Quiet Times on the Frontier

the continuing saga of Kendra Smith

by Nigel Cross
issued on Hartbeat! #18 Summer/Autumn 1995

Kendra Smith's 4AD promoshot by Dennis Kheeley

Back in January 1988 during a short visit to Los Angeles, I put in a call to Kendra Smith, more by way of renewing our acquaintanceship than to catch up on her latest musical activities. I knew she'd recently quit Opal, the band she and erstwhile beau David Roback had been working on since early '84. She sounded tired and somewhat irritated that the "rock scene" was intruding into her life again - she was poised to uproot herself back to Northern California, this time to live a Spartan existence in a small cabin, miles from the beaten track, with no conventional electricity sources, completely out of the public gaze. So I wished her well and considered it just another door closing in my life. At least one person, I figured, was being sensible and getting the hell out of not only the stinking rock 'n' roll sewer but even better, out of "conventional society" all together.
Seven years on, it's a Monday lunchtime in central London and I'm talking to a different Kendra; she's ensconced in the Wandsworth headquarters of her record co., 4AD, doing a gruelling round of press interviews to promote her new record. She sounds confident, more mature and maybe a lot wiser, though far from enjoying her brief trip to London, "It's very difficult. I'm not happy to ever be in cities". We exchange pleasantries, and despite all these years in the wilderness, I sense the presence of a professional. I swallow hard and get down to brass tacks. I hate phone interviews so try to keep it short and sweet. Nowadays, if she ever did before, Ms. Smith doesn't suffer fools gladly!
Kendra spends most of her time with constant companion Alex Uberman up in the rugged Sierras with a bunch of cats and a donkey; she's training to carry kindling. Music's no longer the most central component of her life - following the Voltairean notion of "il faut cultiver notre jardin" - she tends a 15-acre vegetable and herb plot. It'd be a full-time job for even the best of us, but Kendra somehow found the time to fit in some musical activities, too. Life in isolation obviously suits her Piscean soul - since '87 and the parting of the ways with Roback, her talents have blossomed, and spectacularly so. It's hard to reconcile the singer on Happy Nightmare Baby, the most contrived, artificial album of both her and David's careers, with the artist creating such transcendental sounds in the mid-'90s.
I start by asking her about that last Opal album. "Dismal", she retorts, "I was very frustrated. David and I were going in two very different directions. He wanted to work from formula and towards a commercial end". Kendra flew the coop midway through a US winter tour, even nominating her replacement, Hope Sandoval, half of Going Home (see HB 6), the duo she and Roback had been producing. Whilst Roback, Sandoval & co. carried on the Opal name for a while, eventually metamorphosing into the fast-rising Mazzy Star, Smith hailed it for the hills! Her exit from the music biz became more than a retreat, "It turned into a major renovation on how you should live", she observes, "It encourages self-sufficiency, which is part of the intrigue".
However the pioneer life still allowed her to play music - she and A. Phillip Uberman met on the very cusp of her departure from Opal and they found an immediate rapport, which soon led to the formation of The Guild Of Temporal Adventurers. "It's funny how it happened", she says, "The other members of the Guild (Uberman and Jonah Corey) voiced my dissatisfaction with Opal. I met them just after I left the band - they were interested in doing music in an ego-less fashion - we wanted to get out of the way of the music… the energy between the three of us was very focussed".
The Guild's debut and only release to date, a magnificent 10" with complex, enigmatic sleeve was put out by a fan on her Fiasco label in 1992. It had taken four full years to produce, but was, Kendra attests, "A happy event, the first record I had complete satisfaction with". Total understatement. It's one of the purest, most organic records I've ever come across, touching on the same kind of integrity her 1984 Fell From The Sun 45 (as part of Clay Allison) exuded - here at last was somebody doing it completely on her own terms. Six songs with no pretensions - take 'em or leave 'em! "With the Guild, there was a strict purpose to do devotional music to the goddess, in the form of lyrical pop music. It was intended to sneak up on people and give them some psychic nutrition". When they came into LA to record it, rumours abounded that Roback kept phoning the studio trying to dissuade her from the sessions. "No, not at all", she laughingly counters, "Maybe on a certain level he was trying to do that… on a psychic level. He maybe felt threatened".
Aside from a lovingly rendered She Brings The Rain (originally done by The Can), the other five songs are originals, haunting, ethereal, particularly the almost instrumental Iridescence 31, which features the magical pump organ that has since become a cornerstone of Kendra's current music: "It's a great instrument - I was on a road trip and wandered into this antique store/junk shop - I'd been before but it had never been open - I saw the organ, touched it once and knew it would open musical doors for me. It had all the potential for drones and dissonance. It's a field organ for military religious services, manufactured by Estey, it folds up to the size of an amplifier, with two foot pedals". (She's since acquired an Indian harmonium, too).
The Guild release was very much like a despatch from the wild frontier - the lines of communication from the redwood forest immediately went dead again, but the buzz created by the record, had the A&R men a-scurryin'. Ha! Kendra held all the cards - would you desert one of the last paradises on Earth for 20 pieces of silver? Not a prayer!
Living miles from even a pay-phone helped keep the jackals at bay. However, she did keep the door sufficiently ajar, and the upshot was a hopefully symbiotic deal with 4AD Records, a label known for its quality and comparative lack of hype. Her first solo album, Five Ways Of Disappearing, not, she assures me, a reference to her withdrawal from the commercial world, was released in May. If the Guild was your cup of camomile, Five Ways will refresh your senses like a mountain stream. There's an overwhelming serenity to proceedings - that strong, yet gentle voice has never sounded more natural or unforced. Aided and abetted by Uberman, the album moves from outer space to inner space - "We spent some time thinking about the running order, it's a journey". You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stepped into a Kraut Rock convention, as your ears are washed by layers of fizzy, swirling synthesizers in the opening shot, Aurelia, but slowly, like a kaleidoscope, things become more focussed - everything becomes clear, there's humor, adventure, drama, exhilaration along the way.
The Michael Moorcock motifs started in the Guild are still there - you can imagine Uberman at home of an evening - the moths battering the tiffany lamp, Kendra on the porch weaving eerie spells from her harmonium - reading out loud large chunks of Jerry Cornelius. Indeed Alex's Valley Of The Morning Sun is one of the record's true highs - Kendra sings with a real air of authority and as it touches down, you feel as if you've spent the last 8 minutes aboard an airship. Fabulous. Five Ways ends with an intense version of Dick & Mimi Farina's The Bold Marauder, a folk chestnut, Kendra squeezes for all its dangerous, dramatic qualities: "I only heard the song about a year and a half ago when a friend played it me. I thought it was brilliant. It was so stark, so bloody with the Celtic drone effect". It's arousing, fitting end to an album that explodes with great head music. In a scene so rave 'n' techno obsessed, it's a f***ing relief to say, no, you can't dance to it!
Kendra played a one-show in New York recently but there are no plans for any other live performances. I find that distressing. As articulate as Kendra is, it's her music that's her ultimate eloquence if she plans on withdrawing "for a long time" on her return home, it's tragic that she and Uberman couldn't have pulled off at least one low-key appearance whilst here in Europe. No end of interviews are ever going to put across the essence of what she does better than she and Alex onstage with a hand organ and a couple of guitars.
As a parting quip, I quizzed her about a recent publicity photo, which depicts her, rather Native Indian-like, with a sprig of rosemary in one hand and a pistol in the other. Was the gun for self-defense, I wondered? "Yeah there are some wild types out where I live", she offered and then as an afterthought added, "There's a logo on the butt of the gun, it says 'Don't tread on me!'" And somehow that motto seems to say everything about her uncompromising approach so well. A little more respect might make the rock 'n' roll scene and the world, for that matter, a better place!

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