Soul singer has handle on the ups, considerable downs of creative life

Multi-talent Herb 'Q' Kendrick back on feet after accident to bring 'message with fun beat'

by Barbara Bayer

Special To The Japan Times

When vocalist Herb Kendrick, better known simply by his nickname “Q,” takes the stage next week in Tokyo, he will be appearing onstage for the first time in nearly a year. The gig at What the Dickens in Ebisu is being billed as the singer’s comeback. Not only is it a comeback, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Patrons of What the Dickens may be familiar with Kendrick from his six years as the lead vocalist for The Conductors, a band regular at the bar. In 2010, he formed Q Theory, an “old-school funk and R&B band,” and that group had been growing increasingly popular when, late one summer night last year, things took a turn downward.

More accurately, Kendrick took the turn — in an accidental fall from the balcony of his third-floor apartment to the street below. His fall is believed to have been broken by power lines, and he miraculously suffered no debilitating injuries. Still, Kendrick broke three bones in his neck and suffered a hairline fracture in his lower back, two broken ribs and a broken shoulder. “I woke up in the MRI machine,” the San Diego native says. “I guess somebody found me and called emergency services. I don’t remember anything of the accident and no one saw it.” Kendrick was in the hospital for three months and, once out, was forced to remain in bed another three months while his neck healed.

Blood tests and a followup interview indicated the cause of the fall was most likely “a combination of overwork, low blood sugar, my core diet, burning the candle at both ends and not managing my life correctly.” Kendrick says, “It was definitely a wake-up call to manage my life better, take care of myself, and take some time out to enjoy.”

Taking time out, or rather, not taking time out, had been characteristic of the multi-talented Kendrick, a driven artist. “I always have 10,000 things going around in my head, things I want to do. I’m always creating. Even when I wasn’t working I was really pushed to keep working, to create. I felt like my hands were idle and my brain was idle and I had to stay busy to get something down on paper.

“That’s something I have to manage better personally and realize that life is meant to be enjoyed. I don’t need to beat myself down so much.”

Born in 1963, Kendrick grew up in a strict Southern Baptist home. “It was a very regimented lifestyle, physically and mentally.” It was also the nurturing ground for his singing. “I never had any formal training in terms of singing. We grew up in church and it was expected that we did stuff there. I guess at age 7 they threw me in the church and said, ‘Go sing!’ I didn’t really have any choice in that.”

His father was in the military, which kept the family moving from base to base. “It was a pretty sheltered life,” Kendrick remembers. “You’re not getting exposed to a lot of things.” He was, though, thanks largely to his father, “involved in an eclectic taste” of music. “He played gospel but most of the time it was Ray Charles, Motown, Marvin Gaye,” Kendrick says. Kendrick grew up strongly influenced by those singers, and rock. “I was listening to more rock than gospel.”

It was art, however, not music, that Kendrick was “heavily into” before he went into music professionally. “As long as I remember I’ve been able to draw,” he says. He has always taken care of all the artwork for his gigs, and does the designs for a clothing line he runs as a side business.

From university, though, it was neither art nor music that filled his days. It was the customer-service business, namely the restaurant business, that kept him busy from 1987 until the late ’90s. Finally, the numbingly long days took their toll. “I got burned out and at that point, I was like, ‘I want to start enjoying my life.’ Music had always been nagging at me . . . so I jumped into it.

“It’s hard to make a living as a musician. So, I kept my full-time job doing the restaurant business, and did music part-time at night, picked up gigs, did jam sessions, toured. It was a matter of finding a healthy balance.”

For a few years, Kendrick toured the U.S. with the soul and R&B band Hobex, which was the opening act for the pop group Hootie and the Blowfish. Later, he started branching out into his own bands and doing his own music.

It was in 2003 that Kendrick came to Japan, along with a girlfriend whose brother owned a couple cram schools in Osaka. “My passion was music, but I wasn’t finding any luck,” he says of his early days here. Luck found him, however, when a friend suggested he try Tokyo. Long story short, Kendrick wound up doing a Sapporo Beer commercial with him singing “The Tide is High,” a song made famous by Blondie.

It was a “foot in the door” and Kendrick started getting work doing other commercials, animation, vocal background gigs and other voice work. He then started meeting other musicians and remained associated with The Conductors, the first band he sang with in Tokyo, until he started up Q Theory.

At the time of the accident, Q Theory had become a popular booking for private events, weddings and charity balls, in addition to gigs at bars. “I wanted to branch off into my own music. I’m still doing covers, but I’m composing my own music more than I was before. Composing was a main catalyst for me trying to start my own band. Covers are good because you can do things that people like but I also want to do things that I like to do.”

His likes, Kendrick says, tend to run toward retrospective, motivational songs, songs with “a message behind a fun beat. I write about the things people can typically relate to — survival, love, emotional survival, relationships. They’re not too deep but they’re meant to entertain and give you something to think about afterward. I try to write with a purpose.”

Japan, he says, has “allowed me an opportunity to be creative. Probably I’m able to do a lot more of what I want to do than if I had been back home. There, I’d probably be struggling to find work in the entertainment business. I’d have a lot more competition.” Still not satisfied with his Japanese ability, however, intensive language study is one of his present goals. “I’m still learning. I don’t feel connected to Japan yet because I haven’t grasped the language yet.” Becoming more proficient in Japanese, he believes, will “enhance my experience here. Right now I feel like I’m not really part of the scene yet. I still feel like a visitor.”

Getting back on stage is coming a little sooner than planned for Kendrick. He suffered another blow earlier this year with the sudden passing of his father. “I haven’t had a lot of time since the accident and since my father died. I haven’t had processing time and have been really reluctant to even get back on stage, at least for now, just because physically I’m not 100 percent. I wanted to wait more toward the wintertime, but I’ve been getting a lot of pressure from people to get back on stage.”

Ready or not, Kendrick has been characteristically busy. In addition to “eight songs, 4-5 short stories and a couple movie scripts” in the works, he has further developed his line of clothing. On his “shortlist” is a professional demo, an eight-track CD and the formation of a Motown-type group. In fact, the accident doesn’t seem to have left even a dent, though Kendrick claims it has. “I always have that constant reminder that I’ve had an accident,” he says. “I’m still the same way, but I feel now that I’ll take a break. So instead of trying to knock out some lyrics at 3, 4, 5 a.m., I’ll say, ‘Heh, why don’t you save that till the morning?’ “

Technically, Kendrick is still “in the danger zone” regarding his neck injury, which he’s told should take two years to heal fully. “I’m a little apprehensive. The neck still needs time. I’m just going to be singing, not doing the hand percussion. I’m looking forward to it but I’m scaling back for now,” he says of next week’s stage performance. “I think people will understand that just because I’m out and about, it doesn’t mean I’m 100 percent.”

The eventual goal is to be able to graduate the English teaching Kendrick does for a “steady paycheck” and be able to do his music full-time. “I feel like I’m still grasping at something, that brass ring.” For the immediate future, “the plans are to get through recovery and prioritize and focus a bit more.”

It seems all but impossible to keep Kendrick down. Nonetheless, this year, one thing is certain. Kendrick will be attempting to keep his feet, if not his ambitions, firmly on the ground. “I don’t want any drama,” he says. “I’m definitely looking to brighter days ahead. I want to be able to do what I enjoy doing and not kill myself in the process . . . now that I’ve found out that I can’t fly.”

Herb Kendrick will play at What the Dickens on June 21 from 9 p.m.