It’s said that every cell in our bodies regenerates over the course of seven years, making us different people than we were before. It’s a different Sonya Kitchell who returns after seven years with We Come Apart, her first full-length album since 2008. The 12-track collection is due Jan. 22 on Rockwood Music Hall Recordings/Thirty Tigers.
The time frame is fitting: the cycle of renewal is a theme running through We Come Apart. “There’s a beauty in disintegration and restoration,” Kitchell says. “Perhaps I was born with an awareness of the impermanence of things or perhaps it found me along the way — this album is an ode to that chaos and the most basic processes in life.”
We Come Apart caps a period of growth and reinvention for Kitchell, who was 17 when she released her first album This Storm in 2006. Since then, she moved from her hometown in the hills of western Massachusetts to New York City, spent time in parts of Europe and Asia, worked as a side musician and a songwriter-for-hire, released the Convict of Conviction EP of chamber-pop in 2010, learned the technical side of recording music and dove deeper into photography and film. She also recorded We Come Apart two different times, once with money she raised through a PledgeMusic campaign and the second time with funds she scraped together herself.
“My vision was not clear going into this project so it took me a while to get there,” she says. “I was searching for a sense of space and vulnerability in the songs I couldn’t quite find, like fumbling in the dark for velvet.”
You can hear it in the drowsy sensuality of “Mexico,” where Kitchell sings in alluring tones over a classic-pop blend of piano, little sunbursts of guitar and a restless bassline that moves things along. Album opener “Follow Me In” has a folkier feel, with chiming guitars and ukulele chasing Kitchell’s voice into its breathy upper register; while “This Feeling” rides a stomping beat through walls of corrugated guitar as Kitchell sings with raw intensity. The album completes a cycle of its own by ending with the title track, an aching piano ballad that subtly underscores the theme of renewal.
She recorded the bones of We Come Apart in a farmhouse in western Massachusetts, not far from where she grew up, working by herself and with multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. Kitchell took the rough tracks back to New York, where she recruited friends to help her flesh out arrangements that include drums, percussion, horns and strings. The result is an album that feels true to her, a concept that Herbie Hancock had emphasized when she worked with the legendary jazz pianist.
“He told me, ‘Success is being honest,’” Kitchell says. “I really learned from my time with him, and in general, that whatever we make has to be true. These songs come from a different kind of experience than my first two albums — living changes a person.”
In addition to Hancock, Kitchell spent time playing and touring with bassist Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne) and the Brooklyn shoegaze band Blue Foundation. Kitchell teamed with the bassist and composer Garth Stevenson on Convict of Conviction, and also studied writers who inspire her, from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, deconstructing their work to peek at the innards. When she was home, she was in New York, which can be a hard, if rewarding, place to live.
“It’s like a river that polishes us, but hopefully doesn’t reduce us to dust,” Kitchell says. “The hardship came from being broke for the first time and learning how to make ends meet and create art despite it all.”
Giving up wasn’t really a choice. Kitchell realized during her seven years of renewal that making music for her is more than a vocation: it’s a necessity. “I absolutely have no choice in doing this,” she says. “If I could do something else, I would, but I can’t… It’s my oxygen.”
The body of knowledge she acquired has led her to a moment of transition on We Come Apart, an album that stands at the borderline of her musical past even as it offers hints of directions she could well go.
We Come Apart explores the remnants of things, the space in between our atoms. The album represents years of Kitchell’s learning from masters, unlearning expectations, and re-emerging as a vivid, fresh voice.