How we met: Stacey Kent & Kazuo Ishiguro
'One minute he'll make me laugh out loud, then I remember that this is the man who wrote a book that broke my heart'
Stacey Kent, 45
After graduating from art college in New York, Kent moved to the UK to study music, releasing her first album of jazz standards, 'Close Your Eyes', in 1997. Kent has since released 22 albums, including the Grammy-nominated 'Breakfast on the Morning Tram', with author Kazuo Ishiguro penning several of the album's tracks. She lives in London with her husband, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson
I was listening to Kazuo being interviewed on [Radio 4 series] Desert Island Discs, in 2002, with my husband Jim, as I'd read The Unconsoled and The Remains of the Day and was a huge fan. So I was shocked when one of the records he picked was mine. It was amazing and I wrote him a thank-you letter saying how thrilled I was, and we started corresponding by email.
We met over lunch. I suppose it was a bit awkward as I was in awe of his work, but I instantly liked him. I realised we had so much in common and also shared a creative vision.
That same year, I asked him to write the liner notes for the album In Love Again, and he agreed. When I read them, I felt completely understood. He spoke about how I sung my lyrics like I was a character in a novel; singing aloud, yet talking to myself, reflecting. It really grabbed me. We had him over for a lunch to say thank you and Jim [Tomlinson, her husband, saxophonist, composer and album producer] out of the blue, said, "We should write a song for Stacey." And he said, "Yes, you're right." So a social lunch turned into a working lunch.
Outsiderness brought us together in our personal and work relationships. He moved to the UK [from Japan] much younger than I did [Kent moved over when she was 22]. But we both understand the sense of displacement when people leave a country and its culture; it gives you a vulnerability. He understood this too and could read it in me, so he started to write those [lyrical] stories for the album about a travelling character, based on my life.
Two weeks later, the lyrics for two songs – "Ice Hotel" and "Breakfast on the Morning Tram" – arrived. It was the most amazing sensation: a Kazuo universe, written just for me. And the way we worked together after that felt both natural and beautiful. It was a door-opening moment for Jim and I, too. We come from the jazz genre of the Great American Songbook, and Kazuo's lyrics allowed us to branch out and discover something inside ourselves that we'd not be able to get from that repertoire.
Socially, we don't go out much; we hang out at one another's houses where we eat, chat and play music together. Kazuo might pick up a guitar, with me singing.
The thing that strikes me most about Kazuo is how funny he is. He's very dry and deadpan. One minute he'll make me laugh out loud so hard, but then I remember that this is the man who wrote Never Let Me Go – the book that broke my heart and left me raw for weeks.
Kazuo Ishiguro, 58
Moving to England from Nagasaki, Japan, at five years old, Ishiguro has become one of England's most celebrated authors, receiving the Man Booker Prize for 'The Remains of the Day'. His novel 'Never Let Me Go' has also been turned into film. He lives in London with his wife
Desert Island Discs brought us together. I was invited on the show, which is a terrifying thing to do, and I spent ages deciding on my eight tracks. I wanted to choose a jazz song – there are some great jazz musicians out there such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald etc, but I think that everyone responds to someone from their own era most. My favourite singer of this kind of material was Stacey Kent. I'd been to one of her gigs in north London in 2002 and I'd listened to her first two albums. There was something about the way Stacey interpreted those songs for this generation that I loved.
I didn't think much about it after that until I got an email from her record company, saying that Stacey had read all my books and was thrilled that I'd picked her, and would I be interested in writing the liner notes for her new album? I wanted to, so I sat down and wrote about why I liked Stacey for her album of Richard Rodgers material, In Love Again, which she did with her husband Jim.
For a few years we knew one another, but we didn't socialise that much; she invited me and my wife Lorna to her gigs, and we'd chat in her dressing-room and do occasional lunches. It was only in late 2006 where that changed. I got an email from Jim, her husband, producer and arranger of the band, who said: "We've come as far as we can with [the Great American Songbook] material, and we want to try working on new songs." They wanted me to try and write some lyrics.
I don't know whether they knew, but songwriting was an old passion of mine. Earlier in my life I'd been a singer-songwriter until I turned to fiction. So I was both excited and daunted at the idea, as I'd not done any since I was 21. But I went to their house and the next phase of our friendship started.
We sat down together and tried to figure out what a modern jazz song would be like. I remember our first discussion, with Stacey saying: "I've read your latest book, Never Let Me Go. It's really a depressing book." I hear this a lot but it's not something that I experienced with it. Then she said, "Sad songs are OK for me but..." – and she held up her thumb and finger "...I need just a little bit of hope in these lyrics."
We've since bonded through our creative work and have became close friends. When I go over to hers for dinner now I usually play on one of the guitars lying around her house.
In many ways, her approach as a singer is similar to my approach as a writer: when I hear her sing I feel she captures a sense of internality. It's the thing that draws me to her as a novelist, as I'm used to working in the first person; listening to what someone is thinking to themselves, capturing the faltering hesitancy and little rushes of enthusiasm, and many great singers don't do that.
Kent's album 'The Changing Lights' is out now on Blue Note, staceykent.com
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