Small-town gold

Sonya Kitchell strikes a major chord
By ADAM GOLD  |  October 27, 2006

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OLD SOUL: Kitchell has the musical command of a woman twice her age.
Like most 17-year-olds, Sonya Kitchell is struggling to figure out who she is. Unlike the majority of her peers, the singer-songwriter is dealing with her identity issues on the road. When Starbucks picked up her debut album, Words Came Back to Me, last April, she went from being a shy teen from the Western Mass town of Ashfield to #6 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart. That sparked a whirlwind of talk-show appearances and an exhausting tour schedule. When she stopped in town last August, it was clear she’d hit the spotlight in the midst of a transition.

“Right now I feel like I’m going through a lot of changes as a musician,” she says, brushing a strand of blond hair away from her face. We’re having lunch in the lobby of the Downtown Crossing Hyatt Regency, a few hours before she’s due to perform in a radio promotional show with Aimee Mann at the BCA. Given that she sings with the soul of a woman twice her age, it’s startling to see her acting like a teenager, peppering sentences with “like,” giggling nervously, and rolling her eyes when her mother — yes, her mother — comes over to check on her.

The musical changes she’s talking about were obvious to those who’d caught her show in Copley Square the day before. On Words, which was released simultaneously on Velour and Starbucks’ Hear Music label, her voice is delicate and restrained, floating gently over acoustic guitar and piano riffs. But at the show, she ditched the subtle approach, instead testing the limits of her voice by darting back and forth between a whisper and a growl. She also traded her usual jazz/folk vibe for a set that drew on rock influences. As confident as she is with her voice, she still appeared to be searching for a comfort zone.

And who can blame her? Kitchell’s recent success has only intensified the strains of adolescence. Having dropped out of high school to tour full time, she admits it’s tough to maintain a sense of normal. “I love seeing different cities and being able to shop in all these fun little towns all over the country. But it’s exhausting. It’s honestly not as glamorous as it all seems — all the driving and the sleeping four hours every night for weeks and weeks on end.”

Words is a personal album, at times intensely so. But it’s also proved to have broad appeal. “I feel like there are two different kinds of songs. One is the kind about human emotion — like longing after something or someone, or being ecstatic because the sunrise is gorgeous. Those are feelings that everyone can relate to, so a song about a very personal experience can be written in a way that’s personal for millions of people.”

Take the single “Let Me Go.” The album insert is designed like a diary, and the opening verse reads like an entry: “You hold me down/Please let me go/I’m dying to be out on my own/And I think I might go crazy/If this lasts any longer.” Although ostensibly about a teenager and her parents, the lyrics connect with any kind of constrained relationship.

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