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OKP Exclusive: Kendra Foster Talks Life, Songwriting + Premieres ‘Sweeta’

Tallahassee, Florida born-and-bred singer-singer, Kendra Foster, has had a storied career in music. Fueled by creativity, hard work, dedication and being at the right place at the right time, Kendra has carved out a nice lane for herself in addition to being one of the major pens behind D’Angelo and The Vanguards‘ Black Messiah album in 2014-2015. Her work on that project earned her two Grammy Awards, which would make a lesser person rest on his or her laurels. Thankfully, being lackluster or lazy is not in Kendra Foster’s DNA.

The Florida A&M University alumna studied jazz and commercial music and would later go on to become a member of the Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theatre. Her talent might have gotten her in the door, but it was her tenaciousness that helped to blow the sucka right off its hinges. As Kendra progressed in her career, she would perform in the rock-funk band, Smoke, and later become the lead singer in the group, Fish-N-Grits. All the while, she was balancing studying and maintaining relationships as Kendra Foster was also a dedicated studio + session worker. Her time in the lab caught the attention of the world’s only doctor of funk, George Clinton, who has a recording studio in Tallahassee.

Fast-forward to 2016, and the award-winning, critically acclaimed singer-songwriter has announced her new self-titled solo album, which is slated for release this month via EarKandy Music. As you already know, we’ve chronicled her lead single, “Promise to Stay Here,” which dripped with all the funky-goodness of an Atlanta, peach-and-sugar-cane-filled afternoon. And now, it is our pleasure to sit-down with the popular Floridian to talk about her latest project, her rich personal experiences and premiere the next single from her album, entitled, “Sweeta”. Show your love to this blessed hitmaker and enjoy the sounds at your own discretion!

Okayplayer: What was your first reaction when Black Messiah won a Grammy? What were some changes that happened in your life since becoming Grammy Award-winning Ms. Kendra Foster?

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Kendra Foster: [Laughs] ‘Oh, my God!’ was my first reaction. We had just won ‘R&B Song of the Year’ in a tough line-up because our music is not typical of today’s sound and was competing against [songs that] were extremely popular, so I was already reeling. When the whole album won, I was like, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!! We did it!’ We reached and touched the people! Our masterpiece filled with messages, gospel and love broke through to the point where we were nominated for three Grammys and awarded two of our industry’s highest accolades! It was all so beautiful and surreal.

It was already so amazing to be Kendra Foster [laughs], Parliament-Funkadelic Kendra Foster, Songwriting Kendra Foster, Songwriting-on-Black-Messiah Kendra Foster. [Becoming] Grammy Award-winning Kendra Foster is a beautiful honor, and because of how it is regard in the industry and the world, [that distinction] has made more people pay attention and listen to my writing, art and voice.

OKP: Prior to your work with D’Angelo, you logged in plenty of studio time with the ultimate P-Funk All-Star, George Clinton. How was the balance between studying for school, completing your homework and “hitting the mic” at Clinton’s studio in your hometown of Tallahassee, Florida?

KF: It was a beautiful balance driven by an upbringing of responsibility and practicality which became a force of habit. [I was entrenched in] an inescapable openness for adventure, intuition, a need to fulfill my purpose and exercise and maximize my talents, and well, mania. I had to “root to rise” (I’ve been practicing yoga the past few years). I had been raised to maintain certain standards, and to keep routine, discipline and stability at hand. My parents are educators / higher-ed administrators, so as much as I wanted to be an artist-slash-creator, I knew that I needed space for that. I wanted to honor my parents’ support.

Since a better enough financial opportunity in the Arts hadn’t presented itself for me to leave school, there wasn’t a choice but to keep the course and do well with my schoolwork. It was like the mandatory minimum was to survive as much as I could on my own (I worked at a telemarketing agency at one point) until I got my degree and my “good job”. I couldn’t just drop out and work on music all day without knowing there was an ensured chance at “making it”. I eventually would change my major from math and chemistry to Jazz Studies & Commercial Music just so that if I had to get “the piece of paper,” also known as a college degree, I could at least spend the day studying what I really wanted to spend my life with.

Because the amazing opportunity to work directly with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic—whose studio was a 20-minute drive outside of my hometown out in the boonies—happened in the midst of my scholastic struggle, I had to fit that into my life! I wasn’t looking for a deal or aim to be in the band (although I would jump at the offer), I was jus glad to be in the presence of greatness and absorb it. The adrenaline rush of the unknown—especially at that point in my life—enable me to cultivate my life in some many directions. It turned me into a hard-working machine and it was an exhilarating time and very compelling. I would race out to that dark country studio late at night, crunched into my little ’85 Corolla with a boom-box down those country roads with no lights. I would also be doing some extremely challenging music theory homework while sitting in a chair, waiting to be called upon to sing or to write.

Sometimes, I had to go out there at really late times or during school breaks because I was also working. It was absolutely not an option to lose that job, so whenever I could go to the studio, I would. Then, being an overachiever was an understatement, I had to excel at it all, and I was glad to do it. I was ready to go through the trenches for my art, but I’m glad my stable upbringing kept one foot on the ground. I look back on it now and I ask myself the same question—how was I doing all of that? I remember at the time that it was all exciting! I was raised by convention that was accompanied with an immense appreciation of the Arts. That upbringing gave me the root so as I excited flew, explored and traveled to the ethereal realm of art powered by youthful mania and an ambition for fulfillment, I was anchored.

OKP: How would you describe the evolution of your songwriting from your time writing for Sunshine Anderson to your present-day style? What lessons have you learned over the years that you’ve applied to your solo work?

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KF: I would say that my songwriting has stayed the same in many ways, but I have evolved. I am the same writing I have always been, but [through] life-living, cultivation and working with awesome geniuses—I have such a more vast vocabulary and a more plentiful palette with more flavors. And, I believe that I am more confident now. I learned to stylize more and explore the many textures and personalities in my voice from George Clinton. There are many dimensions to our singing or performance voices, [and] it is fun to get to know them and share [with others]. George also taught me to write as often as possible, and I learned how to be patient with my perfection from D’Angelo. “Don’t complete a perfect masterpiece with anything but what’s perfect for it. Don’t cinch it up with subpar ingredients just to finish it,” are two takeaways I got from him.

OKP: Can it be difficult for a solo artist with such a wide array of influences to avoid being pastiche in today’s quickly-digestible-then-forgotten music industry? How would you even describe your sound to someone hearing you for the first time?

KF: When one has a wide palette of influences to draw from, I feel like one can’t help but develop an interesting concoction of a different or new voice. If for no other reason than for the fact that because of multiple influences, it is hard to pinpoint exactly one clear person one might be imitating or was influenced by. Also, I believe that the beauty of our own voice always comes through and finds itself no matter how much me imitate those we appreciate. It is not difficult to avoid being the truth.

If you have something special to offer, the world will hear it however it comes. You will break through. My sound has a rasp on it. [It is] raw, sweet, smoky and bright. My voice has many personalities. Sometimes whispering or hauntingly soft and low, sometimes a bright belt. Sometimes sustained and flow-y, or sometimes you would think [that] I am sing-rapping [because] I fit so many syllables in a bar. It is eclectic and accessible, full of groove. It is very soulful and melodic with lots of textures.

OKP: With your inspirations clearly rooted in real life (as was the case with ‘Promise to Stay Here’) — have there been any subjects that are off-limits when you write for yourself or others? If so, why? If not, how can you be so open within yourself or with others without it damaging your credentials as an artist?

KF: I’m open to writing about a lot in general because life is multidimensional—so many experiences of different levels and weight and feelings that accompany [the writing]. As long as what I am writing doesn’t go against my own personal views or spirit or won’t be offensive to any one I don’t want to offend, I’m generally cool with writing about a variety of subjects or saying a variety of things with my art.

OKP: On your self-titled effort, we’re thrilled to premiere the track “Sweeta” to our OKP-fam! Where did the inspiration for the song come from?

KF: I was thinking about how it feels when you reach that point in life where all your own poorly built walls are caving in and you can’t blame anyone but yourself. When you know you can’t run away and you have to be accountable, and how hard it feels to do the work you know you have to do to get to the other side. It’s the reminder that we all make mistakes, but if we are accountable, if we assess our error and do the hard work to correct it or learn from it going forward [then] it is “sweeta on the other side.” It is worth the work and it is OK, we all make mistakes. Just make sure we deal with them righteously no matter how hard, [as] it will get better as long as we do.

OKP: For those who are just getting acquainted with you and your style, can you share with us + them what your first song ever written was? What were your thoughts on your writing at the time?

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KF: The first song I ever wrote is called “This World,” and you can actually hear it on my first album, Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodicrealityshapeshifter that George Clinton executive produced. When I wrote it, I was 19-years-old and I was not confident in my ability to write. I might have written a bunch of other cool stuff around that time but we’ll never know because I threw so many in the trash [laughs]. Back then, when I first started writing I didn’t know that my music or lyrics were any good, it would take me so long to share. But I did know that intellectual property is valuable, and being a creator/writer was still fighting to stay in art for life.

OKP: The album as a whole is 10-tracks fueled by your love of multidimensional R&B, funk and good vibes. What can the listener expect with your solo effort that they might not have been aware of during your run with D’Angelo + The Vanguard?

KF: This album is very cathartic, so the listener will get to see my through my experiences in love and life. All sides of it. These experiences are universal and very relatable and may give the listener their own soundtrack. Also, it is more about the internal movement inside a person in their individual experience and how that relates to our bigger experiences as humans sharing this world.

OKP: You have two upcoming performances in Brooklyn and people are already hyped to come out and jam with you. What is it about witnessing a live performance by Ms. Kendra Foster versus listening to the audio recording that makes it feel so good? What are your own favorite live performances that you’ve had in your career thus far?

KF: In the live performance, a listener gets to hear me and the players bring my music to life. They get to hear a band of amazing musicians interpret the music and shape it to fit live instrumentation, so it is already like a whole new experience. They get to hear me reproduce the composition using the charged-up energy and anxiously that comes with performing in front of a live audience. There’s a magic within the raw-and-up-close essence of a composition, no matter what the alignment of components are. To hear someone become vulnerable in front of expecting ears is always profound, good or bad.

As far as my favorite performances, well, I have three: 1) My first time performing with George Clinton and the P-Funk in Japan, which was also my first year on the road with them. We played the Fuji Rock Festival and the audience was like 50,000 strong all jumping up-and-down at the exact same time. 2) When we (D’Angelo + The Vanguard) performed “Really Love” and “The Charade” on Saturday Night Live. We made a strong statement to raise awareness about injustice within the black community. 3) When we (D’Angelo + The Vanguard) played the Best Buy Theatre in New York City. We had rocked the Apollo so hard, too, while we were beginning that run, but the show was new and we were still shaping it.

By the time we got to Best Buy Theatre, we had been touring that same show for a month and it was fancy and tighter than tight. We threw down and had church at the Best Buy Theatre. I even did a little semblance of ballet-ish in the form of a self-choreographed number at the intro of “Really Love” to satiate the dancer I tied up and stashed in the closet a long time ago.

OKP: There have been a helluva lot of deaths this year that have felt like blows straight to the gut. What has 2016 meant to you as an artist? Do you have any plans to commemorate the lives and legacies of those who have passed on?

KF: This year has been so deep. Some of my biggest triumphs have woven between some of my biggest heartbreaks, but this is the yin-and-yang of life. I won two Grammys for writing and performing with one of my most favorite artists, and some of the best geniuses ever on a monumental, sacred album—a dream come true for me on so many levels. I was able to share that beautiful moment with Baba George Clinton who was there picking up his own Grammy for working with Kendrick Lamar, who is another special gift to the industry. I am releasing my solo music that I have been carrying in my womb for seven years, waiting for the right time and it is now happening! My voice and my words are getting life in so many ways and are seeing the light of day, but we’ve also lost so many of our greats this year.

We lost one of my most personal pillars, Prince. The world will never be the same without him here. My world will never be the same. Tragedy and triumph. That’s life, and we have to live through it. Moving forward, lately, when I record, I feel like I can’t help commemorating the Purple One, even on a simple level like by creating some phrasing or harmonies that remind me of his style. I would love to cover some of my favorite Prince songs at my shows in the future—even on record, but they’ll have to be some of my greatest work. It’s only right. Actually, that is the way I would love to commemorate all of these awesome folks that just joined God’s band and those who have been jamming up there for a bit like my idol + shero, Belita Woods.

[I would] cover them respectfully, making sure I pay their legacies justice. [I would] keep their legacy alive through their influence on my creation + performance as an artist, and sharing [with others] where I got it from, giving reference.

Kendra Foster’s self-titled album will be available on June 24th through iTunes. Pre-order by clicking here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevito is the managing editor of Okayplayer. His top three MCs are: 1) Andre 3000, 2) Scarface, and 3) Black Thought. Debate him on Twitter @KevitoClark.