Once upon a time, there was a girl from New Jersey who had a distinctive flair for languages, books and storytelling. Studying Comparative Literature and being raised in a predominantly academic family atmosphere, she ventured a world of notes, measures, melodies and rhythms quite accidentally and unexpectedly. A music education at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London; a fateful encounter with saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, who would eventually be her steadfast and shining anchor both in her career and romance; and a quick singing appearance at Ian McKellen’s film Richard III, which consequently proved to be her biggest break in music—were all random pieces of a huge puzzle that perfectly fit into place.
Stacey Kent, one of today’s most endearing, magnetic, and utterly sublime performers in jazz, bossa nova, French and Brazilian standards, could not have had it any better. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro best described Stacey’s voice rendition: “an emotional depth expressed with a quiet, undramatic intensity” (Linear Notes from Stacey’s 2002 album, “In Love Again”). It is not merely the crystallic timber of her sweet voice, the smooth vocal patterns that easily glide through a French or Brazilian tune, or her natural, honest presence onstage that leave a captivating mark on her listeners’ hearts, but more significantly her unique and crisp ability to tell a story through songs—so intimately and lucidly, without force or intimidation.
On a rosy Valentine week in Japan, Stacey reunited with her anxious Japanese fans from Nagano, Nagoya and Tokyo at the Blue Note. Reviving charming standards, such as Stardust, So Nice, Samba Saravah, Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered, The Very Thought of You, and some of her album hits The Face I Love, The Changing Lights, including soon-to-be-released The Bullet Train—a fun, bouncy tune that truly enlivens the rushing sound of the Japanese speed train, and more, Stacey once again caressed melodies that speak to the heart and soul, filling Blue Note Tokyo with timeless resonation under the velvet skies.
Language was never a verbal or social hindrance to Stacey. It certainly is her versatile skill in French, Portuguese, Italian, and German coupled with her expansive exposure living in remote corners of the world that make her storytelling prowess as elementary as A-B-C—a natural gift that allows her to evoke a song’s message so diversely and profoundly to any type of person.
Stacey: The sense of humanity and my relationship to music transfers everything that I sing, so it doesn’t matter at all what language I am speaking or what culture I sing to. I have played in about 50 countries, and we just don’t go to the cities, but to places in the middle of nowhere—like an art center in Denmark where people don’t speak the language you speak, to great places like Poland and Korea with beautiful acoustics where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it, yet you connect completely musically and in a very human way and the barriers don’t really matter. You might speak less to them in between the songs because you’re not going to tell the stories elaborately in case they might not understand it, but you totally get each other, just as I experienced in Turkey. The moment never stops being exciting and beautiful. There’s still a novelty in the encounters—very refreshing and hopeful. So, we love to tour, and to be out in the world. The connection of somebody handing me my CD is the same. It’s just about that connection with humanity and language.
I was a language student as a kid. In school I studied Latin, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese. My grandfather and I only spoke in French, and so language was always part of my life. Now, I couldn’t live without this ability. But, there is always you and the sensibility, and that doesn’t change. It’s a very different experience singing in a different language because each language has it own personality.
When Stacey decided to leave the U.S. and move to the UK, the leap may have appeared phenomenal, but it was an adventure Stacey knew was apparently inevitable. Displacement is a phenomenon that people react to in many various ways.
Stacey: When I left the U.S. I wasn’t a musician yet; I left because I wanted to go and be part of the world. I think if I hadn’t been a musician, I probably would have done something that would have taken me away…because I have “wanderlust”. I just wanted to be out. I am a second generation American. My parents come from other countries, so I was intrigued by the rest of the world. I never really wanted to stay put. I wanted to travel. I was already ready to go. When I was a kid my parents put me on a plane to South Africa. I was only 17 and spent the summer there. It was very exciting to be on the plane for the first time by myself for 17 hours and go to a foreign country and this was before I finished my studies. It was already there—my desire to be part of the world and to speak to other people and get a different sense of perspective. That was always part of who I am, my personality. I love being displaced. There is vulnerability, but it is really enjoyable, too. I don’t think I could have settled in just one country. But, now I’m back in America, in Colorado, as we wanted to live in the Rockies. We do have a place in London but we travel a lot.
Once I started to do what I was doing for a living, there was no “readjustment” because we sort of flow through the world anyway, living in our own world, our own rhythm. We’re always on the road with the guys, and we go home to our little world and it could be anywhere.
Stacey often describes her family upbringing as being quite academic. Her early exposure to books, literature and language, however, did not hinder her passion for the musical world.
Stacey: I was definitely encouraged to grow in an academic background I got my college degree in Comparative Literature, and my mother and grandmother were both teachers. I never as a kid really entertained the idea of becoming a musician. I was listening, learning and absorbing music because I loved it, but it wasn’t a question until after I graduated from college.
Then, it all just happened by accident, which I love. Appearing in the movie Richard III was part of a turning point in my life because that’s the age when I was certainly excited by music. I hadn’t made plans that I was going to spend my life making music and when the break happened and people started to talk about me, and I started to get job offers, I put the pieces together and thought “I can do this for a living.” But, until then, I think I was doing it just because I loved to do it. But, I wasn’t really thinking about my future.
A very important ingredient in Stacey’s repertoire success is her magical encounter with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. What started as a sweet exchange of correspondences blossomed into a profound friendship and mutual revelation of how each complimented each other so symmetrically.
Stacey: Meeting Kazuo was a real life-changing experience, a complete game changer. There’s a radio show “Desert Island Discs” (Radio 4 series 2002, BBC). A celebrity (Kazuo) is invited to talk about his life and work but it becomes a game—if you were stuck in an island for the rest of your life what seven records would you take with you? And, Kazuo took one of my records. I heard this and it was very exciting because I had been a big Ishiguro fan. So, I wrote to BBC and said to pass a message to Kazuo to thank him for putting my music on, I had no idea he was a fan of mine because I was also a fan of his work. Then, he got in touch and in the long story we became friends many years after that. Again, there was no plan at the beginning. At first, we were just friends, having lunches and dinners. Conversations happened very naturally. Jim would write the lyrics and compositions from that. It worked out so well even today we’re doing the same thing, him writing for me. When he wrote the Linear Notes, he was so truly perceptive of who I am as an artist, persona and it all made sense. So Jim wrote songs afterwards and it would come out so beautifully. The reason why it was so spectacular was the songs were great, easy to sing…and it was the material I was singing before then and still the same material I sing today, and I love it— but, I felt very limited. There is a formula in the way we play to make the repertoire work out—there’s a chorus for the singer, then the instrumental part and chorus, etc. My relationship to words and lyrics was more than that. I could tell my songwriters I’d like to tell a story, a lifetime in a story, fully composed. So, when Kazuo started to write songs for me like “Ice Hotel”, “Breakfast on the Morning Tram”, as if I were traveling again, there was still the instrumental passage, but it wasn’t like I was doing the 32 bars form. Then, the band came in, and then the whole story; maybe there was no instrumental break, but the instrumental break was like a passage of time. Kazuo was so playful with timeline even in his novels and music writing. I really felt all these stories are so beautiful, very emotional as well as in the way they are constructed.
It’s not just a question of replacing material, we add to it. Yes, Kazuo’s lyrics made other songs more special, also because we were breaking out of that formula, so we could still go back to the usual 32-bar form and still have a longer story by Kazuo. Suddenly, everything becomes more powerful, and I was able to satisfy the part of the repertoire that seems missing to me until Kazuo started to write for me. I was very lucky without realizing I could do it. They are such spectacular songs.
Notwithstanding Stacey’s constant trod to fame and success tucked in her closet of brilliant achievements from an "Album of the Year" 2006 BBC Jazz Award for The Lyric, to 2002 BBC Jazz Award for Best Vocalist, and a nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album at the 2009 Grammy Awards, among others, the drive to explore continents and achieve that genuine connection to touch people of all genres with the quietness, yet clarity and simplicity of her aura and sensitive storytelling is perhaps, Stacey’s strongest quality as a performer. Stacey has romanced Japan for almost more than ten occasions that the bond feels like second skin. Soon, she will be releasing her next gigantic album project, collaborating with a 53-member symphony orchestra. Certainly, Japan has not heard the last of Stacey Kent’s heartwarming “stories”.
Stacey: I grew up watching Japanese cinema a lot, Yasujiro Ozu movies in the US, Akira Kurosawa movies, early ones…I loved them. Great filmmakers. Amazing stories. I was so intrigued. To come to Japan was part of my vision from that early cinema experience, but it evolves because I come here year-to-year, meet people, new people, same people…everyone has been so wonderful. I always have a fantastic time and savor every minute. Culturally, yes, we are very different, but I am a real lover of Mother Nature, especially living in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains. This country is so full of natural beauty, so we love the aesthetics, rock gardens...I took early trips to Japan during the season of cherry blossom trees, and we loved how people love their cherry blossoms and how they sit under the trees and be part of this experience of Mother Nature.
(From “I Wish I Could Go Travelling Again” Music: Jim Tomlinson, Lyrics: Kazuo Ishiguro)
“I want a waiter to give us a reprimand
In a language neither of us understand
While we argue about the customs of the land…
I wish I could go travelling again
It feels like this summer will never end
And I've had such good offers from several of my friends
I wish I could go travelling again.”
Special Thanks to Blue Note Tokyo, Sony Music Japan International and Agnés Thomas.