every one of us is after that song interpretation. We arranged in such a way that we let the lyric lead it. Sometimes there were more solos, sometimes there were fewer. Sometimes we wanted the text to follow all the way through because we didn’t want to lose the train of the lyric. It was playful in that way. The album has already received album of the year at the BBC Jazz Awards. Why have people responded to this album?

Stacey Kent: I think people were pleased with the collaborative side of it. I think they got that playfulness. It’s a collection of really beautiful songs. The way in which we arranged them, there is a tremendous intimacy and delicacy to them. You can tell that these guys want to play well for each other. There’s a tremendous connection and chemistry, and you don’t always get that. What’s magical about this band is that it really does love to play together. There’s an interesting phrase used in the liner notes. It’s "musical empathy." Do you have an example of that musical empathy on the new CD?

Stacey Kent: It’s very much there. There are those moments when we look up and smile because Jim has just played something and Dave Chamberlain has played the same thing around him. There are tons of examples of that. There’s a tremendous passing of the baton that happens in a seamless way. It’s a great feeling.

Here’s an example. We were touring in France on a long tour last year. One night in the middle of the tour, I got food poisoning. We had a concert the next day for which I was not well. The band was incredibly supportive. We had a sold-out concert, and you don’t want to let these people down. I’m working very hard to hang in there to do this concert. It was rough. What happened to me on that night was I literally felt that the band had giant hands and was holding me up. I couldn’t stand up all day. I was holding onto the microphone stand, and during the solos I would sit down. It looked very relaxed. No one had any idea that I was so sick. My point is that I felt that I was being physically supported by them, and I was able to do this two-hour show. Afterward, we all got very emotional. It was something else. You and Jim have been together for about 15 years. How about the others in the band?

Stacey Kent: The bass player, Dave Chamberlain, has been with us for five years. Matt Skelton on the drums has been with us for about three years. [Pianist] Graham Harvey joined the band around the time that The Lyric was released.

It’s been a consistent band, with the odd change. When Jim and I talked about forming a band years ago, we talked about our heroes like Miles and all the stories about him inviting people over to play at his house. He would go into another room and listen to the trio because he wanted to hear how they locked in together. They were all good, but it was about finding guys who locked in. Duke Ellington too talked about bringing people in to fill a chair, not because of that instrument. He would play with the instrumentation according to who he wanted in the band. I think we were aware of the fact that magic happens with guys with whom you can go to that place and share that musical empathy. I think that’s one of the band’s strengths. What was the challenge in making this album?

Stacey Kent: It was to achieve this collaboration. We were careful about every one of the arrangements, and we wanted to arrange them in a simple and delicate way so we did not overshadow the song. That’s such a delicate process. When you are being playful, you can tend to over arrange. An arrangement can

be very good and very strong, but it can detract from the lyric. We want people to lock in and listen to that story and be transported by the story. That’s a challenge: Make it exciting and interesting enough within the arrangement, but also to do it with that fragility of the song in mind. That was something we were very much aware of and constantly working on.

And, of course, playing the best we can as a group. That is something you are always trying to work on. It’s about continuing to let the song grow and develop. The way in which we play the songs now, even from when we recorded them a year ago, is different. Just because they are recorded doesn’t mean they stay in that place. They are constantly developing. You manage to keep standards from being sentimental or nostalgic. Is that a conscious thing?

Stacey Kent: It’s not so much conscious that we’re trying to keep them from being something. I think it’s more the reverse that we are conscious of making them something else. This is why it’s such an organic process. Even though they are poetry and they are metaphors for something else, you don’t have to be living this story literally in order to feel it. For example, people make movies and you go to the theater and sit there in the pitch black and you are dragged into the story and you empathize with a character. I don’t care who the character is or what the story is or what the century is. If you watch a story from the 17th century or the 21st century, what’s really the difference between our longings, hopes, and frustrations? The scenes may change, but for the most part we relate to other humans no matter what century and no matter what country they are from. There is that commonality. I think we are looking for that in the songs we sing. As I said, they are poetry and metaphors for something else, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t take them to heart as songs that stand for what’s going on with men and women in today’s world. That’s why there is a lack of nostalgia. You’ve studied literature. You can bring that to your music as well.

Stacey Kent: Very much so. I think everything that I’ve studied has brought me here. I have a tremendous love of story and storytelling. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of emphasis put on oral development and oral history. We used to read aloud to each other nightly. I think I learned from an early age about how it was that I could read aloud somebody else’s story and yet make it mine and, more importantly, make it yours when I read it to you. I think that has had a tremendous influence on me. Who are some of your favorite writers? It can be novelists, songwriters.

Stacey Kent: If I had to go to a desert island with only one book and one book only, I would probably go with "Anna Karenina." It’s probably my favorite read of all time. I also love John Irving. I love Kazuo Ishiguro. And, he’s a big fan of yours.

Stacey Kent: I loved him before I found out that he was a fan. That’s why I dropped to the floor when I found out because I was an enormous fan. I love Grace Paley. I love the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I love Paul Simon. I love Joni Mitchell. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love the South American way of mixing fact and fiction. They’re so intertwined that you don’t know where fantasy ends and realty begins. There’s one more. They’re not writers, but moviemakers. I love the stories of Powell and Pressburger like "The Red Shoes," "I Know Where I’m Going," and "A Matter of Life and Death." Those are stories that take you right into their world. On the new CD, you do a great version of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

Stacey Kent: It’s funny that you should single that one out. That’s an example of what it was that I was referring to earlier. That’s a great story. If you think about it, it’s a story of two people who want to drive awfully slowly so they can have as much time together as possible. There are so many sexy undertones in that story. I think people listen to it and get that. You don’t have to take it literally word for word. You get the sense that these people want to drive along slowly. I think we wanted to play it at a very loping, sexy, slow tempo so we could enjoy that ride.

The description of the Eisenglass curtains that you can roll down in case of a change in the weather. You can reinterpret that. You know we have a curtain that we can roll down so we can be alone together. You can interpret in your own way. Everyone is going to interpret it differently. That was so much fun to arrange. That was one of the songs we did not want to stretch out. Jimmy, whose record it was, chose not to solo on it. He wanted to help tell that story and didn’t want to break it up. I thought that was fascinating. Most people want to speed that song up.

Stacey Kent: I know. You listen to that first line: "chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." People hear the word scurry. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, for us, we wanted to pick apart this knot and figure out what it was about this song that we wanted to get across. It’s so much fun to play it at that very slinky tempo. How about the song "I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face?"

Stacey Kent: We made that one a little longer. There are two sets of lyrics. We wanted to do two whole choruses of the vocal, with Jim in between. I think Jim plays so beautifully on that. It’s hugely inspiring. I feel like I sing the chorus out better than I sing it at the top just because I’m so moved. He helps bring me to that place. It was a very powerful moment. He does that to me every time we play this live, too. There was poignancy to that lyric. There’s a smile, but a kind of desperation there. She can do without him, but of course she cannot. You can do it with a certain amount of humor or not. Some people sing it a little bit more wistfully than I do. I think that mine has a smattering of wistfulness, but there is that smile behind it, which is we know this is going to work out in the end anyway. But in the meantime, this is where we are, and it’s driving me crazy. I love that that’s the context.

We love "My Fair Lady." We’re playing a song now that we didn’t record. We’re playing "Show Me." We love to play those two songs back to back because they both have that tinge of desperation in them, with this couple battling one another because they really don’t want it to happen, but, of course, it’s going to. It’s more powerful than they are. The CD closes with a beautiful version of "Stardust."

Stacey Kent: This is a funny one. I wanted Jim to play longer on this one. He wanted to step back and let the song ring out. He said, "I just want to step in here for a moment and not lose the spell of the text." He’s got an interesting point. He’s such a lyrical player, and he never wants to overdo it. It’s all about the songs. They all are. These are real songsters these guys. That’s interesting because you might not think of instrumentalists as being so tuned into a lyric.

Stacey Kent: You don’t necessarily have to be. Some people are and some aren’t. It doesn’t make you a better or worse performer. Dexter Gordon has been heard talking about his love of lyrics. Ronnie Scott, who owned the wonderful Ronnie Scott’s club in London, he loved lyrics and knew thousands of them. A lot of instrumentalists want to know. The guys I’m playing with - Matt Skelton he knows a gazillion songs. He knows the words to everything. As does Jim. I think these guys play with tremendous energy and are so swinging and propulsive. We’re all conscious of stepping back and letting the song sing out. It’s not about any one person’s performance. It’s the collective that means so much to us. Who picked the material? Did Jim pick all the songs?

Stacey Kent: Pretty much. This was his baby. He wanted me to play specific songs. On a practical level, some songs were ones we were playing live. Some of the others, he brought to me and said, "How about this for this collection?" And, there was nothing to disagree with. I loved them all.

The story of the album is this: Jim was going into the studio to make his first record on his own label, Token, which he started up. At the same time he was going in and preparing for that record, I was released from my last record contract and hadn’t signed my new one, yet. I was in an interim. He came to me and said, "I can go in and make instrumental record whenever, and I still will. But if you’re free right now, you have to come with me. I have these ideas, and I want us to play them." That’s how it came about. That’s why we we’re all the more excited about the BBC Jazz Award. The album had it not been for the right timing might not have been. The timing was perfect, and it was something we wanted to do. It could happen quickly because we were a touring band. The year before, we had played 250-plus dates. We had done so much touring. We were ready to get back into the studio. It was more fun putting together this album than anything we’ve ever done. This album was pure joy. The Lyric is considered a Jim Tomlinson release, with you making a special appearance on most of the tracks. Are you working on your own project or are you touring?

Stacy Kent: We are busy touring until the end of the year. This is a big year. We’re doing a lot of touring, pretty much one-nighters. After New York, we go to Texas and then we go to Moscow. From Moscow, we go to Sweden then we go back to Spain, England, and France. We finish the year in America. Then we’re done, and my project steps up. I signed to Blue Note. I’m going to be making a record for them in the spring for next autumn. We’re starting to work on it now. We’re talking about it all the time. The next one will be under my name, but there’s no doubt that Jim will be there as well. It’s obvious. We just happen to be two musicians who spend our lives together. We love to be together. We love to play together.

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stacey Kent
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2004
  • Subtitle: The Singer and the Song
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