Back when I lived in Seattle, I knew Kendra Shank only by her reputation as a great jazz singer who also enjoyed a career as a guitarist and folk singer. We met for the first time in New York City shortly after I arrived in 2003; we were both in the audience at the Cornelia Street Café, where our mutual mentor, Jay Clayton, was singing.
Kendra was warm and friendly, with a disarming candor about the rigors of pursuing a singing career in New York City. Her unassuming nature belied her impressive credentials: Kendra toured with Bob Dorough early in her career; her debut album, Afterglow, was co-produced by none other than Shirley Horn; and Kendra recorded as a guitarist with Abbey Lincoln and received Lincoln’s blessing to record the critically acclaimed album, A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook.
Thank you, Kendra, for sharing your insights with us!
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
Music was in my life from the beginning. My mother sang me to sleep with torch songs and lullabies. When I was five years old she played Mrs. Peachum in a university production of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and took me to rehearsals and performances, so by closing night I knew all those Kurt Weill songs. My father created the Theatre Department at UCD and I acted in plays from age 5 – 8 (until my parents’ divorce), so it felt natural to be on stage. At thirteen, my brother inspired me to learn guitar and I played and sang for hours as an emotional outlet and wrote my first song that year when my best friend died in an accident. But I didn’t realize music would become my profession until after college (my degree was in Art & French and I’d envisioned a life in the visual arts).
After busking in the Paris subway and gigging in restaurants all through college (solo with guitar), I decided to try it full-time after graduation, and within a couple of years realized this was my life’s passion. My early inspirations included Joan Baez, Edith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Barbara (a French singer-songwriter), among many others. When a friend played me a Billie Holiday record, my focus turned to jazz and my devotion to music deepened to the intensity of a spiritual path. I’ve been inspired and encouraged on this path by several mentors to whom I’m hugely grateful, including Jay Clayton (my primary teacher, who introduced me to improvisation & included me in various ensembles), Bob Dorough (who took me on tour in 1991), Nancy King (who had me sit in at her gigs), Shirley Horn (who got me my first record deal, co-produced the album, and showcased me at the Village Vanguard in 1992), Abbey Lincoln (who had me play guitar on her album Over the Years and at the Blue Note in 2000), and Rhiannon (who taught me new approaches to improvisation). And there are so many more musicians and others who’ve inspired me — too numerous to list.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Telling a story, interpreting a lyric, came naturally to me—perhaps because of my early exposure to theatre and my roots in folk music. Melodies come naturally—I improvise them as I walk down the street. Accepting the sound of my voice was a challenge. When I first fell in love with jazz, I wished I had a dark, husky, whiskey-stained voice. I was once told by a club owner that he didn’t want to book me because my voice was too “pretty.”
Ironically, Abbey Lincoln (whose voice I love for its rough edges) once said to me “I wish I could love the sound of my voice,” so I guess I wasn’t alone! But I’ve now embraced my sound (at least, on the days I’m not full of self criticism—another of my challenges).
How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
A song has to call to me—it has to feel that it’s my story, as if it could’ve been written for, or by, me. Often I’ll hear a song and just know—I have to sing that. It was this way with Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” which I first heard on a Chet Baker recording. Sometimes I’ll be attracted to a song, but then when I sing it, it turns out not to be a good fit and I have to let it go (like a dress that looks great on the rack, but then doesn’t look good on you). The lyrics are essential—if I can’t believe in the lyric, I won’t sing the song. I’ll occasionally sing a tune as a vehicle for improvisation that has a less-than-brilliant lyric, but the message still has to be something I can relate to.
I love a song whose lyric is at the level of poetry and the melody and changes are sublime, like “A Timeless Place” (aka “The Peacocks” – music by Jimmy Rowles, words by Norma Winstone) or Abbey Lincoln’s “Down Here Below.” But I also love a very simple lyric and melody like “Motherless Child.” A song can come from any source, but I do have a fondness for seeking out original music from musicians I play with. I generally prefer not to hear another vocalist’s version beforehand — so that I can come to the song fresh. Whatever goes into my ear is likely to come out my mouth, so I prefer to listen to an instrumental version, or just learn it off the page. Lately, I’ve also been drawn to tunes without lyrics which I sing instrumentally, or occasionally I’ll add a lyric. I also sometimes improvise a song, with words, on the bandstand.
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
If I still had the physical capacity for it, I’d go back to glass blowing (what I’d planned on doing before music became my life). I love making things with my hands. Or I’d do something in the healing arts, in service to others.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Be True to Yourself.
I like to body surf, especially in the Pacific Ocean. It’s thrilling to feel the power of the ocean in such an immediate way, and it reconnects me with my place in Nature and the Oneness.
The Kendra Shank Quartet will be celebrating its 16th anniversary (!) with this Thursday, October 15 (sets at 8 and 10 pm), at Kitano here in New York City. The New York Times’ Nate Chinen calls Kendra an “assertive and open-minded jazz singer.” Treat yourself to a night on the town and go hear them!