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A new book celebrates author Kazuo Ishiguro and singer Stacey Kent's collaboration

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In 2002, Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro appeared on BBC's "Desert Island Discs." On each show, a guest picks what music they would take with them on a desert island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAZUO ISHIGURO: This is one of my favorite late-night slinky jazz singers, Stacey Kent, and here she is doing a version of Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

STACEY KENT: (Singing) The way you hold your knife. The way we danced till three.

KENT: I was beyond surprised. I didn't know him. He didn't know me. And I couldn't believe it because I was such a fan of Ishiguro's work.

SUMMERS: That is singer Stacey Kent herself, talking about the shock of hearing her name read aloud by one of her favorite authors.

After that broadcast, Kent called the BBC, explained the situation, and asked if they could put her in touch with Ishiguro. They got connected through his agent and became friends, dining together often with Ishiguro's wife, Lorna, and Kent's husband, Jim Tomlinson, who composes her music.

KENT: We recognized that we were these kindred spirits artistically. He was attracted to our music, and we were attracted to the kind of work that he was writing. I felt so completely understood as a singer, as a storyteller.

SUMMERS: After several years of friendship, Kent and Tomlinson wanted to bring in the novelist on their music. They had just signed with the prestigious Blue Note record label and we're looking to branch out into original music, beyond the American songbook classics that had been their bread-and-butter.

ISHIGURO: They said, we've had various people send up lyrics for original songs. And I'm going to read some out, Stacey said. And Jim and Stacey kind of laughed at these kind of brave attempts. And then they looked at me and said, we thought you could do better.

SUMMERS: For Ishiguro, it was a dream come true.

ISHIGURO: Before I became a writer of fiction, I had wanted to become a singer/songwriter. And so I had written over a hundred songs. And these songs, I should say, were terrible, you know? However, songs and their lyrics had become a big part of the way I thought about things, the way I imagined things. When, all these years later, this was put to me, it reawakened a kind of an ambition.

SUMMERS: That initial invitation spurred a nearly two-decade collaboration. Now, 16 of Ishiguro's lyrics are collected in a new book called "The Summer We Crossed Europe In The Rain." Ishiguro remembers the one instruction that Kent had at the start of that collaboration. She told him...

ISHIGURO: You know, we've noticed that your novels can be quite sad. And this is fine, as far as your novels are concerned. But as far as my songs are concerned, there's got to be a little bit of hope because that's what I need to work with. You know, that's how I reach into the hearts of the people who listen. And I thought, oh, yes, that's a very interesting insight into how a great singer works. And I actually thought, well, this might actually be quite useful for me as a writer as well.

KENT: There is that element of the profoundly sad that isn't right there just smacking you in the face right away. You're gathering in a slow and intense way what heartbreak and pain there is along the way or to come. There can be an awful lot of intensity and emotion there without it being dramatic.

When I take on these lyrics, they become my stories, and they're told through the prism of the person I naturally am anyway. You know, we can be feeling the most gruesome and toughest, saddest emotions, and yet the human condition is to find hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO ROMANTIC")

KENT: (Singing) To live in this state of hoping, when hoping seems so utterly mad. I can't help but consider that so romantic, though I know I should consider it sad.

ISHIGURO: You know, she does heartbreak without bitterness. There's always that suggestion that she is not bitter with the world. She still has some optimism about life and about human nature in general. It's that quality I try to capitalize on because I think that is a unique quality, and it's what makes Stacey's songs, you know, at once tragic but also quite uplifting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSTCARD LOVERS")

KENT: (Singing) Lately, I've become such a postcard lover.

I was performing, and somebody came up to me afterwards, and they practically shook me up by the shoulder - why didn't you sing "Postcard Lovers"? And they were telling me a little bit about their relationship to the song "Postcard Lovers," which is definitely a sad and painful story. And yet you can tell it and deliver it in this quiet and almost lilting sort of way. I mean, we play it in 3/4. The meter even helps the lilt. You're going forward, and you're swaying back. And that's the rhythmic commotion of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSTCARD LOVERS")

KENT: (Singing) The way we've become such postcard lovers, divided by the oceans and the years.

ISHIGURO: She's awfully good at evoking the idea of inner thought. You know, when she's singing, you do get the sense that you're eavesdropping inside somebody else's head. These are inner thoughts that she gets to those kind of rhythms - or someone talking to themselves, you know, maybe not even saying it out loud. And so I try to address myself to that quality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITER, OH WAITER")

KENT: (Singing) Everything looks so frightening. Everything here looks so nice. Oh, waiter.

There's anxiety, and there's frustration, and there's worry, and there's sadness all in between the lines in these songs. Like in "Waiter, Oh Waiter," it sounds perfectly comic at first glance, right? She's singing to the waiter about, please, help me through this menu. I can't understand it. But actually, it's almost as if the waiter - if he helps her and gives her the right answers on how to order, it can make this relationship between this terrified, anxious, neurotic woman and this man who seems so suave and cool sitting in front of her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAITER, OH WAITER")

KENT: (Singing) And the way he looks across at me with his sardonic gaze, makes me feel I'm drifting further out into the choppy waves.

ISHIGURO: The words are not like poetry. They cannot afford to be self-sufficient. It's got to work as a kind of a vehicle for the actual melody and the chords of the orchestration. And so you can't afford to have the meaning just dominating everything in the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUMMER WE CROSSED EUROPE IN THE RAIN")

KENT: (Singing) Well, I've packed our bags. I know I should have consulted you. But pretending to bargain would have only insulted you.

ISHIGURO: You've got to be able to create emotions, create a situation - create a dramatic situation sometimes - create a whole world in a very tiny space. And so that's where I still am today. I don't like to spell things out in my fiction, even though I've got, you know, thousands and thousands of words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUMMER WE CROSSED EUROPE IN THE RAIN")

KENT: (Singing) Let's be fools again. Let's fall in at the deep end.

SUMMERS: That was author Kazuo Ishiguro and singer Stacey Kent, friends and collaborators on the lyrics that comprise the new book, "The Summer We Crossed Europe In The Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUMMER WE CROSSED EUROPE IN THE RAIN")

KENT: (Singing) Before the summer we crossed Europe in the rain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.