“Watching my parents play music with their friends, or on stage, seemed like a magical thing to be,” says singer-songwriter, Kendra Morris. “There was always something that I loved about hearing a room full of voices syncing up in melody.”
As any artist worth his or her salt will attest to, music is not an easy or simple journey. And it is life’s triumphs, as well as challenges that often create the richest and most honest music. For Morris, the journey towards finding her own voice has consisted of knowing when to change paths, and practicing dogged perseverance.
At eight years old, Morris began foraging in her parent’s late ’60s and ’70s vinyl collection, while using her Karaoke machine to record her first tracks. Later, with the help of her father, she started songwriting, and learned to play the guitar. After studying musical theater in high school, Morris decided not to pursue it, and though she went off to college, it was half-hearted–she became more focused on bands than books, and eventually dropped out.
In 2003, Morris moved from Florida to New York with her all-girl band, Pinktricity, but soon realized that the band route was not her future–she had her own stories to tell and she decided that going solo was the only way to tell them. Building her chops, creating her sound, and following her vision became her goal, and it began to pay off. Morris was the 2011 recipient of the Holly Prize, named after Buddy Holly, an award given by the Songwriters Hall of Fame and ASCAP, and in the past three years her music has steadily gained momentum.
Signed to Wax Poetics Records, her debut, Banshee, has a non-stop groove that is contagious and thoroughly immersive. And in her sophomore release, Mockingbird, Morris takes on the challenge of the classic remake and accomplishes it beautifully–Morris’s throwback soulful rock voice seeps into you the more you listen to it.
In, “It’s On with Kendra Morris,” I speak to the cool soulstress about music, music, and, yes, more music. Check it out! Chaka V.
On the Lessons Learned In a Musical Family: My parents were always in bands when I was growing up. My mom sang and played piano and later picked up the accordion. My dad played guitar and sang a bit as well. Their bands were very influenced by folk-rock bands from the ’70s, and even some bluegrass and soul. My mom and dad, and whoever else was in the band at the time, would do a lot of 3-part harmonizing, and I think hearing them do this at a young age really helped to develop my ear for harmonies later on.
My parents always just played music because it made them happy. My dad and mom always had work that involved other things, so music never seemed like a forced thing–as it can sometimes seem like during the day to day struggles of paying your bills with your music. Watching my parents do it out of pure love, I think [that] is what really sparked my interest from the start. Very early on I learned to play music because it makes you, and others, feel good inside.
On Early Defining Artists & Albums: The first albums that really stuck with me were some from my parent’s record collection that I would dig out of the crates every Saturday afternoon, such as Jackson 5, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Marley, WAR, and Tower of Power.
On Songwriting: Songs come to me in a few different ways. Sometimes they come to me when I’m sitting around the apartment, just screwing around with some chords on the guitar. And other times a song can come [to me] when I am in the studio, walking down the street or doing an activity that involves my headphones and listening to an instrumental that my producer has worked up.
On Songwriters (and Curtis Mayfield): I admire Brian Wilson for his intricate song structures and the way he builds entire songs out of numerous voices and melodies entwined; Carole King for her simplistic songs and pop sensibility. Carole King wrote for everyone in the ’60s–I love her melodies. Marvin Gaye for the way he wrote songs, making use of his amazing voice to create the hooks. [And] if I could have someone sing one of my songs, it would be Curtis Mayfield singing, “If You Didn’t Go.”
On New York, New York: One of the main things I have learned about the music business, as a solo artist in NYC, is that no one will ever work harder for you than you can work for yourself. Reminding myself of that daily has really kept me on my toes, and moving forward.
On the Making of Banshee: I had no idea what direction Banshee was headed when we began working on it. I wrote pretty much the entire album with my producer/collaborator, Jeremy Page. We would just continually meet up in his basement studio a few times a week over the course of year. He would start an instrumental, and then I’d hear something melodically or a lyrical hook and run into the soundbooth and lay my idea. Then he’d get another idea from that, and we’d just go back and forth until we had the skeletal beginnings of a song. Other times I would take an idea home–that we started–and lay out all of my ideas on iTunes and send it back to him, and we’d work from there.
Over the year that we worked on Banshee I was in a serious relationship and it came to an end, so much of the album is layered with everything I was going through–from being happy in the relationship to its ultimate demise, and then healing.
I was actually pretty stumped regarding the title of the album until the last minute. When we were putting all the songs in order, and re-listening to everything over and over again, the song “Banshee” kept haunting me. I just realized it was so powerful, and it really did describe the various elements of the album, so many of the emotions I had been experiencing, and even myself. In the end, it just seemed to title itself.
On the Making of Mockingbird: I have been covering songs for the fun of it for a long time and my collaborator Jeremy Page has enjoyed covering songs for some time as well. We wound up compiling songs that we both had a mutual respect for–sometimes it was the lyrics that caught us, a melody we’d always been a fan of, or an artist that we’d always looked up to–and adding our own twist to them. We did this while we were in between writing [original music], as a way to stretch our muscles and practice thinking outside of ourselves. We ended up putting out a few of our covers as free downloads and there was a very positive response to them. After that we decided to just put out an entire album of them because hey…why not?!
On the Intimidating Freedom of the Classic Remake: The experience was both extremely intimidating and freeing! It was intimidating because it can be so nerve-racking covering someone else’s song. You like the song or an artist for a reason, and you only want to find your own spin on it, or elaborate on what you are hearing that could be a compliment to the original rather than either copying the original exactly, or taking it, and destroying the best things that made it a great song in the first place.
It was freeing because it really did give me a chance to explore writing and how to translate melody, harmony, and test out ideas. It wasn’t writing in the usual sense of penning the lyrics or creating the original chord progressions, but it was indeed writing in the [sense] of creating a new outlook on something old!
On Showtime’s Ray Donovan: That felt incredible. I didn’t watch the episode until I began watching the [entire] series. I really wanted to understand the placement of it [the song]. So when it first aired, and I was getting all these emails, and seeing so many new faces at shows, and people would tell me how effective the placement was in the episode, I was excited but really didn’t know exactly what they meant.
I started watching the series after it was available online and became hooked right away. Once it got to the episode “Banshee” was placed in, I immediately understood what everyone was talking about. The tone of the song, the lyrics, the way it played at a pinnacle point in the series and it all made sense–I had chills. That placement is a great example of the marriage of music and cinematography and how effective they can be together.
On the New Album: I’m doing this next album with Jeremy Page. We’ve gone into it, again, with no expectations. It’s back to the studio a few times a week, letting the material speak for itself. Jeremy and I have both grown so much in our influences and life experiences, I have no doubt that this album will be its own beast. But I’m sure there will also be hints of Banshee, as it is the mother to the kin.
On Following Your Passion Despite the Odds: It [music] is my language, I would be doing this whether it was just for me and my pets, or an audience of a gazillion. Music is my self-expression and it makes me happy. The business can be very hard but doing something because it makes you happy cancels out all the crap.
[But] I would have to say the ’60s! I love the sound of those old records, the production process, the simplicity in everything. I’d be itching to sit in on a session with Carole King or Phil Spector. There were no Pro Tools or cut and paste or fruity loops…you could only rely on taking your talent to paper, guitar or piano and making a masterpiece.