Brooklyn-based artist Kendra Morris
is gifted with a voice that can be both commanding and vulnerable at once, a soulful croon that has earned her comparisons to Adele and Duffy but is very much her own. It is showcased most exquisitely on Mockingbird
, the upcoming collection of covers that Morris created with her longtime collaborator Jeremy Page.
"I've always kind of fooled around with covers. It's always just been something that, whether I was doing it on my own, back when I first started recording my own stuff in a closet in Bushwick," Morris explains in a phone call. "Then when I got together with Jeremy, I showed him some of these covers, and he was all into doing covers too, and he would take songs and completely redo them in his own way, too. We were just doing it for fun for a while, just getting our feet wet and getting used to working together."When it came time to release Morris' debut album Banshee on Wax Poetics last year, she, Jeremy, and her publicist Scott decided to release a different cover every week leading up to the release. The covers — including everything from an achingly wistful take on Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" to a playful rendition of Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Real" — went over so well, the label asked out Kendra and Jeremy felt about releasing an entire collection of them. Morris was game, and maybe a little relieved.
"Most people for their sophomore album, it's an all-new work of originals," she explains, "But I was kind of excited to do a covers album because it gave me time to breathe. Writing Banshee
was just such an intense process ... It just gave us a chance to grow in another sort of way. So when it comes time to write the next album, I think we're gonna be that much more ready for it."
Below, check out our Q&A with the fabulous Kendra Morris on the new album, her reality television experience, and meeting her heroes.Zimbio: Which of the songs on Mockingbird do you feel the greatest personal connection with? Kendra:
I think the Bettye LaVette song ["Cry Me a River"]. I stumbled upon that song last fall; I was in Martha's Vineyard with a friend, and that song was playing in a cafe. I was just like, "Who is this?!" Just everything about that song captured me. I looked it up when I got home and it was Bettye LaVette, and it's kind of obscure song but I just listened to it over and over and over again, 'cause those lyrics were just so simple but so honest and truthful, and hearing her voice crack... I think that's one of the ones I definitely connected with, just feeling that way before, many times. I've even written songs about feeling like you could just cry and cry and cry and fill up an ocean, when you're in that much pain. Love is weird, unexplainable phenomenon. And because of it people write these amazing songs, because there's no other way to describe it sometimes.I'm connected to them all though, for different reasons. I love "Walk on By," that's a good one. That one's just a classic, I'm a big fan of Burt Bacharach ... Covering that song is fun because it's been covered so much, and especially because the covers that have been done of it are huge versions, like the Isaac Hayes version, so it was fun to do yet another cover and find a way to have a nod to Isaac Hayes as well as Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.
I just watched the trailer for Dead Man Down, which features your cover of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" in a very intense way. What was it like for you the first time you saw it?
Oh man, I got chills. It was crazy. I went to the movies with my dad on Christmas, and my mom couldn't stay up that late, she was like, "You guys go," so it was just the two of us at home in Florida. And I just remember sitting there 'cause we didn't know if it was going to come on or not, because they almost pulled the trailer because of the Newtown massacre. A bunch of movies were pushed back, and that was one that I'd read they were pushing back the trailer, which they did, but they only pushed it back in certain Northeast cities. So we weren't sure if it was going to play or not, so during the whole waiting through the trailers of Django Unchained, I was sitting there thinking, "Is it going to play? Is it not?" Every time the screen was green with "Coming Soon," I'd be like, "Is this it?!" And then it was the last one before the movie came on. It just started playing and I just freaked out. I was like 'This is it!' and I wanted to stand up, but I didn't — I just high-fived my dad.
It was just the coolest feeling, hearing something in such a big theater with the surround sound and just sitting there. And then even the guys behind us, they were talking about the song — I heard bits of their conversation about the cover and one guy was like, "Yeah, I don't mind it."
It's like, "Okay, score." Because Pink Floyd is such an iconic band and they're just... people — including myself — you don't want to disrespect Pink Floyd. You don't want to disrespect any band, but Pink Floyd — Pink Floyd fans take it very seriously, so don't do a Pink Floyd cover and not be able to hold your end of the bargain. You'll have a lot of mad fans.
Did you ever actually see the movie?
Heh, no. [laughs] I didn't see it, I kept meaning to. I meant to, I just didn't get around to it. I'm the worst with movies. I've been really bad, I've just been watching a lot of horror movies and thrillers on Netflix. [I proceed to tell her she needs to watch The Fall, because I have similarly silly tastes.]
I read that you were on a reality television show a couple of years ago.
[laughs] Yes I was.
So now, a couple of years out from it, how do you feel about your reality television experience?
It was an adventure. The whole reason I did it was for an adventure; I didn't do it 'cause I was like, thinking it was going to skyrocket me to stardom. I did it 'cause I'm a "Why not?" sort of person and it sounded like fun, and you never know what you're going to get out an opportunity like that, who you're gonna meet, where it's going to lead you. I believe that every decision you'll make leads to a bigger decision, which leads to where you wind up. So I did that... it was weird 'cause I went to the audition on a whim, like I had responded to something kind of half-assed, and they were like, "Come in! Let's meet you!"
I went, and all of a sudden they keep calling me back, and next thing I know I'm being flown out to Calabasas to live in this mansion to live with these girls and do a reality show, and it was for FUSE. The show was called Redemption Song, and it was going to be the biggest show that they'd ever done, or the most expensive. I did it, and the premise was "eleven wild women all want to be singers or all want second chances at singing," and it was funny 'cause I never considered that I ever blew any chances anyways, and all the girls, under their names [there would be taglines] like, "So-and-so, she used to live in a car!" and under mine it was "Kendra: Wild party girl." It was so goofy.
It was kind of like a combination of a singing competition, but mostly us just having these challenges of living in a house and all the drama that ensues, and having to do weird challenges that have to do with music, and I did four episodes and walked off. Because I was like, "Alright, my adventure here is done. I don't like the way this is making me feel, this has nothing to do with music anymore, it's not adding to my life in any sort of way," so I mooned them. I walked off and flicked them off and mooned the producers and the camera, and I was like, "I'm out of here!" I said, "You guys will see me again, I'm doing this my own way, I don't need this f**king TV show to tell me what my future is." And so my butt is somewhere floating around on the Internet.
Do your friends ever send you pictures of your own butt?
It was so funny, because I had all these friends contacting me — I mean the show didn't do very well, maybe that's a good thing... at this point, I think it's a really good thing that it didn't do well, but friends that did see it were like, "Oh my gosh!" I did something crazy in every episode, I was kind of the comedic relief, just 'cause I didn't really give two s**ts, I just was sort of in it to have fun and I didn't partake in all the drama.
It was fun. I'm really glad I did it. It's the type of thing where maybe some artists, a label or your management would be like, "Don't tell anyone you were on a reality show," but for me, I'm not going to hold anything back. I'll be open about everything I've done, because it's a part of who I am and how I ended up where I am.
Totally. Would you do it again, or would you do a different show?
Nope! I feel like I experienced it, I know what it's about now. I learned a lot of things that I don't believe in as a person, things that I will just never agree with, and I'll never do it again. But I can say that I did it!
Which current artists are you really excited about?
I have been really into Kavinsky lately, actually. I just got into him. I'd kind of heard his stuff before and not realized it was him, and he did some of the stuff on the Drive soundtrack, but then recently I downloaded an entire album of his, and it's all... I listen to it at night when I'm getting ready, and I feel like I'm inside of a video game. It's very soundtrack-y. It's like an '80s soundtrack; The bass is just really heavy, and there are all these synths, and I've just been into that. I'm also into the new Daft Punk album. I got it on vinyl and I've been listening to it non-stop.
I try to steer away from too much Top 40. I'll listen to it in the car because I'm curious what the latest hit song is — I think as a songwriter it's important to stay up on that. When I was on the road I heard this new Rihanna song, I think it's called "Stay," and it's such a great, great song. When I got home I searched it out, because I hadn't been struck by a song on the radio in so long, and I was like wow — she doesn't have any effects on her voice and I think it really shows her talent, so I looked it up and then this guy Mikky Ekko did it with her. And I looked up him, and he and his friend wrote the song, so I started looking up other music of his. I think I'm going to become a new fan of his. His voice is awesome, and his songs that I've heard so far were killer.
If you were to do a pop collaboration with any Top 40 artist, who would it be?
I really like Frank Ocean. I love him. I remember when he put out his first mixtape and a friend showed it to me, and I was like, "Yeaaah." I think Frank Ocean would be a pretty fun one. I would want to make sex music with him.
Pharrell, after hearing him on the Daft Punk album — he did a couple of tracks and they're my favorite. He's someone I would love to collaborate with one day, one way or another. I've been a fan of his style for a long time — his production, his voice. He's someone who just is good at a lot of stuff.
Have you ever met any of your heroes?
Well recently ... When I met DJ Premier, that was pretty cool. Especially when we developed somewhat of a friendship, that was cool, texting back and forth with him and showing up at his studio one day with a golden girl from my last album release. We had girls painted gold and I delivered dioramas, and I was like, "Are you at your studio?" And I delivered him a girl painted gold with a diorama. And he was just like, "Woah!"
Recently, I was on the road with my friend Julia Haltigan, and we were doing solo sets, and we wound up playing Jennifer Coolidge's birthday party. She has a house in New Orleans, and she hadn't booked the entertainment for her party. It was a last minute thing and it well into our laps through a friend — we were like, "Yes we'll play at Jennifer Coolidge's birthday party!" So we show up at her house, me, Julia and our friend Sam who plays guitar with Julia, and we played for four hours at her birthday party. It was such a cool experience — I'd never played so much music non-stop. We were going to be done in two hours and she comes up to us like, "Can you keep going? When you guys don't play the room sounds awkward."
She's exactly like she is in the movies but awesomer — the nicest person and really, really funny, and her best friend is this guy Mike White, who I've been a big fan of in movies. He did this movie Chuck and Buck and he wrote some of the Freaks and Geeks... He was there and I'm a fan of his, 'cause I remember watching Chuck and Buck like, 10 years ago, and being like "This movie is INCREDIBLE." So I kind of had a geek-out moment about him being there at the party, and he was even like, "You guys are awesome!" and I was like, Mike White, and I wanted to tell him how much I loved his work, but I was like, I don't know if this is the place, 'cause they were all like, setting fireworks off in the backyard and I don't want to be superfan, like [assumes an adorably dorky voice] "I really the stuff you do, can you talk to me about Chuck and Buck?" So then after we got in the car and drove off, I was like, "I wish I had said something to him, I want him to be my best friend."
Maybe we'll cross paths again. Maybe someone would pass him this article.
Below, check out Kendra's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You." It's awesome. Mockingbird drops July 30 on Wax Poetics.