Kendra McKinleyKendra McKinley (photo: Deb Leal)

Words by Annie Bacon

Kendra McKinley’s take on indie folk is almost unclassifiable. Drawing from classical guitar and traditional chorale as much as from psychedelia, jazz standards, blues rock and beat poetry, her songs are awash in originality. She released her sophomore album TreaT last year and its striking musicality places her in the company of a handful of Bay Area women – including Thao Nguyen, Merrill Garbus, Madeline Kenney, and Jay Som – defining the indie scene at the moment in the Bay. Though McKinley isn’t yet receiving the national attention of some of these other artists, she deserves it.

This Friday, June 23, she’ll be sharing the stage at Brick & Mortar with fellow folk-leaning bands Whiskerman and M. Lockwood Porter. If you don’t know these bands, this is one of those nights worth taking a chance on. If you do know them, you’re as excited as the rest of us to get this dose of powerhouse songwriting, impeccable musicianship, and plain old good times.

We caught up with Kendra to ask her a few questions in advance of the show:

The Bay Bridged: Is this your first show with Whiskerman and M. Lockwood Porter? Are you as excited as the rest of us for what an incredible line up this is?

Kendra McKinley: This is my first show with these musical dreamboats. I have been a fan of each project and longing to share a stage with them for quite some time. So the stoke is mutual.

TBB: Your history has seen you from Santa Cruz, overseas, and back to the Bay Area. What have each of these geographical locations added to (or taken away from) the music you make? In other words, how has “place” impacted your sound, if at all?

KM: I grew up in Santa Cruz. Besides living in the Bay Area, I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe. I spent my junior year of high school in Mantova, Italy, but was focused more on theater than music-making. In 2013 I spent 90 days traveling in Europe with a guitar and suitcase. Starting as a musician on a riverboat tour in Portugal, I spent a month in Amsterdam, then went to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Italy, performing wherever I landed. My songwriting is mainly autobiographical, so the songs I was writing at the time were inspired by where I’d been and the people I’d met along the way (e.g. “Maya May”: an old woman I met in Amsterdam, “Honey”: a fellow I met in Amsterdam, etc. etc).

TBB: You released TreaT last June, and it’s just gorgeous. What has been the impact of that album upon your musical life?

KM: Making TreaT taught me that songs are malleable. When I came into the studio I was so certain of how the songs were supposed to sound, but through the process of trying to capture my musical ideas and collaborating with my band, the songs evolved in ways I never would have anticipated. That was a fascinating revelation and taught me to not be so precious with what I make.

TBB: Your first instrument was guitar, if I’m not mistaken, but you also play piano quite well. The last time I saw you perform, you primarily used your voice and a looping station. What has been your evolution instrumentally? And how has that shaped the sounds you’re making now?

KM: I’ve started combining vocal looping with guitar-playing…I used to consider my vocal looping as a separate category of songwriting, but when I was preparing to play a lengthy set at the Nugget Resort in Sparks, NV, I started messing around with creating background vocal textures with the pedal to beef up the set. It turned out to be very satisfying and shortly after influenced my songwriting. Suddenly this tool I’d used to create mainly create harmonic and melodic textures took on a more percussive role. I usually only play piano if there is one available in the venue…so on those rare occasions I just can’t resist.

TBB: Who are you listening to right now? (Like, right this minute, and in general.)

KM: I’ve been listening to Childish Gambino’s new record Awaken, My Love! on repeat.

TBB: How are you surviving the early days of 45’s presidency?

KM: I find consolation in reading/listening to people like George Saunders and Stephen Colbert, who encourage empathy and kindness, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances may be. Starting each day by dancing helps, too.

TBB: You sell your album as a large download card and lyric sheet that, when folded, is also a coloring book. Tell me more about that! Did you do the artwork yourself? What was the inspiration behind each of the drawings?

KM: Drawing while listening to music is one of my favorite pastimes, so I wanted to make that an option for folks who dig my music. Also, I ran out of CDs and couldn’t help but notice that few people still own CD players/buy CDs. I drew all the ladies in the coloring book. My friend gifted me this beautiful Egyptian papyrus print of the Goddess Isis and that definitely served as inspiration for the drawings in the coloring book. I wanted to make illustrations that had that same powerful, serene quality but were still playful.

TBB: What’s next on the musical horizon for you?

KM: Next on the agenda: I will be leaving SF briefly this fall to hole up and focus on writing/choreographing/drawing/conceptualizing of new albums and a refined stage show (I cannot announce exact location just yet). Expect lots new musical releases and touring in the new year. Stay tuned.

Whiskerman, Kendra McKinley, M. Lockwood Porter
Brick & Mortar Music Hall
June 23, 2017
9pm, $10

Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.