Star power

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When a 17-year-old sings a number called “Let Me Go,” it’s reasonable to wonder if she’s asking for a hall pass.

But there’s more notable about singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell than just her precociousness. She’s the latest new artist to get a gigantic boost from Starbucks.

Not drinking it. Manifesting “the sound of Starbucks.” Last month, the Massachusetts native’s CD, “Words Came Back to Me,” became the company’s second release in its “Hear Music Debut” series, sold in its coffee joints and in record stores nationwide.

For a corporation that’s obsessively careful about its image, picking the right artist to get behind is, to say the least, painstaking. For the musician who winds up backed by the coffee empire’s juice, it’s a potential Powerball win.

So what’s the Starbucks “sound”? Cash registers, sure. And either savvy smoothness or easily palatable blandness, depending on who’s doing the imbibing. In Kitchell’s case, it’s a surprisingly mature and sultry jazz-pop that sounds like a young cousin of Norah Jones.

Affable and unaffected, Kitchell laughs at the hall-pass thing. In fact, the “Let Me Go” single is about her parents.

“And the thing that’s interesting about that song is that it is a coming-of-age song. It’s the song that I have the hardest time talking about because in that that way I’m not proud of it, because … it’s like when you’re young you just want to be older and this and that. So I wrote that like a year or two years ago, and it’s really not a place I’m at currently.”

The novelty of where Kitchell is at chronologically is doubtless some of her appeal.

“Yeah, I think so,” she says with a big sigh. “I’m not going to be young forever, so I hope that people are coming and enjoying it for more than that reason. I don’t know, it’s an interesting thing because it’s to my advantage and it’s also to my disadvantage.”

She says she’d been singing jazz and “gigging” since age 10, but it was the Sept. 11 attacks that focused her in 2001.

“I wrote a song on September 11 because I was really moved by what happened that day and just feeling very powerless, and like my world was really untouched and that felt so weird, you know? I feel like I need to give something to people or that I owe something, and the only thing that I really feel like I can give, at least right now, is my music and my songs.”

It’s too soon to know how many listeners the Starbucks break is allowing Kitchell to touch, according to Melinda Newman, Billboard’s deputy editor west and West Coast bureau chief. Kitchell’s predecessor, the all-female folk-rock group Antigone Rising, has sold 140,000 copies of its debut CD since last September.

“Some famous artists never see that,” Newman explains. “For an eclectic group that wasn’t going to have an easy time finding a radio format, that’s not a bad number.”

Especially considering reviews such as this one from Rolling Stone:

“This Starbucks-sponsored live-in-the-studio set seems to target the polite middle-agers left behind by the Indigo Girls, but it favors acoustic blandesse over the pretty countrified rock and sharp edges these five girls are better known for. As such, their major-label debut is tight, clean and tame as a soy latte.”

Even if Kitchell’s early reviews have been kinder, this brings to mind the Marvel axiom, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Is Starbucks’ recently acquired power in the music biz a good or bad thing?

Newman: “It’s so hard for any new artist to break through these days that any initiative like this has to be seen as a good thing for the music industry.”

Starbucks didn’t get onto a lot of people’s radar until its release of Ray Charles’ “Genius Loves Company” (in October 2004, winning eight Grammys), Newman says. “And with that they really showed that they can put muscle behind something and really move the needle.

“For the new (artists), it’s another chance for them to get exposed to people when it is so hard for any artist who doesn’t already have a track record to cut through the clutter these days. There are more than 35,000 albums released a year, and if you are not instantly able to get on the radio and create a Web presence, a touring presence, a virtual presence, it is really hard to capture people’s attention.

“Starbucks has in many ways a great deal of good will with its customers, and by virtue of the fact that they don’t carry many titles, there’s kind of an assumption of … “This is someone who we feel has really feel has earned a spot at this table.’ “

How do you get that backing?

“Our approach is one that’s integrated within our coffee experience,” says Ken Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment.

Starbucks has a “content team” of about 30 people who listen to the roughly 100 CDs submitted daily and go to shows in search of the right sound. Lombard is the newly minted mogul who does the anointing.

“We’re not at a stage yet where we consider ourselves a label,” Lombard insists. (Velour Music Group is Kitchell’s small label.)

Each Starbucks store carries just 20 titles or fewer. There are about 11,000 stores worldwide with approximately 40 million customers a week. “Loyal” ones come in 18 times a month. “When you pull all that together, we’re providing an opportunity for an artist to be discovered. We can leverage the passion and trust. We truly have opportunity to give artists tremendous exposure.”

Is it like the stuff that made Belushi smash the guitar in “Animal House”?

“It’s what we like to call “the sound of Starbucks.’ Starbucks is a company that has built its reputation with providing our customers with a quality experience. The sound of Starbucks is just to provide our customers with music that’s one they’ve given us to provide. With Ray Charles, our customers have given us permission to go beyond coffee.”

Pinning Lombard down on that sound – or even the 51-year-old decision-maker’s personal tastes – is a tall order.

“It’s great music in a wide array of genres,” he says when pressed.

Maybe someone else can answer.

“What do I think is the Starbucks sound?” Kitchell asks back. “I think it’s a mature sound that, umm, kind of speaks of other times, perhaps. It’s definitely kind of a soulful sound,” she says, trailing off and noticing a cellphone going off in the background.

How about a competitor?

“If you wanted to be derisive, you could say the music was very safe, but you could also say it was accomplished and mature,” says Sean Nelson, a partner in Seattle-based indie label Barsuk Records, and lead singer of the band Harvey Danger. “There’s not much going on in the music that could be described as dissonant or aggravated or hostile. Those are staple qualities of rock “n’ roll music.”

But Barsuk isn’t really a competitor, according to Nelson: “I don’t think it has any impact on indie labels. I don’t think they’re taking business away from anyone.”

In any case, the Starbucks sound clearly isn’t gangsta rap. Do they call the – sorry – shots creatively?

“They’re not my “label,’ so they’re not telling me what to do creatively. I don’t know, they haven’t told me not to do anything yet,” Kitchell says. “We’ve joked about, “What are you guys going to do when I’m, like, dying my hair black and screaming about hating the world? Are you going like support me then?’ And they’re like, “Well, we’ll see when we get there.’ “

Kitchell performed for David Letterman recently, and the “60 Minutes” crew has filmed one of her shows for a segment. How much of what’s happening now is because of the Starbucks deal?

“You know, I can’t say I honestly know for sure. I think it’s definitely an incredible company to have behind me and an incredible thing to be able to say that I’m working with Starbucks. And it’s like I’ve gotten a stamp of approval and a stamp of quality, because they only put out quality products I think, you know?”

One question remains. Not about the “sound.”

“I do get free coffee,” Kitchell says. “But I have to keep asking for gift cards.”

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