Stacey Kent is a multilingual jazz chanteuse with a large and zealous worldwide following.
Her understated phrasing and deeply sensitive renderings of standards and original tunes have won her many accolades and enthusiastic reviews. Stacey began her musical career after completing a master’s degree in comparative literature. In 2010, after six bestselling albums, she released Raconte-moi, an all-French album distributed in more than 35 countries. Recently she took the time to talk with Wanda Waterman St. Louis about working with literary writers and the importance of understanding?and of not understanding?a song’s lyrics.
Ishi said, ?I want to write you songs about travelling.?
they’re direct messages, but they’re also metaphorical. We talked about the words that you would use in travelling. What I really appreciated about this collaboration was that here I am with two people on either side of me who know me very well?Kazuo Ishiguro and Jim [Stacey’s husband, Jim Tomlinson]?[and] who were starting to write for me with my voice and my persona inside their heads as they wrote. Their songs were incredibly personal. Although they were universal stories, they were about me. I can’t even describe to you how heady a feeling that is to have people who know you and love you write for you.
The Ishiguro collaboration became so important and powerful because it came about by accident?it was just one casual remark made by Jim. After that lunch, I think that the period between that first conversation and the songs arriving in the mail and me picking them up from my doorstep was about two weeks. I tore the envelope open and read the lyrics to ?Breakfast on the Morning Tram? and ?The Ice Hotel.? There they were: my songs. I read them aloud to Jim and he started to hear the songs almost immediately.
We’ve also started working with a Portuguese poet?António Ladeira?because Jim and I have been studying Portuguese these last three years. He was our first-year grammar teacher, and he’s a great poet. After writing with Ishiguro, this became a real interest with us. we’ll work with anyone with whom we have chemistry; we just happen to be really attracted to writers as opposed to songwriters.
Before I was a musician I was a comparative literature student, so I studied French, German, and Italian. And I grew up speaking French, thanks to my grandfather, who was Russian but immigrated to France and was very much in love with French culture. He introduced me to a ton of French poetry. It was really he who inspired me to learn languages and to go out and be part of the world.
If I were to choose where my musical heart really lives, It’s in Brazil. The Brazilian sensibility is something we totally relate to as people, not just as musicians. It’s a country made up of different groups of misplaced peoples who ended up making a whole new culture. Something fascinating happened there. You can say the same thing about the United States. We can’t romanticize it because there were often horrible circumstances. But in Brazil they sing about it. There’s all this pain going on, so they sing, dance, and rejoice in the pure and simple joy of living.
We’ve been touring Raconte-moi?the current album?but we’re taking time off now and then to write the songs that will appear on the Brazil album. But the next album will be a live album. There’ll be songs on it from Ishiguro and Ladeira and also songs from The Great American Songbook.
Through a Glass Darkly
The success of Raconte-moi in so many different countries really opened my eyes to something; sometimes when you don’t know what the words mean, the whole listening experience becomes very abstract. I was shy about singing French music to people who didn’t know French until I realized that all those years that I hadn’t understood Portuguese . . . I’d been listening to Brazilian music without knowing what they were saying and yet feeling like I understood.
Two things that are both true? the words are so important, and yet when you don’t understand the words, the song is still powerful.