In The Studio is a new series dedicated to detailing the creative processes of Bay Area artists, a behind-the-scenes look at the myriad personalities that make up our music community. This week features Kendra McKinley recording her upcoming LP Treat at Tiny Telephone.
I’m facing Kendra McKinley in an echo chamber as we’re about to record some foot stomps and hand claps for the rhythm track to her song “Sadie,” but as she demonstrates the particular pattern in time with the metronome, the only thought screaming through my skull is, “PLEASE DON’T SCREW THIS UP PLEASE DON’T SCREW THIS UP.” Because after four full days spent at San Francisco’s renowned Tiny Telephone Studios, hours of hard work clocked, and countless takes performed, I want to be the last thing that could potentially slow this process down, to possibly be that annoying, unforeseen element that makes this song a little less great than it, in all likelihood, will be. Not to mention the creeping realization that I, the humble music blogger, may have crossed some sort of journalistic integrity line here by becoming actively involved in the recording process, a kind of hipster Serpico getting too deeply embedded in the story.
What worried me most was Kendra’s emphasis on perfection, on getting her physical recordings to sound exactly like the metaphysical creations blossoming in her head. Like the great songwriters of a bygone era, she obsesses over the seemingly minute details — a barely discernible missed note here, a slight vocal quaver there — because the larger vision is ever-present. Kendra knows exactly how her upcoming LP, Treat, is supposed to sound — recording is just a tedious and inevitable necessity towards realizing that vision.
That vision is as grand as the word implies. During my relatively brief time in the studio, I witnessed Kendra polishing her mini-rock opera, “The Bitter Suite,” the planned concluding song on the album. The 10-plus minute epic is stocked with layers of vocal tracks, mounds of auxiliary percussion and Brian May-esque guitar work —courtesy of big brother AJ McKinley, her creative partner-in-crime on this musical odyssey. Together, they speak a language that, seemingly, only blood-related artistic eccentrics can understand, leaving even engineer Andy Freeman in the dark as to the complete sonic picture. I was just going along for the ride, taking fascinated delight in seeing this dense melodic skein unravel itself, not completely believing the siblings when they cautioned that the song may contain around 70 tracks on its own. Of course it didn’t. It contained 72.
The suite may be too ambitious for the typical pop song, yet too catchy to really be considered anything else. Featuring quirky lyrics, a lounge-rock-in-outer-space vibe, and instrumental arrangements that will take as many listens as there are tracks to fully comprehend, “The Bitter Suite” indelibly signals Kendra’s transformation from solo jazzy troubadour to a grandiose band leader who cheerfully defies any genre constraints that threaten to keep her oversized ideas in the realm of mundane reality.
But the recording of it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Though I felt she nailed the main vocal on the first try, it also didn’t surprise me when she responded to the question of how she felt about the take, “Great. Can I do it again?” A quote even as succinct as this one perfectly captures her mindset about the recording process and characterizes her as, to use her own words, “an obnoxious perfectionist.”
That being said, Kendra is also probably the most effusive and charming perfectionist you will ever meet. She tackles the work with gleeful abandon, making the process less “work” and more a celebratory joy in the creation of music. Under her care, the glorified warehouse that is Tiny Telephone becomes a wonderland where she one-ups Rumpelstiltskin by spinning gold without even the need for thread, just her imagination. The monotonous grind of recording loses some of its stress-inducing edge, replacing anxiety with ceaseless enthusiasm for the final product, even if that product does only materialize in small increments: take by take, track by track, beat by beat. I was only present for one day, but I could easily imagine Kendra keeping the excitement strong for all four.
During snatches of free time, I was able to pry a bit into what makes makes the long hours and constant work so bearable besides sheer adrenaline and green tea. “It’s so liberating hearing something that only lived in your head come to life,” she says, “It’s something I had to do. These songs were taking up space in my mind. I had to get them out to make room for new ideas.”
I completely believe this. I do think she sees making music as an artistic duty; an unshakable obligation to her own creative drive. Even though I didn’t witness it, I also believe it when she says she started “tearing up” while hearing her brother’s harmonic guitar line earlier. I don’t, however, believe her when she says she would be satisfied if only her friends heard and enjoyed this album. With all the ambition inherent in these songs, with her incessant focus on perfection, I don’t believe she will settle for just the respect of her peers. I respectfully disagree: she wants the world to hear these songs. They’re certainly big enough to go around.
For all her positive energy and abhorrence of self-deprecation, there was one particular moment that revealed a chink in her armor of optimism. As the sun set and the San Francisco nighttime chill started to seep through the walls, she attempted a song called “Telling Truth,” a composition strikingly bare by her standards, consisting of nothing but her voice and a keyboard. It’s a soulful tune that has more in common with the blues than the psych-pop permeating much of her other work. There’s melancholy instead of mirth on this one, and it digs out the beauty in sorrow like every great blues jam should.
She performs it well, albeit with some strain in her voice — to be expected after a full day of vocal work. Something about the take, however, is bothering her. Can I do it again? The line is a refrain at this point. So she does it again. And again. And again. Andy is patient and gentle in his recommendations and guidance. He urges her to keep at it, sensing that she’s got something really special going here. But each take fails to completely satisfy, and doubt is starting to encroach upon her words. Sighs of restrained disappointment escape her mouth.
Maybe it’s merely fatigue catching up to her at this point, or maybe the vision in her head truly isn’t matching up with the physical performance. But it’s clear that this song is dangerously close to being shelved, and that would be a shame. I like the relative rawness of the song. I like the hints of doubt and disappointment. I like the fact that all this emotion is being expressed with nothing but a voice and a keyboard. Her aspirations of perfection are admirable, but I believe it is this vulnerability that makes her music genuinely affecting. The 72-track epics are certainly impressive, but if you can strip 71 of those tracks away and still recognize her tremendous talent, then you’ve got a truly incredible artist on your hands.
Writer, drummer for numerous Bay Area bands, and obsessive Titus Andronicus fan, you can find more of his work (both musical and literary) at louderthanadoubt.tumblr.com or facebook.com/Nearmyth62. @LouderThanDoubt