HOWARD BERKES, host:

Sonya Kitchell grew up trying to be the center of attention. She's not quite gown up yet, but boy, is she getting attention now.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. SONYA KITCHELL (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) You hold me down. Please let me go out. I'm dying to be out on my own. And I think I might go crazy if this lasts any longer.

BERKES: Sonya Kitchell is 17. Her voice and her lyrics are drawing comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Norah Jones and others far older. Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis calls it music that belies the age of its creator.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) I want to let you know. You've got to let me go. Oh, you've got to let me go. Yeah, you've...

BERKES: Sonya Kitchell's debut album is called Words Came Back to Me. It's landed her an appearance on Letterman, a gig with Herbie Hancock and a deal that puts her CD in Starbuck's coffee shops everywhere. Not bad for adolescence. Kitchell wrote all of the songs on the album. She became a songwriter, she says, on September 11th, 2001. Five years later she can't remember the words to the song she wrote that day, but it sent her on her musical way and into our member station WSCR in Amherst, Massachusetts where she joins me now. Ms. Kitchell, welcome.

Ms. KITCHELL: Thank you.

BERKES: You were 12 years old when you wrote that song about September 11th.

Ms. KITCHELL: Yes.

BERKES: How did the experience of writing that figure into your desire to write and sing as a career?

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, I guess once I started writing I just couldn't stop. It's kind of how it goes. And it's not like I chose to really become a writer, I just - I need to write in order to process life, in order to stay sane, in order feel like I'm expressing what I need to express and - because if I don't write a song for a couple of weeks, you know, it's like I feel this pent-up something inside of me that needs to come out. And often when it comes out it's not necessarily a song about me, it could be a song about something that has nothing to do with me but it's a song and it - and so then I feel a little bit lighter.

BERKES: Is that what the song Words is about?

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, Words, Words is really just about saying something really, really stupid and feeling embarrassed about it. But I love to play that song because it's got some interesting changes and it's really fun to sing over and it was kind of inspired by listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and U2 and Nick Drake and all of that combined into one song.

BERKES: You have your guitar with you, I know. And do you want to play some of that for us now?

Ms. KITCHELL: Sure.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) My words run away from me. Now I'm left and they're out at sea. Sailing away. They come and go like the breeze. Whisper sweet, burn like disease. They change with the day. And I seem to say all the wrong things on the right day. And I seem to do all the wrongs on the right cues at least most of the time. My words took me down the wrong track. And now I want to take it back. So I'll run away. If only I could be free of the plague that my words seem to be. I thank the day. For I seem to say all the wrongs thing on the right day. And I seem to do all the wrong things on the right cues at least most of the time.

BERKES: Very nice. Very nice. Thank you.

Ms. KITCHELL: Thank you.

BERKES: You mentioned - you had a short list of people who influenced you on this song, including Joni Mitchell. And you are often compared to Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, as I mentioned in the beginning, and other artists. I wonder if that's an advantage or a disadvantage. How do you get out there and distinguish yourself when you're constantly compared to others?

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, I think when you are an unknown artist people have to compare you to other artists in order for them to understand what you sound like if they haven't heard you. And so for me to be compared to people that I like is very fortunate.

BERKES: Do you try to sound like Joni Mitchell?

Ms. KITCHELL: No. I don't really try to sound like anyone. I listen to a lot of different music and when I was, when I was working on the album I was, I was listening to a lot of Al Green and Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell and Bill Withers, a lot of '60s and '70s stuff. And actually, I find that it's a little easier to listen to guys and even rip them off a little bit artistically because nobody can really tell, because you're a girl.

BERKES: That's cheating.

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, you know, people - what's the quote? Like true artists steal or something? I shouldn't have even brought it up if I can't remember the quote, but there is a quote about it.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) I tried so hard to stop thinking about you, baby. I, I tried so hard but it didn't work. No. Oh I got to know, I got to know how you feel about me baby. 'Cause my love is going crazy. And completely gotten the hurt. Don't tell what works. Oh, baby tell me what of will come of my love.

BERKES: Wow. How does a 17-year-old from rural Massachusetts get the blues like that?

Ms. KITCHELL: I don't know you, you fall in love and - and then it's not returned.

BERKES: This was your unrequited love?

Ms. KITCHELL: Yes. The story of that song is I was really interested in a guy and then the funny thing is, I wrote another song a week later, which isn't on the album, called Rejected. And I don't play that song, but that, that is what happened.

BERKES: What amazed me about that song was that it's not puppy love that you're singing about.

Ms. KITCHELL: Well you know, I think it probably was puppy love, but the way that I described it, it was a, it was a deeper experience. I don't know. I mean I wasn't really in love, I was infatuated. But I do feel things very strongly and I guess it's really important to me that my songs mean something to people. And I'm really trying to write songs that are universal because, you know, my dad's an abstract painter and he paints these paintings that, that you look at everybody draws something different in these paintings. And, and that's kind of what I want people to see in my songs. I want them to see and hear what they need to see and hear in that time in their life. And so it's really - the songs are really important to me and I really want to be creating music that's interesting and different and, and progressive, as far as music goes.

BERKES: How did you learn to sing?

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, I always, I always sang. I don't really remember a time when I didn't sing, but I started taking voice lessons when I was seven. And then continued to take voice lessons.

BERKES: And you've had some coaching by some renowned people in the business, Sheila Jordan helping you with singing jazz.

Ms. KITCHELL: Yeah. Yeah, when I was, I think I was 12 years old actually when I started working with Sheila. At that time I wanted to be able to skat like Ella Fitzgerald and that was the, the goal. Of course, I never succeeded in doing that, but Sheila definitely got me a little bit closer.

BERKES: In the song Train, on your CD, you use your voice in different ways. Let's hear a little bit of Train from the CD.

(Soundbite of song "Train")

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) I've just taken a seat on the train. I walked through busy streets down a shadowy lane. I've just bought my ticket for the ride. There's no turning back now no matter what I decide. Steel body moves fast hinges pounding against the ground. I sink into my seat. And I pray for it to speed up while I wish it would slow down. My body...

BERKES: What is that song about? My - my interpretation of it is that, is that you seem to be singing about growing up, about looking ahead to an uncertain future.

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, that song is actually, it's really about the music industry. And I wrote that a couple years ago, right when, when things started - when I started to get involved in the music industry. And - and there was a lot of major label interest and one label in particular really wanted to sign me. And it was - and the idea of that was both exciting and frightening at the same time because I wasn't sure whether that was what I wanted or whether it wasn't what I wanted. And it's just like - so for that song was for me about this, it's - one of the lyrics is that, And I pray for it to speed up while I wish it would slow down. And that's kind of how I really felt at that time. I wasn't sure but I wanted things to happen, but I wasn't sure. And it was just this back and forth.

BERKES: What were you afraid of?

Ms. KITCHELL: Well, I guess I was probably afraid of, you know, life kind of getting ahead of me before I had a chance to be completely in control of who I was and what it was that I wanted to be doing.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) And time whispered in my ear. Child you're just gonna keep getting older. But I've done nothing more than take a seat on this here train. Yet my life turned upside down and only, only the little things remain.

BERKES: Do you have a back-up plan?

Ms. KITCHELL: Do I have a back-up plan? Well, let's see, this is, this is definitely what I want to do, so I've been, you know, working on doing this. And who knows, if this doesn't work out there's a million things that, that I could do with my life. And I haven't really made a specific plan. I just know that whatever is supposed to happen is what's going to happen.

BERKES: Can you play in the studio there for us something that you're working on now?

Ms. KITCHELL: Sure. Let me just tune it back up again.

(Soundbite of guitar tuning)

BERKES: Sonya Kitchell's debut CD is Words Came Back to Me. Ms. Kitchell joined us from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Ms. Kitchell, thank you.

Ms. KITCHELL: Thank you so much for having me. This is a song called Effortless.

(Soundbite of song Effortless)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) Do you hear the wind howling? (Unintelligible) Do you hear the path prowling? Whenever he walks...

BERKES: You can find another studio performance by Sonya Kitchell and hear more songs from her debut album at our website, npr.org. And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Howard Berkes.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KITCHELL: (Singing) I'm just rockin' to a lullaby of dreams I thought would never pass me by.

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