Music Interviews
10:58 am
Mon October 22, 2012

Kendra Morris: Skateboards And Karaoke Machines

Originally published on Mon October 22, 2012 1:25 pm

When Kendra Morris was a little girl growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., she would hide in her closet and sing along with her karaoke machine. Later, when she moved to New York to chase her music dreams, it was back into the closet with an eight-track recorder she'd bought. Now, the 31-year-old is out with her first full-length album, a lush, moody mix of neo-soul called Banshee.

"I remember I got a karaoke machine for Christmas, and I had all these cassette tapes," Morris says. "And I would tape over the edges, so I could record over those. I started learning how to bounce vocals. I remember realizing that if I recorded on one and then took another tape and flipped the other one to the other side of the karaoke machine, I could record another voice on top of that.

"I was 8 years old, sitting in this closet, creating harmonies. I was like, 'There's all these me voices, and I can make this voice say this, and I can make this voice say this.' My mom is a singer, and we would just sit in the car, picking up my brother from school, and we would harmonize to each other. It was always about seeing what weird note you could come up with."

Songs Within Songs

Twenty years later, she's still layering.

"You know, as I've gotten older, [I've] been able to place things in front of me, things that have developed me as an artist," Morris says. "Looking back, I can see certain things that really developed my style, like having an ear for different melodies, different harmonies. I strongly believe that in one song, there can be so many songs and you can say so many different things, whether it's with a melody or whether it's with a lyric within a lyric, and then so many hidden things, and then things upfront."

"Concrete Waves" illustrates that idea on Banshee.

"I got that [song] from skateboarding. I used to skateboard when I was 15 for a brief second," Morris says, laughing. "It didn't go well. I did it to meet guys, and that didn't go well, either. But with skateboarding, you're gliding, you're going fast, sometimes you're on a ramp and you just feel on top of the world. But if you hit a pebble, you go flying off your skateboard and there's nothing to catch you. It's the pavement. It hurts. With a concrete wave, the metaphor to that is just following through with a moment of what feels good. It might wreak a lot of havoc, but it's so worth it for that second of being on the top."

'It's The Journey'

Like many aspiring singers of her generation, Morris auditioned for American Idol. While working at a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Fla., she remembers watching the first season and thinking, "Well, I'll go try out for American Idol. Why not?" Morris and her dad drove to Miami and stood in line for what she thinks was 27 hours. At long last, she walked in, sang three notes of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and the producers of the show just said, "Next."

"I was heartbroken, but you know, I've had a lot of heartbreaks," Morris says. "You just get back up and keep doing it. You learn from those things."

Morris still bartends on weekends in New York City, but maintains the dream of making music.

"I do it because I don't know what else I'd do," Morris says. "I do it because it makes me happy. I can honestly say that nothing was ever handed to me. I bartend on the weekends, and I don't talk a lot about that because I can be really hard on myself, like, 'I still shouldn't be doing this other job.'

"You know, I was thinking as I was getting ready to come here today, and I was thinking how far I've come," she adds. "And I was thinking of this younger me and what I would say to that me. This sounds so cheesy, but it's really true — it's the journey, it's going and doing it and taking all those experiences. They're a part of your story, and everyone's going to have a different way that they get to where they're going. There's no right or wrong way. The only way you're not going to make it is if you give up. That's the only way you won't make it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Now, a story about a woman who's trying to make it as a pop singer, a dream she's had for as long as she can remember. Meet Kendra Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

KENDRA MORRIS: (Singing) Love was the sound of the birds when they landed in spite of noise from the boys with the rocks in their fists...

BLOCK: Kendra Morris says she's spent a lot of time recording in closets. When she was a little girl growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, Morris would go into her closet and sing along with her karaoke machine. Later, when she moved to New York to chase her music dreams, it was back into her closet with an eight-track recorder she bought.

Now, the 31, Kendra Morris is out with her first full-length album. It's a moody mix of neo-soul called "Banshee."

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

MORRIS: (Singing) Trouble is looking for someone to blame. The rattle is wrong. There's something to gain. Was it the show that done did that man and all the ladies who came in with the wind, with the wind...

BLOCK: And Kendra Morris joins me from our New York studios. Kendra, welcome to the program.

MORRIS: Hi. Thanks.

BLOCK: I keep picturing in your closet as a girl with a karaoke machine. What would you have been singing?

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Well, what I did with that, I remember I got a karaoke machine for Christmas and I had all of these cassette tapes. And I would tape over the edges, so I could record over those. And I started learning how to bounce vocals with those. I remember realizing that if I recorded on one and then took another tape and flipped the other one to the other side of the karaoke machine, I could record another voice on top of that.

So, I was like eight years old, sitting in this closet, creating harmonies. And I was like, wow - was like, there's all these me voices. And I can make this voice say this. And I can make this voice say this. And I just remember like that was something that just started interesting me. And my mom was a singer, and we would just sit in the car, picking up my brother from school, and we would harmonize to each other. It was always about seeing what weird note you could come up with.

BLOCK: What great training right there in the car.

MORRIS: Yeah, thanks mom.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And now, 20-some years later, you're doing that same sort of layering thing in this new album.

MORRIS: Completely, I can't get away from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

MORRIS: (Singing) (unintelligible) was the day that I died. That's when I lost it on my mind for the last time.

You know, as like I've gotten older and I've been able to really place things in front of me, things that developed me as an artist, just always having an ear for different melodies, different harmonies. And I strongly believe that in one song there can be so many songs, and you can say so many different things, whether it's with a melody or whether it's with a lyric within a lyric, and so many hidden things and then things up front.

BLOCK: Is there song on the new album that really illustrates that, do you think?

MORRIS: I think "Concrete Waves" is one that actually really illustrates that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCRETE WAVES")

MORRIS: (Singing) Did you ever ride a concrete wave? Did you ever ride a concrete wave? Did you ever ride a concrete wave? What's it say? What it say? Pavement cracks just an accident. Pavement cracks just an accident. Pavement cracks just an accident. Money well spent till you're late for the rent...

"Concrete Waves," I got that from skateboarding. I used to skateboard when I was a 15 for a brief second and...

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: It didn't go well. I did it to meet guys and that didn't go well, either.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I see.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: But with skateboarding, you're gliding, you're going fast, sometimes you're on a ramp and you just feel on top of the world. But if you hit a pebble, you go flying off your skateboard and there's nothing to catch you. It's the pavement. It hurts. And so it was a concrete wave, like the metaphor to that was kind of just following through with a moment of what feels good. And it might wreak a lot of havoc, but it's so worth it for that second of being on the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCRETE WAVES")

MORRIS: (Singing) ...just one slip up. Did you ever ride a concrete wave? High as a kite till the crash does cave. Did you ever ride a concrete wave? Ride me on back to the golden days. To the top my head does burn with thoughts of you, I'll never learn.

BLOCK: I'm talking to Kendra Morris. Her album is "Banshee."

I've read, Kendra, that you - I guess a while ago, long time ago maybe - auditioned for "American Idol."

MORRIS: Ugh.

BLOCK: What happened? When was that?

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: I think I was like 20 years old. It was in Florida. It was the second season. I worked at this restaurant and I remember watching the first season and being like, well, I'll go try out for "American Idol." Why not, you know? My dad and I drove to Miami - I lived in St. Petersburg at the time. And we stood in line for I think 27 hours.

I had this whole plan. I was going to sing Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." I walked into the producers of the show, sang like three notes and they just said, next.

BLOCK: After three notes.

MORRIS: Three notes, yeah. They were like, OK, on to the next. And I was heartbroken, but you know, I've had a lot of heartbreaks and you just get back up and you keep doing it. And you learn from those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU DIDN'T GO")

MORRIS: (Singing) If you didn't go away, I would have never had to say goodbye to the things that made me find you're someone who had me for all of my time.

BLOCK: How do you keep going because it's not an easy path for many, many musicians who try to make it. You've come to New York. You still have a weekend job bartending, got this dream of making music, how do you keep it going? How do you keep yourself convinced that that could still happen?

MORRIS: I do it because I don't know what else I would do. I do it because it makes me happy. I can honestly say nothing was ever handed to me. You know what, I do. I bartend on the weekends, and I don't talk a lot about that, you know, 'cause I can be really hard on myself, like, I'm like I shouldn't still be doing this other job. But it's like, that's not what it's about.

You know, I was thinking as I was getting ready to come here today, and I was thinking like how far I've come. And I was thinking of this younger me and what I would say to that me. This sounds so cheesy, but it's really true, is it's the journey. It's like just going and doing it and taking all those experiences. And they are a part of your story, and everyone's going to have a different way that they get to where they're going.

There's no right or wrong way. The only way you're not going to make it is if you give up. That's the only way you won't make it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU DIDN'T GO")

MORRIS: (Singing) A cassette plays back till tape runs out. You feed my reel and then you wear me out. Quiet as...

BLOCK: Kendra Morris, her latest album is "Banshee."

Kendra Morris, thanks so much.

MORRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU DIDN'T GO")

MORRIS: (Singing) If you didn't go away, I would have never had to say goodbye to the things that made me find you're someone who had me for all of my time.

BLOCK: You're listening to NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.