Kendra McKinley has risen quickly in the Santa Cruz music scene after playing her first show only a year and a half ago.
Santa Cruz has a fascinating connection to Americana and roots music, and for decades many of the biggest bands here (the Devil Makes Three, Blackbird Raum, Camper Van Beethoven) have been influenced by folk, bluegrass and other traditional American genres.
Even for Santa Cruz, however, this is a particularly fertile time for Americana, and its recent explosion over the last year has been well documented in Santa Cruz Weekly.
But just on the fringe of that phenomenon has arisen one of the local music scene’s most interesting artists, 23-year-old Santa Cruz native Kendra McKinley. Having played her first show only a year and a half ago, her profile has been raised as the roots scene accepted her as a sort of honorary member—in fact, her first show was with bluegrass locals the North Pacific String Band, who urged her to open for them at the Crepe Place. But aside from her acoustic, singer-songwriter style, she doesn’t fit neatly into any traditional notion of Americana—or anything else.
“She has a grander vision than a lot of songwriters do. She thinks and writes in a larger context than a lot of songwriters do. She’s well-versed in a lot of different music, and it comes through—not just in some of the choices she makes musically, but the confidence that she writes and plays with,” says Jeff Kissell, bassist for the Marty O’Reilly Old Soul orchestra, and occasional bassist for McKinley. “There have been a lot of pop musicians that have done that, but there aren’t a lot now. There’s certainly not many in Santa Cruz.”
McKinley’s music contains elements of folk, jazz, blues, baroque and chamber-pop. What ties it all together is its theatricality—and her rich musical knowledge, which she uses to texture her ideas. She doesn’t just casually listen to and pay homage to old jazz, she knows how to play hundreds of Tin Pan Alley jazz tunes, and her music demonstrates a depth of knowledge and experience far beyond her years.
Even with just her acoustic guitar and vocals, McKinley creates gorgeous, nuanced arrangements that could function as surreal soundtracks to a 1950s children’s cartoon, or romantic Tim Burton montages. Her songs are filled with both wide-eyed wonder and meticulously calculated composition, and her voice is a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Joanna Newsom.
Rite of Passage
Only about eight months after her first show at the Crepe Place, McKinley was headlining the Kuumbwa Jazz Center to celebrate the CD release of her debut album, Chestnut Street, which she recorded with Kickstarter contributions earlier that summer.
For a lot of locals, playing the Kuumbwa is a rite of passage that takes years to work up to. It came to McKinley much quicker. Not only was the venue filled with friends, family and fans anxious to see her perform, but she would be playing on stage alone for the hour-and-20-minute set.
“That was really exciting, and intimidating, especially playing the freaking piano at the Kuumbwa. I was thinking, oh no, McCoy Tyner’s played this and I’m going to play it. Better not fuck up,” McKinley says.
During the course of the set, McKinley rotated between several different instruments—acoustic guitar, piano, ukulele—and she did some with just vocal looping (a process of using an effects pedal to record and layer vocal lines).
McKinley may have just started performing, but she didn’t just start playing music. As a young kid she was in love with the Beatles, and sang and played their songs to an almost obsessive level. But she never took it upon herself to actually write music. When she turned 18, she wanted to study theater, but wasn’t accepted into any of the programs, so she switched gears and ended up studying music at UCSC.
“I was always so much more interested in music. For some reason, that light bulb didn’t go off until very late,” she admits. “It did—and I’m happy that it did.”
She studied music intensely, but much of what she learned in school were things that she already knew.
“I had always relied so heavily on my ear. Since I was little, I would dissect what I heard musically into all the separate parts, which I learned that not everyone does. If I sang a melody, I could hear the entire thing realized in a four-part texture. That was just the way that my brain processed music. So it was exciting to learn theory, because I learned the names for all the things that I was hearing,” McKinley says.
During her years in college, she did start to write some music, but still not much. It wasn’t until her first show at the Crepe Place that the floodgates opened.
In no time, she had enough music to fill her debut album Chestnut Street, which she recorded only a few months later. By December, she had enough material to play that hour and twenty minutes of mostly original songs at the Kuumbwa for her CD release show.
“The most terrifying thing about writing songs is [the fear that] you’re going to be expressing all your deepest darkest feelings and that no one’s going to like it. Once I started gaining positive reactions, I felt more comfortable with whatever instincts I had, and just sort of gave myself permission at last to just write what I heard in my head. Now I’m always thinking of five songs at a time,” McKinley says.
When she did debut her music in a public forum, unlike most musicians, she was already a refined performer with a unique voice and a unique sound, not to mention her actual singing voice and musicianship was well beyond musicians with decades more experience.
“She had a pretty clear sense of what she wanted to do even before she knew exactly how to do it. She has a clear vision of her music,” Kissell says.
On “Chestnut Street,” the album’s title track, she creates an orchestra of sound using only her voice. She builds wordless vocal arpeggios one at a time (an effect she does flawlessly live, using her looping pedal), giving it the gentle bounce of classic jazz combined with late ’60s chamber-pop. About a minute and a half in, she begins singing actual words on top of it. (“I can hear the pitter patter of the rain/and I’m watching all the cars imitating shooting stars out my window.”) The two lines repeat through the remainder of the song.
The album gets its name from a house she was living in on Chestnut Street while she wrote most of the material. The title song, like others on the album, evokes very specific sensory and emotional experiences from the time she spent there.
McKinley recorded almost everything on Chestnut Street completely on her own (with the exception of “An Ode to John Hartford’s ‘In Tall Buildings,’” which also has Jeff Wilson on the banjo). Most of the songs are just McKinley and her acoustic guitar, and a couple are just her and her vocal looping pedal.
As complex and nuanced as her songs end up, they generally just begin as these wordless repeating melodies which she struggles to make sense out of.
“I’ll hear the melody, and I instantly run home and record it. I want to save it. I want to coddle it and help it grow. I keep singing it over and over again until I run upstairs and record it. It happens all the time, which makes it hard to listen to other music sometimes. My brain feels full,” McKinley says.
Building a Band
Even though the Kuumbwa CD release show was an introduction of McKinley's work to many, it also marked the end of her time as an exclusively solo performer—not that she hasn’t still performed alone on stage since then, but she has also embarked on the process of collaborating with other musicians, which she finds herself more and more drawn to.
In April, she played as part of the Club Kuumbwa series, and at the Do It Ourselves Festival, which she helped organize. For both shows, she brought a band that included Jan Purat (violin), Alex Bice (drums, vocals), Jack O’Brien (upright bass), Emily Meehan (backing vocals) and Rob Marshall (backing vocals).
“At this point in my life, I am so much more interested in music as collaboration. I really like the idea of working with a number of different people, and hearing their interpretations. You make a bigger sound that features more people. That’s what I’m most interested in, not having the spotlight, not being the superstar, but just making music with other people that want to make music for people that want to hear that music being made,” McKinley says.
One of the songs she debuted at the Kuumbwa the second time around was quite different than anything on Chestnut Street. Titled “Bitter Suite,” it is a 12-minute Duke Ellington-esque composition separated into three movements. On it, she plays the piano and sings throughout, and is accompanied by her band. The first movement is called “I’m Going to Buy You a Boat.” It has the swagger of a 1940s striptease tune, but the complexity of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The second movement, “Baby Dynamite,” has a light bossanova groove to it and a strong pop chord structuring. The final movement, “So Long,” is a romantic orchestral ballad done in the fashion of a musical theater closer, a la “Memories” in Cats.
It’s an astonishing display of advanced musical talent. If she seemed like she was already quite skilled only a year earlier, when she first performed at the Crepe Place, she had quickly jumped leaps and bounds.
She then left the band behind for an already planned trip to Europe. For the front end of the trip, she had landed an unusual gig of playing on an eight-day cruise through parts of the Mediterranean Sea. It was an unusual cruise, in that there were only about 100 passengers, and there were several musicians recruited as performers.
“A lot of the passengers, even if they weren’t recruited as musicians, brought their instruments as well, or borrowed other people’s instruments. There was a lot of collaboration throughout the trip,” McKinley says.
As excited as she was about playing on the cruise and traveling in Europe, she wasn’t that happy about being a solo artist again.
“It made it frustrating when I would get these ideas for a fully realized song that could be played by my band in particular, and knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to realize it until I don’t even know what date,” McKinley says. “But it’s also a challenge when you’re writing a song for one performer so see how much you can pack into one song, how potent you can make it. I appreciate that challenge.”
She met up with her backup singer Meehan later in Europe, and the two of them travelled throughout the continent, hitting Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and Italy. McKinley picked up gigs in every one of those countries, sometimes at clubs, but often at parties or just busking on the street. The trip opened up new possibilities.
“Traveling and playing music is ultimately what I want to do with my life. Any opportunity to combine the two is all right by me,” McKinley says. “Traveling with a guitar is a really nice way to make friends, because it sparks up a lot of conversations. Then you end up being asked to prove yourself as a musician. That was essentially what I did.”
Next Big Thing
When she arrived back in Santa Cruz in August, she reunited with her band, with the exception of her bass player, who left to study music at Berklee College in Boston (she’s been using substitutes to take his place).
Just as she seems poised for big things, she’s leaving Santa Cruz, planning to relocate to San Francisco this year, with the hopes that it will help her advance her musical career.
“I love the City. While traveling, I was always thinking in the back of my mind that I was going to have to figure out where to go once I returned to the States. San Francisco felt like the right place. So now I am going to give it a shot,” McKinley says.
She has plans to continue playing with her band, but she really wants to branch out as much as possible to really expand her musical repertoire. In fact, she recently started a trip-hop side project called Whizbang Operations with Oliver Whitcroft. He plays an Akai MPC (midi sequencer, sampler, drum machine) and McKinley plays the looping pedal.
“I really hope to engage in some more collaborative songwriting in the coming year,” McKinley says. “I also look forward to actually naming the group. I am not the biggest fan of calling ourselves the Kendra McKinley Group, because I want to be representative of all members. All these people have interesting ideas to contribute.”