Sonya Kitchell + Elizabeth & The Catapult
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Sonya has released two records to widespread critical acclaim but she’s changing her approach for the next one. Here’s Sonya in her own words.
For a young artist, I’ve been fortunate…
I’ve been honored to work alongside such greats as Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell as well as talented contemporaries. I’ve released two internationally selling albums and toured the globe, and have finally come to the point where I’ve decided to take the reins in a new and independent direction, creating perhaps my most vulnerable, honest batch of music yet. This will be my third album, but it feels like I’m about to make my first.
This album is for you.
Here’s an example of the new stuff, Sonya is using PledgeMusic to help fund the making of the record.
True to the title of Sonya Kitchell’s 2008 album This Storm, the 22-year-old singer songwriter’s life has been in constant whirlwind mode since the release of her critically acclaimed 2006 breakthrough Words Came Back To Me. While she’s performed with everyone from Angelique Kidjo and Ben Harper to Jamie Cullum, India.Arie, Los Lonely Boys and Madeleine Peyroux, her career picked up international steam when jazz legend Herbie Hancock tapped her to tour the world with him in 2007. Slowing down after an exhilarating year on the road with Hancock and later The Slip, Kitchell found a much needed quieter place to write and record the six songs on Convict Of Conviction, her 6-track EP debut for 429 Records.
In the winter of 2008, the multi-talented singer retreated to the isolated Massachusetts countryside to write her new songs. Collaborating with bassist/arranger Garth Stevenson and producer Stewart Lerman with an ensemble that includes Sarah Parkington, Yoed Nir, Richie Barshay and Rebecca Cherry, Kitchell recorded the new collection in Hoboken, New Jersey at the famed Water Music Studios. “The songs came from a stillness,” she says. “This is music I could not have written in New York City. I am thankful I had this time in between moving back to New York and getting off the road to contemplate, while the music drifted down from the dusty rafters to slip unassumingly from my soul. The songs on Convict Of Conviction are a culmination of that silence and the time spent around numerous masterful musicians. I felt like working with Herbie had finally crept its way beautifully into my songwriting, in its own way.”
“I’d hope there’s humor to both of our albums, but they’re actually quite different from one another,” says Elizabeth Ziman, the singer/songwriter/keyboardist behind Elizabeth & the Catapult. “While Taller Children has the sarcastic lightness of a Woody Allen film, the new record’s more in the vein of Kubrick or Lynch. It’s a bit darker, a bit more tongue-in-cheek – another side to who we are.”
The reason for this shift isn’t as simple as a sudden breakup or breakdown. The dissonant strains are lurking between the lines, from the clanging chords and galloping groove of “The Horse and the Missing Cart” to the hopeful but bitter contrasts of “Thank You For Nothing,” a heartbroken ballad that channels the Buddhist teachings of an old Leonard Cohen poem.
As it turns out, Elizabeth read Cohen’s Book of Longing collection from cover to cover while working on the Lincoln Center song cycle – performed last spring for a commission from NPR’s John Schaefer – that gave The Other Side of Zero its title and a handful of tracks. As the pages sunk in, one particular theme stood out: Cohen’s struggle to meet Buddhist goals in a monastery, which Elizabeth felt paralleled her own coming-of-age struggles while living and growing up in New York City.
“Once I finished the book,” she says, “I realized that reaching this zen state wasn’t a realistic goal. Not for Leonard, and certainly not for me. It’s more about the intent of letting go, and being able to laugh after you fall.”
Cohen’s book also helped Elizabeth see parallels between the pain and growth in relationships and the gestures of balance in Buddhism. Songs about taming the extremes, finding similarities between opposites, and accepting the moment. While “Thank You For Nothing” sounds pretty self-explanatory, it does more than pull the plug on a flatlining relationship. It exposes the blurry line between gratitude and ingratitude, and how they often feed off of each other. (“I’ll just keep saying it/Thank you, thank you/Thank you for everything/Thank you for nothing at all.”) Meanwhile, “The Horse and the Missing Cart” is a cautionary tale about seizing the day; about actually doing things, rather than worrying about whether or not you should act.
Which brings us to why The Other Side of Zero is Elizabeth & the Catapult’s rawest set of recordings yet. Unlike their thoroughly-demoed debut – an album that took two years to complete – the Zero sessions boiled down to a month of recording with producer Tony Berg (Peter Gabriel, Phantom Planet, Jesca Hoop) and such respected sidemen as guitarist Blake Mills and Tom Waits’ longtime touring keyboardist, Patrick Warren.
The result was rough but refined, bruised but beautiful, as if Berg had placed a mic in a room and walked away, letting Elizabeth and drummer Danny Molad do their thing. Or as Elizabeth puts it, “This record’s more abrasive, more blatantly honest – perhaps even rude at times. Maybe intentionally so.”
Rude isn’t the right word. More like scrappy and spontaneous, with Elizabeth’s film score skills – for a while there, she wanted to be a scene-stealing composer – coloring each song like a Technicolor movie print. Take “Go Away My Lover,” a dagger-drawing duet that brings a couple to its close alongside speaker-smacking drums, demented whistles, and a call-and-response chorus that races to put all of this – the memories, the longing, and ultimately, the regret – to rest.
And then there’s the title track. Led by a lean, winding piano line, it builds to a spine-tingling crescendo alongside the honey-dipped harmonies of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings – a collaboration that was completely unplanned. Not that you’d notice, considering how seamless it sounds.
One thing Elizabeth made sure to write down months in advance were her lyrics, which often take months of intensive editing. And even then, it’s hard to let them go without poring over every last word. Especially in this case – a highly personal examination of love and loss, and growing older.
“Even the happiest sounding pop songs on this record have a tinge of regret and darkness to them,” explains Elizabeth. “And thank goodness for that. Ultimately that’s the only way I’d feel comfortable singing them. I’m drawn to the ambiguity like a menacing smile.”