13 Years in the Life of Sonya Kitchell
The Years of Becoming
An Interview with Sonya Kitchell
Hilltown-native singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell has been singing since she was in elementary school, knowing in 2nd grade that she wanted to be a singer. Thirteen years later at the age of twenty-one, Sonya has traveled the world and performed with an impressive list of accomplished musicians, including jazz legend Herbie Hancock. She has released three recordings. Her latest release, Convict of Conviction, is a six-song EP of gorgeously rendered chamber pop, including the song, “Lighthouse”. Recently featured at the Ashfield FilmFest, the music video to “Lighthouse” was awarded the music video prize:
We caught up with Sonya recently asking her about her experiences as a talented, young person: What was it like growing up in the rural hills of Western MA; Where did she find support that both recognized and nurtured her talent; How would she recommend parents support the creative muse in their children?
HILLTOWN FAMILIES INTERVIEW WITH SONYA KITCHELL
Hilltown Families: On October 10th, 2010 you have a show at Memorial Hall in Shelbunre Falls, MA with the Brooklyn String Quartet. You played there for the first time when you were just 9 years old. What do you remember about that show?
Sonya Kitchell: I remember that it was very exciting to be on such a large stage. I remember singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” My grandmother played piano and accompanied me. I remember that I loved it and couldn’t wait to do it again…
Hilltown Families: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a singer?
Sonya Kitchell: I was seven years old.
Hilltown Families: Were your parents supportive?
Sonya Kitchell: Extremely.
Hilltown Families: The Hilltowns can be a wonderful place to grown up, but it can also have its limitations. Because of the rural enviroment, friends aren’t always close by, there’s limited access to TV and radio, the nearest cultural center can be half an hour away … how did the rural environemnt of Ashfield have an influence on your development?
Sonya Kitchell: It was simply frustrating because my parents had to drive me, if I wanted to go anywhere, and of course, sometimes they didn’t feel like it. Aside from that, I loved it, and I wouldn’t trade where I grew up for anything in the world. My heart and soul is in that land, and I believe it’s a huge part of why I am who I am. I had a lot of time to be alone in the woods and let my imagination run wild. I was a free child…. and I got my license as soon as I legally could, remedying the only detriment.
Hilltown Families: You’re a graduate of the Hilltown Charter Cooperative Public School (HCCPS) in Haydenville, MA and attended the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School (PVPA), in Hadley, MA for a portion of High School. During these years, in addition to having a very supportive family, did you have any local mentors or teachers that were a big influence on you as a singer and a songwriter?
Sonya Kitchell: I had many teachers who were a great influence. The first and foremost, was June Millington who taught me how to play guitar and was a mentor in life and music, along with her partner Anne Hackler. Mitch Chakour, was a huge influence as a teacher at PVPA. Susan Barken worked with me as a voice teacher when I was quite young, as did Susan Angeletti. I worked with Sheila Jordan and Rebecca Paris as vocal coaches from ages ten to fourteen. Emilliano Garcia taught me music theory, and multitudes on all things life and zen, starting at nine years old. Michael Daves contributed to me learning how to play the guitar. Penny Shultz was my music teacher at HCCPS and a great encouragement from the very start. There were so many wonderful teachers it’s impossible to list them all.
Hilltown Families: You left high school to pursue your music career. That must have been a big decision. Can you talk about that? Any regrets?
Sonya Kitchell: I have no regrets about leaving high school when I did. The experiences and chances I was privy to in exchange for leaving the norm, were positively priceless. I was and continue to be surrounded by an abundance of incredible and brilliant people, who are my teachers.
If anything, it forced me to grow up faster and I feel like I learned a lot more traveling and touring than I would have in a classroom those two extra years. Perhaps I’d know a little more about US History, which would do me some good, but I wouldn’t have the life experience I gained on the flip side.
Hilltown Families: When you were in school, how was your musical developments and successes received by your peers?
Sonya Kitchell: Well, and not well… other kids had the spectrum of reactions to my early success. Some thought it was super cool, some couldn’t care less, and a some held a lot of jealousy and resentment. My friends were still my friends, and rather side stepped the whole thing. Those I was not close with seemed to make it a point of contention. It was not easy.
Hilltown Families: How old were you when you signed your first record deal? And what was that like?
Sonya Kitchell: I was sixteen, and it was very exciting. I was young and perhaps a bit naive. When it happened, I felt like “of course… this is exactly what’s supposed to happen.” So it didn’t seem strange or all that extraordinary. It just felt like the next step.
Hilltown Families: Talk about some of your first gigs. Maybe some of the crazier things you did where you thought I can’t believe I am doing this.
Sonya Kitchell: I just remember when I was young it was kind of a grand adventure, and hasn’t changed that much since, in that regard. By opening yourself to a life of art, music and travel, you open yourself to meeting some of the most wonderful and unusual people, in some of the most surprising circumstances.
One of the main things I remember doing when I was young, was driving ridiculous distances, just to sing one song at a jam session here, or a show there. I was willing to go any distance, and my mother was supportive enough to take me. She fully believed in me. This led us into some unusual circumstances. Such as a late night in a Hartford restaurant with the owner of the club weaving around with a dragon mask on, asking me to sing Celine Dion cover songs with him.
Hilltown Families: Was it hard being on the road? Can you talk about some of the ups and downs?
Sonya Kitchell: I love the road. The road is my home.
Of course, it’s an extremely difficult lifestyle, full of changing scenes and carving out space and regularity for yourself in a life that is very irregular and unexpected at all times, is not easy…. but it’s possible.
The people you travel with become your closest companions and your family and together you grow and share experiences. One can miss home, and miss waking up in the same place each day, in a bed you know, but you learn to allow little things to ground you. In the constant movement and simplicity of this lifestyle, there is a great freedom.
I love nothing more than sharing my music with people and traveling, so on the road I’m a pretty happy camper.
Hilltown Families: You’ve played Carnegie Hall, been on David Letterman and had experiences many musicians only dream of… all before you were 20 years old. But times are tougher now for everyone in the music business. Can you talk a bit about where you are right now?
Sonya Kitchell: It’s true. It’s not an easy time in the music industry. We as artists are all trying to find a way in which to succeed in continuing to do what we love and share what we need to offer.
All I can say to that is if anyone has any brilliant ideas… please let me know. I’m just as curious as you are.
Hilltown Families: For parents of children who are talented at any art form, it can be difficult to know how to support them without pushing them. There can be a fine line of support that pushes a kid into not wanting to do what they would normally love doing. What advice might you have for parents?
Sonya Kitchell: Give your child whatever opportunities you are able to. They will never regret having learned a skill and being given the chance to pursue it.
Hilltown Families: For parents who don’t have the time or ability to support a creative child, what advise might you offer them?
Sonya Kitchell: You can always support your child, even if it’s simply verbally or emotionally… sometimes that’s the best thing you could do for them anyhow. So give what you have to give. They will be grateful for it.
Hilltown Families: What advice would you give to kids wanting to get serious about their music?
Sonya Kitchell: Follow your heart. Follow your soul. Listen to it. If you are truly passionate about music… if you feel like it is the air you breathe and you cannot live without expressing yourself, than follow it and trust that things will fall into place as long as you do your part:
- Be a good human being.
- Be kind and generous to all those around you. You will rise and fall, and you will need to lean on people at times, so give everything you can to your musical community, whole heartedly. They need you. You will need them.
- Find your own voice. Explore till you do. We want to hear something unique, something honest, something heartfelt.
- Enjoy yourself…. because after all, what is life for anyways?