Singing, Songwriting, and Success as an Independent Artist, with Kendra McKinley

If you want to make it as an independent musician in this day and age, versatility is your best friend. Having a wide range of influences and musical interests was the key to one indie artist’s success…

Kendra McKinley is a singer, songwriter, and cover artist whose voice fits beautifully with everything from psychedelic rock jams to raw love ballads.

She first showed up on our radar with her cover of Father John Misty’s “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”, in which she took a song with complicated orchestration and stripped it down to a simple guitar-and-vocals arrangement while managing to retain the tune’s incredible impact and beauty.

Musical U invited Kendra to sit down with us to talk about her influences, her songwriting style, her career as an independent artist, and the vocal coach who helped her make it all possible.

Q: Greetings Kendra, and welcome to Musical U. We discovered you for ourselves when writing a cover comparison about your Father John Misty cover. Since then we’ve been amazed by your rainbow of musical expression. Please, tell us how you started in music and how you grew to where you are now.

Hello to all those at Musical U and beyond! Thank you for the feature!

Music was always a big deal in my family. Records were spinning, guitars and pianos were played, and I was constantly singing. Though I always knew music was important to me, I didn’t pursue it seriously until I declared a major in music at University of CA, Santa Cruz.

Learn to play and sing as many songs as you can.

During college I studied music theory, ear training, and classical guitar while concurrently writing songs and performing at local venues. After graduation, I time spent some time abroad, performing on a riverboat tour in Portugal, studying jazz in Amsterdam, and traveling around continental Europe playing shows everywhere I landed. I wrote songs based on personal experiences and was determined to collect as many experiences as possible.

In 2014 I moved to San Francisco, where I am still living and working today, and started my first electric band which lead to the release of my record TREAT.

Q: So music has been a lifelong endeavour for you! Who were/are your heroes and mentors?

My list of musical heroes is long and ever-expanding, so instead I’d like to focus on my beloved vocal coach, Raz Kennedy.

Raz Kennedy is a vocal wizard whose holistic and philosophical approach to singing has transformed vocalists across the Bay Area and beyond. In fact, he made such a profound impact on the Bay Area music scene that the City of Berkeley proclaimed July 19th as Raz Kennedy Day!

I sought his instruction after experiencing recurring vocal strain and within minutes of our session he was able to pinpoint the source of my strain and teach me the technique to overcome it. Because of Raz I’ve learned to sing sustainably, I’ve broadened my range, and I have been challenged to further explore my vocal expression.


Speaking of covers, Raz Kennedy and I were involved in a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band tribute concert in Berkeley, CA, this past June (2017) wherein we were asked to cover a song from the classic record.

He covered “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and I covered “Lovely Rita”. Check out the album here, featuring 12 killer Bay Area acts!

Q: How did you discover the wide variety of genres – from bossa nova to psychedelic rock – that influence you and feed your musical imagination?

My big brother A.J. had a large influence on my music library, but I also attribute my musical tastes and curiosities to the Beatles’ vast and dynamic catalogue. Both A.J. and the Fab Four presented music as a limitless medium and that really inspired me.

Q: Many of our readers are curious about songwriting. Please share your own process with us.

Songwriting certainly is a mysterious endeavor and the process will be unique to each songwriter. For the most part, my songs start with a melody popping into my head. There’s a sort of “lather, rinse, repeat” approach where I record myself playing whatever evolution of the song exists, listen back, and then make a new recording until the song fully develops.

Sometimes these melodies come in bursts and I’ll complete a handful of songs at once, other times I’ll live with a melody for months, maybe years, waiting for the song to present itself when it’s ready. In my experience, allowing a song to develop at its own pace usually yields more interesting results.

Q: Letting a song develop naturally is often the best route indeed!

Speaking of natural – Musical U is dedicated to helping more aspiring musicians become “natural” musicians through inner musicality skills like ear training, music theory, and confidence. How do these skills play into your own development?

I always equated songwriting with writing poetry (lyrics aside!). One doesn’t necessarily need technical training to be an effective poet, but having a grasp of language, spelling, and reading allows for a greater command of your craft. Knowing music theory doesn’t make me a better songwriter, but developing my ear and vocabulary has helped me understand the music I love, as well as allowing me to communicate musical ideas to my collaborators.

Q: Lately, you’ve been working more with children. What have you learned from your coaching experiences?

Teaching music, particularly songwriting, to younger people has been an interesting challenge in balancing the intellectualization of the subject whilst simultaneously seeking to nurture the development of their personal processes.

Finish more songs.

I often tell my students that the most challenging aspect of songwriting is just finishing the song, so I encourage them to focus more on the process and not be too precious with the final product.

I don’t mean to suggest that they be indifferent to what they create, but I’ve observed that when one becomes consumed in the minutiae of the song, they will struggle to see their ideas to completion. By finishing a song, you gain a new perspective that will ultimately teach you a lot more about songwriting.

Q: You seem equally at home with stripped-down covers (I especially love your cover of “I’ll Be Seeing You”) and high-production music videos. How do you manage to be authentically yourself across this wide spectrum?

My musical interests are varied and I only cover songs/artists I love, so I suppose that underlying enthusiasm makes the performances seem consistent though the instrumentation and influences are varied.

Q: While most songwriters seem to focus on their own material, you do not shy away from covers. How do you find the balance between your own music and others’?

I have always considered discovering and learning to play new music to be enjoyable, so I’ve never really thought about it in terms of finding a balance.

Q: You come across as very confident. What advice do you have for musicians that struggle with their confidence?

I think the core of a musician’s confidence is their passion for music. If they are clear in their devotion to their craft everything else will fall into place. Cliché? Yes. True? Absolutely!

Q: You’ve forged a career as an independent artist. Please tell us more about that path and the various skills needed to make it happen.

Welcome others into your process.

In my experience, I’ve learned the value of building a team and that the music itself has to be the main focus. To be an independent artist in this day and age means you’re expected to wear all of the hats (performer, songwriter, manager, accountant, publicist, etc.) and the reality is that you just can’t do all of it without it having a negative impact on your art. So continuing my music education and asking lots of questions to fellow professionals has proved helpful.

Q: And you wear those hats well! Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with readers?

My next project is an artist residency at The Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur! I’ll be spending the next five weeks focusing on songwriting!

Q: Amazing – we’ll be keeping an eye out for that! Last but not least, what advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and musicians?

Finish more songs.

Welcome others into your process.


Learn to play and sing as many songs as you can.

What beautiful, simple words of wisdom for any songwriter. Thank you so much, Kendra – it’s been such a pleasure and inspiration talking with you today! We wish you all the best on your residency at Henry Miller Library, and all your creative projects. Please stay in touch!

Abundant Identity

Just when you think you’ve got to know Kendra, take few clicks through her YouTube output and you’ll find surprise after surprise from this prolifically creative, tenaciously individualistic singer-songwriter. Though many successful artists talk about how important it is to “be yourself”, in Kendra’s case it’s more appropriate to say, “Be yourselves – all of them.”

Want to find out more about what makes Kendra tick – and witness her songwriting process firsthand? Head on down to Big Sur this month and sit with her under the persimmon tree – and bring the rest of yourselves with you!

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