In a quiet Mexican bakery in Sunset Park called La Boulangerie Lopez, I sit with emerging soul singer Kendra Foster, who is on the cusp of releasing her self-titled album, a culmination of songs written and recorded over many years. She begins to tell me the whole story of her career. This year, Foster was featured on the track “Questions,” off Domo Genesis’s underrated new album Genesis. Last year, Foster earned accolades for working with D’Angelo on his politically laced funk masterpiece Black Messiah and touring with his band, the Vanguard. Aside from D’Angelo, Foster has also written for artists like Sunshine Anderson, Mark Ronson, and the P-Funk All Stars, with whom she’s worked extensively. She counts a wide range of artists of this ilk as inspirations for her own soulful sound, including the likes of Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Sade, Björk, and, of course, George Clinton, whom she calls her mentor.
Foster’s career took off back when she was studying at Florida A&M Univeristy in Tallahassee and got connected to Clinton, who signed her to a production deal and executive-produced her first independently released album Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodicrealityshapeshifter, which came out in 2003. At around this time, she and Clinton recorded an uptempo dance track called “Bounce 2 This,” which appeared on his 2005 release How Late. As a result. She performed it with him live on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Last Call with Carson Daly and more, getting a taste of mainstream success.
But she wanted to be more independent, so two years later, Foster called on several of her producer friends, including Michael Patterson and Kelvin Wooten, to work on her solo material. Still living in Florida at the time, she began making three-day trips to Alabama and would come away with collaborations with Wooten that she describes as “almost ready for the radio.”
“[Wooten] had been part of Raphael Saadiq’s production team for a long time,” she explained. “He said he was going to do a little demo for me, but when we got together, we wrote so well we would just write things from scratch. He talked to his management right away and they said that we should do a whole project. After each one of these three-day trips, I would come away with four to six songs. I think Wooten is the best-kept secret until now. Well, not entirely. He’s been hiding in plain sight kind of like me.”
Though Foster and Wooten’s busy schedules conflicted often, they were both adamant about getting their collaborative project completed. They created 22 songs in a period of six weeks, but then an opportunity came up through a chance encounter at a birthday party that put Foster’s solo work on the back burner, when she found herself only two degrees of separation away from the D’Angelo.
“In 2008, George [Clinton] had a birthday party in LA, and it was a two-pronged birthday party,” she says. “It was in a real ritzy place, but the second location was a rehearsal space with multiple rooms. I left early from the first half, only to wait 30-40 minutes for the party bus to drive to the second location.”
During the wait, George Clinton’s daughter Barbarella Bishop began to look at pictures from the party on her phone. Foster saw a photo of D’Angelo and asked Bishop for the connection.
“She took a couple of months to give me the number,” Foster said. “And I took a couple of months to use it. The day before Obama was elected the first time, I traveled to Wooten’s to work. Ultimately, I was going to work on “Promise To Stay Here,” which is my solo single now, but I sat in the layover on the way to Alabama, and that was when I finally called D’Angelo.”
The call went well, and in the ensuing weeks, Foster sent her writing samples to D’Angelo. In the end, Foster co-wrote eight of the songs on 2014’s surprise-released Black Messiah and earned two Grammy awards for her contributions.
But before Black Messiah helped her break out, Foster left her roots in Florida to make the move to Brooklyn in 2009. She says that the transition from Tallahassee to Brooklyn didn’t change her much; she always felt she was different so it wasn’t difficult to adjust to New York’s weirdness. Foster’s connection to the south is strong, given her years in Florida and that her mother is from Mississippi, but she has some family roots in the city, too–her father spent his teen years in Northern California but lived in Brooklyn until he was 11.
“[Living in the city] kicked up my processor,” she said. “My processor sped up when I came here. It’s a pace that I could deal with or that I need at this point in my life. I go out to California, and it’s like I can breathe, but then I lose my pulse. I definitely loved moving here because I fit right in. Big hair, you know, whatever I’m wearing. I moved right into where I belong. I’ll be talking to myself, if I had a bad day–that’s totally normal.”
After she settled into the city, and finished working and touring with D’Angelo on Black Messiah material, Foster knew it was time to focus on releasing the songs she and Wooten had been working on for years. So after much delay, Kendra Foster comes out this week–and it builds all of her experience and collaborating into a phenomenal collection of funk bliss. (You can stream it below via Complex.)
“Promise to Stay Here,” the lead single from the album, it’s one of her many collaborations with Wooten, and the funky track is about identifying “the one” and longing to lie in bed with them for a little longer.
“It had that Chaka/Rufus sound and of course that’s where we were trying to go with it,” she said. Sonically, Foster channeled Chaka Khan from her Rufus days to make it flow the way it does: an early 1970’s Soul/Funk/Quiet Storm record.
“It was my best imitation of what [Chaka] might do,” she joked. “I was all in love at the time with a very young Jazz composer, and I was just having that feeling like ‘We both fell in love. Don’t leave me here by myself.’ I could feel it changing, and I think people don’t realize that I’m just an everyday person. It’s not that crazy, magical wild ride. It can sometimes be, don’t get me wrong. We can have fun.”
“I just had that thing like ‘let’s just stay here’–the way you feel when you’re in love,” she continued. “When you’re really in love, you don’t ever want to leave. You may even notice or identify stuff that’s out of pocket, but you’ve made that choice. The thing that’ll make you feel like you’ll tell somebody ‘Everything that I have, that I am, that I’ve got to give, I want to give it to you. If you stay, I’ll make it worth your while.’ In the video, I try to project intimacy, vulnerability, and openness, being confident and still taking a risk when in love.”
Given her long-tail trajectory toward success, Foster finished the conversation with a word of advice to aspiring artists–trust yourself.
“There are so many things that this industry, and there are so many ways that it will make you feel like you need to or want to behave,” Foster said. “You have to do your best to listen to that thing on the inside–your gut or whatever. Especially when we’re all trying to hustle and we’re feeling ambitious. Follow your spirit.”
Kendra Fosteris out this Friday, 6/24 via EarKandy Music. On 6/29, Foster will play a free show with Marcus Machado at SummerStage in Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, New York. More info here.