An American Jazz Diva Plays French Chanteuse Stacey Kent discusses her French-only album, Raconte-Moi, and the childhood relationship that sparked her love of the language.
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An American Jazz Diva Plays French Chanteuse

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An American Jazz Diva Plays French Chanteuse

An American Jazz Diva Plays French Chanteuse

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The voice of jazz chanteuse Stacey Kent has been compared to many things fine and distinctive: vermouth, for example, or Peggy Lee, or Eric Satie. Described as an irrepressible gamine, she's an American from New Jersey living in London for 20 years where she's won best vocalist at the British Jazz Awards. She's had a prolific career and an international following.

So, what a treat it was to catch Stacey Kent and her tenor saxophonist husband and musical collaborator, Jim Tomlinson, who leads her band, playing a gig at Birdland in New York this past week.


STACEY KENT: (Singing in French)

LYDEN: Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson, thanks so much for coming into our studios in New York.

KENT: It's great to be here.


LYDEN: A great gig you played Tuesday night.

KENT: Thank you so much.

LYDEN: That was a treat. Please tell me about the songs on the CD, "Raconte- Moi." I mean, some of them are French standards or jazz standards and I think a couple are just for you, right?

KENT: That's true. I wasn't looking to make a mix of standards and the songs that were meant for me. I was really just selecting according to what felt really like it was me. One of them, which I think is hugely important was written for me by Jim, who obviously knows me better than anybody. And he joined forces with a poet who we know in Paris called Camille d'Avril and they wrote me that tender romantic, beautiful love song called "Sait-On Jamais?" which means one never knows. Essentially a song about you never know when it's going to happen to you.

LYDEN: Jim Tomlinson, please tell me your collaboration with Camille d'Avril.

TOMLINSON: Well, Camille is a poet that we've known for some time and she writes songs and poetry and beautiful lyrics. And so I suggested to her that she should write a lyric for Stacey that I could put the music to. And I have to say for me it was a particular challenge working in French because my French is not as impeccable as Stacey's.


LYDEN: Stacey, you are the French expert here. Could you maybe tell us in French the first couple of lines of "Sait-On Jamais?," one never knows?

KENT: Sure. The opening line is (French spoken). It talks about alleys and boulevards and places you could meet on a street or out in the world. I imagined that an alley would suffice to meet you. And that's the opening to the whole story.

LYDEN: Let's listen to a little of it.


KENT: (Singing in French)

LYDEN: I understand that this love of French and other languages began with your grandfather, who read "Beau de l'aire" to you when you were a child.

KENT: He did, and I think that this is key to who I am today as a person, as an artist. My grandfather was a Russian immigrant who lived in Europe, in France, for many years before he eventually came to the United States. And he never really felt quite settled in the USA and he didn't feel Russian. He really felt himself a Frenchman. And what started as a selfish motivation, which really was to share his love of French poetry and French culture with me, really turned out to be a huge gift.

And I think that even though that, yes, I did study comp lit, I think that has everything to do with where I am today.

LYDEN: Stacey, this album is called "Raconte-Moi," which means tell me in English, tell me, and it's a really charming song. Would you talk about it a little bit, the French lyrics and then the English?

KENT: Yeah. This is the most intimate and sensual song on the album and was exactly what I wanted as the title track. It's the story of two lovers who are behind closed doors who just talk to each other. And I won't tell you the whole song, because it's quite long, but there are some beautiful lines in the song: (French spoken) - which means tell me your dreams, tell me vague stories, on the edge of your lips tell me everything. And really that's what it's about. It's about the beautiful simple moment in time where you sit there and you listen to the sound of the voice of the person you love. And that's what that song evokes for me.


KENT: (Singing in French)

My favorite line in the song is (French spoken): even if the sun rises, tell it we don't care.


KENT: (Singing in French)

I'm a dreamy person, I'm a dreamer, and I think that that's representative in all the music that Jim and I arranged together, that we select as songs and the way in which I present them. I love to tell stories, and I think people feel like I'm telling them that story even if it's not a language that they understand word for word.

TOMLINSON: I think also what's interesting is that each language has its own personality. And Stacey as a singer has a subtly different personality when she's singing in French, in that in French I think she can sing lyrics un-self- consciously that are far more sensual than she would be able to sing in English.


KENT: (Singing in French)

LYDEN: You know, I've been studying French and I was actually trying to sing along with Stacey from the lyrics sheet on the train to New York. And someone peeped their head over - I thought I had been singing very quietly under my breath to myself. And I thought, oh my goodness, I'm singing out loud. So, this is how I want to learn French, through you.


LYDEN: On the album the two of you made before this, it was called "Breakfast on the Morning Tram," you did something quite different. You collaborated with a book of prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of "Remains of the Day," and many other novels. How did that happen?

KENT: Ishiguro was on the radio talking about me on a BBC radio show, and that's how I discovered that he was a fan of mine. I didn't know him before but I was a huge fan of his work. And so we got to meet, thankfully, through the BBC and we became friends. And we all live in North London and we started to spend a little time together. And really one day, just on a whim, Jim said to Ish at lunch, you know, we should write a song for Stacey. And he said, yeah, you're right. And this was just for fun.

Two weeks later on our doorstep - 'cause he mailed them as opposed to emailing them - Ishiguro mailed us "Breakfast on the Morning Tram" and "The Ice Hotel," and I remember standing there in my bathrobe reading these lyrics for the first time, and they were Ishiguro novels right there on my doorstep in three- or five-minute form for us to write the music to.

LYDEN: Let's hear "The Ice Hotel."


KENT: (Singing) Let's you and me, go away to the ice hotel. The Caribbean's all burnt out and it's just as well. I'd have been much keener on Barbados or Antigua, but just now I think the Arctic would suit us swell. Let's you and me go away to the ice hotel...

LYDEN: There really is an ice hotel somewhere, isn't there, in Iceland?

KENT: Yes. There are a couple of them. There's one up in Canada and there's one in Sweden and every year they bring in different architects to construct...

LYDEN: Redo the furniture.

KENT: ...and then - exactly - and then it melts in the spring and then that's it and then they start again. We haven't been to the ice hotel, and neither has Ishiguro, but one can research and it's exactly as it's described, but we love the metaphor in this.

LYDEN: I love the metaphor too.

KENT: It's just gorgeous.

LYDEN: Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson, it's been so great speaking with you. Merci.

KENT: Thank you.



KENT: (Singing) Let's you and me go away to the ice hotel.

LYDEN: To hear songs from Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson's album, "Raconte-Moi," you can go to

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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