PRIMAL WAIL Kendra Morris

Riding
the concrete wave with the Wax Poetics-tipped soul singer extraordinaire.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“Sometimes
I just let my pen flow, and I don’t know where it’s going to go,” confides the
30-something neo soul diva Kendra Morris, whose debut album, Banshee, released by Wax Poetics, blends
the old school vocal chops with a post-modern complexity. A devotee of
pre-digital writing technologies – pen and paper – Morris says that she’s
willing to follow a song wherever it happens to take her. A scrap of melody, an
image, a bit of story is all it takes to get her pen moving.

 

Morris got
her first taste of soul music rifling through her parents’ record collection as
a pre-teen, stumbling onto Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and the Spinners in her weekend
listening sessions. Raised in a musical family – her mom a singer, her dad a
guitar player – she soon found that soul was a many- faceted thing, with strong
regional traditions in Philadelphia, Detroit, the Deep South and her own native California. “California soul – bands
like Santana and War – had a strong Latin influence,” she remembers. “I got
into that early on, and then moved to R&B artists like Tony! Toni! Toné! and
SWV in high school.”

 

Morris’
family moved to Florida when she was young,
and she finished growing up in St.
Petersburg, still fascinated by older music. “What I’m
most into is a voice, I guess I would call it a honey-dipped voice, and the
breaking point in that voice,” she says. “For me, I feel like soul music goes
to the roots of where you’re at, even where your ancestors are. You’re kind of
taking your pain or your or love or whatever you’re experiencing and translating
it for other people.”

 

Yet while
she values the authenticity and honesty of classic soul, Morris is also a big
fan of complexity – of intricate, multi-part songs that say one thing and
contradict it with another and, most of all, of vocal harmonies, which are
everywhere on Banshee. “I think about
Brian Wilson and the way he took harmonies and pieced them together,” she says.
“That’s something I’ve always been obsessed with, the way you can fit five
different songs into one song. If you find a hook, you can just take the hook
and hide it inside of a song, and you can say so many different things in a
song.”

 

 

 

 

Morris
moved to New York City from Florida about a decade ago, intending at
first to make a go of her band Pinktricity. The band broke up after less than a
year in the city, and Morris decided to simply enjoy New York and take a break from music. But
then one day around 2006, she found herself in a music shop, eying an old eight
track recorder.  Morris bought it and
carved out a little recording space in the closet of a shared Bushwick loft.

 

“My
roommate was a painter, so she’d always be painting in her room and I would be
in my room and I would just sit there and build these tracks, layering guitars
and layering vocals,” she remembers. “And then I put them on MySpace. Everybody
was putting songs on MySpace then.”

 

Except not everybody licensed their home-made tracks to
MTV, as Morris did, selling the rights to her song, “Gain” to the new show Exiles. After the show, so many people
downloaded the track that Morris was able to pay her rent one month.  She began taking her songs to New York City clubs – Fat Baby, Vigilante and
Piano’s – lugging an old Sharp Ghetto Blaster from gig to gig, and plugging her
guitar and loop pedal into the home-made set up.  Her DIY phase lasted three very self-sufficient
years, and then, just as she had started thinking about how to take her songs
further, she met Jeremy Page.

 

Page lived
in Boston,
where he had worked with a number of local hip hop bands. He was in the process
of moving to New York
when he and Morris met and shortly after, started a studio in Bushwick. So I
brought these demos to him and we started just hashing out these songs, with
full production, and after about a year of developing that sound, we put out
the Kendra Morris EP,” she says. That album, which included the single
“Concrete Waves,” caught Wax Poetics’ attention, and the two began thinking
about a full-length debut.

 

Morris
didn’t start writing the album, however, until early 2011. First she had some
personal issues to sort out. A long-term, live-in relationship wasn’t working
out, she remembers. She went home to Florida
for Christmas 2010 and realized she didn’t love the man she shared an apartment
with. She wrote the song “Just One More,” while still at her parents’ house,
staying up all night to capture her
conflicting feelings. “It’s just so hard knowing that a person isn’t the one
for you, and wanting to tell yourself that he is and still wanting to selfishly
have them for one more night,” she explains. “It’s so hard listening to your
gut like that.”

 

(Listen to Morris’ version of the Johnny Mathis classic “No Love [But Your Love]}):

 


Kendra Morris “No Love (But Your Love)” by Wax Poetics

 

 

She
returned to New York City
for New Years, not intending to end the relationship, but almost immediately
broke up with her boyfriend. New York
real estate being what it is, however, he couldn’t move out immediately, and
Morris spent an unpleasant month sharing living space with her ex. “I always
had a weird, bad feeling, at my apartment, like I can’t be here,” she recalls. “So
I would just spend every day going to the studio. I would just sit there and
write and write.” She adds that the later songs on the album even show when her
boyfriend moved out and things started to get better.

 

 The breakup may have been the main theme for
the album, but Morris drew ideas from lots of other unexpected places. “Right
Now,” a song about being lost and finding a way forward, emerged out of idle
thoughts about the Hansel and Gretel story. “Banshee,” the title cut, came from
fascination with an old Disney movie and some research into the banshee myth. “If
You Didn’t Go,” the second single, was prompted
by a bass line that Page brought into the studio one day, which led to a
melody, which led to a song.

 

Morris
performs all these songs in her own, very natural voice, shunning the kind of
digital processing that has defined pop music for the last couple of decades. “We’re
like birds in a way. Birds are known by their unique chirps. They all have
their own sound. It’s the same thing with humans and our voices. It’s like our
fingerprints. When music gets processed, it loses that identity and what makes
everybody different.”

 

(Listen to Morris cover Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”):

 

 


Kendra Morris “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Wax Poetics

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