November 2007

Stacey Kent: Starting Over

Precisely a decade ago, New York-born, London-based vocalist Stacey Kent, in tandem with her British husband and musical partner Jim Tomlinson, began steadily building an international following with six like-minded albums. Each was built around vintage Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood tunes, and each was elegantly tailored to fit Kent’s quasi-retro style, which suggests the ice-cool creaminess of Jo Stafford blended with the butterscotch-warm appeal of Doris Day.

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Nicole Noodland

Stacey Kent

Then, with the 2003 release of The Boy Next Door, her dreamy tribute to Sinatra and other male crooners she admires, the dependably consistent Kent express chugged to a halt. Now, after a lengthy break (which, for the record, did include her contributing to nine of the tracks that filled Tomlinson’s The Lyric in 2005), Kent has, with the release of Breakfast on the Morning Tram, boarded a new train and is heading in all sorts of fresh directions. Covering Fleetwood Mac’s hauntingly beautiful “Landslide,” she sings, “I’ve been afraid of changing,” later adding, “but time makes you bolder.”

Indeed. Not only has Kent changed labels, signing with Blue Note, but she also parted ways with her two longest-standing bandmates, pianist David Newton and guitarist Colin Oxley, both of whom have been with her since Close Your Eyes in ’97, and is significantly broadening her musical horizons, adding more contemporary material to her repertoire and introducing original songs. “I really needed to make changes and to grow,” says Kent. “I was itching in my last band [and] in my last guise. I’m still me. I think my sensibilities are still the same, [but] there were things I need to achieve artistically, and with Blue Note, this was my chance to do it.”

Not all of it was easy. Kent admits that the decision to replace Newton and Oxley with, respectively, Graham Harvey and John Parricelli (bassist Dave Chamberlain, drummer Matt Skelton and, of course, saxophonist/percussionist Tomlinson, who also serves as producer, round out the revised lineup) was particularly tough. “It was a big change and a very hard change to make,” she says. “You become a family. It was very, very hard for me to tear myself away from that. Jimmy put it so nicely one day. We were gardening, and he said, ‘It’s like we have to repot the plant.’ And when you repot the plant, that plant suddenly starts growing in directions it wasn’t allowed to grow in before.”

Appropriately, much of Morning Tram is constructed around the theme of traveling, literally and metaphorically. In essence, says Kent, “It’s about the joy you get from the passage of time in your life, but also the pact that you make with yourself by constantly acknowledging that to create these wonderful memories the tradeoff is that you’re going to have to encounter the pain at some point.”

In addition to “Landslide,” Kent delivers a gorgeously intimate version of Sergio Mendes’ “So Many Stars” and sings three songs—the Serge Gainsbourg gems “C’est Petit Riens” and “La Saison de Pluies,” and “Samba Saravah” (from the 1966 film masterpiece A Man and a Woman)—in French (a language her Russian émigré grandfather taught her to love as a child). Most intriguing, though, is Tram’s quartet of original tunes. With music by Tomlinson, each features lyrics by acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

As the story goes, the award-winning author of When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go appeared on the long-running British radio show Desert Island Discs and included a Kent track among his choices. The two subsequently met, discovered they were London neighbors and have since become close friends. Not since Truman Capote teamed with Harold Arlen on “A Sleepin’ Bee” and other delights from House of Flowers has a novelist proven so adept at crafting sage and clever lyrics. The title track recounts a magical morning train ride, where cinnamon pancakes and jam-slathered scones can help mend a broken heart. “Ice Hotel” pays homage to the Scandinavian landmark as an ideal place for overheated lovers to cool their amour. “So Romantic” tells of an ill-fated relationship that, though long over, refuses to entirely fade. But best illustrative of Kent’s redirected musical compass is “I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again” with its wistful desire for new horizons and roads less traveled. Bon voyage.

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