The distinctive vocal tone and idiosyncratic writing style of Kendra Lea Miller featured as part of our second Oneiric Escapism collection back in September 2015; the then eighteen-year-old's debut release, Daughter of the Wolves, having offered a darkly atmospheric, sinisterly enticing take on alternative electro-pop. Despite temporarily swapping beats and layers for a sonically-straightforward acoustic setup, the Canadian's more lyrically personal follow-up EP, Sea Witch (May 2017), once again demonstrates an apparent proclivity for building songs organically rather than to a predetermined pattern. A Lonely Ghost Burning spent some time getting to know Kendra, discussing how she ended up recording an acoustic record, the pros and cons of her perfectionism, her future use of gender pronouns, and the increasing desire and confidence she has with which to tackle politicised issues in her writing.
I think I’m of the viewpoint that, if people don’t agree with my views and my values, then I don’t really want them to be consuming my music.
Kendra: I’ve been writing since I was just a little Kendra. [laughs] I think I actually started by writing prose — short stories and things — and it evolved into writing music. I think my mom just put me in singing lessons; we actually used to do singing lessons together, which was really cute. I’m turning twenty in August, so I’ll have been taking voice lessons for the majority of my life. It always felt natural to me to be writing music; I can’t point out a specific moment where I was like, “I must write music.” It’s always felt very organic for me.
Kendra: Obviously, with the internet, it’s so different now; literally anybody can release music at any time, and everyone has so much choice. The industry is so over-saturated with music, which is great, but that means you can get lost in the sea of music that is out there. I’m going to school for music, and I’ve found that, in my music programme, we’re very tight knit. I’ve created a lot of connections with other young artists, which is really exciting, and it’s really exciting to see what people are creating together. I’m in a Popular Music programme at Western University, and everybody’s in a band, and everybody’s really supportive of each other. It’s really cool to be in that kind of community.
Kendra: I think it definitely has. I think it’s given me more of a purpose in writing my music, I guess. I’ve always been very feminist and political in my views, but definitely with everything that’s been happening… Even on the first song on my new EP, Heart on the Floor, I say that love calls for a revolution. I think I’m definitely beginning to listen to more artists who are more politically involved and that is inspiring me to speak out about my sexuality and feminism and all that stuff, whereas a couple of years ago maybe I wouldn’t have been as comfortable putting those kinds of opinions out there. It’s hard to say that artists have a responsibility to try to change the world, but that’s definitely what I’m trying to do.
Kendra: That’s a really good question. I think I’m of the viewpoint that, if people don’t agree with my views and my values, then I don’t really want them to be consuming my music. And I know that’s hard to say, because as an artist you need to be able to live off of your art, but I think it’s more important for me to be able to sleep at night; to not be shying away from those important topics.
Kendra: No, no, no — it’s all good! [laughs]
Kendra: I always think about this, and I don’t really think I have a process. I think it’s usually that I have something to say; I always start with the lyrics, because that’s what I think I’m best at. So, if there’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’ve been obsessing about, I’m like, “I need to get this down”, so I just start writing. Lately, and with my last EP, it started with poetry. I know a lot of people write journal entries, and that’s always felt really contrived to me. I remember trying to write journals, when I was smaller, and reading them back and being like, “Oh, gross! Disgusting! This is horrible!” So, now I’ve just been writing poetry as journal entries and then picking through all of the words that I’ve written and putting them to music, adding more words and melodies and whatever. I find that that makes my songs more organic and real, rather than coming up with all these metaphors and weird analogies. So, that’s what I’ve been doing of late, and it’s really been working for me.
Kendra: I think that I’ve always been a very creative person, and I think that art is, for a lot of artists, definitely an outlet emotionally and mentally — that’s just how I kind of deal with my life: to make art. So, I think that it’s never felt contrived or forced. I think, in that way, it comes easily to me.
Kendra: I think, for me, getting outside and just being alone. I think a lot of people, myself included, can get very caught up in… like, I’ll just spend hours scrolling on Instagram, and that’s such a waste of my life. [laughs] So, I try to disconnect from everything and be alone with my thoughts, which is a really scary thing: to just be alone with yourself. Also, when I haven’t written music for a while, I’ll just be like, “Kendra, you’re feeling unhappy, and it’s because you’re not writing music.” Sometimes I have to force myself to be like, “Okay. You’re just going to write three lines”, and then I always feel better.
Kendra: Such as, like, self-doubt? [laughs] I think a lot of people face self-doubt in all areas of their lives, but it’s funny, because I was just thinking about how, when I was younger — like, twelve — I would just write songs all the time. Left, right and centre: just writing songs. Now, I put a lot more pressure on myself because I’m releasing music out into the world, and I’m performing music. I’m very much a perfectionist, and every word has to be right and has to sound right, every melody has to be perfect. I get stuck in ruts: being like, “Oh, there are so many people writing amazing music; what do I have to add to the conversation?” I just have to remind myself that everybody has something unique and important to say. I think self-doubt is a bigger thing than just in creativity; it’s a personal problem that a lot of people deal with.
Kendra: That’s a great question. If you figure it out, let me know! [laughs] I think I have to remember that music really is, I feel, my purpose in life, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s what brings me the most fulfilment. So, when I start doubting myself, I do have to sometimes force myself to sit down and be like, “You’re gonna write a song today. It doesn’t matter if it’s really shitty, you’ve just gotta do it.”
Kendra: I think I used to write a lot of sad music, but I don’t think I was sad when I was writing the music. I watched an interview with Banks who said that creativity and writing is delayed, so something will happen like six months ago and now you’re only just starting to write about it. I think that’s a really interesting idea. But I think, rather than a mood, I definitely get in a headspace of being creative and inspired, and when the inspiration strikes, I just have to write as much as I can and be as productive as I can, because it comes in cycles. When you lose it, it’s sometimes hard to get back into the groove of things.
Kendra: I think I always feel really pumped up, hyped, like, “Yeah! I can do this music thing, man. I’m the best!” [laughs] I’m always kind of riding a high after I’ve written for a long time and I feel like I’ve created something new — I always feel great.
Kendra: I think there are two parts to this answer. First of all, I released Daughter of the Wolves at the end of high school, and I think that I’ve definitely changed so much since then. I never would’ve released anything acoustic, because I always tell people that I’m not an acoustic artist — I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter girl; me and my guitar — that’s never what I wanted to be. A few months ago — in December, I think — I was lucky enough to be invited to Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario. I know you probably don’t know where that is. [laughs] Artists like Johnny Cash and U2 have recorded there, so it was kind of a big deal to me. I recorded two songs there — Seven Seas, and Golden Hour — and they were pretty rough, but they were just me and my acoustic guitar because that’s just what ended up happening. I had those two songs, and I was like, “Well, I want to release them; I’m not just gonna keep them to myself”, and so I decided to build a project around it. I already had a couple of songs that kind of fitted the concept I was going for, and so I was just like, “Alright, I guess I’m releasing an acoustic EP. Never thought I would do that.”
But I think it’s good to try new things and to grow up a little bit, like, “Kendra, you can release an acoustic EP — you don’t have to be stuck in one genre forever.” A lot of people that I’ve talked to don’t feel like it’s a super singer-songwriter-y EP, and I think that the lyrics really speak for themselves, so I feel like I’m not putting myself in that box, necessarily.
Kendra: I keep telling people that I’m going through this identity crisis where I don’t know what genre I want to make. I’ve been listening to this band called Muna — they’re a three-piece, all women, kind of pop-synthy sort of thing. They’re all queer and they’re really political in their music, and I think that I’ve really been inspired by them and inspired by the band sound. So, I think I want to try to get more into bigger, alternative-pop-band kind of music, start working and writing with other people, building my sound and growing as an artist that way.
Kendra: I think it changes all the time. As I said before, art has become very political for me and a way of expressing my views and values, but also, mentally and emotionally, it’s a release; it’s very cathartic to write music and then let go and release it out into the world for other people to consume and interpret. I think when people listen to music, or consume any kind of art, they’re looking at ways in which it relates to them and their life. So, the political side of things, and then just for me, personally, as catharsis — mentally, I need to be creating and making art.
Kendra: Definitely fear of failure. I’ve always been super-perfectionist; I hate making mistakes, and I hate being wrong. I think that’s really held me back as an artist in terms of not writing as freely as I could be or not taking opportunities to perform that I could be taking. It’s something that I obviously need to work on for myself, but being an artist, and calling myself an artist, is a very scary thing, I think.
Kendra: I think there are two sides. I think it can hold me back because, for example, I’ll record a vocal take a hundred-million-bajillion times and still not be happy with it; that’s just not a realistic thing to be doing. [laughs] It’s a waste of time and money. But also, being able to know exactly what I want and how I want to execute a concept, or every single word in my song, makes me really proud that I’ve put so much time and effort and thought into everything that I do. But I think there’s definitely a line with perfectionism, because I think it comes with my anxiety with which I can be very obsessive and self-doubting. So, I think there’s pros and cons to the whole thing, but it can definitely be debilitating.
Kendra: I play on campus a lot, and I’ve been trying to take more opportunities. I don’t gig every night, which I should start doing. I think I’ve definitely gotten better and more confident. I don’t care what people think about my songs and my lyrics, because I have enough confidence in my writing ability to be like, “This is my music — take it or leave it”, but performance anxiety is definitely a big monster to tackle. I know when I get on stage that I’ll be fine; it’s just the leading up that is kind of horrible. I know that when I start singing, I always feel completely at home on stage and in front of an audience. My dad was saying that public speaking and death are almost on the same level of people’s worst fears, and it’s the same thing: you’re putting yourself out there and being like, “I am a musician. I am an artist. This is what I do”, and for people to be judging you all the time — scary thing! But, you gotta do what you gotta do. [laughs]
Kendra: Yeah, I definitely do, and I’ve definitely grown to love it more than I used to. I used to really dread public performances of any kind. I recently performed at my school — the Women’s Study department hosted this thing called ‘Emergence’, which was a queer festival of the arts. I put together a little set-list of cover songs and originals, and the theme was the Pulse shooting in Orlando. I put together a set-list that revolved around the idea of love as resistance or revolution. I think things like that, where I really have a purpose — and everybody there was either an ally or queer themselves — are really fulfilling to me. But yeah, I’ve definitely grown to like performing more than I used to.
Kendra: Music, and I surround myself with a lot of incredible people: all my friends are really inspiring, amazing and supportive, and of course, my family. Those are my joys in life.
Kendra: Right now, I’m very fascinated by the idea of love and relationships, because there’s this whole relationship culture, especially with me being in university, being young and [given that] my friends are dating. Just to see all the little obsessions that people get caught up in. For example, the whole ‘read receipt’ thing on iPhones — how you can see if people have read your messages — like, if someone you’re dating has read a message but hasn’t replied in three hours. And you talk to your friends about it and it’s this whole big deal; it’s very fascinating to me. It’s very interesting to see this whole culture of dating and the idea of being in a relationship with someone being the ultimate form of validation: somebody else finds you emotionally, physically, sexually attractive. So that’s the ultimate form of ‘I am valid and valued and worth something’ in the world. But that’s external validation… So, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately… That was a very long-winded answer! [laughs]
Kendra: One of the things is definitely community: especially the music community, and also I think the queer community is very — I don’t want to generalise, but — artistic and creative. That sense of community and being with like-minded people who have the same values and think in similar ways to me is just really nice; to feel like you’re part of something bigger that’s changing the world for the better.
Kendra: That’s an interesting question because I think that I mostly write for myself, not really taking into consideration what people might take from my music… But maybe I do? I think some of my music, definitely on this EP, has been centred around, for example, a lot of themes of guilt. The whole concept is around the ocean — whereas Daughter of the Wolves was the forest — and a lot of the lyrics are about washing the guilt away, washing the sin from my hands. To me, that was coming from internalised homophobia, but I don’t know necessarily if that would come across to people without me specifically saying it, because it’s not like I was using any gendered pronouns — there are no love songs really on the EP. A lot of the songs are about me not fully accepting myself as a queer person, so I think if anybody sees themselves in that, just knowing that other people are feeling that way… Because I think it’s a very isolating thing, sometimes: to be queer and feeling like you’re different from other people.
Kendra: I think yes, just because I’ve recently been thinking a lot about starting a band or working with other people, like producers, and being like “Okay, is this something that I have to bring up?” I’m going to be using ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns if I’m writing some kind of cheesy, gross love song. I’m always torn between feeling like it’s a non-issue for me and that it shouldn’t be this whole big political deal, but also it could, potentially, have an impact on my career. If people aren’t accepting of that and don’t want to work with me, or want me to change what I write about or who I am — it’s just things that straight artists don’t really have to consider. It’s a very personal thing, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s everybody’s business — my own sexuality is my own business, right? — but I have to be aware of it when working with other people. So, in that way, yeah: I do think it’s a bit isolating and just something that I constantly have to be considering when working with other people in the industry.
Kendra: I think, to quote Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changing”, but, to put it plain and simple, there are people who still don’t accept people who are queer. So, it’s just something that we have to think about, which kinda sucks. Hopefully we will move forwards as a human species and get over it. [laughs]
Kendra: That’s a great question. I watched a video on how, a lot of times, artists feel like their art or creativity is what defines them or makes them valuable as a person. But you have to be able to separate you, as a human being, and your art. How much art you’re making, how good it is — even though that’s subjective, obviously — how creative you’re being at a certain time; those things don’t define how good of a person you are. But, I do think that my identity as a human being is very tied to my creativity and my art, because it’s something that is very personal to me and is something that I hold so close to my heart. I think it’s very much a part of my core identity, but I don’t think it’s healthy to let it completely define my whole being because, if there are days where I don’t write — where I don’t feel like I have a song in me — that doesn’t mean that I’ve failed or that I’m no longer a valuable human. So, I think I’m somewhere in the middle.
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