The world of art has made a lengthy history out of delivering gifts of beauty from moments of pure tragedy. In the case of Sonya Kitchell, that gift has always been music.
Kitchell first came to the attention of valley residents after her pre-teen reactions to 9/11 were converted from journal entries to song on the touching “If I Cried.” And since then, the gifted vocalist has continued to take audiences by storm with her full-length debut, “Words Come Back to Me” being released through Starbucks Hear Music label in 2006, and its follow-up “This Storm” seeing the sultry jazz musician try her hand at more pop-oriented material.
More recently, Kitchell completed a year on the road with the iconic Herbie Hancock as part of his Joni Mitchell tribute project, before holing up in Shelburne Falls to write the songs for her latest EP, “Convict of Conviction.”
The Underground recently got the chance to speak with Ms. Kitchell on the eve of her performance at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, and asked her what she learned from growing up in an artistic household, what albums she’s been downloading for her iPod, and when is it going to stop snowing already.
Underground: First off, are you as sick of all this snow as most New Englanders are or you just too buried under all the white stuff to do much about it?
Kitchell: It depends. I spent a couple weeks out on the Cape, and didn’t mind the snow at all, when I had a chance to really enjoy it. It’s when you’re stuck trudging around through a city full of dirty snow and ice that it gets a little tiring.
How does it feel coming back to Western Massachusetts for a show? Is there an added anticipation in knowing that you’ll be playing in a place not too far from home?
Of course. It’s always a big deal to play for the hometown crowd. These shows have always been important to me. They feel like markers in my cycle of growth as an artist.
Growing up in the Ashfield you had a very artistic upbringing. Both your parents are artists and there is a thriving arts community in the Pioneer Valley, especially in places like Northampton. How did these factors influence you on your path to becoming a musician? Did you always have the urge to contribute to the arts in some way?
I think in the case of nature verses nurture, growing up where I did and around whom I did, made a huge impact on who I became as a human being. The arts were always encouraged and in a great abundance. There was the drive and the space to be creative. I was lucky enough to come into being a young musician around some of the greatest musicians I have met, to this day.
Aside from having access to great teachers, I grew up and found my voice amongst other young musicians who, simply said, were, and still are extremely special and some of the best musicians I know. It was a magical time and place and for that I am grateful.
Speaking of art, you have also been involved in photography and even film via your role in your mother’s short film “Pancaper 2: Mr. Jones Strikes Back.” How are these outlets different from each other and from your music career? Are they for your creative energy outside of music, or do you secretly harbor ambitions of becoming a professional artist in other fields?
I just love to make art and be creative in all forms that that may take. I like making things, whether it’s cooking a heartfelt meal, building a bench, painting a sea shell, photographing a friend, capturing the light die, writing a song, molding clay. You name it. If it’s tactile and includes creating something with love, intention and ambition, I probably dig it.
What was it like participating with your father in a dual photography exhibit at Gallery 137? He’s had quite a successful and diverse career in art himself. What has his influence been on your work? Has he ever given you advice/ criticism on what you’re doing? What about your mother?
My parents have given me an abundance of advice and support. They are, after all, artists who have managed to make a living doing what they love, and the more I live, the more rare I find that to be.
The thing about our relationship is that we are all extremely honest and critical when it comes to art, perhaps to a fault sometimes. If we don’t like it, we will let you know. Of course, suggestions on how to make it better ensue, but the fact that my parents encouraged me, while never softening their words, definitely made me who I am. Who that is, I’m not sure.
Working with my father was wonderful. I respect his opinion to the utmost. I’m working on a photography exhibit in New York right now and I will undoubtedly ask for my father’s help in choosing the work and presenting a show that I can firmly stand behind.
My brother is a great photographer as well, really good and I look forward to seeing what work he will do in the future. Already, he has an amazing body of work. My mother, a great painter, and all around inspired lady. I love being part of a family of artists. We share, bounce and grow our ideas off each other.
Many musicians today have turned to television as an alternative way to get their music heard by fans. As someone who has had her music used on programs like “Private Practice” and “The Unit,” how do you feel about this popular way of getting songs out there for enjoyment by the public? What was your experience with this process like?
Honestly, I don’t have much of an opinion on this subject. I suppose, the more the merrier as far as one’s music being played on TV shows is concerned. It can only help in a world where the old ways of promoting music are dying.
What was it like having your music released through Starbucks Hear Music Program? Are you a coffee shop fan? What’s your drink of choice?
I felt fortunate to have their support. I am not actually a big coffee drinker. Although, I do love the smell of good coffee beans and enjoy an excellent cappuccino but save it for a rainy day.
Do you actually buy a lot of music yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites? Do you buy physical albums or is computer downloading more your style?
I do buy a lot of music. I mostly download it from iTunes or elsewhere on the Internet. Other than that I buy and listen to vinyl.
The last 10 things I purchased on iTunes were:
Cesária Évora— Cesaria
Apollo Sunshine — Shall Noise Upon
Emmylou Harris — Wrecking Ball
Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago
The Black Keys — Brothers
Iron and Wine — The Shepherd's Dog
Rokia Traoré — Tchamantché
Lhasa — La Llorona
The Raveonettes — Pretty In Black
Led Zeppelin — Physcial Graffiti
I’ve really enjoyed all the above listed albums. They’re all great. I’ve been really into music from Mali, as of late. Some favorites are Tinariwen “Aman Iman: Water Is Life,” and Group Bombino “Guitars From Agadez, Vol. 2” downloaded from an amazing website featuring world music called www.sublimefrequencies.com. I recommend checking out the music available on this site for anyone who’s curious about the various sounds of the world.
While your 2008 release “The Storm” was classified as having a more pop rock approach, your recent EP “Convict of Conviction” leans more towards chamber pop. What was the reason for this change in direction? Are there other genres you are interested in exploring? Where are you going next with your music?
Honestly, there have never been any calculations in the musical directions my albums tend to go. I just write what wants to come out and make the album that best suits the songs. I simply try my best to follow the muse.
See Sonya in the video for the title track to her recent EP here:
What was it like touring with Herbie Hancock as part of his Joni Mitchell tribute project? Did each artist have an influence on you growing up?
Absolutely. It was a big deal touring with Herbie Hancock and having that kind of insight transferred from spending so much time with him and other artists I admire and grew up listening to: Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Joni Mitchell, Chaka Khan, Quincy Jones. It was an incredible learning experience to meet these people on equal footing or at least be treated with enough respect that they were happy to open up and share their wisdom with me.
Finally, what is some advice you would share with other young musicians who are trying to make their way in the business? Are hard work and practice still the axioms to live by?
Yes. Hard work and practice never go out of style. They will always be important components to succeeding in anything we aspire to.
My advice would be to follow your heart and be true to it. Always, first and foremost let yourself be guided by what you know to be honest and true, and the path will unfold, as it must.
Sonya Kitchell performs with openers the Sun Parade Feb. 3, 7 p.m., $12.50-15, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, www.iheg.com. For more information and future tour dates please visit www.sonyakitchell.blogspot.com or www.facebook.com/pages/Sonya-Kitchell.