Kendra Sells on Bad Doctors and Believing in Yourself

In December of 2020, Austin-based artist Kendra Sells emerged from a period of lockdown-induced creativity with their debut solo single, “u n me.” It was a lo-fi take on the soul and neo-jazz fusion of their band BluMoon, foreshadowing the direction of their first solo EP, All In Your Head. True to the title and the project’s sketchbook collage aesthetic, it’s a record that puts Sells more in touch with their musical impulses; keep the jazz scat singing, but replace the full band grooves with bedroom pop beats, and there’s nothing to stop her from swerving on a dime, flipping the vibe of a song at the speed of thought.

Take the singles, which pull Sells in wildly different directions–from twinkling chimes and effervescent synths on the pop gem “Call Me When Ur Dead” to jagged guitars on “Wondering//Bad Doctorzz,” a rocking critique of the healthcare industry that twists, turns, and gathers steam as Sells gets more and more righteously fired up. Each track comes with at least one beat switch of its own, and the EP culminates in a multi-part title track, a survey of her unleashed imagination and captivating voice.

Before the release of All In My Head (out Friday, May 14 on Quiet Year Records), Sells spoke to The All Scene Eye via Zoom, flanked by their cat Sylvester, about the writing and recording process. Read on for more about their newfound sense of creative freedom and why they say they can’t go back to past modes of creating.

We’re well over a year into pandemic life. How are you holding up?

Well, a few weeks ago I finally started working since everything shut down at the beginning, so I spent a whole year just working on music, doing art, and now life kinda feels like it’s back to normal. Obviously, no it’s not, but before, I was working four jobs, and I was always busy. I was never home, I was never sleeping, and it’s kinda getting back into that. So it’s a love-hate thing, I guess.

How did being away from work that long affect what you do musically?

It gave me time to just sit and think about what I want to do for myself as an artist, ’cause I play with a band, and I kind of have been doing all of the work for that, you know? Doing all the booking, doing all the payouts, everything that there is to do–social media, emailing–and it made me realize that I was working really hard for three other people when I could just be working that hard for myself, and it’ll be more rewarding. I was like, “You know, I do want to put out something for myself and not have to worry about pleasing the other three people in my band and having their, you know, whatever opinions about it.” I guess I just was able to turn inward as an artist, and I am so grateful for it. At first, obviously, it was the scariest thing ever, but I definitely think it was needed and eye-opening for myself.

When did you first start working on this new EP, All In Your Head?

It dates back to last May. The first song that I made, “All In Your Head,” I made in May of last year, and from there I maybe had a song a month that I would add to it, and then I was like, “Yeah, I think I have a solid amount of something to work on,” so I refined the songs some more and finished up in November.

You mentioned when you’re writing with BluMoon, there’s three other people involved, and when you’re writing for yourself, you don’t have to worry about what they want. How did that change what you were doing, sound-wise?

A lot of these were songs that I was pitching for the band, and honestly, they’re all in other bands, so BluMoon was just my project–you know, that I am the only one that’s completely dedicated to. So it was just really hard to get them together for rehearsals, to try and get together to workshop our songs, and they were just sounding the way that a song that the band made would sound. Kind of the soul jazz fusion, which I still think I’ve kept, but I definitely just expanded it a lot more and went at it with more freedom. They’re all, like, music majors–you know, squares. Love them, but I felt like I didn’t have to be whoever BluMoon told me I had to be, even though BluMoon is mine. It’s weird, you know? It’s all just in my head. [laughs] I guess I just explored and experimented a lot more than I felt like I had the power to do with the band.

Even if you’re in charge, any time you’re having to show things to three other people, I imagine that is more of a hurdle than just listening to it on your headphones.

Exactly, ’cause I’m just sitting there on my computer, and I’m like, “I want this. I like that. I don’t like this,” and it’s not like, “What do you think?”

Is there a particular track that is emblematic of that freedom to you?

I feel that way about “Your Cut,” the very first one, for sure, and then the fourth track, “Wondering//Bad Doctorzz,” and even “All In Your Head.” Especially with “Your Cut,” I really was playing around. I was in there making myself laugh with the things that I was making. I was like, “Oh, this is funny,” like, “I like this, it’s making me smile,” you know? I felt like I was really able to bring my sense of humor into a lot of the songs. Like I said before, I love my band, but we are different people, and that’s fine, ’cause we make music together that we love, but I felt like I really got to be myself and not hold that back, especially on that song. 

I kind of made the whole second dance part as a joke to myself. I was like, “Oh, what if we just went into something like, eh,” and then I was like, “You know what? I like this! This feels like me. This is just what I like to dance to, how I like to express myself.” I felt like I wouldn’t have been able to do that with the band in that way.

I love the way you mess with song structure. Like, on that track, you have that vocal run out of the opening section where you go up and up and up, and then you hold on until your voice kinda gives out, and you go right into the beat switch.

Yeah, exactly! Like, I thought that that was hilarious. I was like, “Oh, couldn’t hold that note out. I’m not gonna try it again, ’cause I couldn’t do it the first time, so I’m just gonna keep going with it.” [laughs] It was just a lot of fun and rewarding to mess around in that way.

Where do you record? What is the setup like?

It’s really just at a desk in my bedroom. I have a little keyboard, then my mic–I would put a blanket over myself while recording, so it’d be like a little sound booth, and that’s basically it.

Did you find there was a difference recording that way as well, versus recording with BluMoon?

Only slightly, because with our last album, most of it was recorded in a garage, in the same type of intimate space. You don’t really feel like you’re in a studio even though it’s being used as a studio, so if anything, that is kind of what encouraged me to accept the fact that I’m just recording in my room and I’m not in some fancy schmancy studio. It didn’t really feel different in that way.

One other place on this record where I love what you do with song structure is the title track, “All In Your Head,” which you do as this three-track set with an intro and an outro. There are hard breaks, but they’re not where the breaks between tracks are, you know what I mean?

Yeah, with “All In Your Head,” like I said, that was the first track that I recorded, and I was like, “Yeah, let me just make a little EP.” That really was two different songs–the beginning of “All In Your Head” was actually the second part of “Crawlspace,” which, I just broke “Crawlspace” up into two songs. If you listen, it’s the same chords, but it’s just different-sounding. I was just in Ableton, not really knowing how to use Ableton, I was like, “Okay, I just made that idea. Let me just make something else now,” and they were really just on the same thing, so I was like, “Let me scooch ’em over together, put a little transition.” I feel like in that way, it gave the song a whole new meaning and a whole new essence, you know? Just clumping them together, ’cause they weren’t originally as one, but they became as one, and now it just makes sense to me.

Where did that song start as a lyrical idea, and how did that become the name of this project, All In Your Head?

Well, lyrically, “All In Your Head”–I guess it really started on guitar, just that vocal lick. I was like, “What do I say here? What is coming to me?” and I just hummed that out, and I was like, “Yeah, I like that.” I kind of went from there. I was like, “Was it all in your head? Was it something that you dread?” And I’m like, “What are things that are in my head?” Sometimes it feels like whatever you’re thinking is reality, but it really is just what is going on within you and not necessarily as everyone is perceiving it, so I went from there, and it just built itself. My bestie told me to just call the whole EP All In Your Head, and I was like, “Okay, yeah, good idea,” so. [laughs]

It’s a good name for a solo project too because it’s all literally from your head.

Exactly, yeah, it has so many meanings. They just keep coming as it goes, and that’s what I love about it. It just feels like a phrase that you’re gonna say one day in your day-to-day talk, and it just is something to consider often. I guess this EP just helps me to be more mindful of that and to consider those things, if that makes sense.

Other places on this EP, you really get into some things that are from your head, from your perspective, but are also very real. One that really strikes me is “Wondering//Bad Doctorzz.” Can you tell me about what inspired that track for you?

God, every single shitty doctor [laughs] I’ve ever been to. I have type one diabetes, and I’m always needing something, and whether it’s insurance, being at the pharmacy, being in the waiting room for, like, three hours, it just always seems like I’m never prioritized. I have a lot of anger, honestly, towards the entire healthcare system, and the way that they kind of just neglect people, especially black women.

I feel like that’s something that so many people can relate to–having a health issue and not being taken seriously. You’re not being treated the way that you know someone with more money would be treated. It just makes me feel pathetic sometimes, and I’m just like, “Fuck these doctors. Y’all have a job to do.” In my mind, they’re just as bad as cops, you know? They’re out here not really putting our health at the forefront because they’re so busy, and this has been an issue for years. I don’t see why we haven’t been able to figure that out so people can get better care, and more in-depth care. It feels really frustrating to sit here and feel like they just win, so I wrote them a song. [laughs]

It’s become kind of a truism over the past year, this concept of vaccine hesitancy, and the fact that certain people don’t trust doctors. It’s treated as this flat statement that gets said a lot without really dealing with what that means or why that is.

Absolutely. I feel like with police reform and police abolition, there was a lot of scrutiny on the entire justice system, really breaking it apart and saying, “Hey, this is failing our people,” but I don’t necessarily feel like the same pressure is put on the healthcare system for what it’s done. I feel like it could be arguably just as bad–what it’s done to everyone and especially marginalized and oppressed groups, but I just don’t think that there’s enough scrutiny. Everybody has to deal with this healthcare system, and it is failing so many people. So many people can’t afford what they need, so many people aren’t getting what they need, and I just don’t think that anyone’s really in their face enough being like, “Hey! Stop it.” [laughs]

I think there’s been a lack of nuance in that conversation in the past year just because of what the pandemic has meant for people in the healthcare industry, and the ways that we talk about them.

Yeah, ’cause obviously, I love them when they do their job right, but how often does that really happen? These people go to school for, like, eight-plus years, and they get their degree, but that doesn’t really change much for anyone that is dealing with the oppressive side of what it means to go to the doctor, you know? It just doesn’t feel like there’s hope sometimes, for all of that. It’s just a fact of life that we’ve all accepted, like, “Yeah, fuck the healthcare system, right?” But it’s like, “No! Take ’em down!” [laughs] Like, “We need to do something about it.”

That song also is so cool because it’s more of a rock turn for this EP. It’s such a big-sounding song. What was it like building the arrangement around that?

I wrote the lyrics for that one first, and I knew that it was coming from a really angry part of me, and I just wanted to make a punk song. I was like, “Fuck the doctors, I’mma write a fuckin’ punk song about how they suck,” and so it was really fun for me, ’cause I’ve never recorded a song like that. My friend Jared [Marxuach], who mixed and mastered, he did live drums for it, ’cause it was all just on a drum pad. Like I said, I don’t have too much experience writing songs in that way, so it was just me exploring different sounds and how to make them. I was really happy with how that one turned out because it was very different from what I’ve done before, and it’s something that I would like to do more. It’s something that I love to hear, so I was excited to be able to create it.

I also wanted to ask you about the single, “Call Me When Ur Dead,” which you filmed a video for. What has it been like putting that one out ahead of the record and doing these promotional things?

It’s been really fun, honestly. At first, when I was sharing the EP with people and getting their opinions, there were some people that just really loved that song, and I felt like out of all of them, maybe it’s the most safe, in my opinion. There’s the little beat change at the end because I just couldn’t help it, but [laughs] it’s just kind of straightforward. I’m a little nervous because that is the only one that sounds like that on the whole EP, so I’m like, “Oh no, what if I put out ‘Wondering,’ ’cause that’s gonna be my next single, and people are like, ‘What the hell?’ We wanted to hear that,’” you know? I feel like each song is a different vibe. 

But it has been exciting putting the single out, for sure, because it’s like, “Wow, I spent the last year basically working on all of this–the artwork, everything behind it–and now it’s finally making its way out there.” People are responding very well to it, so I’m just hopeful that they like everything else.

Had you ever done a music video before?

Yes, I’ve done two before, with the same director.

How did this one come together?

This one–okay, all this aside, I love my friend that directed for us, but we have different styles. She is more focused on quality and structure, ’cause she makes more short films with narratives and stuff like that, and I am always looking for something that is just artsy-fartsy, crazy, flashy. It’s not necessarily her style, but she always wants to work with me and always wants to help me do whatever I’m trying to make. We came up with this story where I’m skating around, I end up in a magical land and I fall in love with a goblin, and then the goblin is like, “Oh, do you really want to be with me? I’m a goblin,” and I’m like, “Yeah!” And we live happily ever after.

It’s really silly, but my goal was to just pitch something to my friend that was very straightforward and simple. It’s a really short song, the video was shot on iPhone, and my goal really was for it to be as easy as possible in everything that I wrote for it, the whole direction of it. It took maybe eight months [laughs] to have it done, which–you know, wouldn’t take me that long, but I’m not gonna complain too much. We finally finished it, and it’s gonna come out, so. [laughs]

You also have done some other cool visual elements for this EP. There’s a zine with art and lyrics coming out with the cassette release. Where did that idea come from, and what was it like putting that together?

Well, honestly, Judy from Quiet Year was giving me my options as far as physical merchandise went. They mentioned a zine, and I was like, “You know what? I would love to make a zine,” ’cause I’ve always done art, and I’ve never, in a way, promoted it or sold it. I’ve done album covers here and there, but nothing for myself, really, so I was like, “I have all these random pieces of art that have just been sitting around that I want to put together and share.” With the concept of All In Your Head, it came together very well because it is just little bits and pieces of me that were not for the purpose of anyone else, you know? I was like, “Yeah, this’ll be really cool to put together with the lyrics.” There’s little journaling exercises in there too, things like that. This is my first time ever doing anything like this, especially with my art, making a zine, using photoshop, so I really did learn a whole lot in this entire process, especially with the zine.

How did you get connected with Quiet Year?

Through Twitter, actually. I had booked a tour for BluMoon for last summer, which, you know, didn’t happen. I met Grim from Grimalkin, and we had booked a show with them. Everything fell through, and I guess through Grim, Judy found us, and then–I just tweeted something, I was like, “Hey, I’m making a song, anybody want to hear it?” It was “All In Your Head,” back when it sounded really bad [laughs] and Judy was like, “Yeah, send it to me!” And I did, and then they were like, “Hey, let’s put this out together. Do you have more songs?” And I was like, “Oh my god, sounds cool,” ’cause before, I had never worked with a label. Everything I was doing was all myself, so I was just really excited to have this type of help, and someone that believed in that really bad song. [laughs]

When you look back over this whole process, what has been the biggest thing you want to take forward?

I guess it’s just made me realize, I don’t think I can ever be the person that I was before I did all this for myself. I don’t think that I will be someone that can just compromise–or not even compromise, but just put how I feel and what I want to the side to please others, or be down on myself and not believe that I can do whatever I want to do. After doing all this for myself, I’m like, “I am so powerful. I can achieve anything, and I’m not gonna sit here and believe otherwise anymore of myself.” I’ve been making music since I was 15. It’s like ten years now, and for so many of those years, I was like, “Oh, I’ll never be able to do this and make money, I’ll never blah blah blah blah blah,” and now I’m like, “No, girl, never again. That is not how we’re gonna look at our life and look at ourselves.” I feel like I’ve gained so much confidence from the entire experience.

What’s next for you after this EP is out in the world?

I have a few tracks in the works. I want to put out a little B-side of the ones that didn’t make it for the EP, and just some other things I want to put out. Just another, smaller EP, and then after that, hopefully gonna record with the band soon. We have some songs that we have performed. We’ve done a couple of shows over the past year, and they were newer ones that I’d written, and we just wanna get together and really produce them, flesh them out, give them what they want. I love BluMoon, and I’m just wanting to expand where we’re at because so much of our sound was this old guy that used to produce for us, who–I don’t know, I just don’t want to rely so much on his contribution to the band, especially when, after doing all of this, I know that I can make music. I can make a song. I have ideas that are worth sharing and expanding on, so I’m excited to take BluMoon to a new level.

Anything else you wanted to make sure we talk about? Anything left out?

I just really want it to be known that anyone that wants to do whatever they want to do, all you have to do is believe in yourself. It really just starts there–just believe in yourself. [laughs]

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