Is Kendra Smith ready for the country?
by Gina Arnold
photos by Lyn Gaza
from Option #62 May/June 1995
Four hours north of San Francisco lies the road to Kendra Smith’s place.
Although usually not taken, it diverges at Confusion Hill, winding through an interminable lane of redwoods known locally as the Avenue of the Giants. Some of the trees stick perpendicularly out of the rocks as if God had pulled them out in anger and shoved them back in any which way. The area looks abandoned except for the occasional ramshackle
house by the side of a road. One has a tin woodsman on its porch. Another has a rickety sign out front that reads: “Carving for Christ”. Stephen King would probably love it.
During World War II, this part of the coast was used to train Air Force pilots for fogbound landings because the number of clear days around here is infinitesimally small. When the fog rolls in, it coats the mountainside, fluffing up the horizon, insinuating itself into every nook and cranny, weaving a trail throughout the wood. It is an eerie, gray-green, oak-covered landscape, one which, according to legend, is haunted by Coastanoan ghosts.
There’s an abandoned mill nearby where the owner and his son were killed in freak accidents allegedly caused by spirits of angry Indians; there’s been more than one Bigfoot sighting in the last five years. More mysterious still, the novelist Thomas Pynchon is supposed to live in the area, but no one knows where.
Parts of his last novel, Vineland, bear more than a passing resemblance to the place where Smith, the former
Dream Syndicate bassist and founding vocalist for Opal, has chosen to make her abode.
Most people who abandon rock bands spend the rest of their lives pining for their glorious past. Not Ms. Smith. In the six years since she abdicated Opal in the midst of a grueling tour, she has carved out a secretive life for herself,
building an organic farm in a meadow in the mountains and, with the help of her father, a small cabin. Since she grows most of her own food – supplemented by huge bags of store-bought beans and rice – Kendra’s meals are determined by season: leeks and greens in winter, tomatoes and zucchini in springtime, and pesto all summer long. She keeps several cats – including a lumbering 25 pounder named Mr. Kitty, who resembles a small bear – plus a bunch of chickens and a donkey she’s training to pack wood. Smith lives “off the grid,” meaning she isn’t dependent on Pacific Gas & Electric or the state-run water system for her daily wants. What electricity she has comes from a solar panel
on the hillside, her water comes from a tank, and everything else is powered by propane. Her cabin, a pretty, sunny, log-hewn space decorated with delicate rugs and an enormous wall of bookshelves, also contains an authentic Irish
stove from the 1920s. Chopping wood from fallen branches is one of her most important summer tasks.
At night the temperature often dips into the twenties. “When I first got here,” Kendra recalls, “I’d huddle
up by the stove wearing every sweater I had, with the cats all piled on my lap.” Now that she’s grown hardened to the weather, Smith spends evenings at her pump organ or strumming her acoustic guitar. The organ needs no amplifier
in the high-ceilinged, 12-by-13 cabin; the sound here is amazing, a hollow shout. “Nighttime is a good time to play,” says Kendra, fingering her harmonium, a strangely utilitarian instrument painted army green which sits unobtrusively
in a corner. She pumps the bellows and the notes ring out, sustained and resonant, almost devotional.
It is easy to picture Smith here in the evenings, fending off the incipient gloom with music as fog down creeps from the mountain. It is a type of mystique to which the songs on her atmospheric new record, Five Ways of Disappearing
(4AD), lend themselves without much effort. Up here in the country, she is pretty much hidden from sight. But because her cool presence, humane voice, and unusual folky sensibility colored much of California’s early-’80s Paisley
Underground music scene, Smith has not exactly been out of mind.
Five Ways of Disappearing stems from an earlier album, The Guild of Temporal Adventurers, which she put together at the behest of a fan named Sunshine, who runs the tiny Fiasco label. After the album’s release in 1992, various labels
expressed interest in her new work, and eventually Smith signed with 4AD. The new record, recorded quickly and easily with the help of her constant companion, Alex Uberman, and a handful of musicians in the Garberville area, is a bit more Gothic sounding. Steeped in pump organ, the album is akin to the late Velvet Underground singer Nico’s
solo works The Marble Index and Desertshore, only lighter in tone and meaning. It is very much in line with Kendra’s former work in Opal, complete with placid acoustic guitar, dark-tinged tunes, and her gentle, unforced vocals.
Besides being a musical soundtrack that’s pregnant with the timbre of its environment, Five Ways of Disappearing is full of Smith’s whimsical literate sensibility. The song Drunken Boat, for example, is inspired by the Rimbaud poem
of the same name (Le Bateau Ivre); Temporarily Lucy is a witchy tale of a mysterious stranger; Valley of the Morning Sun is a list of the names of old dirigibles; Aurelia was taken from a short story by De Nerval. As always, Smith
makes odd covers choices: the Guild record had a Can song, She Brings the Rain; Five Ways features a twisted
version of Richard and Mimi Farina’s Bold Marauder which, stripped of the original version’s bluegrassy nasalness, is an eerie chant of lust and anomie.
Although she is pleased with the release of Five Ways, Smith has extreme reservations about the music industry. “We’ve been thinking of ways you can get stuff out without it – cassettes, mail order, books, other media,” she says.
“Maybe it ought to be like in the old days, when artists had a patron to support them.”
Smith played one gig in L.A. in September as part of 4AD’s tenth anniversary celebration, All Virgos Are Mad, and plans to make a video for the song Temporarily Lucy. She won’t be touring though; her garden needs too much tending
for her to leave home for long periods of time.
It took Smith a while, after moving up to Northern California in 1989, to start thinking about music again. For one thing, at first she worked three days a week at a nearby organic farm to earn some cash. It was a backbreaking job, picking
and weeding and loading huge containers of tomatoes and vegetables in 100-degree heat. And when she was finished, she had to go back to her homestead to do her own chores.
It was the diametric opposite of the life she had led for 10 years in Davis and Los Angeles – a life which began the night she drove with a couple of girlfriends to see the Clash at San Francisco’s Kezar Pavilion. Soon after,
Smith started working at the UC-Davis college radio station, formed a band and learned to play bass. After
moving to L.A. and joining the Dream Syndicate, Smith got a student loan from UCLA which she used to buy equipment and go on tour. Later she took temporary jobs to support herself, and helped record the Syndicate’s classic first album, Days of Wine and Roses, as well as the Paisley Underground ’60s tribute compilation, Rainy Day. She later worked with the Rain Parade’s David Roback on various projects – Clay Allison and the Kendra
Smith/Keith Mitchell Group – which turned into Opal and has since evolved into Mazzy Star.
But in 1988, after willing Hope Sandoval her slot in rock history, Smith all but disappeared from the temporal world of indie music. To those who live deeply inside that world – many of whom are addicted to its insidious charms – Smith’s
abdication was seen as inexplicable. The possibility of some kind of drug freak-out is often bandied about; her sanity is even questioned. But that type of speculation ceases when you meet Kendra face-to-face. At 34, she is quite beautiful in spite of her rugged lifestyle. And her life without a telephone or conventional electricity is as staunchly independent as the low-rent reality of rock-band bohemia.
In fact, Kendra’s lifestyle has much in common with the DIY ideals which fuelled her initial call to punk rock. “I am really bugged by the whole aspect of music for money,” she says. “Before, art was just supposed to ornament your culture, or facilitate different social or magical events. But now music is done with the hopes that it can work out some logistical or financial things for you. It’s supposed to fulfill expectations somehow.”
That is the aspect of music from which Smith has flown not once, but twice – first by leaving the Dream Syndicate, then by leaving Opal. Forming bands is her forte; cashing in on what she’s formed is less interesting. She laughs. “Someone else said that the other day, in a different way. They said, ‘You seem to have the ability to leave right before a band gets successful!'”
“But I have to do that,” she goes on. “The whole point is that I have to do things while it’s living and really vital – while it’s either doing something for me or fulfilling my ideas about what music should really be and do. Why waste time?”
Her move to the country was just another attempt to retain the integrity of her ideals and her music. “My environment influences my music to a degree,” she says, “but only because I choose it. Because what makes me do the kind of music I do is the same thing that made me want to come here and enhance it in a way. This was just a place where
I could tap more purely into the things I wanted to tap into – the energies that feed music. The general orientation of my music has always been the same, no matter where I was. It would be the same if I lived in a cruddy apartment.”
“Obviously it’s easier for me to hear, uncluttered, the different musical things coming to me in this environment,”
she continues. “In an urban environment it’s a little harder. But it’s all in your head, really; you can create a quiet space for yourself anywhere.”
Many people who return to the land originally grew up that way – in rural places, or with hippie parents. Not Smith. An Army brat, she was born in the U.S. but spent her childhood living in various places, including Germany. When
she was 14, her family relocated to San Diego, a town she now practically disowns. “I hated it immediately. My favorite things were horseback riding and skiing, and then I moved to Southern California where everyone was into tennis and surfing.”
Her German background is interesting, given the similarity between Smith’s current music and the solo records of Nico. Could that German childhood have cast some kind of neo-Teutonic-Gothic light over her future career? “That’s an easy correspondence to make,” she says, “but no. The music in Germany was like the worst of the dregs of what couldn’t make it in America anymore. There was an American military station that played soul – I was really into soul for a while – and some rock, just a few shameful things. The only thing living in Europe did was to completely free me
from American commercialism; for five years I watched no television.
“As far as Nico goes, I have a love for Gothic things in general, and Nico had kind of that sound. The harmonium deal was accidental. I hadn’t thought about her harmonium when I got this one, but I do like what she did with it. She
explored some really interesting vocal ranges, lower scales and timbres that are really unusual for a woman.”
She smiles, reminiscing: “When I was in the Dream Syndicate, we opened for Nico at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco in about 1982. I was really excited about that at the time.”
I have an indelible memory of Kendra standing on stage at the Rat in Boston in 1985, wearing a groovy miniskirt
and knee-high suede boots, gazing coolly at the audience as she sang Fell from the Sun. At one point while visiting her in the mountains, I reminded her of that gig and those boots. She shrugged off the illusion: “Clay Allison – that was an awful tour; terrible tensions swirling around.”
A few weeks later, however, Smith shows up for a photo shoot down in San Francisco wearing the same boots, dug out of the closet for my benefit. She had, in fact, brought a bagful of what she calls “my Jimi Hendrix duds,” a wonderful array of clothing gleaned from the “free” box at the Garberville Salvation Army, including velvet tunics,
vests, pants and a pair of horns which she insisted on wearing in her hair all night long – presumably a kind of jokey allusion to Pan and her pagan lifestyle.
Smith’s life is not as pagan or primitive as it would appear. It’s true that she bathes in an outdoor bathhouse, and that getting her water even remotely warm is quite a chore. But the solar panel provides enough energy to play her CD,
there’s a six-pack of Coca-Cola tucked under the sink, and she drives into nearby Garberville once a week to take a Middle Eastern dance class, attends seminars in donkey packing, visits neighbors, and occasionally DJs on a local public radio station.
Kendra got her first taste of radio at UC-Davis in the late-’70s. “One fellow there who was [future Dream Syndicate member] Steve Wynn’s roommate was pretty influential on us all,” she recalls. “He had a show and he kept getting kicked off ’cause he’d do things like play three jazz records at once. He was into things like Albert Ayler and all those extreme jazz people – and into punk rock. He was kind of a pa figure. At that time, when I started working there, I met
people and got exposed to more music and I kind of put myself on a crash course to study music while I had the music library at my disposal. I listened to everything I got my hands on.”
Another roommate taught her to play bass, which she practiced along with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Presently
she transferred to UCLA, where she formed the Dream Syndicate with Steve Wynn and Dennis Duck. For a while, the Dream Syndicate epitomized a new kind of punk intensity, and Smith, standing coolly in the background, added some
indefinable aspect to the mix. But in 1983, just before the band signed to A&M, she quit. “I could foresee that it had to be a space for Steve to do his trip, and I wanted to do more than play bass.”
Smith was also burnt out by touring. “Guys don’t mind the irresponsibility of it, and the superficiality of the relationships, and being worshiped by strangers. But I felt like I was never connecting with anyone. It was just meaningless conversations with millions of people. Being in a band,” she remarks, “is a geek scene. It’s fun as long as there’s an attitude of us-against-the-world. But that’s always pretty short-lived.”
Kendra stayed plugged into the music scene, more or less, before she and then-boyfriend David Roback did Opal’s first full album, 1987’s Happy Nightmare Baby (SST). Then came the end. “I should have quit right after that record, because I could already see disjunction there,” she says, “happening in a pretty serious way.”
After a short tour, she finally escaped. “I cut myself off completely. I really didn’t want to know what was going on with anybody. Even though I was still in L.A. a little bit longer, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything anymore.”
In the pen behind Kendra Smith’s house, the donkey brays for dinner. It is a sad sound, as though the poor thing is being tortured or choked. Kendra rushes to it, leaving me to contemplate the ensuing darkness. To live like this, far from civilization, at the mercy of your own devices, takes a really strong inner life. It also requires a certain amount of courage – a need to take risks.”I’ve had a lot of different changes in my life, so it almost seems like a lot of different lives,” she says. “But I was longing to be in this place. My last year in L.A., I remember, I’d wander around alleys and places that were open ground, that weren’t all manicured, and see weird flowers or something strange and I just wanted to be in the country, I guess.”
Kendra was de-tuning herself. “For me, this change has been pretty easy. I travel pretty lightly. I’ve never had much more than a room in a house. And I really like having everything limited by the daylight hours, by the temperature, by what is growing, by how much electricity I can gather. When I first started I just had a trickle for a radio.”
She shrugs. “To the degree that my music is involved with pop, I’ve already assimilated everything I needed to assimilate. Besides,” she adds with a glance around her finite cabin, “limitations are good for art.”