"For some reason, a lot of my life has revolved around recording in closets and tiny spaces," laughs Kendra Morris. It's been a bit of a recurring theme in the New York–based singer-songwriter's career thus far, and it can be traced back to one Christmas at Morris's childhood home in St. Petersburg, Florida. A mini-Kendra, aged eight, discovered that her karaoke machine could also be used as part of a makeshift studio set-up. "I would go into my closet, take these cassette tapes, and I'd start singing, record it, and switch it to the other side and sing over that," she recalls.
Morris grew up imbued with a sense of music—her parents played in bands together, and she often broke into their cabinets full of vinyl to listen to their favorite records. As Marvin Gaye, the Spinners, War, Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, and the Temptations washed over her, they soon became hers too. She sang along to her favorite albums with a voice she discovered soon after she learned how to talk.
"I was three years old, and I got up and asked my parents' friends if they wanted my little voice or my big voice," Morris remembers. "And I did this little voice, but then I did this big operatic voice. Maybe that was ingrained in me, because they say some of the main parts of you develop before you're even six years old."
After studying musical theater at a performing arts high school and deciding not to pursue it, Morris half-heartedly went to college in Tampa. She spent less time studying than singing in bands, which ultimately led to her flunking out. She moved back to St. Pete and got a job at Johnny Rockets. "All the kids that I used to go to high school with would go there, and I would have to wait on them, and make their french fries," Morris says.
It was a blow, but Morris used it as a catalyst to do something better.
With her dad's help, she started learning guitar and began writing her own songs. "I didn't want to be in other people's bands anymore," Morris says. "I felt like I had something to say."
In 2003, Morris moved to New York with her all-girl band, Pinktricity ("Probably the world's worst band name," she says. "We got it off of a box of Nerds"). The grind of the city caused the group to split but spurred Morris to go it alone. She came across an eight-track and brought it back to her wall-less loft. Morris summoned her eight-year-old karaoke days and set it up in the only room in her house—her closet—and began to record. "I had all these songs in me, and I didn't know where they were coming from," Morris says. She also took the knack for harmonies she'd learned as a child, and began embroidering her tracks with intertwining threads of melody. "I'd been harmonizing with my mom since I was a little girl, 'cause my mom's a singer, so I've always had a good ear for that." These raw bedroom recordings of earnest soul became her first two self-released EPs, This Won't Hurt a Bit (2007) and Milk and Cookies Never Lie (2008).
Another secondhand find that marked Morris's path was a Sharp GF-777—the Holy Grail of boomboxes made famous by '80s hip-hop (and, namely, Run-DMC). Once again, she innovated and incorporated it into her live shows, lugging the gallant silver stallion that she used as an amp, in addition to her loop pedals and guitars, all over the Lower East Side. "And that was my thing," Morris remembers. "The sound guys would be like, 'What the what?' And after the show, they'd be like, 'That thing sounds great!'"
While performing solo around New York City, Morris met and began collaborating with producer Jeremy Page and released a self-titled EP in 2010. She'd been conscientiously working on her craft as a songwriter, which was acknowledged by ASCAP and the Songwriters Hall of Fame the following year. The institutions awarded Morris the 2011 Holly Prize, which recognizes new singer-songwriters whose talents honor the legacy of Buddy Holly by way of excellence in songwriting, performing, and musicianship.
A tour with Motown Funk Brother Dennis Coffey this past summer and support from DJ Premier via his remix of her blaxploitation-dipped single "Concrete Waves" pepper the year that Morris took to write and record her full-length debut. Inspired in name by wailing female demons from Irish folklore, Banshee is an amalgam of stories, both imagined and Morris's own, produced by previous collaborator Jeremy Page and slated for a summer 2012 release by Wax Poetics Records. "In a way, banshees just cast spells with their voices," Morris says, "and I just think some of the greatest singers do the same thing." [Biography by Marisa Aveling]