Today we’re joined by Kendra McKinley, a San Francisco singer-songwriter who we interviewed on our website last year after a cover song she recorded made us sit up and pay attention. Her music has been described as having a “striking musicality” and we think that’s a great way of putting it, so we were delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with her and learn more about where that musicality came from and how she goes about writing and recording her songs.
Kendra is a perfect example of a musician that will be called “talented” and whose music will make you think she has gifts that make it all come easily. But as you’ll hear in this interview, those abilities have come through dedication and very thoughtful pursuit of music-making, and the opportunities and projects she’s enjoyed haven’t been dropped in her lap by luck or fate, she’s been out there putting in the time and efforts and making it happen.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Kendra’s musical upbringing and the one pivotal experience that made it suddenly clear that she wanted to be a musical performer as a career
- The process of recording her first album, Treat, and why it turned out to be such a wonderfully varied “buffet” of songs
- Her recent artist residency in Big Sur, an incredible and unique experience that produced a new EP and helped inform who she’s becoming as a musician
Kendra’s album, Treat, really lives up to its name, as being a treat for your ears to enjoy, and this conversation was no different. It was fascinating to get to speak with Kendra and understand where this music has come from and what she has coming up next, so we hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Kendra. Thank you for joining us today.
Kendra: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to speak with you.
Christopher: So I have so enjoyed listening to your music over the last year or two and I’ve dug a little bit into your back story but I’d love to hear you tell it. Where did you come form as a musician and what was learning music like for you?
Kendra: Sure. So I’m originally from Santa Cruz, California, a little beach town in the central coast and I grew up in an artistic household. So music was a big part of my family’s culture but I didn’t start playing until, I mean, I really didn’t start playing seriously until the final months of high school, though I did get a guitar when I was 11 years old, I was playing Beatles songs in the privacy of my room, but it was, kind of, a more private extracurricular activity. So during my senior year of high school I had an interesting experience where my P.E. teacher wrote this play called In the Flow that was supposed to be half play, half talent show. It was about a girl named Freedom that realizes that if we recycle, we’ll save the world and if you, you know, haven’t made the connection between that play and Santa Cruz, California, a quick Google search will fill in all of these crunchy granola hippy-dippy elements, but about this play.
So my teacher wanted me to play the Brother Iz rendition of “Over the Rainbow” on ukulele that I believe was made popular from the 50 First Dates soundtrack, the romantic comedy with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. So I agreed to do this performance and when I was driving home from the rehearsal I made the fatal mistake of leaving my ukulele on roof of my car. The instrument was totalled but through the death of this ukulele I ended up performing on guitar instead in this play which was the first time in my life that I played guitar and sang publicly.
I had, you know, lived full life as a performer doing theater and choir and dance but this was the first instance of combining a passion for music with stage performance and it was an absolute a-ha moment because it was the combination of my two favorite things and from that moment on I just made a shift where I decided I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to be a musical performer so I started studying classical guitar at university, was writing all throughout, and, yeah, that’s kind of where it started.
Christopher: Amazing, and it sounds like a real epiphany moment for you, then. Was it a very successful performance? Were you able to just, kind of, nail it and walk away very delighted with yourself? Because I imagine people listening are, like, “Whoa. Wait, you had to step in at the last minute and play on guitar instead of the ukulele? You must have been, like, terrified.”
Kendra: Well, that’s a really interesting question because since I grew up doing stage performance I felt really comfortable in that medium and I don’t know, I guess I was comfortable enough in my private practice that I believed that I could play through a song in its entirety without biffing it, but that was another, sort of, element of this a-ha moment was the comfort and the fulfillment of performing in music onstage. It’s, like, I actually had a preference for it because I loved imitation, I loved performing but I didn’t really study theater very seriously. I didn’t follow actors. I didn’t read plays. I was always pursuing music but, you know, the actual activities I was pursuing were theatrical.
So, yeah, it was unexpected both in how enjoyable it was and also, I guess, how easy it was or, just, like, you know, the feeling of ease, of being in that position was unexpected and reassuring.
Christopher: Hm. Fascinating. I feel like we could dwell on this and unpack it some more because it is such a challenge for a lot of musicians. I’m sure a lot of our listeners have felt that stage fright and terror at the prospect of performing but to hear you describe it, as well, you practiced privately at home and you also got experience being comfortable on the stage and in front of an audience. It makes perfect sense. You just shoved the two together.
Christopher: So that’s what — it sounds like it lead on to a new trajectory for you there, going on to university to study music, is that right?
Kendra: Entirely different. I mean, it was interesting too because it wasn’t that my life was unmusical before that moment. I was always singing in choir; I was always listening. But pursuing music in a serious way in university was fascinating because I was able to assign vocabulary and music theory to these concepts that I already understood just through listening so that made it really valuable because I was able to, you know, suddenly communicate ideas that I had in my head instead of trying to sing as an example to say specifically what was happening theoretically or figuring out how to relate that to another player so that a collaboration could occur or listening back to the music that was so formative in my early years and understanding what it was that I liked about it, so then in my attempts to replicate it through my own music I had a deeper comprehension of what was happening.
Christopher: Terrific. That must be the most compelling and exciting description of a college music course I’ve heard in a long time, particularly, you know, given that you were mentioning music theory, specifically.
Kendra: Just like banging your head against the wall?
Christopher: Exactly, and I think for a lot of people the music theory or the ear training becomes a real, kind of, chore because they’re missing out on what you just described, which is the benefit that it can bring to your musical life if you really get your head and your ears around it. Maybe you can give an example of the kind of thing you were wanting to communicate or the kind of thing that you’ve, you know, you’ve listened back to some childhood tracks and were able to pick out after college that you maybe would have been oblivious to as a child or at least not able to explain.
Kendra: Sure. Well, I remember the day that we learned about secondary dominance, which, you know, just to kind of touch on it briefly in a way that’s not too esoteric or cryptic, it’s like the temporary tonicization of a chord in a progression which I’m almost wondering if that’s too much to try and unpack for the listeners but just, you know, learning that you can create a gravitational pull through particular chord choices that add a different weight or gravity to a chord in a progression and I remember learning about that and suddenly realizing that that was a tool used in just about every single Beatles song and as I mentioned in past interviews, you know, the Beatles were my religious preference. They were what made me excited about music and sort of, like, the prism through which I understood music so to have someone say, “Well, this is what they’re doing. This is why these particular chord choices feel so powerful, why there’s almost, like a physical response,” or, you know, maybe how they managed to add a certain dosage of complexity to an otherwise seemingly simple progression.
So just that day, learning that that was a concept, I didn’t know that that could be articulated and so then going back and listening to this music that was already so familiar there was this whole new depth and richness to it that I never would have known if I didn’t go to school.
Christopher: Very cool. Something we talk a lot about at Musical U and I think we’ve mentioned a couple of times on the podcast which is a lot of ear training can end up just being putting labels on things. You already kind of instinctively know, you know, that there is that kind of pure drilling of exercises but a lot of it is just about putting the mental frameworks in place and it sounds like it really served that purpose for you to kind of give you a window into understanding what you had already appreciated and enjoyed and taken on board in music.
Kendra: Sure. I mean, it kind of had the feeling of, as if I had grown up, you know, listening to and enjoying poetry and then someone suddenly taught me how to spell and so, then, like, through learning how to spell I could then read, I could write it myself so, really just having the tools to replicate and understand something that was just mysterious, magical and mysterious.
Christopher: Wonderful, and so you were having this great, kind of, brain-expanding experience in college. What did your musical life become from there?
Kendra: Well, beyond learning music theory I was taking classical guitar instruction because that was one of the requirements of the program that I went through, is that you had to have private classical instrument study and reach a certain level of performance proficiency by the end of the program and I hated studying classical guitar, I mean, I had no background in it, I had zero intention of becoming a classical performer and I really just wanted to write songs so it was kind of like pulling teeth but the blessing in disguise is that I was spending so much time in the music center and, you know, practicing guitar that I started playing piano instead just because I was procrastinating and wanting to still be musical and no one was telling me I had to play piano so beyond just clocking in many hours of practicing and exploring different instruments I was also being exposed to new music both through, you know, a western classical music department and also just meeting other people in college so I was, I started listening to more jazz music. As I mentioned to you in the past, like, I sang in a gypsy jazz ensemble just, like, in a side job so I was learning to sing all of, you know, Django Reinhardt’s repertoires, sometimes singing in other languages but also having that sort of harmonic information informing the way that I thought about harmony, my own musical interests and instincts and, you know, through that is was kind of like a gateway drug into other forms of jazz music, like I realized that I had an affinity for bossa nova music and that exploration started to inform my songwriting.
So all of this to say that my life had just become predominantly musical. Everything that I thought of, everything that I was pursuing, everything that I was interested in was music-based so whether it was an informal gathering of friends sharing music that they were passionate about or learning about, you know, Franz Liszt or Ravel in class I was able to access these new musical concepts, these new sonic palettes that, you know, just found their way of showing up in different ways, if that answers the question.
Christopher: It does and I think it paints a really vivid and varied picture of what that musical life was becoming. I think one front of the things that is most remarkable about your music is the sheer creativity and variety of each song and your album “”Treat”” as a whole is it’s constantly, kind of, keeping the listener interested and engaged in different ways and, you know, that’s very different from, say, a singer-songwriter who sits and strums guitar and every song sounds, kind of, more or less the same.
Christopher: And so I think I was really curious to know what was it that allowed you to develop such a varied palette, as you put it, whether it was an upbringing thing or a mindset thing or a, purely the experiences that you went through, do you have any feeling on that? What’s led you to become this particular type of singer-songwriter?
Kendra: Sure. Well, I think that what’s been true of me as a person throughout my entire life and was true when I did theater as much as when I did music is that I loved imitation as an art form and was really fascinated by that, so with “”Treat”” it was kind of an example of my quest for self-discovery through music because I was interested in all these different musical genres and also had the first experience of recording my own music and realizing it was an elaborate production and so instead of having this definitive statement about who I was and the music that I wanted to make I was just, kind of, saying, like, “Here’s an example of all of the different music that has influenced me. This is me trying on all these different hats and this is how I’ve tried to imitate all of these influential artists or particular songs.”
So for me personally when I listened back to “Treat” it just feels like a catalog of my own quest to figure out who I was as a musician and through that process, you know, I felt a stronger pull toward certain songs or felt like they were just, like, stepping stones into a different direction but, yeah, that’s really what it was, is just trying to figure it out. I mean, I guess there’s like that Miles Davis quote about how the hardest thing to do in music is to sound like yourself and I wasn’t sure of what that was yet but I liked a lot of different things so I’m actually currently in the process of making demos for a new record and that was one of the strategies was to define a sonic palette and figure out how to make a collection of songs produced through that palette so it does sound like a cohesive album experience rather than it just being a buffet of different genres.
Christopher: I see. Well, I definitely want to dig into that some more and hear about those demos you’ve been putting together but first I’d like to take a step back. I think we kind of skipped a little bit of a story there between college and recording “Treat.”
Christopher: How did that come to be that you were ready to go into the studio and put together your first full album?
Kendra: Sure. So after college I spent some time in Europe traveling and playing music and collecting experiences that would turn into songs that were featured on “Treat” so between that trip to Europe and recording “Treat” I moved to San Francisco for a two-month sublet in my older brother AJ’s house in the Mission district and I just wanted to try on being a musician in San Francisco for size, ended up getting to keep the room that I was subletting and almost immediately upon my arrival to San Francisco I discovered and was welcomed into the music scene and started attending these, like, networking groups and attending lots of shows, playing more radio performances, just kind of fully immersed myself and said yes to any and all opportunities that were represented and through that networking I was connected to a man named Andy Freeman who was a local audio engineer and he was a big fan of my music and he and I decided to work together on “Treat” so suddenly I had access to an audio engineer who worked at a studio called Coast Recorders which, unfortunately, no longer exists but so I suddenly had this opportunity and he was asking me, “What do you want to record? How are we gonna do this? ” and I didn’t have a full album in mind. I didn’t have a sonic palette in mind. I just said, “Okay. Well, let’s start with these two songs.”
We started with the songs, “Fine as a Vine” and “Do What You Want,” which are both from “Treat” and those songs were definitely reflective of kind of, Beatles-esque, like, Revolver era, sunshine, major chord, swirly psychedelia that was definitely influential in my life at the time so we just started from there. I was being asked questions like, “What do you want the snare to sound like?” Like, “What is the drum pattern? What’s the bass tone? How do you want the vocals to be processed? Do you want the background vocals to be recorded all at once to one microphone or will we track them individually?”
All of these things were questions that I had never considered and had never been asked of. I only ever thought about the actual composition, the arrangements and then the performance so this was all very new to me. I didn’t know how to steer the ship but through the process and being asked these questions I learned a tremendous load. I was, I suddenly was able to think differently about this music that I was making and I feel like that sort of personal evolution is also made apparent on “Treat” because the songs are so varied and, yeah, I mean, you know, after that first day of recording those two songs the next were “Honey” and Canyon Canon. One is, like, a soul revival song and the other one we refer to as the heavy metal witch séance so even at that point all of these songs had such drastically different sonic palettes, such different production choices and kind of didn’t quite seem like they fit on the same record so, yeah, just, “Treat” as a whole is kind of an example of how I learnt to be in a studio, how I learned how to create an album which is also an interesting place to be because I feel like so few artists are making full records at this point just because of the way that most music is consumed is in, like, a single format. People want to hear an individual track or they want to experience music through a music video so it’s kind of a retired art form and I think that putting together a body of work and thinking about the sequencing and the more macro-narrative arc that can be communicated through song selection and sequencing is an art form in and of itself and I was fortunate to be working with my older brother AJ, who plays in my band and also functioned as a producer because not only did we come from the same musical background and have the sort of advantage of family communication where you don’t have to use as much language but he was able to not only help me in answering these questions but sort of use his own experience to steer me and help me better articulate ideas that I was having.
Christopher: Amazing. It certainly would not be apparent to the listener that this was a debut album or a learning experience, you know, the final product sounds extremely polished and very…
Kendra: Thank you.
Christopher: …I was about to say, cohesive. I’m not sure that’s the right word but very well put together, because, as we’ve said, you know, there’s a lot of variety packed in there. I think that gives a terrific glimpse into how you were developing as a songwriter and a recording artist and I’d love to talk about a couple of your more recent projects. You mentioned one which is your upcoming record and you’ve recently completed a residency at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur and that just sounds fantastic. So I’d like to hear about that in isolation…
Christopher: …but I wonder if we could maybe use those two projects as a way to talk a bit more about your songwriting process and how you approach creating something new and developing it and getting to a point of recording it because I’m sure a lot of people listening are curious to know.
Kendra: Sure. Well, to speak about songwriting specifically I would say that 90% of what I write is autobiographical so I have to have life experiences in order for there to be fodder for the songs and I’m a very romantic person, so, you know, all it takes is traveling to a new place, meeting a new person, experiencing a new, intense emotion and then I usually want to or just, like, feel propelled towards translating that into music.
I generally say that when I’m writing a song it’s like a musical kernel will pop into my head, usually first as a melodic fragment and I will record an improvisation around that melody, you know, I’ll just, like, turn on Garage Band or record a voice memo on my iPhone of just improvising around that melody and listen back to it until a sort of character around that musical kernel informs itself. I kind of think of songwriting very much like getting to know a person where you learn so much more about them if you listen and if you kind of give them space to present themselves because any time that I’ve sat down and said, like, “I want to write a song. I want it to be like this,” I’m not actually giving the music room to have its inherent character. So how a song is seen to fruition is relative to the song. Sometimes it’s miraculous and I can write and complete a song in an afternoon. Other times, again, it’s like getting to know a person where you kind of have to be patient. You need to allow it to reveal itself when it’s comfortable, if that makes sense.
Generally what happens is a song will start with a melody and I will start to hear the background vocal arrangement. A lot of my musical instincts come from this, like, 1960’s chamber pop influence, so the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, it’s all very vocally rich or at least, like, that’s what I’ve always responded to most in music so before I have lyrics or even a completed song form I hear how I want the voices to exist around that and that’s always kind of in the nucleus or the most important part of my songwriting process.
Christopher: That can be quite a hard thing to capture. I’m imagining, you know, if you have a melodic fragment, you kind of just turn on your mike and you record it. If you’re imagining those kind of lush Beach Boys harmonies, do you have a way to quickly kind of capture that and lay it down in the way that it can kind of breathe and you can return to it in the future?
Kendra: Sure. Well, I mean, usually what happens is as soon as I hear a melody in my head I can hear it, how it would be realized with a three-part harmony or I just always thought contrapuntally and I think about melodic shapes and how a backing vocal part would exist within that. That just kind of all happens in my head. I would say that, you know, the majority of the composition process just happens in my mind and then I use garage band to hear it back and then make the minute edits but one of my favorite ways of writing music is with my looping station. I use a Line 6 DL4 delay pedal and that allows me to record and realize these harmonic ideas, these vocal parts in real time so I can just hear how it all sounds.
So a combination of that and then just making really rough demos with Garage Band with headphones and singing through with a built-in microphone has generally been the process and I’m starting to dip my toes into more elaborate recording processes but that’s a universe in and of itself.
Christopher: Very cool, and we had an episode of the podcast recently all about audiation and imagining music in your mind and the various benefits of that. It sounds like you have a particularly vivid musical imagination, the ability to conjure up those three-part harmonies as you’ve had to create the music. Is that something you’ve always had you’ve always found easy or something you’ve worked on over the years?
Kendra: Well, that was, it wasn’t until I actually went to music school that I realized that that was maybe something that not everyone experiences. Like, I can recall being a young child and listening to the Beatles and being able to isolate all of the different harmony parts or how I would think of additional harmonies and when I sang along would, kind of, you know, add my own personal dimension to it and I thought that everyone had that same sort of intimacy or interest with harmony so that was an interesting realization to understand that that maybe was little unusual but, yeah, I mean, it can sometimes be distracting. Like, if I go and see live music either, like, I get inspired by what I’m hearing and kind of start writing during the concert which always feels kind of rude but I can’t turn it off or just when I hear someone performing I can also hear the harmonies with it so that’s just I guess how my brain works.
Christopher: Fantastic. That’s fascinating to hear.
Christopher: So you were talking a bit there about looper pedals and Garage Band and that kind of tech-supported way of capturing song ideas. On the other end of the spectrum, you were recently doing this residency at the Library which was kind of a, as I understand it, solo, off-in-the-wilderness, just you and a pen experience. Tell us about that.
Kendra: Yeah. Oh, God. It was dreamy, to say the least. So Big Sur, California is, like, everything that is magical about the California coastline concentrated into one, like, 20-40 kilometer landscape, depending if you’re, like, in the concentrated Big Sur town part or just driving across the dramatic coastline but there’s this place called the Henry Miller Memorial Library which is a bookstore/music venue/creative destination point that was created in memoriam of the author Henry Miller who wrote the Tropic of Cancer among other titles and who lived there for many years of his life and actually passed there, but so I had played a handful of shows there over the years and had an intimate relationship with the people that worked there and had always just said, like, “My dream would be to be able to hang out here and focus on songwriting, to be able to really take that work seriously,” and it just so happened that over the course of two years Big Sur endured an onslaught of natural disasters. There were fires, there were floods. The flooding caused a crack in one of the main bridges, the Pfeiffer Bridge and so the bridge had to be torn down and that and shortly after there was a mudslide just south of the Big Sur town portion of the coastline so this stretch of coastline was basically left inaccessible.
There were 200 locals that were living down there and if they had to access the outside world for grocery shopping or to do laundry they would have to drive to the south end of the bridge closure, hike a bypass trail, get into a separate car on the north side of the bridge closure and then drive into town, so it was very challenging living but it was also kind of magical in that for an eight-month period of time Big Sur, which was this major tourist destination as eventually returned to its desolate, dreamy character that it was in the 1970’s where it was this sort of undiscovered gem and attracted a lot of quirky, alternative thinkers like Jack Kerouac who spent a lot of time there. I think he was actually trying to overcome an alcohol addiction by living in a cabin in Big Sur, but he’s one example.
So, all this to be said, I was offered by the people at the library to come and do an artist residency during the final weeks of this bridge closure which meant that I would live in a tent on the Henry Miller Memorial Library property, I would work in the book shop three days a week selling books to the very few travelers that managed to make it across the bypass trail and then every moment in between I was able to use the space for writing and that is precisely what I did.
So for five weeks I got to finally let songwriting be my main job and it was wild because not only had I always dreamed of being able to have such a focused, devoted relationship to this craft but I had no Wi-Fi, no cell phone reception. My lifestyle was rugged, to say the least, I mean, living in a tent, washing my clothes by hand, preparing all of my meals in an outdoor kitchen with a two-burner gas stove and just the majesty of Big Sur combined with the quietude allowed for a type of introspection that I’ve never quite been able to achieve living in a city and enduring the hustle of, you know, trying to be an artist in the United States so I was able to achieve an intimacy with my music that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
So I wrote a lot of music over that time. I developed arrangements for other songs that had already existed and a dear friend of mine, an engineer named Scott McDowell who is a friend from San Francisco drove down across the newly opened bridge and over the course of two and a half days we recorded a collection of songs, two of which I wrote at the Henry Miller Library. One of them was the second song that I ever wrong as an angsty high school kid and another one kind of fit thematically with the other songs but I performed all of the instruments on the EP.
It was acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, upright piano, so many vocal tracks and a shaker and other minimalistic percussion, but, yeah, it was just an interesting experience to have this acoustic, introspective, sort of, thesis statement as a culmination of this time in the woods and also just by contrast the production value is so much gentler and simpler than “Treat”. Like, that was a very extroverted, theatrical, bold production so it almost felt like a palate cleanser to have something that was quieter. That’s a lot of words that I just shared.
Christopher: No, that sounds inspirational and, I mean that in the sense of inspiring you but I’m sure that story alone will be inspiring others, you know, of the idea of really just giving yourself the space and the disconnect and the change of environment to inspire a new kind of creativity in music. It sounds like a wonderful experience. I’m sure our listeners are as envious as I am right now. That sounds wonderful. It’s terrific —
Kendra: I was just going to say, I wish for all creative that they will have an experience to just give in completely to their craft. I mean, I feel tremendously privileged to have had that experience and also just recognizing what it does for your creative output to be able to have that focus and isolation is something that so few creatives get to experience and, yeah, I just, I sincerely hope that others will be able to pursue and find those opportunities because you learn so much more about yourself when you’re not just trying to be creative in, like, the wee small hours of the night in between other daily responsibilities.
Christopher: So it’s terrific that you had the opportunity, too, to capture some of that in an EP at the end of the experience and it sounds like it let you, kind of, move on your craft or approach it in a different way. You said earlier something really interesting which is, in approaching your new record you’ve been trying to kind of focus in on a particular sonic palette and put together something that’s a bit more on the same page. Can you tell us what that means to you and how you’ve been going about that?
Kendra: Sure. Absolutely. Well, I started to think about making a record like hosting a party, and if you want to be a gracious host it really helps if you prepare the space, if you think about the type of experience that you’re offering your guests. I mean, like, if you’re going to throw a dinner party you want to clean your house, you want it to be warm and open. You want to consider the lighting. How are you going to feed them? Like, where will you host them? Will there be activities? Like, what is the tone that you’re trying to set, because to perform music I think is like a generous endeavor, like, you want to provide an experience. You want to provide a space. So by defining a sonic palette I feel like I’m, just, maybe being a little bit more considerate about what I want to provide for the audience and bringing it back to what I was saying about making “Treat” is that I had no idea of what I was doing. I had musical instincts but I was green in this medium and being asked to make decisions that I wasn’t sure of and it wasn’t until the culmination of that project that I was able to have, like, a more macro understanding of what that larger process was.
So with this new record, and, also, you know, as an extension of this experience in Big Sur and getting to reflect and think more about what I want to say as an artist, I wanted to have that deeper understanding of what it was that I was trying to say and how I wanted to say it before getting into the studio. So the way that I did that was, again, I was working with my older brother as the producer because he’s, you know, he’s my best friend and musical confidante, is we had a conversation of what is this record? What are the influences? We put together a sonic mood board of sorts. Influences included D’Angelo’s Black Messiah record, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, so there was a lot more R&B and soul influence but we were thinking about it like the Joni Mitchell influence is, like, jazz-infused, feminine, has that element of introspection but the imagery is very colorful. It is narrative lyrics or storytelling but then, like, the Funkadelic and D’Angelo influence is, like, it also invokes that stank face, like, it’s something that you might feel more a more physical response in your hips rather than, you know, jumping up and down music.
We talked about color. Like, the color lavender came up a lot for, you know, whatever people maybe have like a more kinesthetic response to music or there’s myriad ways of interpreting that but lavender for me kind of embodied a sort of coolness that I wanted to achieve.
And so with all of that in mind we then took all of the songs that I had written but were unrecorded and I laid down extremely simple demos of them, simple to the extent where I was just recording one vocal and one guitar. I would strum the chords on the downbeat and sing the melody, leaving all of this space and then through which we started to add all of these different elements and thinking about rhythmic information and as an extension of the sonic palette what would the instrumentation be, and we found out what those things were and how they would be related between the songs so if things came up like the clavinette, the wah guitar, certain synthesizers, 808 drums and by applying this sonic information on all these different songs we were able to suddenly hear which songs fit together and which songs were the outliers and so that was something that I never did with “Treat”. It was just, like, “We’re gonna record these songs; a couple of months later, let’s try these.” So to have this opportunity to think more critically about how the pieces fit together before entering into the studio in a serious way has offered clarity, or, you know, now it’s like I have a seven-song demo of all these songs that fit together so now as I complete the album and write songs I can have a more informed sense of how to fill in those blanks. It’s like these songs that exist already occupy a certain function in the record but it’s missing this sort of thing, so writing a song to fill that void.
Christopher: Awesome. You come across as someone who finds it all very easy and natural, you know, and you clearly, you’re very self-aware and very thoughtful about how you go about this whole process. You’re almost the opposite of the scatterbrained creative who just kind of fumbles their way through a music career.
Kendra: I think I just cover it up well.
Christopher: Maybe so. Given that, I would love to get your insight for anyone who is maybe at the start of that journey of creating their own music or maybe they’re partway through it and it feels like it’s just not coalescing in the way they had hoped. I’d love to hear any advice or insights you have for your own journey so far that might help them kind of more quickly get to a satisfying existence as a musician.
Kendra: Sure. Absolutely. Well, two things come to mind in response to that question. For one, I think that there is a very distorted sense of what it means to be a musician or to be musical in the west. I mean, I suppose I can only speak about my experience of living in California but I believe this is probably true for a lot of other places in the U.S. is that there’s this notion that if you don’t show an immediate musical talent that it’s not something that you can develop or something that you can enjoy.
So countless people have like, a traumatic experience where they’re in elementary school band and they pick up a clarinet and it doesn’t sound very good or they try singing and their classmates laugh at them so then they decide, “I’m not musical. I can’t enjoy this.” So then you find that the only people that are pursuing it are, like, self-proclaimed musicians or people that are pursuing it professionally. I think that that is a travesty and I’m baffled that music, unlike other subjects, is something that people don’t understand that it does take work and it is a process and it takes practice and self-discovery. I mean, I think about being in high school and I took chemistry which is something that I believed myself that I couldn’t do but when I did poorly on an exam I would, you know, stay after school and do tutoring and I would work towards it because it was something that in order to participate and in order to, like, you know, pass the grade I had to work extra hard on it.
Music is the same way and I also think that it really depends on how people are instructed, too. When small children are forced to play this very rigid, regimented classical music from a young age they’re not being ushered into, like, this vast universe of self-expression and color that is achievable or available, like, for all these musical genres so I think that people should feel encouraged to stick with it and to work hard but to also maybe explore different approaches to being musical and, like, maybe I’ll put a pin in that because I am also a music teacher and I can talk about my personal approach to teaching music as a way to counter that very rigid classical instruction but secondly, like, when it comes to songwriting, specifically I think that the hardest thing to do is to finish a song and that is true of absolute beginners and professionals because I think that it’s really easy to dwell on a result, to think to yourself, like, “I want to write something good. I want it to be this way,” and if you’re so focused on that final result you are not achieving the necessary intimacy with the process and it’s through that process that you have these self discoveries that you learn more about what it is that you want to create. So I always tell my students and my peers that they need to write and finish more songs. They need to be willing to write something that sucks because it is a more fulfilling and more educational process than having, you know, many files of incomplete songs.
You know, I say this and it’s something that I still struggle with and have to remind myself but, you know, sometimes as an exercise I will say, “You know what? I’m going to write something that I feel totally embarrassed by. I’m going to write that sappy love song with the most cliché lyrics. I’m going to write a predictable chord progression but I’m going to finish it.”
Like, you know, set a timer and do the thing because then when you listen back to it you have a more concrete sense of what it is that you want to change about it and it’s easier to develop it if you’re listening to the final product. Otherwise it just remains incomplete because you’re stunted by your own visions of grandeur so I think that finishing more songs and just accepting that music is a really hard, abstract thing that is kind of indefinable or could be defined by many things, that’s one of my favorite aspects about it is that even as someone that is a self-proclaimed professional musician that makes it every day there is still so much that I have to learn and so much to gain and so much that I’m humbled by and curious about and that’s never going to stop but you kind of have to get out of your own way and just enjoy the process.
Christopher: Wonderful. I think those are two really phenomenal points for people to keep in mind and, you know, I 100% agree with your attitude towards that question of talent or, you know, inclusivity in music. I would love to hear your teaching work. How do you go about this with, maybe younger students or maybe beginner-stage students that helps?
Kendra: Sure. So I’ve been working with people of all ages. I’ve, you know, led song circles for infants and parents. My youngest private student is six years old but, and then, you know, I’ll teach everyone from high school kids to adults and everything from singing to instrument playing but I find that I have more, excuse me, more songwriting students now, at this point, and I encourage all of the same things where they just have to finish songs.
They have to be willing to write something dorky and to be willing to write something that they might not ever show anyone but I also feel like people actually end up writing with so much more conviction and so much more authenticity if they write under a deadline and they’re forced to say that thing that maybe they’re embarrassed of and I think that it is so transformative to be in that position where you’re writing in an autobiographic sense and you’re being vulnerable because not only do you learn more about your musical process but you learn a lot more about yourself. So I, you know, with my students I just try and offer them a safe space to play that song that maybe they feel self-conscious of but it is also such an abstraction. It’s not like there is a correct way to write a song. If anything, it is through this experience of self-discovery that you find what process works for you so I want to try and nurture that. I also tell people that they should be learning songs that they like. I didn’t grow up studying classical music but I do remember having friends that would say, like, “Yeah, I have a weekly piano lesson and my parents say that I can stop when I’m 18,” like, they were, it was something that they were enduring but then suddenly to have that sort of relationship to music robs them of, like, the vast and wonderful world that it is and I do believe that there is a genre or style or an artist for everyone so, like, with a lot of my students I tell them, like, I would so much rather teach you how to play a song that you love instead of dwelling on technical exercises because it’s also a lot easier to practice if it’s a song that you like.
So that and just telling them, like, learn as many songs as you can. Find an artist that you really love, like, I’ll help you figure out the chord progression and I’ll coach you through, like, you know, this vocal styling but just, remembering that music is really enjoyable and celebrating that aspect of the making and accepting that even if it’s challenging that if you are disciplined that you can transcend those challenges and continue to make these valuable self-discoveries throughout the process.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, it sounds like you’re imparting your own broad and richly varied musical tastes and musical creativity and that joy of music making to your students and that’s a wonderful thing. Kendra, it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you for joining us on the show.
Kendra: Thank you so much for having me. It was a delight to chat with you.