Sonya Kitchell Smokes Us With Her Latte Lullaby

    Everyone loves a child prodigy — and if anyone knows everyone, it’s Starbucks. When the corporate giant to clobber all corporate giants plucked singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, a homely 16-year-old with one ambitious EP to her name, from the banks of a Massachussetts brook-town in 2006, the caffeine monopoly and their legions of back-pocket critics knew just how to pitch her.

    Angelic. Jazzy. Virtuosic. Wise far beyond her years. Lightly sprinkled with every last press-release keyword in their people-pleasing bank, Words Came Back to Me (Kitchell’s first full-length) soon drew the jittery J. Crew crowd from every urban and suburban street corner, looking for that buzzed-about up-and-comer to peruse over their double soy latte — all sips and chin-strokes and bedroom eyes to the equally jazzy lunch-breaker across the lounge. The simplistic puppy-love musings of such an unsharpened mind melted effortlessly over schmoozy piano into the daily routines of a million busy Americans with no need for more weights to the brain, grateful for straightforward drags like “Why I love you, I cannot say/ Honey, reasons are reasons/ Emotions are so funny that way.” But despite the company’s cheesily grandiose proportions, Kitchell insists she never felt pressured to cram herself into anybody’s cookie cutter.
    “It’s a large small company,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “Plus, they helped me get my work out there; it was an ideal situation.”

    In the long run, though, it could be a disservice, being plastered all over everyone’s consumer dreams like that. The public adoration inevitably heaped onto such a highly publicized talent her age — and granted, the country girl did know her way around a Mitchell tune and an acoustic guitar, but E. E. Cummings comparisons? Really? — may be good and cuddly for a time, but no artist can truly recover from a corporate magnifying glass held so intently to her awkward stage. A Scarlett Johansson-type teenhood of too many Billie Holiday records, layers of dress-up gauze and tales of the good old boys bathed her in jazz traditions of someone else’s present, leaving the idealized darling smelling of their timeless influence but without much of a tradition of her own. And who could really deny an imitator so pretty in her devotion, so committed and sincere? Outside the coffee chain, Kitchell lured just the right critical attention: National Public Radio’s soft and cradling All Things Considered drew a whole new kind of fan to her cause, complete with their bumper-stickered Volvos and travel mugs with definitely-not-Starbucks inside.

    Things got even better when the ever-prolific Herbie Hancock, accessible millennium leftover of Miles Davis’ second great quintet, hand-picked the youngster for a Joni Mitchell tribute tour. And it’s really no wonder: Kitchell’s full-bodied, husky-then-shrill vocal vacillations are eerily similar to the original acoustic poet to whom she so looks up (and with whom, ironically, she shares the Starbucks rack — they paved paradise, indeed). Kitchell describes the experience of singing “All I Want” as not so far a cry, in fact, from performing original material.

    “My own songs are a direct line to my heart and soul; but if it’s [someone else’s] really good song you can relate to, it can feel like your own,” she said. “Lyrically, ‘All I Want’ feels like something I could relate to. You know — you hear a song on the radio, and you feel like that song is for you.”

    Eons later, in the cold, hard reality of 2008, the now 19-year-old Kitchell is bumped up a weight class to make room for the new class of impressionable young prodigies. And here lies the difference between child actors and child musicians: A big screen will dry them up and wear them out, but a studio can only hone an aging set of musical skills. Indeed, Kitchell’s significant leap in age and creative interest is proofed all over September 2008’s energetic This Storm, light-years more mature and equipped with Grammy-toting producer Malcolm Burn, who’s worked with such girl power as Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris, to pull her from the child-star training wheels.

    “Malcolm is a sort of genius,” she said. “This was the first time I felt like I was really being an artist, because he was really supportive of playing around.”

    It shows — in her far more complicated poetic liberties, the pauses for much-needed tension, even the scrunch of her face in delivery. But she’s entering a much harsher world of critics no longer trying to spare her pubescent, open-diary feelings: “This one garnered more negative response and that was harder for me,” she said. “The bad ones make you feel like shit.” She came into the game young and moldable, and for that, sounds a little like everybody — hit snappiness of KT Tunstall, hip shadows of Feist, off-kilt fringe-skirting of Nellie McKay. “I’m lucky enough to be able to write these songs,” she said. “I’m writing them to share with people. We all feel these things, we’re alone, life is beautiful and hard.” Guess only time will tell if the coffee crowd stays true.

    Sonya Kitchell will play live on campus at the Loft with the Slip on Oct. 27.

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