Interview by Ashley Greenwood
Stacey Kent, the grammy award nominated American jazz singer performed in Shanghai for the first time as part of her The Changing Lights tour. Before she heading off to Europe and then America, she took some time to chat to Vantage about the show, and what inspires her.
How was playing in Shanghai?
I loved it! It was our first time in Shanghai. We travel around all the time, and it’s very exciting to come to a new place. The warmth and the love from the people was just beautiful.
Does the crowd and atmosphere feel different here in China?
Not really, the kind of people who come to my shows have a kind of shared sensibility. The people were really warm and there was obviously an excitement, with a lot of people who have been waiting to see us, and people who have travelled here to come and see us. There was this feeling from the band and the audience that none of us were complacent to finally be here. A kind of anticipation.
Did you perform the same set last night as you have around the world, or do you change the show for different audiences?
Pretty much… it change from night to night, because the band and I know each other so well, and we have a large repertoire of songs that we can play from, so we just do what we’re in the mood for on that occasion. But of course, because this is the Changing Lights tour, and it’s so much on our minds right now, so there are some songs that are just staple. We did some American Song Book, and some of our French repertoire as well. We also invited Coco Zhao to come and song an encore with us too! That was really fun!
Your parents were classical music fans, and your siblings were in to folk and “hippy music”, so where did the jazz influences come from, and what hooked you on jazz?
Well, the thing is, growing up where I grew up in New York, it was everywhere. It might have just been in a shop, or in a restaurant and hear Stan Getz, or just on the radio. I’d be sitting with my family and I’d hear this music and be moved by it. I loved it. It wasn’t just jazz, I really had an eclectic taste, and I still do. Jazz musicians don’t just listen to jazz. When I was a little girl, I didn’t ask the question “Is this Jazz?”. I wasn’t interested in genre. I was interested in mood.
Jamie Cullum described your singing, saying you have “a very exact sound” and you “set the standard” each time you perform a song. Is that something you want to do and feel happy about?
That’s a real compliment, Jamie’s a really wonderful person, so I love that he said that. But I don’t think in those terms, in terms of genre or what I’m doing in the world. I’m not looking at what standards to set or what to change, it’s so personal. I choose songs that fit me. They have to have a profound connection.
What are your memories of studying in London and why did you choose to study there?
Well, that was just an accident. I was working towards my Masters in Germany, and I went to visit some friends who were on their year abroad in Oxford, UK. There was a one year post-grad course in music in London, and I just thought I’d stop in… life is like that, I hadn’t planned to go to London to study music, I just went to visit some buddies, and then one thing led to another. Accidents happen that bump you off one path and on to another.
You’re a real linguist, fluent in French, German, Italian and Portuguese…
Yes, my grandfather was a Russian immigrant, who left too young to feel Russian, and spent his formative years in France, and arrived in America too old to feel American. He taught me to speak French in the house, and that was the beginning of my launch in to languages. He taught me a lot about poetry, and that was a real gift for me. I loved it, and I loved him.
Is there a language that you feel is the most beautiful?
Oh I think they’re all beautiful, I love listening to languages. As long as I live I will keep studying languages. I love Swedish and I love Mandarin. Culturally I think Swedish is such a fascinating place. I grew up on a lot of Bergman movies. And when I was at school I always loved to hear the Chinese students talking too. I was always attracted to it.
You’re touring your Brazilian album, The Changing Lights. You said it came about because as you studied Portuguese you made Brazilian friends…
Well, it’s not really a Brazilian album except at its heart. It’s a very loose relationship to being a Brazilian album. At the centre of it all it’s an album about longing, and if there is one word that kickstarted my desire to learn Portuguese, it’s saudade, which means longing, and yearning. So there’s a lot of longing on this album, and that’s why it’s Brazilian, but I made it in Sussex, England, with my British band, singing songs written by my British husband, with his Japanese-British writing partner…but the centre is longing, some of it sad, some of it joyous. But my relationship to Brazil started much earlier when I was fourteen and I first discovered Brazilian music, listening to the Getz / Gilberto album. João Gilberto really launched me in to this love of Brazil. Brazilian culture has a wonderful balance and tension between the pain and sadness of life, with the joy of life. And that’s what they play with. Vinicius de Moraes, one of the greatest Brazilian poets to have ever lived said it so beautifully in Samba de Benção, one of the songs we sing: “Sadness is a samba that holds the hope of one day no longer being sad”.
You studied poetry and have sung poems by Christopher Marlowe, and collaborated with the poet Kazuo Ishiguro. Is turning poetry in to songs a challenge?
It’s exactly the same thing to me. One is spoken, and is sung. But Ishiguro’s lyrics are quite different to ordinary standard song lyrics, they have a real open form and feeling. When poets write, they don’t mean for the words to sit on the page, they need to be read aloud. For me, when I look at lyrics, they have to stand up by themselves. It just has to be beautiful.