SONYA KITCHELL & JEM: Ladies of the Fall

Massachusetts-bred singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell knows her rise to success has been more of a glide than a climb. At 19, she’s already released her second album (This Storm), toured with jazz genius Herbie Hancock and met her idol, Joni Mitchell. Welsh-born L.A. transplant Jem, on the other hand, spent three and a half years knocking on doors before they cracked opened via KCRW-FM (Los Angeles) tastemaker Nic Harcourt and, of all people, Madonna. Jem also has just released her second album, Down to Earth, on Dave Matthews’ ATO label.


Massachusetts-bred singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell knows her rise to success has been more of a glide than a climb. At 19, she’s already released her second album (This Storm), toured with jazz genius Herbie Hancock and met her idol, Joni Mitchell. Welsh-born L.A. transplant Jem, on the other hand, spent three and a half years knocking on doors before they cracked opened via KCRW-FM (Los Angeles) tastemaker Nic Harcourt and, of all people, Madonna. Jem also has just released her second album, Down to Earth, on Dave Matthews’ ATO label.

Though their experiences have been vastly different, they share several traits that undoubtedly helped them maximize their career opportunities when the time came. The most obvious one is that both really are down to earth-and well-focused. They also exude confidence; they say that’s one of the most important factors in achieving musical goals-not arrogance or a bloated ego, just a strong belief in yourself and your art. It’s the conviction, Jem says, “[That] whether or not they want you [to], you’re gonna do it anyway.”

Kitchell and Jem are also pragmatic; they want as much musical exposure as possible, but have little interest in creating personas or getting caught in the tabloid trappings of fame. Kitchell has already discovered the secret to enduring life on the road is staying healthy, which requires self-discipline, and Jem says she sees no need “to fall out of a club drunk” to draw attention to her work. She even resists the idea of self-promotion by showing up at scenester events she wouldn’t normally attend, because, she says, “It just feels fake.

“If [my music is] selling anyway, and it’s massive…and I become a personality because of that, fine,” she adds. “It’s not because I’m trying so hard to be famous.”

During an evening phone conversation, 33-year-old Jem says she always knew she was going to sing. After getting a law degree and running a tiny record label, she decided she had to take a stab at her own music career. So she grabbed some studio time with her sister’s ex-boyfriend, made some demos and began sending them around. Feedback was positive, but no bites came. She did another set. Producer Guy Sigsworth (Björk, Imogen Heap) liked what he heard and invited her to collaborate on a tune that eventually made it onto Madonna’s 2003 American Life album. Feeling discouraged in the UK, however, Jem turned her attention to the States and sent her demo to Harcourt, who played “Finally Woken” on air. Listener response was instantaneous, and it wound up in rotation on the station’s playlist. When she found out the station had been playing it for a year, she figured the reason it hadn’t spread was because it sounded like the demo it was. So she recorded a fully produced version, moved to the States and hooked up with ATO Records.

Kitchell, the daughter of two successful visual artists, grew up on a picture-pretty, 45-acre farm in a light-filled house her father designed. Lots of encouraging adult friends hung around, and creativity reigned. Walks in the woods provided constant inspiration. She also attended “a hippie alternative school,” where school wide sing-alongs were held every Friday. At age 7, she decided she wanted to sing, so she began studying with top voice coaches. She started performing at 9 or 10 and gigging at 13. In short order, a couple of high-profile awards attracted a swarm of labels, including major-leaguers with “we’ll make you a superstar” promises. She actually fell for one spiel, but is now quite thankful the deal tanked at the last minute-because she escaped the packaging process others on that label apparently went through. Instead she wound up with the Velour Music Group and became the second artist chosen for Starbucks’ Hear Music Debut CD Series. Kitchell was 15 when she recorded Words Came Back to Me. All the lyrics on it-and the melodies, too-are indeed hers. (The new album is a partnership among Velour, Hear Music and Decca, a Universal property.)

While both are proud songwriters, Jem’s sample-filled, electro-dance-pop is the product of much collaboration. Kitchell’s new album, best described as a jazz-folk-soul mélange, contains just two. At first, she didn’t want it to include any outside influence.

After someone at Universal told her she needed to “write a hit,” or work with other composers, she wound up writing five tunes in one week.

“I basically [said], ‘Screw that, I’m not working with writers,’ she explains during a call from Barcelona, where she’d just toured the Picasso museum (and observed his talent was evident at a young age, too).

But when her friend and fellow singer/songwriter Erin McKeown dropped by and Kitchell told her about the label’s directive, the pair decided to indulge their previously discussed urge to collaborate “for fun.”

“I played her a little bit of [“Every Drop”], and I didn’t think anything of it,” Kitchell recalls. “I was just giving her a taste of my songwriting. And she was like, ‘Cool. Let’s do something with that.'” So they wrote the song, and she was able to say to the head honchos,  “‘There. I worked on a song with someone, and I enjoyed it.'”

But the label had another tunesmith, Mike Daly [of Whiskeytown fame], picked out. “I was like, ‘OK. I’ll go work on it. I’m not gonna have fun, but I’m gonna do it,'” Kitchell says with a laugh,”…I had all these songs, and I played them for him, but I didn’t really want him to add anything. So I was like, ‘Here’s a song. I hope you like it. We’re not changing it. It’s mine.’ I was a little bit possessive,” except for “Every Drop.” That one she didn’t care about so much because, she says, “It wasn’t like a piece of my soul.”

Daly said it needed a chorus. Because she wasn’t attached to it, her attitude was, “Be my guest.” They wound up writing one together. She still didn’t think much of the song, but when she played it for her producer, Malcolm Burn, he jumped all over it. With his arrangement, it became one of her favorites on the album. She and Burn later co-wrote “Running.”

“So,” she reports, “I decided that I love collaborating.” Kitchell also discovered that she was capable of actually sitting down and cranking out tunes, rather than waiting for random inspiration. When she was told she needed more songs and therefore, had a reason and “permission” to try that approach, she wound up writing so many that she’s got a stack ready for the next album.

“It was like the faucet was turned on, literally,” she says, admitting that those songs might actually be better than her more organically grown tunes.

Jem learned that it was easier to entice producers if she agreed to co write with them. That way, she explains, “They have an investment if you do well.” Her album is filled with joint efforts, including three songs co written with her brother, Justin (aka Glass Pear). She also worked with Jeff Bass (Eminem), Lester Mendez (Shakira, Nelly Furtado), Mike Bradford (Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker) and Greg Kurstin (Beck, Kylie Minogue).

When it comes to recruiting collaborators, she’s not shy. Upon learning that producer Paul Herman was working downstairs from a studio she and Sigsworth were using, she went down, stepped into the recording booth and, she recalls, “just said ‘Hi. I hear you’re really nice. Do you want to write songs?'” Herman, who worked on several of Dido’s hits, is now a good friend. Some of her other producing partners proved equally approachable.

When friends expressed shock at her boldness, she’d point out that “Nobody’s going to come over to my house and ask me if I want to be a singer.” On her single, “It’s Amazing,” she sums up success in seven words: “Nothing can compare to deserving your dream.”

Despite being far more mature than her age would imply, Kitchell isn’t quite sure how to define that dream yet, so she often asks other artists what success means to them. Joni Mitchell told her it was being able to look back at the many years of art you’ve created and still like your work. “She also said, ‘Success is in the process, in the making of,'” Kitchell explains. “It’s not really the final product; it’s the experience.”


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