Blue Velvet

How Kendra learned to stop worrying and love the drone

by Wes Eichenwald
issued on The Boston Phoenix, May 26, 1995

photo of Kendra Smith

Kendra Smith was born to sing Zen koans. She played bass in the Dream Syndicate as they spearheaded the psychedelic revival in early '80s Los Angeles, reworking the Velvet Underground's ethos before every other band did. She then found her own songwriting voice, quieter but equally intriguing. She was there - sometimes up front, sometimes lurking in the shadows, taking notes - as low-volume, high-atmosphere alterna-rock came into its own. She moved from the trio Clay Allison to Opal (which upon her departure became Mazzy Star). And she built a cult mystique with trance-inducing Eastern-influenced melodies mixed with sweet pop touches, topped by her clear, wise-child intonations.
Among friends and former colleagues on the LA scene, Kendra Smith is equally famous for her lifestyle. For the past seven years she's been living on a 30-acre farm in Northern California, eating what she can grow, shovelling manure and chopping wood, cut off from public utilities and the telephone. She designed, built, and wired for solar power an 11-by-13-foot cabin home. She composes songs on acoustic guitar and funky old hand-and-foot-powered pump organs, which she uses on her discs. For Smith, DIY isn't a catchphrase, it's her life. You could call her a female West Coast Thoreau, but she'd quickly tell you that she hasn't mellowed that much, adding that she hates "fluffy folk music". As you might have guessed, she also hates to be pigeonholed.
Smith makes an annual pilgrimage to San Francisco for the Chinese New Year; on the phone from a hotel room there she was as talkative and friendly as you'd expect a noted recluse not to be, frequently punctuating her comments with short, explosive laughs. Her first solo album-length CD, Five Ways of Disappearing (4AD) is, like Smith herself, simultaneously spacy and rooted in the earth. Nothing's in these stately songs that doesn't absolutely have to be there. Although she's no idiot savant, and is as capable as anyone of self-conscious craft, her songs seem to come from a right-brain dream state. Hemispheres - both the brain's and Earth's - blend easily in her world. In Bohemian Zebulon, for one, Brecht/Weill meets Scottish dirge. Along with the mysticism, you get the irresistibly bouncy In Your Head and the music-hall/White Album jive of Maggots. The textures are provided by Smith's pump organ and synths as well as guitars (supplied by herself and Alex Uberman) and a variety of her Northern California pals on bass and drums. But a steady hum underpins all these efforts.
"Well, it's the drone", she comments. "The drone is one of the more powerful musical things. It's not really exploited in our culture, because we want something to happen. But inside the drone, all the notes can resonate. Indian music does it, and there's close connections between Celtic and Indian music".
Like Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, Smith speaks of not writing but being possessed by her songs. "When I did this recording, [I figured] the record's going to show me where to go. I have a very harsh muse, and if I don't respect her, she kicks my ass".
She admits to being influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies only "to a certain degree. I like to look at them all. I think I always had an inclination to get lost in trance, and to be thinking about things seriously".
After the Dream Syndicate, Smith "got kind of burned out on intensely loud vibrations. I really like loud psychedelic music, on one hand. On the other hand, I really like to preserve my ears and my psychic balance, and electricity does weird things to you, especially if you're at all sensitive".
The spare, haunting "Fell from the Sun" - which, she says, was the first song she ever wrote - became the title track of the 1984 EP, which was done with her Clay Allison bandmates Roback and Keith Mitchell. It set the tone for her boutique, limited-edition, special-project sort of recording career over the next decade.
"I want to put one rumor to rest - that I jam with anybody who shows up!" she says, laughing. "I didn't really jam with anybody [in the '80s]. I possibly did, but I don't remember. What I play is very experimental or outside of contemporary pop. Most of the power for me is for percussion and rhythm, but pop has a lot of charm".
Given her aversion to air travel ("just indecently unnatural") and other disruptions of the cosmic stream don't look for a major tour any time soon, but Smith won't say never. She did venture out to play an LA club last October. And she's due to play Fez in New York next Friday, June 2.
"I'm not into nostalgia in any way, but I am definitely into the idea that you should create the environment that you dig. I don't know if I'll be pushing a plow 20 years from now. I still like doing what I do. There's no middleman in the form of a boss or a dollar, and that appeals to me. I'm not a placid person, and I know I could kick ass on most people that I thought were full of shit. But at the same time, I think it's important not to waste a lot of energy in struggles that aren't necessary".

article & picture courtesy of Wes Eichenwald (thank you!)

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