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‘It’s all about the story’: Stacey Kent’s cinematic vocal style

Stacey Kent
Benoit Peverelli
Stacey Kent

Recently I had the great pleasure of chatting with the Grammy-nominated American jazz singer, Stacey Kent about her most recent album Summer Me, Winter Me and we happily veered off into many side streets. I have always been a fan, but I did a deeper dive into Stacey’s background, collaborations and catalogue and became even more enamored with her artistic vision and standards, the literary/poetic nature of her music and her ability to distill emotion into a laser sharp construction, devoid of waves of melisma and without being overpowered by “technique.”

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Janis Siegel:  I've always been a fan, but I did a much deeper dive into your catalog and I'm even more enamored with your vision and your standards and the cinematic and literary nature of your music. I love the fact that you can distill an emotion without waves of melisma and technique that overpower sometimes. You clearly have fantastic technique, but you don't hear it. You hear the story.

Stacey Kent: Thank you. It's all about the story. I love that you use the word cinema. Tell me what you think. I want to talk to you singer to singer, person to person. We're not actresses, we're not acting. You're telling your story and it becomes your story. You embody that story, but It's such a visual experience. You're singing to yourself, you're singing to the people, but you're inside your own story and movie.

That's true for me because I don't consider myself in any way an actress. But, when I sing, I'm distilling the emotions through my own experience and I am seeing pictures too. This is why I wanted to ask you about your time at Sarah Lawrence. How did you get to be such a polyglot, my friend?

This is not an atypical American story, right? We have grandparents who came to the USA. Some of them wanted to leave their past behind and just assimilate. And others wanted to bring their world with them. My grandfather grew up in France and I grew up with him and I was very close to him and devoted to him. We had a very special thing going on, 60 plus years apart. That happens with your grandparents.

He taught me to speak French. He was homesick. He wanted to bring France into the house. I had a good pair of ears. He would recite Baudelaire to me. I had no idea what I was saying, but I was good at repeating it back. And he went, “Oh, you know this one.” He taught me to speak this language. And once he did, we never spoke in English again. I think that my way of speaking French as a little kid was to please my homesick, sad and melancholic grandfather. Kids pick up on that emotion. He was a sad guy, but he taught me about French poetry, French movies, French everything.

When I went on to my studies, and eventually got to Sarah Lawrence, I'd already studied French. I studied Latin, went on to Italian, German, Portuguese. My love of literature and poetry all comes from that seed, from him and it makes every sense of what I do today as a communicator.

Does this mean that when you sing in the other languages, you're not singing phonetically. You actually speak the languages.

Yes, and I don't deny anybody else their own experience. That just happens to be mine because I grew up with a mom who taught literature. I was a words person so I try to be inside that language, because I'm also a listener and lover of music that I don't understand.

For instance, if I go to Turkey and I hear something glorious and I don't understand a word, I can still understand because I feel it on an abstract level, especially where I'm telling the story. I guess that's what people get from me. People say that all the time, “Oh, I listened to your French records. I don't understand what you're saying but I want to work while I'm listening to you so that's the record I put on.” I love that because we do enjoy it on an abstract level.

Summer Me, Winter Me

Absolutely. I was that way with Brazilian music, certainly here in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I think we share something special in that the first record I heard that turned me on completely to Brazilian music was Getz Gilberto Live at Carnegie Hall on Verve, which I still own.  I heard Joao Gilberto playing. I grew up with two and four. I grew up with Motown and the Beatles and American standards and that kind of stuff that was on the radio. But to hear these other rhythms was thrilling and the beauty of the language, although I had no idea what they were talking about.

For me, I felt like what that rhythm did for me. When I heard Joao for the first time, and I remember it well, I was 14. I was at a friend's house, I heard that record and boom, it was life changing. I had no idea I was going to be a musician at that point. But I think what I couldn't have articulated then that I can now that you get in Brazilian music, not just from Brazilian, because you hear it in 3/4 as well, and other meters. There's that tension, the emotional push and the pull.

It propels you forward, but it also brings you back. You've got your bass and the rhythm propelling you. When he did it, triaged as just the guitar with that melancholic voice over the top, I would say that as a little sad kid who inherited that kind of melancholia from my grandpa, that was a voice and a rhythm that I could identify with. Even though it was far from where I was from, it made sense.

You heard the saudade music?

Yes, that was my grandfather's saudade, you know? Yes. It's universal.

Totally. I love that. I love that quote that's in one of your liner notes that “Brazil is not a nation, it's a region of the heart.” That is so true. I'm still singing Brazilian music phonetically, I’m sad to say, but the more I'm singing it, the more I'm learning what the songs really mean and how they're translated, recognizing words here and there.

But you feel it. It's in between the spaces. It's in every rhythm. It's in every note. So even if you don't understand, it's all there. I think you're probably going to say the same thing. As we travel around the world and you play this music, no matter where you go, it seems to be the music that people gravitate to the most is that rhythm which is the heartbeat. It's it is that push pull, that gentle tension that everybody feels that the Brazilians just have a great way of describing—the sadness and the happiness, that balance of the joy and the sadness that we all feel. It’s humanity.

Yes, so many of the songs are about the beauty of nature too, which I love. Getting back to João's playing, I never heard anybody manipulate time that way. The only person I ever heard that was a master, little Jimmy Scott, who pushes and pulls like taffy the time and it creates a tension of its own.

Yes, you have the added joy of so much liaison that they can do that in a way that we can't quite do in English, which is why we gravitate towards that music and incorporate it into our repertoire.

Because we have limited time. I'd love to hear about your relationship with Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel prize-winning novelist and screenwriter. It's such a joy to sing poetry, and sing beautiful words. A lot of people have melodized Emily Dickinson and certain other poets. But to actually write songs with a wordsmith like this must have been thrilling. Tell our listeners here at WBGO about how you met him and what happened?

Absolutely. This still blows my mind. I mean, I'm still pinching myself. It's also great to talk about because it's connected to everything we're already talking about. We’ve come full circle. I met Ishiguro because he was on a BBC radio show which you probably know and other people might know called Desert Island Discs. Celebrities come on the show and they make a game out of it.

It's an interview with a person. It's such a great show. You talk about your life and your work, but in between you’re asked, “If you were on a desert island with only seven discs for the rest of your life, what would you bring?” It's so much fun to hear what people will listen to. “What's Margaret Thatcher listening to on her desert island?” Anyway, one day when I was living in London and I was tuned into the show because I was a fan. And Ishiguro picked me, he picked, “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” Now I had no idea that he knew who I was, but I had already read three of his novels by this point.

Author and lyricist Kazuo Ishiguro
Author and lyricist Kazuo Ishiguro

I was a huge Ishiguro fan. That makes sense to the story because when we met, I wrote a note through the BBC to say, “Mr. Ishiguro, I'm Stacey Kent. You just picked me. Thank you. I'm a huge fan.” Long story short, we became friends. What we recognized in one another was we were already connected. We already shared this sensibility in this vision.

When you referred to my singing before, and thank you so much for saying this, the thing that he says about me is he felt like there was so much emotion and intensity there without the drama and he loved that in my singing. What we love about Joao, he was picking up in me.

I love that in a person too actually.

Yes, and that's how he writes his novels. There's so much frustration and intense emotion in something like The Remains of the Day.

Exactly. I realized that I had read Never Let Me Go as well.

He saw a kindred spirit and we became friends. The important part of the story is that we were friends, Jim [Tomlinson], my husband and songwriter and Ish, we call him Ish and his wife Laura for about six or so years before we started working together. I think this is important because it wasn't like I was joining forces with this daunting Nobel Prize-winning author. It was my friend Ish. One of them said, at a lunch or a dinner, “We should write a song for Stacey.” That was a very cinematic moment because it was like the lunch table suddenly went quiet. What kind of language do we want to put in. They wanted to write songs that weren't pastiche, that weren't the American Songbook that were definitely coming out of my mouth and sensibility. He's so good with dialogue.

The way we started to work was, we thought a great thing to do would be if the lyric came first because he could tell his story. Then it wasn't an AABA form, it was just a free for all of this lifetime in a story. For example, this protagonist who's trying to talk to herself, figure her way out of a terrible situation, let's say a love story gone wrong. Then Jim would have me read it aloud, hear my delivery and from that write the songs. We didn’t know that when they wrote “The Ice Hotel” for me back in 2007, it was for fun, it was on a whim. We put it on that album. We made an album for Blue Note that year called Breakfast on the Morning Tram, and boom, we knew we were onto something huge. Since then, they’ve written about 16 songs for me, and they're still writing today. They are so connected to that sense of longing that we're talking about.

Breakfast on the Morning Tram is such an incredible short story, and I love the shifts in the music too that reflect the changes in the story. My question is, Is there really a breakfast tram? Does that exist? Because I want to go on it.

Me too. There isn't. It's kind of Eastern European. I picked up on this because I had read The Unconsoled. For any listeners, The Unconsoled has a tram on it where people in the town are eating their breakfast and he dug up this idea once again to put it into my song about this woman who's heartbroken.

I love that it's so universal. Strangers meets people. They eat and join forces. There's community and they put themselves back together. I mean, if that isn't just a real story, even if the tram isn't real. What Ish said one day was, what you had just referred to in terms of Brazil and the place in the heart and where it’s not the nation, but the place. He said he realized that whatever he writes, the essence of what he wants to say has nothing to do with the place, so he can put you in the far past or the future, like Never Let Me Go. The story that he wants to tell and the metaphors that he wants to use, the point that he wants to make could be anywhere, so he puts me on some breakfast tram, or the ice hotel or the bullet train or anywhere.

Did you do a song about the bullet train? Tell me the name again, please.

Yes, it’s called “Bullet Train,” which is the Shinkansen album we made with orchestra, which is called, I Know I Dream. Again, it’s going back to that same cinematic sense. When we were putting together the orchestral record, which was such a cinematic experience with 60 people, I said to Jim and Ish, “We need to travel there, right?” This song needs to be on this particular album. The bullet train, it's not a sad song. She's got her head on his shoulder and he's asleep and because the bullet train goes so very, very fast, you don't know what's real and what's a dream.

Again, it's so surreal. You start seeing things, an old boyfriend from high school, an old teacher, and it puts you in this dreamy place. That's what he does to me. He completely transports me literally and metaphorically.

BULLET TRAIN (Jim Tomlinson / Kazuo Ishiguro)

You're like a character almost.

I’m not an actress, but he makes me the character.

Well, your life is multifaceted, clearly. We should probably talk about your new record a little bit. Summer Me, Winter Me. Is it really a record of requests of things that you've never recorded that people want you to sing?

It really is. You know what it's like after the show. People come up to you, they're going through the records. They say, “That song you just sang, which album is it on?” And I'd say, “It's live.” I collected these requests. I write everything down. I'm a crazy list writer. Maybe you are too. Lots of people are.

Lists are my life.

I write these down these requests and I realized I had tons of these requests and I thought I should put these down. I wasn't setting out to make this record which is what I love about it. It was very natural. None of these songs have a home on any record. So I decided I should make one.

What was fun about it were the tricky corners and the challenges. We sing “If You Go Away" a lot, the Jacques Brel song with the English lyric. We also do “Non Me Que Pas?” I like the sparring after the show, when people come up to you at the signing table and they go, “Well, I like, ‘If You Go Away” better. Or, “I like ‘Non Me Que Pas’ better.” And I thought, “Well, I should put them on the same record” but how are we going to do this where we put the same song on the same record? We’ve never done this before.”

But a lot of people put them together in the same song and just sing a chorus in English and then sing the song again in French, I guess. But I do love that you recorded it twice on the record.

I could have, but then I thought, well, then it's not representative of that actual conversation where I'm having with the fans, the sparring with fans after the show who either liked the French or they wanted the English version. I thought, “If I give them each their own value, then I should do one version of each because they do feel different.” They just do. It's the same song, but it's quite different. We thought, “Apart from the blindingly obvious, as I said, of putting them track three and track 11. Let's just come up with two completely different arrangements.”

Stacey Kent - If You Go Away (Official Video)

I wonder how you feel about this because you sing this too. I find “If You Go Away” is not a happy song, but it's more hopeful because it starts with the word “If.” It's conditional. “If You Go Away/Non Me Que Pas” is do not leave me. It's got more despair. I thought with the English version, if we put in a string quartet, it has more of a lilt. There's a to be continued. Maybe it isn't complete despair. With “Non Me Que Pas,” I started acapella. It's very dark. It's very sad.

It's very French.

It's so dark. And that's why I feel, for me, that they're two completely different songs. even though they're the same song.

Bravo. Brava, I mean. Beautiful. Do you go out and shed these tunes before you record them, for the most part?

Yes and no. With this one, they were all shed because they were long time requests or short time requests, but they were all songs that we'd sung and road tested for a while on the road. But sometimes I'll record a song on my records and later where I play them better now than I recorded them because I did just write and think, “Let’s just record this now.”

I think it's a luxury to be able to go out and shed a record before you go into the studio. The Manhattan Transfer never was able to really do it, we only did that with vocalese. The charts were so complicated and there were so many words, and we were working with Jon Hendricks. He came on the road with us, and we got notes every night, so we couldn't just go into the studio and read the vocal arrangement. It wouldn't have come out that way.

Those records are amazing. We love those records.

I love the idea of working with a wordsmith like Kazuo Ishiguro, that's incredible. You have this song, “Postcard Lovers,” is that his?

Yes. “Postcard Lovers” is the one song on the record, which also has its own interesting twist in that apropos going out and not shedding something, we had just finished writing it. Jim had just finished the end, because again, the lyric came first. I loved the lyric. Jim was not comfortable with the song, but we were doing a live record at La Cigale in Paris and we thought, “Oh, we'll just do it.” If I'm perfectly honest, here on the radio, we did not feel great about it.

You heard it here, folks.

But people kept requesting it. And we thought, “It's not done,” so Jim went away and he went into the shed and he said, “The song isn't done. The meter's wrong.” We realized it's in 3/4. It does have that kind of sense of—you're going forward, you're coming back. It has that swell. He went away, came back with it in 3/4. The song is more or less the same. The lyrics are the same. The melodies. It's been shifted around to nail the meter. But we never played it live. We recorded it and then we just shelved it. When he came out with it again, we went, “Oh yeah. Okay. Now it feels good. Really comfy.” We started to play it live and we thought, “We got so many requests for the song that we never played it because I wasn't comfortable and he wasn't.” But now we play it all the time. That was fun because you get things from the audience. you know what I mean? They coach you. They inspire you.

Stacey Kent
Judy Maxwell
Stacey Kent

It’s so fascinating to hear what they really love, what they respond to, what they're resonating with, because again, everybody's filtering things through their own experiences and heartbreaks and triumphs. They're great feedback. I was going to ask you, What was one of the most surprising cuts on the record? Clearly, “Postcard Lovers” was. Any other cut that was surprising to you, in terms of how it turned out differently than you imagined?

There are things or processes that I had to go through because of how I wanted them to sound. For example, I made shifts when I was singing Jim and Cliff Goldmacher's originals thinking about the rain and a song that isn't finished yet. I was singing them on stage lower than I recorded them. I think that I was missing the kind of the flutter and the melancholia in them so I just upped them in time for the record. If you're the only singer in the band and you can just press go. It was a different story with you guys, right?

Exactly, because when you're singing four-part harmony and you're singing charts that were written in the late 70s or 80s, you can't fool around with the keys or only very minimally, or they don't ring. They weren't intended to be in that they're too muddy. The bass is going to be too low. If we have to bring it down for the soprano, then you have to revoice it and then it's a completely different feeling.

Exactly, and that's why I can't touch my orchestral arrangements, but when we're the six-piece or the five-piece, I sure can, or the trio with Jim and Art Hirahara, my beautiful pianist. We play around all the time because you just hit the nail on the head. Sometimes they felt too muddy and I was missing that light, fragile flutter. Those were things that were surprising to me and put me a little bit in an uncomfortable place, but I don't want to use the word uncomfortable in a disparaging way. I thought that was sort of a pause.

I think it's good to be uncomfortable and make mistakes or you're not really trying. I think some great jazz musicians said that, I forget who. “If you don't make mistakes, you're not trying.”

Yeah, sometimes I'm looking for that discomfort and it feeds into just that little emotional sense. Things like that.

I love your version of “Show Me Love,” because I recorded it too. Then you used all the original lyrics and the patter. It's such a great version.

Thank you. Going back to what we said about not being an actress, I'm not an actress. I would be terrible on stage if you gave me a part to read, but when I get inside that five-minute story, it just felt so right to do the whole thing and just get out there with your frustration.

Yes, you are that little flower girl.

The tempo we play is just kind of because of Anthony Pinciotti on drums that I would do over and over in the studio. I'd ask Jim to just bring down everybody else so I could just listen to Anthony and his drums and just listen to the track because it's so gorgeous to listen to him alone play through the whole thing. It's so soft. He has such soft, delicate, but powerful hands.

Isn’t that wonderful with a drummer, that is musical in that melodic way?

Those guys are so melodic. I mean, they know all the words to the songs. There’s this great line from “Bullet Train.” We were on the road. The five of us were in the car not so long ago. We're quiet at one point and Anthony's just looking at the window and he said, “That vast expense. Oh, that urban sprawl after all that vast expanse of land” and he quoted Ishiguro just out of nowhere. Just quoting Bullet Dream and we all had such a laugh because they're just so tuned into everybody's role in the band.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Over the past five decades, the voice of Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy winner and an eighteen-time Grammy nominee, has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a founding member of this musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned almost a dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base and garnered consistently high critical praise.