Lauren Kinhan has been — and is — many things in her life: vocalist, songwriter, producer, musician, mother and wife. For most of her career, she’s been best known as a member of the highly acclaimed jazz vocal group, The New York Voices. As if to solidify her reputation as a group singer, in the past few years she’s also been performing regularly with two additional vocal ensembles, the more experimental Moss and the more traditional JaLaLa. But it’s high time that Ms. Kinhan got around to making a “solo” album — one where the focus is on her own singing and writing and interpretation.
Now in 2010, E1 Music is releasing Avalon, which spotlights Lauren Kinhan as both singer and composer — from beginning to end. Her previous solo project is Hardly Blinking, produced by the legendary prince of pop Phil Ramone in 2000, but which was never fully released, for reasons that would take too much time to delineate here.
“I’ve been okay with putting my solo career aside and waiting for the right time.” But now, she feels, that time has come. This one, Avalon, she acknowledges, is for her.
Kinhan grew up in Portland, Oregon, but spent most of her adult career based in New York. “I moved to the city in 1989, mainly to pursue my music on a larger scale.” She says, “A few years later, I was introduced to Peter Eldridge. We met at my East Village apartment and spent a glorious afternoon writing and talking about music. At the end of the day, he said ‘I don’t know if you’re interested, but we’re holding auditions for the second soprano in the New York Voices.’ The rest is history. I auditioned and 18 years later, we’re still together.”
She notes that for the first decade or so, “The Voices took practically all of our time and energy.” But she gladly adds that, “lately there’s more time for all of us to do other projects.” Ms. Kinhan hesitates to describe Avalon as a “solo” album since so many collaborators were involved, yet that might be the most accurate way to characterize the eleven original songs that comprise the album, which run the gamut of styles and genres from jazz to standards to country, folk, Latin, Brazilian, and contemporary pop, and cover a wide range of subjects from romantic love to parenthood to spirituality.
Asked what songs have a special meaning to her on Avalon, Ms. Kinhan responds that the song that got the ball rolling was “Dory and a Single Oar.” “For years, I hadn’t been thinking about writing or recording, but when I began to feel the need to do that again, this was the first song to spring forth. In a sense, this ‘oar’ got me in the boat again! I loved it because it felt kind of ribald and raw — it’s a bluesy tune, but the form is unusual. It really came together when I asked [tenor saxophonist] Donny McCaslin to play on it, with his extraordinary capabilities.
I thought, ‘Okay I like this direction.’ I like the image of being up a creek with just one oar — it is better than not having any at all. Now at least there is a song, and I really enjoyed the combination of this language and this narrative and this musical freedom.” She notes, “That seemed like a good track to follow, even if in the end the genres aren’t always the same in terms of musical approach,” meaning that the album actually took a wide variety of roads to diverse destinations, with no two tracks sounding the same, ranging from the gentle samba of “Here Is My Avalon” to the brassy funk of “Move Over Sunshine.”
Kinhan explains that “Avalon” is probably the only name in the English language that’s equally evocative of King Arthur and Al Jolson. What do the mythical English monarch and the legendary American entertainer have in common? “Avalon” refers to the fabled island where Arthur was laid to rest and, in more modern times, an island community off the coast of California that gave its name to a classic pop song co-written by Jolson in 1920. “I love all that imagery — the Lady of the Lake. I’m a hopeless romantic about that kind of literature. Truth be told, it’s the way this word feels when you sing it, ‘Avalon’ just sings beautifully.”
Ms. Kinhan describes “Here Is My Avalon” (which references the classic 1920 song) as “a love song from a mother to a daughter.” She wrote most of it in a single night during an interval when she happened to be several thousand miles away from her family. “The New York Voices were playing in Uruguay with Paquito D’Rivera. I was a fairly new mom at the time, and after the concert, I was having the best night on the town that I had in a long time! But still I was thinking, ‘I really miss the kid! I really miss my husband! Wouldn’t it be great if they were here?’ So, in thinking about them, ‘Here is my Avalon’ just kind of wrote itself then and there. I came up with the melody and lyrics in my hotel room, sang it into my little recorder, and it was just done. The point of inspiration is specific to me, but I think the lyric is loose enough to allow the listener to infer their own meaning.”
Avalon concludes with “There Alone Go I,” which was previously recorded in a very different interpretation by Ms. Kinhan with the Moss vocal collective. “It’s a poem about letting go, the reverence of nature, and the belief in oneself. It means a lot to me personally; While Peter Eldridge and I wrote the music together, I wrote the lyrics in Gloucester, Massachusetts after reading an old poem on the wall of the maritime museum. It set off all these big images and themes in my head which fit perfectly with the ache and sweep of the music.”
Last summer I debuted the song with various student choirs with an average age of 16. Many of them came to me, and said, “I love this song — I don’t know why, I’m not sure what it means, but for some reason it makes me cry.’ Somehow it touched a chord with them. This is an affirmation to how smart young people are. When you present them with something thought provoking, they get it. It seems this song has a journey all its own.”
She adds, in conclusion, that the album has been such a highly personal project to her for so long — the process of composing and recording the 11 tracks took years from beginning to end — “I am so curious about what the reactions will be. You know, it never gets old, that excitement of sharing your music with people. It’s an opportunity that I really appreciate.”
Check out Lauren’s forthcoming performances:
Wednesday, May 26: Scullers — Boston, MA
Thursday, May 27: Joe’s Pub — New York, NY