Its dusk in New York City and the sky is rapidly turning black. Manhattan is swarming with people, commuters traversing the crosstown traffic whilst tourists gaze up at the electric billboards & marquee lights, unaware that also treading the sidewalk next to them - standing on the vanguard of gettin’ it on like the star names above - is she-funk queen Kendra Foster.
Despite the hustle n’ flow of the concrete jungle; Foster is pon the phone, trying to rise above the murmur to chat about her career to date, and the eagerly anticipated solo project that all maggot-brained-soul-psychedelicans have been haverin’ on about.
The first fresh material to bear Foster’s vocals/pen craft since she featured on the #1 US smash Black Messiah, taking her place, stage left, in D'Angelo's new group The Vanguard; a crucial advocate of D’Angelo and the revolution.
“I apologise for any street sounds,” says Kendra, half-sung but still in tune, as she heads back to her pad in Brooklyn. “I’m gonna be walking ‘til I find a place where we can just go ‘head and get in it!” Just then the background noise fades out and the rhythm of her heels cease.
“You know I’ve been creating songs for this new album, for oh, I dunno, eight years?” Kendra adds. “So the title keeps changing, at first it was The Arrival, then I was going to call it Katharsisism with a “K”, but with all the morphing of life and dreams coming true along the way, and how life works for musicians, it’s just …” Kendra stops abruptly, mid-sentence. “Wait I’m so sorry, I’ve totally taken this over. You haven’t even gotten a chance to ask any questions yet!” Kendra laughs. Her enthusiasm for the officially untitled project - no, not that typa Untitled - is obvious. A labour of love she’s been working on with soulfunk maverick Kelvin Wooten (Anthony Hamilton, Joi, Raphael Saadiq & Kelis) since 2007, or make that B.B.M. (Before Black Messiah), patiently perfecting the stew of soul, jazz, gospel, pop, electronica and world music, whilst continuing to earn her funk stripes touring the world, as a P-Funk All Star within George Clinton’s Parliafunkadelicment thang, before then bagging the much vaunted D’Angelo gig on his remarkable return. As band member, collaborator & topliner; Kendra co-wrote (along with seven other songs on Black Messiah) the gentle, double Grammy-nominated Really Love.
“That ain’t no shabby resume.” Said George Clinton, in a rare moment of understatement.
He should know - it was the original super-producer who first gave Mz. Foster her big break.
Kendra Foster majored in jazz studies and commercial music at Florida A&M University when she first rocked up at George Clinton’s What Production Studios, the facility located in her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. Sitting in on jazz combo’s in Starbucks, Kendra sang with local bands –Smoke, and the wonderfully named Fish N’ Grits – by night, whilst tagging along with drummer mate and fellow Smoker Mike Patterson, aka Mike P, by day, to go write songs up at George’s studio where the young P-Funk clone-stroke-engineer had been hired. It was during Kendra’s P-Funk apprenticeship, whilst still at Uni, that she then scored a summer engagement on Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage, a jazz cruise for the grown n’ wealthy.
In the Foster house, radio host Tom was a big deal. “We all used to listen to him in the morning, on the way to school.” Says Kendra nostalgically. The voyage was all the more significant because it was on the high seas, sailing across the underwater boogie, that she first met kindred spirit and future-producer Kelvin Wooten.
“It was a carnival type cruise, out on the water for seven days and I was asked to play the little jazz areas,” recalls Kendra. “It just so happened that they’d hired this dude from Huntsville, Alabama named Kelvin Wooten too. We we’re all well aware that Kelvin was working with Raphael (its multi-instrumentalist Wooten playing the tuba on Raphael Saadiq’s classic Still Ray) but I didn’t know any of this background story, so when I first heard him playing the keys on deck, I was like ‘Yo. That. Dude. Right. There. Is. Special. Man!’ I loved how he sounded sonically. It wasn’t just what he chose to play, but what he embodied. He even looked like a younger Stevie Wonder.”
It wouldn’t have been hard to spot Kelvin, who clearly hadn’t bought his threads from Gap.
“He was always dressed different, very stylish and tasteful. When we play a show he’ll have on some kinda like poncho and a crazy hat. Even though I felt like ‘I’m doing my thing over here!’ when I saw Kelvin it was like, ‘Woh, he’s one of my people. I’m not the only one that’s weird!’ But somehow he still fitted in more. I was still just a weirdo!” Kendra laughs. “That’s how we met.”
Returning to Florida Kendra had a choice to make. It was getting harder to juggle her studio work with college and besides, the scholarship scratch had run drier than the Hornsby Springs. When Dr. Funkenstein came calling - offering a production deal and a spot on tour - the decision was a maggotless-brainer.
“I was still trying to go to school when I first went on the road with P-Funk and I continued to get a pretty good average ‘cause I was just nerdy like that.”
Kendra’s parents are all about learning, she says with pride. One Dad is a math professor, the other vice president of a satellite campus. One Mum is a career counsellor and the other the first black campus female president of a college in West Virginia. Bearing in mind the notoriety of the P-Funk crew (one of the many rumours has a youthful acid tripping George pissing on or near the Gordy Family whilst performing at a Funkadelic gig in Detroit) what did Kendra’s folks think of her decision to quit school and join P-Funk?
“I think they were good at not completely letting me know what they thought, you know truth is I don’t think they necessarily wanted me to run off and join the circus.” Kendra laughs. “But if I could figure out a way that it would generate money, then ok. I always like to complete something but you know my dreams were coming true, so I think they probably had mixed feelings but they were so supportive, even through the times it got really hard when I moved to New York - but they told me to stay focused, stay productive and make sure that something happens.”
Whilst riding the mothership Kendra became involved in numerous side projects, including the studio version of C.O.P. (Children of Production) with the youngbloods of P-Funk, also forming the duo Divadelick with Sativa (George’s daughter Shonda Clinton), before eventually releasing her debut set, complete with illustrations by legendary P-Funk acolyte Overton Lloyd, entitled (deep breath): Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodic realityshapeshifter.
“Yeah, George & Overton named it. It’s pretty obvious right!?”
Without realizing that I’d practised pronouncing Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodic realityshapeshifter in its entirety prior to the interview, Kendra cuts me off halfway through. Not in an impolite manner, it’s just something she’s probably use to doing out of necessity; to help maximise time. So what was the reaction to Myridamorphonic … “Oh my gosh, we weren’t able to really release it on a humungous level with a trapper-crapper campaign beyond CD Baby because at the time George was also releasing (the P-Funk All Stars album) How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent?” Both albums shared the same single too - Bounce To This which is a contemporary P-Funk highlight and concert staple, with its great verse:
Adds Foster: “George wanted to make sure I was next up, along with his Granddaughters (in the group Kandy Apple Redd), that’s why he featured me. Everybody who heard the album loved it but let me put it this way, a lot of that music began before George even signed me when I was just plugging away in his studio and some of the production was what you did with your homeboy in the time of ADAT.”
Despite the modest production values, songs like the lassowahwahslopdirge Possession Free Philosophy are excellent, showcasing Foster’s burgeoning writing skills. Kelvin Wooten had, in the meantime, run up more credits with Earth Wind & Fire, Macy Gray & Anthony Hamilton, before he checked back in, listened to Kendra’s album and dug it. “Wooten said to me ‘You’re writing so great but man, I feel like you could benefit so much more from good clean production! C’mon let’s start fresh.’ That was the plan and he was ready to write with me but I was pretty busy with P-Funk and it came down to him saying ‘Look Kendra, just lock down three days. If you don’t lock it down today for three days I’m not gonna do it. Lock ‘em down; be committed to it.’ So I did, and we started writing together and it was like: ‘Oh man!’”
In all it took only a month and a half to record the bulk of the new, still nameless album, with one of the songs - the gorgeous ballad A Warning For The Heart – sneaking out via Heard It All Before singer Sunshine Anderson’s The Sun Shine’s Again album.
“That’s a rarity where the melody, lyrics and everything came to me first, before I took it to Wooten. He chose all the proper voicings that made it come to life. His playing gave the idea legs, arms and organs. I was starting to think of being realistic and practical of making sure that this dream, and I’m not a starving artist you know but, I want to validate this life I live so that I can turn a song into honest revenue, and if that means placing it with an artist bigger than me, like Sunshine, then so be it. I wasn’t married (to the song), I didn’t want it enough.”
The new album features songs Kendra wouldn’t give up, the anthemic & swingin’ Respect, blissed out Pon The Phone aka Understand It - retitled because a) the sound effect is like someone talking on the blower and b) Kendra’s manager Rashidi Hendrix is part Jamaican and as Kendra tells it: “he was like, ‘that’s Pon the Phone to me, so that’s it.’” – Along with the killer, clavinet laced fonk of Promise To Stay Here.
“Normally we would start a song from scratch, but Promise To Stay Here was a track that Wooten had already laid, and he was running through a whole selection of tracks in the studio, seeing if I wanted any, and when this one came on I was in the bathroom and when I heard it I ran all the way out into the next room, screaming, ‘That one is mine! I don’t care who you gave it to, its mine, it’s mine, it’s mine!!’
‘Ok, yeah sure, it’s yours.’ He replied.
The track gave Foster the vibe of Rufus & Chaka Khan. “It took me a second but I could already hear ‘da da dah dahhh dah’ and then I thought, ‘what would Chaka do?’ Little by little the words came, and then I got (nervous) that it was too cliché – but I just couldn’t get away from it.” Kendra laughs, “When we finished we felt we’d struck a chord, like it’s that thing where BOOM, it just clicks, that frequency. Where you say to yourself ‘That’s it, I got it.” For a hot second those are my favourite moments.”
Kendra isn’t the only fan of Promise To Stay Here, a track that would prove pivotal to her meeting, and subsequently working with “R&B Jesus” hisself. Enter D’Angelo.
“That’s a magical story,” Says Kendra, as I pull up my chair.
“I would encounter many near miss meetings with D’Angelo because he’s basically a Funkadelic. Times when he’d be at the studio but I’d already left, like ships passing in the night, but it was … I wanna say two thousand and ooooh eight? I had gone to George’s birthday party in LA, and there were two locations so we had the bus. I was pretty much all over the partying so me, Garry Shider, Garry’s wife Garrett, Shonda and a whole bunch of us went back to the bus to return to the hotel, hiding away from everything. That’s when Barbarella Bishop, George’s daughter and manager more or less, began showing us pictures of the party and I realize D’Angelo was in them. I was like, ‘Wait a minute; I didn’t see him in there!’ Then the bus started to drive off and I was like ‘No-no, wait, turn this …’” Kendra mumbles jokingly, like she’s cursing, “’!?*!..king bus around!’ But it was too late, so I told Barbarella, ‘Alright look, just tell this dude that you know a singer from Funkadelic who wants to write and create with him.’ So Barbarella gets me the number two months after I asked for it but I punk out! I don’t feel like I can use the number until I’ve gotten it together.”
Months pass until November 3rd 2008. The day before Barack Obama made history by becoming the first black president of the United States. “I’m on a freakin’ long layover in Atlanta, about to go record Promise To Stay Here with Kelvin - little did I know right? - that’s when I decided to ring the number …
‘Hello? May I speak tooo, err Dee … Angelo?’
I didn’t even know his real name (Michael). I just knew he was the one in terms of our generation. For me, it was a backward progression,” says Kendra. “I still hadn’t gotten to Prince or Funkadelic which were college things that happened to me after I went crazy for some dude who was doin’ Hip Hop stuff with Jazz."
D’Angelo answered the phone in person.
“I had no idea what to say, so I started talking really fast:
‘So … my name is Kendra Foster … I’m the redhead in P-Funk … but not the white girl (I said that because me and Kimmy Manning lookalike) … I don’t know if Barbarella ever asked you if it was ok? Oh my god I hope it’s ok? I don’t know if you’re working on anything but I would really like to write with you.’ He was like ‘Ok cool.’”
D’Angelo humoured Kendra, suggested she send a sample of her music to Ben Kane his engineer (Ben’s masterwork at recording analog would feature on much of Black Messiah). So she selected Promise To Stay Here and a couple of other brand new demo’s, also attaching her photograph.
“Because there’s so many of us (in P-Funk), I really wanted to make sure he knew who I was! Then he texted me; I was already high off the fact I had made all these great songs but I figured he was just gon’ drift off into oblivion, but sure enough he hit me back, saying:
‘Oh my god, I thought it was you!’ Apparently he had already seen me performing with Parliament Funkadelic on Live at Montreux 2004 which was regularly rotated on BET.
D’Angelo said: ‘Wow, you remind me so much of myself.’
That was it, not that they were in any rush. Kendra was still touring immensely with George, whilst D’Angelo was getting back into gear, sedulously working the groove whilst occasionally recording in Queens, before they both made a move up to New York – over a year later.
“Because of the world we’re in, especially in the technological era, he’s very protective, so D did not play me any of that music until we went to the studio. I heard it and was like ‘Wow.’ Alot of what we know now on Black Messiah was already there. You know he’s already a brilliant lyricist, but for efficiency sake he’d be like ‘Ok go ‘head.’ It was all his stuff; I came in and filled in the blanks.”
Like on Voodoo, D’Angelo & Questlove would jam until an idea goes soultronic – creating much of the music to Black Messiah in the tried and trusted process, painstakingly adding flesh to the bone.
“Sugah Daddy, 1000 Deaths & Really Love pretty much exited before I came, and for someone I admire so much musically to then say to me, ‘Ok, let’s see whachu gon’ do with it.’ I feel very blessed, to entrust me with that. Melodically and lyrically we were like two kids in the same sandlot. I’d be finishing something and he’d noticed that I’ve held something back, a line I might have felt was too corny. He’d say to me, ‘whenever you don’t say a line, that’s the one.’
Built from scratch, Kendra's input was integral to the creation of the mercy mercy me statement Til It’s Done (Tutu), sitar sweetened ballad Another Life and arguably Black Messiah’s most devastatingly brilliant song, The Charade.
“The type of stuff that had been going on and came to light just before Black Messiah was released – The Ferguson protests, the Michael Brown, Eric Garner & Trayvon Martin killings – that stuff had been going on for a looong time, certainly in 2011 when we wrote The Charade, that’s when we decided to really get into that (the movement). And it felt like being at school because D was referencing things he was checking out like (writers/social commentators) Jimmy Baldwin, Dorothy Parker & Fran Levowitz, he wanted to say it in that kind of voice because they had a way of being so eloquent and direct with a sardonic wit, so you couldn’t invalidate the subject by calling it too emotional.”
There’s that brilliant lyric in The Charade:
Was that Kendra’s line by chance?
“No that was heeyyim,” Kendra laughs. “That’s what I’m talking about! He’s a brilliant, brilliant lyricist. Actually, funnily enough, he had given me an entirely different subject matter initially, so I went away and kinda came up with the initial melody and wrote an entirely different song from top to bottom. I was really excited about it. Then I was on tour and he called me and said ‘I got it’ he was like ‘I got it, man’, and he sung that line. He had taken the melody and I was like ‘Woh, you wanna get deep? Let’s do it, I like that even better!’”
The Charade, Another Life, Really Love & Sugah Daddy would go on to be included in D’Angelo’s initial live tour with the Vanguard in 2012. Indeed, the bulk of the album had already been finished at that point, though it would be a further 2 and half years until D’Angelo would sanction the album’s release. For a relatively unknown writer like Kendra, the wait must have been excruciating. Surely it felt like they were sitting on gold?
“Hahaha, yes of course, it felt that way. Nobody could resist the desire, especially a person like me! I mean, even though I have a whole bunch of unreleased stuff people aren’t necessarily waiting on me to that degree. But for him, yes. I have totally been like ‘this is crazy!?’ But if I’ve learnt anything from him it’s to be patient with my own perfection. And he’s especially a perfectionist, a purist to an extreme extent. He’s not concerned with anything superficial; it (the art) has a life you know? So therefore he wanted to nurture it ‘til the very end. But it’s not all been perfectionism going rampant, the industry has become interesting that when you make music a certain way it can become displaced – and there have been times I’m sure when he wanted to put the music out, or complete, and he’d have meetings with suits but not always get the support to see it through. But all artists have their process. So, yes I used to ask him if it was ready and he’d say to me ‘It’s all good, it’s going to be fine.’”
On February 15th Kendra Foster will be lining up on the red carpet, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, in with a shout to win a trio of Grammy’s for her work with D’Angelo on Black Messiah. Despite spreading her wings and going solo, it’s been good to her this Vanguard lark.
“I’ll always be Vanguard; that will always be me.” Explains Kendra, “So many things have come off for me, I’m writing more with other people and other producers, and I’m doing my own shows. It was hard to take leave because I’m extremely attached to the movement. We’re all like a family. Though I want to see my own work come to life too, the work that I’ve been hatching, that has been in my womb. This album has been my first little baby for so long.”