Citizen of the world

Stacey Kent, an American jazz singer influenced by Brazilian bossa nova, is so popular in France that she has been awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (National Order Of Arts And Letters, the country's highest honour for artists), has won a British Jazz Award and now records albums in Sussex with her English husband.

Does she feel patriotic to anyone in particular? “I’m a citizen of the world,” the singer laughs.

“I’ve spent most of my life travelling. My grandfather was a Russian immigrant who loved French poetry, and he helped make me aware of an inclusive way of seeing things. In fact, the first trip I took abroad by myself was to South Africa – I stayed with a family outside of Pietermaritzburg.”

Kent, as a singer, is an interpreter more than an original writer. Does her ability to immerse herself in something other than what is strictly familiar help? “Yes,” she states.

“The joy and the challenge is finding songs I can interpret. Until now, I’ve never wanted to write; I always want to adopt someone else’s stuff, so I can extract the universality from it. It’s the same with actors sometimes – when they read a script, they’re able to discern whether it fits them or not.”

Is Kent ever frustrated that there’s not a stronger, more defined “Stacey” in her work? “There’s nothing as heady as interpreting something written specifically for me,” says Kent, answering the question and evading the point at the same time.

“When these people write, it’s me they hear; I become a character in their heads.” Working on songs with her husband, Jim Tomlinson, involves an even more intimate process. “When a lyricist hands me some lyrics, I read them aloud to Jim,” Kent says.

“My singing is conversational and my speech is melodic, so he hears the melody in my voice.” Sadness, pathos and melancholy are elements of what provides the mood in much of Kent’s music. Is there any relation between that tone and the singer’s own life? Singing sad songs doesn’t necessarily make a performer sad, after all.

“It works both ways,” Kent says. “I relate to Brazilian culture and I get a lot of inspiration from their music because they’re happy to own the mixture of sadness and optimism that happens in life. On and offstage, I m the same person: I feel a lot of emotion in a tranquil way.”

On the other hand, Kent is able to very effectively communicate cheerfulness and cheekiness, as in the song Waiter, Oh Waiter, on new collection The Changing Lights. “It happens naturally,” she says.

“All of the nuances merge for me. The song The Happy Madness is a great example it’s complex, with shades of jolliness versus melancholy. When I sing it, the pacing is slow in the first chorus, but you can feel the exuberance. Ultimately, I’m a singer of stories, and the rule is, don’t get too convoluted; don’t over arrange the song.”

Kent sings in a number of different languages. Is there a challenge in terms of her connection to different themes, or the way she is able to express herself? “It’s the opposite to what you’d think,” Kent says.

“It’s a privilege to speak different languages. I get to see the world in different ways. When you’re not singing in your mother tongue, you can be a little separated from the song, but then you feel it; there’s purity between you and what you’re singing. And you can’t have preconceptions about songs in the same way you can about people there’s not the same history.

MOOD MUSIC. Singer Stacey Kent aims to find a balance between sadness and optimism in her work. Picture: Nicole Nodland.

MOOD MUSIC. Singer Stacey Kent aims to find a balance between
sadness and optimism in her work. Picture: Nicole Nodland.

It’s a physical thing, too. The words come from a different part of your mouth to normal speech. It makes you think about what you’re doing.” Placing herself in the range of different songs she takes on must be interesting, as she’s sometimes expected to be the narrator, sometimes she’s a character and so on.

Kent laughs again: “The lyricists allow me to talk to myself, and to look forward and backwards at the same time. Also, I get to work through different subject material from the outside.”

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