Kendra Amalie’s Two Rivers mixtape (as Kendraplex) is already one of my favorite releases of 2022, but even with its expansive scope and all the wide shadows it casts, it still only scratches the surface of her bottomless well of talent. Amalie’s 2019 debut, Intuition, glides effortlessly across aerated surfaces as easily as it will shred any landscape into a glittering nothingness. Her songs have an old spirit baked in, but Amalie looks to dig through any morass to find that right zone to lock onto.
Back to Two Rivers, though, and the groove she etches out with hypnotic organ explorations and holographic voice stretches are an excellent development, promising new skin to shed. There’s some gnarly, crunched-out riffage, too, for good measure (two quick ways to get me hooked: weird organ grooves and killer guitar solos). Amalie’s been at this for a while and I love that I still never know what to expect from her. It’s a great space to occupy.
So to start, like I often do, tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound. Are there certain songs or sounds that made a lasting impression when you were a kid and stuck with you? When did your interest in music start?
My mom was a working singer/songwriter and guitarist when I was growing up. She released and performed music mostly around the DC area as Marge Calhoun – original material, covers, solo, and with a band. Music has always been a part of my life. I just scraped my memory for the earliest musical one – it’s Puff the Magic Dragon, sang and fingerpicked by my mom on acoustic guitar. I believe she performed it as a lullaby for me, but I remember having a strong emotional response to it like I was supposed to be going to bed but I got excited instead. I remember being downstairs somewhere with wood-paneled walls, maybe my grandparents’ house, and I remember colors, a long moment made colorful with song. Last year I wrote a song called “Dragon in my Body.” Now I’m making a connection. I can confirm that the early sounds made a lasting impression.
Building on that, what about your interest and desire to learn an instrument and create your own music – where did that come from, and what was the impetus?
I’m always just doing what feels normal to me and trying to make adjustments and improvements based on external feedback and deep self-reflection. I don’t know if playing instruments and making music feels like a desire or an interest, it just seems like bodily function, like breathing. You can’t live for very long without breathing. But like with breathing and music, I suppose there is a desire to do both more deeply, to become more aware, to transcend.
Why did you pick guitar (or did guitar pick you)? And what is it that draws you to 12-strings specifically?
I love guitar. The vibrating acoustic guitar body pressed against my gut has a soothing effect. I used to tune down to C-standard for the physical sensation. I like electric guitar too and obsessing over finding the tones that complete me. In 2019 I had the idea that a 12-string might give me a more full-sounding accompaniment for playing solo, but I think that may have been a rationalization I came up with at the guitar store while killing time on a 12-string in the humidity room. It sounded amazing that day! I’m back to 6 strings now though. My mom gave me one of her acoustic guitars for Christmas last year, a Gibson Gospel, and I’ve been working out a couple songs she requested. At Last by Etta James and Judgment of the Moon and Stars by Joni Mitchell.
I think the first time I heard you play was on the Eleven Eleven album, which I found because of Taralie Peterson actually (Spires have been heavy on the brain lately as I just interviewed Ka Baird a month ago), but you’ve played in a lot of different projects and it seems like you’ve only recently started releasing solo music. Was there a particular thing that pushed you to get out more of your own stuff? And what about performing and releasing solo stuff excites and scares you in a different way than being in a group or collaboration?
Taralie Peterson makes music that transports me to a spiritual emotional forever home. I could recognize it 100 lifetimes away, from any physical body or lack thereof. It was an honor to collaborate with her on Eleven Eleven. She also contributed cello on Intuition. I love her new album with PG Six All Summer Long is Gone. I listened to it like 10 times in a row the first time I listened and cried and cried. That’s one of the things I love about playing cassettes at home, I can just let the tape flip itself all night long if I’m feeling it. I love the way I’m moved by Sketch for Winter VII – Abyss: For Cello too. I contributed a tiny bit of guitar to Oolite. It’s ethereal but heavyweight, the stuff molten cores are made of. I love Spires That In The Sunset Rise too. Everyone reading this should listen to and buy all of their records!
Yeah, I love to collaborate. I think the magic of music is in conversation. It feels like flying. But playing solo feels like flying too, I can just go wherever the music takes me. It’s like flying in a lucid dream with a tailwind the audience can ride into an altered state and that’s the show. What a thing when we all show up to get into a feeling! No Fear!
When I first heard Intuition, I was so taken aback by it in the best way because of how much ground you cover. Over how long a period were you writing and working on the songs on the album? And what were the biggest challenges with it and what surprised you the most?
I’m always working on songs up until they’re summoned. Then it’s like taking a snapshot, a version frozen in time. I guess what surprised me the most is that someone, Beyond Beyond is Beyond Records, wanted to release an LP of my music. I’m very grateful for that. I recorded the album at home over a couple months. The oldest song on there is probably Stay Low which I wrote in 2013, the youngest is Improvisation for Mark Hollis recorded in 2019. I’m often wrestling with whether I should narrow my focus stylistically, and when the answer is no, I wrestle with how I’m going to fit everything together to make a cohesive piece. Sometimes it feels like my mind is too open, that’s it’s too easy to make sense of just about anything or any perspective. I might try making a couple concept albums out of smaller concepts – or just one – one concept, one album. Oh but everything keeps growing. It is challenging.
One thing I absolutely love about the album is the narrative arc to it. You explain it as starting underwater and ending back at the water while exploring everywhere in between and, for me, that really comes through sonically. First question about that, with it starting and ending in the water, is what is it about water that is so important or inspires you that the album is bookended like this? I could get into a whole thing about my emotional connections to water, but I’ll spare everyone here, but I will say that it definitely helped me connect to it in a really special way.
Water is crazy. I’m drinking a cup of tea right now, it’s Cleopatra’s bathwater from over 2000 years ago. Everyone reading this has a lot of water in their body, tomorrow it’ll be the sailing sea. It’s hard to feel disconnected. You know that song Down To The River To Pray? Makes a lot of sense. How about Jandek’s Liquids Flow to the Sea?
And this recent Kendraplex mixtape, Two Rivers – I’ve been pretty loud about how much I love it – what made you want to put that together and is there going to be any more organ-based stuff in the future? I am such a sucker for those jams!
I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the organ music! I have more. I’ll put some together for you! I feel like I come from a lineage of DIY artists getting free-if-you-move-it organs on Craigslist. Do you recognize that as a thing? I have a pretty good one right now, a Hammond A-100 tonewheel organ that a friend restored and delivered to me, something I definitely don’t take for granted after over a decade of hauling junk organs in various states of disrepair to and fro. This one I have now – as soon as I turn it on I’m entranced. I sit for days hammering on a few variations in total bliss.
While doing some research for this interview, I came across that you contributed to a Hal McGee tape many moons ago. How’d that happen? I feel like doing something with Hal McGee is automatically legendary. Ha!
Yes! Thank you for bringing that up. Hal McGee played at the Sonic Circuits festival in DC in 2007 and invited me to sit in. I was playing harmonium at the time, inspired by having seen Beat the Devil (Shilpa Ray) a couple months before. For part of the performance, Hal McGee was playing a tape collage of sounds from the tour he was on, as well as recording new material during the performance i.e. me playing harmonium on cue, which presumably was played at the next performance. Amazing! Twilight Memories of the Three Suns played Sonic Circuits that day too, I think after Hal McGee. And Hal McGee was so cool! He was really encouraging and generous and he let my band Names Divine stay at his place I think two different times we played in Gainesville, FL. Damn, I hope we can do that again!
Oh, and how’d that collaboration with Ryley Walker come about? That one is a lot of fun.
I’ve known Ryley for a bunch of years. The collaboration took place during early lockdown when I was getting going with my midi-guitar phase. I think he just asked if I wanted to try something on a track and we passed sounds back and forth at an exciting pace over a period of time and then it was done! I like that recording a lot – Papaya in a Hound’s Tooth. It has a super manic or upper consciousness vibe to it. It feels real to me!
Alright, so what’s next for your solo work and other projects?
Expect to see me with keys. I’m working on piano and keyboard songs right now, music I can perform live. I’m always surprised how things end up taking shape so we’ll see.
What are you looking forward to most or most hopeful about in 2022?
Oh my god, live music! Shows in Milwaukee and shows on tour are what I look forward to most and music festivals especially. I hope we can sweat all over each other by the front of the stage in an ecstatic wave of vibration again soon. And I love when friends’ bands come through town and I get to catch up with their sound. Stop in Milwaukee, we have a great scene here! You can stay with me!