Like a bottle rocket, Kendra Foster took off from practically nowhere in December 2014, launched into the public consciousness for her work on D’Angelo’s long-awaited third album, Black Messiah. Her words completed eight of the LP’s 12 songs, and her smoky voice can be heard complicating the flavor of, among others, “Till It’s Done (Tutu).” Her SEO was suddenly off the charts but it wasn’t her first brush with greatness. The Florida native had for years been working with George Clinton as a touring member of his P-Funk All Stars, in addition to other musical projects; Clinton even executive produced her first independent release, Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodicrealityshapeshifter.
Now Foster’s releasing a new album of material with EarKandy Music, some of which has been marinating for nearly a decade. (The album will be officially out this Friday on iTunes.) The 12 songs premiered here showcase Foster’s precise jazz training and scholastic approach to genre. She’s a student of soul, of funk, of gospel, of R&B, and the album is made richer by that knowledge. It’s also liable to surprise, as on the sprawling and woozy “Take Your Time,” where Foster’s strong, clear voice is suddenly made dreamy with a well applied coat of Auto-Tune. Elsewhere, she conjures Chaka Khan and the political spirit familiar to devotees of Black Messiah. Like the genres she plays with, there’s plenty to explore here.
How do you define R&B?
Jeepers. So. Soul: I use that word more often in place of R&B. Only because R&B was [the term] coming out of blues and jazz, when you needed a word to define what [the sound] was changing into. Then it became a category defined outside of itself. Rhythm and blues is a lot of things. Like, why did we have to hyper-specify with neo-soul? Why were things like Brand New Heavies or Meshell Ndegeocello not considered rhythm and blues?
I don’t mind the placard of R&B, but if we’re hyper-boxing it up, it’s soul. See, R&B—you opened up Pandora’s box with this. Maybe the differentiation occurs when we started creating things like hip-hop, and R&B became [the term for] when you do anything soulful and you’re singing. Maybe the distinction is the soulfulness. Or where it comes from: You’d probably be looking to our community, to black folk, for R&B—though that’s not to say it’s restricted like that. But I would say that African-American folks are responsible for the beginning of a lot of America’s contemporary music—period—and for setting the trends.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
My mother is a beautiful vocalist so I’m sure she sang to me in the womb. I’m sure my dad bounced me around to Coltrane. But mostly I remember being in church. Every Sunday we’d hear those harmonies. Our church was very musical and I remember literally my breath being taken away.
This album’s been a long time coming, but your producer, Kelvin Wooten, has been there since the beginning.
Yes. He’s a longtime collaborator of mine, though he’s done a lot of production for other people too. He started as part of Raphael Saadiq’s production team, and he’s worked with Jill Scott, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, and Anthony Hamilton. He’s everywhere but still kind of a secret weapon. Someone who plays every instrument and can also mix and engineer—that’s rare.
I’ve been working since 2007. We would go into the studio for, like, three days at a time; we didn’t have much time between our schedules. I would drive from Tallahassee, Florida, to Huntsville, Alabama. Each trip, we’d come up with three to six songs. I feel like he’s my liver and kidneys sonically.
Is there a song on the album you’re most proud of?
I would say the one I chose as the single, “Promise to Stay Here.” The best thing about all this time going by is that all the songs have become very special. I’ve created a lot more music than this and it’s all special too, but these songs….
How old is “Respect,” the first song?
During the first time I came to work with Wooten, I was in the bathroom listing off things I did and didn’t want in my relationship. I came into the studio and he said, “I want to do something social—Katrina is still reverberating.” I was like, “Bet. Let’s do it.” I was disgruntled in my relationship and thought that this could also be how somebody might feel about their government, or about society at large.
“Take Your Time” stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. The album is, in many ways, very traditional and analog. Then your vocals are awash in Auto-Tune. What made you do that?
I have to credit Wooten with that. That’s another one in that batch from 2007.
The height of T-Pain.
Yeah, that was going on and he is from my hometown, but I was against Auto-Tune. Kelvin was like, “It makes it sound so cool.” I was already singing real breathy and I thought, Just do it, make it futuristic, make it spacey. It’s a texture. I don’t want to get used to correcting things with Auto-Tune, though. It used to be, you had to sing so good in however many takes—you had to nail it. We should still try to be that good. But sometimes it’s a cool effect.
T-Pain did his Tiny Desk concert with NPR and all of a sudden many people understood that Auto-Tune was a decision for him, not a crutch.
Yes. Another thing I should say is, if you have really awesome melodic ideas but you’re not the best singer—let’s say you’re a rapper—then Auto-Tune is great for smoothing out a melodic idea you have, so that you can sing the hook instead of hiring somebody else to do it.
I love ballads and wanted to ask about “A Warning for the Heart.” Where did that song come from?
I wrote that in the middle of a fight in my relationship at the time. I was on a layover when I composed the melody. I took it to Wooten in one of those sessions and just sang it. He played piano and that brought it to life. His side is just as significant because, to this day, people find it hard to play those chords. Really great piano players are challenged by playing that live.
When I love, I love really hard. When you’re stepping into a new love, you may see red flags but it’s an uncomfortable point because you’re already in it, and so you ignore them. Or maybe there aren’t any red flags—it just goes bad. You get to the point were you don’t even want to try anymore.
I take it that relationship didn’t make it.
[Laughs.] No. Not at all. He’s married with a kid somewhere.
As a lyricist, do you feel like one of the things you do is make personal experiences universal? Making them speak to listeners in a more universal way?
I do. I try to write songs to be cathartic, and I pray that’s universal to everyone else. Something in me feels that I’ve got to get this out. Maybe there’s somebody else, and maybe they don’t sing, don’t write, but I can give their feeling a voice. Or I’m just expressing myself and hoping that other people are like, “I feel that!”
When Beyoncé’s LEMONADE came out, a lot of people rushed to connect the dots between the lyrics and her personal life. As a lyricist, and especially one who writes for others, what were you thinking watching that?
Part of the fun of art is creating your perception of it, making your take on it. But I think that it’s also a good idea to stop and listen, and take in the whole thing. She put out visuals to aid you in understanding the many layers inside of the lyrics, and inside of her expression. And so I’m like, “Aye, hold on a second.” Because isn’t it a little too obvious if she’s coming out really directly, like it’s about her and Jay Z? You should look further. I’m not saying that she wasn’t trying to express some of that—maybe she was. But it’s worth giving time to what you hear and thinking about all the other elements. Look a little closer and think a little more after you get that immediate feeling of what those lyrics say to you.
When you write, the goal usually isn’t to put everything on the surface. You want there to be meaning the listener digs out.
Yeah. I’ll say that I [used to] make it more plain. But working with George and D, they’re so much about innuendo and I learned to put more of that in my lyrics. I’m very metaphorical, and that does a lot. But the more I write, I don’t want to make it so easy.
Was it difficult to balance working on your own material while working on Black Messiah?
We were diligent about putting this material together, but I was touring all the time. Life happens. Once I started working with D on Black Messiah, around 2009/2010, I had to put my project on hold. Black Messiah was very important to me. It’s almost like my own release, it means that much to me.
You are a co-author of that album in a very fundamental way.
Yes, thank you. It’s a dream come true on so many levels and I had to support it. We were still finishing it when we started touring. Like, Great, we’ll finish “Another Life” on the first tour. Which is what happened with a couple lines.
I saw y’all perform at the Apollo last February, the first show after the album came out. I’ve been curious since as to why “Another Life” didn’t make the set. I noticed that a number of times on that tour the song wasn’t performed. Is there something about that song that makes it particularly tricky live?
“Another Life” is so awesome. It’s a song that’s so intricate melodically, and we had a variety of vocalists on tour, with people switching in and out. You’re recalculating and calibrating where the notes are going to go, who’s assigning them—that’s a lot.
Was there any conversation about making music videos for any of the songs from the album?
Well, no. I mean, I wasn’t privy to any conversations. I guess we were just touring so much and there was just so much going on for everyone—I don’t know. Sometimes I think, “I want to do one,” but there’s just so many elements involved.
A video would’ve been a cherry on top, but by no mean necessary.
I’m telling you, though, there’s more to come. You haven’t heard the last from D’Angelo and the Vanguard.
As in music that was left on the cutting room floor, or music that’s been written and recorded since the album?
Just music, period. All of it. It’s not over, I’ll say that. That movement is not done.