We had the good fortune of connecting with Kendell Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kendell, how do you think about risk?
I think of that sage advice that many of us hold as true, but need reminders as of how to live it, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk at all, and If you risk nothing, you risk everything.” I would be fooling myself if I say that I do not think about risk. You may be asking yourself, why would a family man with a wife and two children ages 5 and 3, who is an assistant principal entering his 16 year in the field of public education, with multiple credentials and graduate degrees, who has taught two courses for a UCLA graduate program, want to venture into something like the music business.? I have to know if that small voice inside of me is telling the truth. The calling. I remember an interview about John Frusciante, guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in short, he said that the music will never let you go. I have always had this dream for as young as I can remember, to be a singer and a songwriter. I was always in love with music at a very young age. One of my fondest memories is of me as at about age 5, I was picked to be the ‘It’ in a game of hide-and-seek. After closing my eyes and counting to 20, I remember walking around looking for my friends while I was singing. I was not that interested in playing the game, I was yearning to do music. Music that matters. It always takes different forms. One of the most challenging parts is monetizing your creativity and your art. How do you get someone to pay for the thing you do? I was a music major at the University of La Verne (ULV) with an emphasis in performance, and I had earned a greater music scholarship while I was there. I remember telling my mom, family and friends I was going to be a musician. I had set up a meeting with the head of the Music department, Dr. Reed Gratz. I took my acoustic guitar along and played him some tunes. He said I was in. It seemed as simple as that. My goal was to be the greatest guitar player that I could be. I wanted to be the guitar player that everyone called to come record on their records: an Eddie Van Halen or Nuno Bettencourt, those guys rock. At ULV, I found myself in every music ensemble you could imagine: Choir, Vocal Solos, African Drumming, Jazz Band, Classical Guitar, Jazz and Blues Guitar, Theatre, you name it, I wanted a part of it. For my senior project, I recorded an album with a great group of musicians and friends and had a fantastic senior concert. The album was aptly titled “Where to Now?” That is where the other part of risk takes place. What do I do now the safe place to explore music is over for me? Once out of university, I did not know how to earn a living as a musician and decided to take my talents into teaching. In Pomona, I taught middle school and high school English while supplementing my love for music with private lessons and teaching one or two periods of guitar ensemble if the schools approved it and playing guitar for my church. You always have to fight for your love. After 5 years of teaching English, I went into Special Education, teaching students with moderate to severe disabilities. I really enjoyed my students and staff. I taught all subjects so I was able to really focus on the students’ needs while having fun. I am now an assistant principal of special education and I continue work with adults ages 18-22, with moderate to severe disabilities. We put together a jam band with staff members to play for the students and bring extra instruments along for everyone to play. I truly enjoy working with my students, families, and teachers. As wonderful as the life I have carved out is, how rewarding it is, I would love to solely make music for a living. I have to know that I can. It is worth the risk. After having my two children, I realized, as many often do, that I have to achieve my dreams, if I dare to teach them to follow theirs. Having to care for these two lives taught me to take bigger risks and to continue to make music and to find the path that is mine to write. My son often tells people, “My daddy is a musician.” Just the other day at school his teacher reported that he is a great lyricist. He likes to make his own lyrics to songs. At home, whenever I grab my guitar to practice, my daughter grabs her ukulele and strums and sings. For my mother’s birthday, she grabbed her ukulele and sang her happy birthday. She is only 3 years old. She doesn’t really know how to play but she strums and sings. She knows what to do.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
The music that I bring to life is soulful. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee and that city has made a lot of blues, soul and rock music. I carry that in my DNA, in my bones. This combination is what makes my music different and unique. Lights Down Low, the first single that I am releasing from my publishing company in September, a soulful song about going out and dancing with the one you love, is the embodiment of that soulful sound of where I come from. I cannot wait for everyone to hear it. I like to make music that everyone can feel. It has got to move you. It has to make you think about what is going on. It has to leave a lasting impression. I like to tell the stories that I have lived and seen. One of the most important roles of the artist is to tell the stories of the people. You just tell it the way it speaks to you. As artists, we can tell the story in a way that no one else can, and make you feel like nothing else can. My current work is focusing on building my songwriting catalog with my independent publishing company Blind Faith Entertainment, LLC. I got this idea from listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Broken Record. He did a couple of great interviews with some artists that began music careers in their late 30’s or even later. One such group is called Love Junkies. The group consists of three female writers that get together once a month and write songs over a few days. They either publish their own music or send it to publishers they are working with and they are very successful. These podcasts really helped push me towards forming my own company. As a family man, emphasizing songwriting and lessening the performance aspect allows me to build around my family and give them more of me. I am a songwriter first. To summarize what my music professor Dr. Reed Gratz told me in a theory course full of my classmates, once I start writing songs you will be unstoppable. From beginning to end I write all of the time. One of my secret inspirations is watching Grey’s Anatomy with my wife. That show has so much emotion that you could write a thousand songs from each episode. There is so much put into that show by the writers that it is seriously ridiculous. I write so much that I prioritize songwriting and work with great producer Jim Lownes (pronounced like Townes) who is a music educator and great all around guy, to help complete the recordings. I have so many ideas that once I start one song multiple ideas arise and I have to work on those. I do not have enough time to make drums, bass, keys and all of those other things. I am also playing with my new band, under my name, and having a lot of fun with it. I have a great voice and I love rhythm. My whole goal with the band is to create fun and exciting environments for people to dance and enjoy. We aim towards a Dave Matthews, Prince and Parliament Funkadelic vibe. It is about the people enjoying the music and a collective celebration. If I could have the world know anything about my music is that I wrote the stories of the people and I played music for the people. B.B. King lived by that manta, that if you are not here for the people then get off the stage. I believe that is what is truly calling me. If you look at my path, I have always been in roles that involved serving people, making sure people are provided the best. And, to me, that makes it all worth the risk.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I am a pretty simple guy. I have my favorite spots that never let me down. On the weekends we may go out to Port Hueneme. The way the beach faces the ocean, there is usually consistent wind that is strong enough to fly kites. There are not many people and the drive there is beautiful as you see all of the hills and farm lands. While driving home we stop and get fruit and honey from any number of the farm stands. The other beach we go to is Crystal Cove down near Laguna. It is a beach with small but rideable waves for body boarding and surfing and there are plenty of tide pools to wonder through for hours. Our favorite sushi spot is Teru Sushi in Studio City. It is a family owned restaurant my family has been going to for over 20 years. It is like Cheers where everybody knows our names. We eat a lot of sushi and this is the one places I enjoy most because of the people and the food is always great. Of course we go to Venice Beach. As a kid I would always go skate there. I enjoyed it because I always considered myself a little different than everyone else, and when I am there, I am a little different just like everyone else and because of this, everyone can go and just be themselves.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
In my youthful days, I liked to pretend that I made all of my successes on my own. As I have matured and needed more and more support, I realized that I needed help every inch of the way. In my entire journey, my biggest supporter has been my mom. In middle school, I was in the choir and auditioned to be in special chorus with instructor Dr. Robert Cook. He is a true role model to me and showed me that I can be a great person, parent and make a living being a musician. I still knew nothing about a guitar. Before I even knew that I wanted a guitar, she made sure that I had a nylon string beginners guitar for Christmas when I was 13. She took me to lessons to get me started and gave me my first guitar book. I didn’t spend much time playing, I learned Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, how to read the the music notes and hung it up from there. I would show friends every once and a while but nothing progressive. “Hey check it out, I can play this nursery rhyme on guitar!” When I was 16 she bought me my first electric guitar with an ampliflier and signed me up for group lessons at church. After about a month I joined the youth worship team and the rest was history. I began learning music and playing naturally. It was like meeting a true love the second time around when we were both mature enough for the relationship. When I told my mom I wanted to major in music, she did not discourage me from chasing a dream that everyone thought was possible. Since I was kid, everyone wanted me to go into medicine that is kind of what I was prepping to become. However, my mom always let me be as creative as I can be and never got in the way of it. Literally, I could take apart and try to build anything. I was free to create. I think that is what music allows me to do: be completely free and create any world I want to. I can turn anything into beauty. My mom always asks me about music and how is my songwriting going. She seems to always know what is the most important part to me and to draw that out of me. No matter how far away I seem from music, she is waiting for me to take the risk. I also owe my eclectic taste in music to her. My mother was always playing country music like Dolly Pardon and Charlie Pride. I even drove her out to Indio Springs Casino once to see Mr. Pride perform live. She played a lot of Wilson Pickett and Tina Turner. I have heard Mustang Sally and What’s Love Got to Do With It so so many time that I should know every part of the music. What this did for me was show me that music has no bounds. I listen to punk, hip hop, blue grass, country, folk, pop, latin and world music. I will play any music as long as it has feel and soul. I come from the school of Louis Armstrong, “There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind.”
Wes Kriesel http://heartsandlenses.com/