Her name is Sonya Kitchell, and I've been digging her for two months now. It wasn't immediate, though. When her debut, Words Came Back To Me, arrived on my incredibly cluttered desk, it sat there for at least two weeks under an avalanching mound of other press kits before I decided to give it a spin.
When I finally put it on while at the office, I was distracted, so the porous music escaped me. But still I heard enough to want to give the CD a closer listen once I was home alone, comfortable in my, uh, mildly cluttered apartment.
It became clear then: This girl is good, a gifted singer-songwriter whose cotton-soft vocals and subtle, sophisticated, jazz-inflected phrasing belie her 17 years.
The influences ripple on the surface: Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, the Beatles. The main inspiration behind Sonya's soulfully folkish approach is Joni Mitchell. But Sonya's songwriting isn't as rich or incisive. Yet. The album luminously showcases plenty of promise, though.
"Keep livin', child," as the old folks used to say when I was growing up. With more experience, musical and otherwise, Sonya has the potential to be a major talent.
On the phone, the artist seems sharp, thoughtful, a little shy.
"I'm really happy that the record's been received so well," says Sonya, who is calling from her western Massachusetts home. She plays the Birchmere in Alexandria on Saturday. "That's good for any artist, that people accept what you do."
Words Came Back to Me was released in early April as a collaboration between the small Velour label and Starbucks' Hear Music. No real surprise there: Sonya's laid-back music is ideal for the coffee chain -- graceful, unobtrusive melodies softly piping through the speakers while you sip a latte. "I write from a place of reflecting," Sonya says. "I live in the country, and most of the album was written in the country, a very peaceful place."
The 40-acre Massachusetts farm where she lives with her parents, Gladys Kabaker, an illustrator, and Peter Kitchell, an artist, and her 11-year-old brother Max is a serene refuge for her muse.
"I love to walk through the woods," she says. "I have a lot of ideas when I travel, but they don't really come together until I'm home."
Undoubtedly, the major success of Norah Jones helped pave the way for the mainstream's acceptance of such subdued, folk-jazz sounds. And plenty of critics have already made the comparison between the two young women. But Sonya has a better sense of groove, and her overall sound is more blues-informed, dripping with a heated sensuality.
On "Can't Get You Out of My Mind," she knowingly purrs the line, "I can't get you out of my mind/Your love is like a drug/And I've been so drugged by your love that I don't even know the time," and it's hard to believe this girl isn't old enough to buy a beer.
Understated passion seethes in her lyrics, shadowed by dusky, spacious piano-and-guitar-based arrangements. On "Train," another album highlight, she croons, "My body quivers with anticipation for what lies ahead."
"I write about everything; it doesn't matter: politics, relationships, whatever," Sonya says. "I'm always writing."
When she's not writing, when she's away from the stage and the studio, Sonya doesn't listen to much contemporary music. She prefers the artful soul and pop of the '60s and '70s: Nina Simone, Bill Withers and, of course, Joni.
"There was more space in the music then," she says, sounding a little more engaged now. "The songs had more room to breathe. So much of contemporary music is abrasive. The older songs by Bob Dylan and Bob Marley were so real."
She pauses, as if to take a breath. "That's really important to me, the room in my music. But the next time on the next album, I'll take more chances."
And I can hardly wait to go with her.
Check out Sonya Kitchell at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $19.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.