You know the feeling. We’ve all had it. Chills run up and down your spine, and the hair stands up on the back of your neck. The reaction is so strong, you can actually feel it moving through your body.
Somehow - and it is inexplicable - the melding of voice, talent, words, and melody have come together to create a sublime moment. It’s as if the singer was privy to your most intimate thoughts and feelings. A deep connection is forged between listener and vocalist: you have become soul mates. The pleasure - the feeling of oneness - is so intense, you listen over and over. Such is the experience of hearing 18-year-old singer Kelly Sweet for the first time. The opening “oohs” of “We Are One,” the title track from her debut album coming from Razor & Tie in March 2007, stop you dead in your tracks. Hushed and hymn-like, Sweet’s voice creates a lush world of beauty. Fittingly, the song’s lyrics urge listeners to take comfort in the community of all souls. “I am you, you are me, we are one,” Sweet sings in her supernaturally crystalline voice. Simple words imbued with the uncommon wisdom of a singer who seems to have lived a thousand lifetimes in her short time on earth.
No pre-fab pop confection or eager-to-please talent-show contest winner, Sweet possesses the kind of organic talent that is driven by an innate need to connect. In an age when savvy music fans are rejecting the hollow hype that accompanies the arrival of each "next big thing," Sweet relies solely on talent and passion to convey who she is and what she has to say. She is an artist who is driven to share her gifts with the world because she has no other choice--a fact that makes her extraordinarily unique among today's demographically-designed pop stars. Like such stylistically diverse artists as Norah Jones, Josh Groban and Dido, Sweet is that rare singer that combines unassailable credibility and talent with an uncanny ability to connect with a wide audience of music fans.
To spend even the briefest time with Sweet and her music, it becomes readily clear that the singer possesses an emotional and spiritual sensibility that cannot be measured in years. After all, Sweet was only three years old when it became apparent to her that she would be devoting her life to making music. But even at that tender age, she knew that performing was about more than getting approval and attention.
“One of my first musical memories,” she recalls, “is of me standing at the bay window in my house when I was three singing ‘I Will Always Love You.’ I knew then that singing was something I just had to do - it was like eating and breathing for me. But it’s always been so much more than people clapping and saying, ‘Oh, that was lovely.’ There’s a feeling I get when I sing that’s like a freedom and a peace within myself. And I always felt like it was my purpose to impart that feeling to the rest of the world.”
Perhaps it was divine fate, then, that Sweet was born into a musical household (in Cape Cod, MA) one in which her jazz pianist father and her artist mother fostered a love and respect for music that began when she was an infant. “I was hearing music before I even came out of the womb,” Sweet laughs. “My father was always playing the piano. And days after I was born while still in the hospital, my mother gently put headphones up to my ears...it was the sound of a tinkling piano.” Raised on the jazz standards that were part of her father’s repertoire, the singer gravitated to her Dad’s side at the piano to learn musical notes soon after she could walk. Her first public performance followed, at when she was 4 years old, at the Cape Cod Conservatory. “I sang ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’ from Pinocchio,” she says. “My father played piano for me. I was so excited.”
At the age of 7, following her parent’s divorce, Sweet and her mother moved to Kanab, UT. “My mother wanted to paint Utah,” the singer explains about their adopted home state. “And Kanab was a really safe town. Five thousand people, one stoplight. Everybody knows you. My mom loved it.” Ironically, it was in this tiny Southwestern desert outpost that Sweet and her mother began to plant the seeds that would lead to the serendipitous blossoming of the singer’s professional career. Working regularly with a vocal coach, Sweet honed her skills as a performer by singing at state fairs, county festivals, and community theaters. “I was consciously trying to reach the world,” Sweet says, “but I knew that I had to take it slowly. You can’t all of a sudden go out and get a record deal. I was developing myself as an artist so that I would be ready when the time came.”
As the audience got larger, Sweet’s aspirations grew. Sweet and her mother rented their home in Utah and went on the road for two years, traveling back and forth between Kanab, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in search of every performance opportunity. Barely 14, the singer opened for Kenny Loggins when his tour came through Las Vegas. And when her mom sent the Los Angeles Lakers a CD of her daughter singing, the team booked Sweet to sing the National Anthem three different times.
One synchronistic encounter after another eventually led Sweet to a meeting with Grammy-nominated producer, arranger and songwriter Mark Portmann (Josh Groban, Celine Dion) in July of 2004. The meeting ended up being the most fateful appointment of her young career thus far. “Mark and I instantly got each other,” she says. “We started working together immediately. Everything felt so natural. And we never really had to try to search for songs because they just came to us. We ended up with too many songs.”
One of the first songs Sweet recorded was an unlikely cover of the Aerosmith classic, “Dream On.” "When I sang it, it just felt like magic.” Indeed, Sweet turns the former rock anthem into a spiritual salve for our troubled times, made all the more poignant by the difficult circumstances that surrounded the song’s recording. “I was very sad at the time,” says Sweet, “because my father was undergoing chemotherapy in Boston while I was recording my album in Los Angeles. I knew that what I was doing was keeping him going, and if I kept my dream alive, maybe he would too."
Other highlights include the uplifting “Now We Are Free,” the Sanskrit theme (written by Hans Zimmer and Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard) from the film The Gladiator, the playfully sensual “Raincoat,” which clearly shows off the jazzy influence of Sweet’s youth; and the lilting and languid “Crush,” in which Sweet duets stunningly with herself, creating an internal dialogue about a secret infatuation that is clearly turning into love.
The latter song is one of several on the album that were co-written by Sweet, with Portmann as her songwriting collaborator and guide. “I started writing lyrics when I was 12,” she says. One weekend, I wrote lyrics to the song that became ‘I Will Be Waiting,’ and I gave them to Mark when we were in the studio. I was so nervous to give Mark Portmann, the amazing writer, my lyrics. I mean, I was 16! I sat there and closed my eyes while he read them, and he said, ‘Wow. We've got to put music to this.' I was so happy.”
The exuberance and youth of Sweet’s undeniable teen status can be heard in the album’s more contemporary-sounding pop songs. “How ‘Bout You” is a joyous pop smash written on the singer’s 17th birthday.
Not your typical pop record in any way, shape or form, WE ARE ONE has a much more ambitious sensibility than those being heard on Top 40 radio today. With songs sung in English, Italian, French, and Sanskrit, and melodies that partake of both jazz and classical influences, WE ARE ONE conveys a sense of depth, intimacy and sophistication not often heard in today’s pop landscape. The magnificent “Giorno Dopo Giorno” couples Sweet’s soaring vocals with a thrilling string arrangement, bringing listeners the kind of intense joy that can usually only be experienced in the world’s finest opera houses. “The song originally had English lyrics,” says Sweet, “and it was called ‘Who Can I Believe In?’ We felt that the melody was too European and didn’t work with the lyrics, so we asked Marco Marinangelli, who writes Italian lyrics for Josh Groban, to translate the words into Italian. It came out beautifully.” Sweet says she has always gravitated to the beautiful sounds of languages other than English. “I was classically trained beginning at the age of 11,” she says, “and that’s when I began to sing in other languages. It always came very easily to me."
WE ARE ONE, then, is that rarest of musical experiences--a seamless emotional journey that deeply touches listeners of all ages with its beauty, grace, individuality, and courage. But perhaps to call Sweet courageous is overstating something that is really much simpler. “This music is not about me,” she says. “It’s about the soul in all of us. I am just happy to have a voice to convey these things to the world.”
And the world is certainly a better place because of it.