The Passion in the Psychedelic Pop of Kendra McKinley

Kendra McKinley by Etta Jaffe

San Francisco - “I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t an important part of my life,” Kendra McKinley tells me at a small coffee shop/sci-fi bookstore in the Mission district of San Francisco. In between sips of green tea she continues, “It was always celebrated in my family and I was constantly exposed to new sounds throughout my childhood.”

It doesn’t take the words of a music blogger to realize that musicians are passionate about music. Duh, that’s why they’ve made the questionable life choice to pursue this elusive and ethereal art. But Kendra McKinley gets serious on the subject. Her voice – bright and vivacious in her music – becomes steady, practically solemn when discussing the brilliance of the Beatles’ Revolver or dissecting Joni Mitchell’s guitar technique in detail. She sounds more like a tenured college professor than average music geek. Not humorless, but consciously respectful, with word choices that are deliberate and resist the temptation to resort to easy labels or lazy generalizations. During our conversation it quickly becomes clear that music is something so special to Kendra that no adjectives are quite adequate, no mere words fully able to articulate the feeling a great song brings her.

I will, however, attempt to articulate the feelings her songs bring me. Her latest full band release “Fine As A Vine” looks like this in my mind: an explosion of colors, mostly oranges and yellows,  an atomic bomb filled with sunflowers and daffodils, probably the same images floating through Van Gogh’s head as he was painting Wheat Fields. Any other description would simply be too earthly, too mundane for a piece of music that so triumphantly transcends the everyday. But I’ll bring it back down from the stratosphere for a minute to humor the unimaginative: “Fine As A Vine” is filled with gorgeous, layered harmonies and vocal lines that gracefully weave around the main hook, a stadium-shattering guitar solo. It has a breakdown full of serene, swirling vocal melodies, a miniature hymn of Brian Wilson magnitude smack in the middle of a high energy rock song.

From the amount of expertise and confidence she exudes on the track, you would think McKinley has been creating these epic productions for years, but it is only very recently that she has made the jump from jazzy, singer-songwriter troubadour to rock n’ roll bandleader. Infatuated with the performing arts as an adolescent, McKinley naturally assumed she would pursue a career in theatre. Music blossomed as a passion in high school, but it wasn’t until her days at UC Santa Cruz that she began to write her own original material. And even then, her compositions remained distinctly solo pieces.

“Once I came to San Francisco, I finally had access to the types of players who understood what I was trying to produce,” she explains, “I reached the point where I could now fully realize the music in my head.”

That’s no small task either. McKinley is seemingly always in the process of composing, whether she’s humming the latest hook or constantly tweaking what she calls each song’s “character.”

Kendra McKinley by Etta Jaffe

“I start with a melodic kernel, record it, listen to it on repeat and then spend some time getting to know it,” she says. “On ‘Fine As A Vine,’ for example, I knew what I wanted it to sound like, the harmonic texture, the musicality of the language, the colorful landscape I wanted to present…Translating it into a living, breathing entity was the hard part. But when my band started interpreting this idea that once only existed in my head, it was like an epiphany. I felt like I had finally found my place as an artist in this community and with this music.”

“Fine As A Vine” is merely a hint of what is to come on a debut LP slated for release this fall. McKinley promises a unique experience with each track. The soon-to-be-released follow-up single entitled “Canyon Canon,” in her telling, resides on a whole different side of the color spectrum, less yellow/orange and more “deep purple.” That statement has me all kinds of excited.

During our talk which probably could’ve lasted for hours and covered everything from the acidic humor of Father John Misty to the theatricality of St. Vincent’s live show, I started searching for the perfect line to succinctly sum up the music of Kendra McKinley. That was not an easy task but, luckily for me, she provided a fitting quote. “I just want to write music people will want to sing,” she says smiling. That’s one thing she won’t have to worry about accomplishing. The only difficulty will be getting us to stop.

You can download “Fine As A Vine” here along with McKinley’s previous recordings. Her debut album is set to drop late this year.

Bottom photo by Etta Jaffe

Nick Schneider

Nick Schneider

Writer, musician, champion of the Bay Area music scene and all the weirdos that inhabit it. Follow me @LouderThanDoubt & Hit me up if you wanna talk about Titus Andronicus, Springsteen, underrated bands you feel deserve more attention or The Dark Knight (such a good movie).
Nick Schneider