Kendra Johnson: Punk Style
Kendra Johnson remembers feeling “petrified” at her first show.
“I was 17, barely 17,” she recounted. “In the front row were all these people I thought hated me…I was shaking and I didn’t touch the microphone. And one of the people I thought didn’t like me got down on the ground and pushed the microphone closer to my mouth. And that was it.” She was hooked. “After that, everyone came up to me and said ‘You did a great job’ and ‘That took a lot of guts.'”
Today, Johnson is a hair stylist by day and vocalist for The Snarks–a self-described “silly 1970s garage punk band”–by night.
At CS3, she barely glances at the menu before the bartender approaches. “Rum and coke?”
Johnson nods in affirmation. “And a cheeseburger, gluten-free bun,”–the two share a familiar smile–“but you know that.” She rolls up her left sleeve to reveal the tattoo she got in part to validate her celiac disease to rigid restauranteurs. In traditional American style, a skull is imposed over stems of wheat, encircled by a banner reading “Death By Gluten.”
Johnson specializes in cuts and colors for all genders at Alter Professional Salon on the north side of Fort Wayne. “Some new salon clients are kind of freaked out by my pink hair,” she said, “and I’m like, ‘Hey, I just really like flowers, so I wanna look like one,’ and that usually lightens up the mood.” Little do these clients know, twice a week and a couple times a month, Johnson’s pink hair acts as a metronome for her band while she head-bangs to plucky punk beats. But people who normally might be intimidated by her appearance, once they get to talk to her, aren’t.
“I genuinely enjoy the process of doing hair,” Johnson said. “The best feeling in the world is when a client comes in feeling ‘blah’ or in a slump and they leave beaming. Somebody today told me she was going out for martinis after work with some friends, and I’m like, ‘Cool, let me put some nice curls in your hair and that way all you have to do is touch up your mascara and you’re good to go!’ I love building people’s self-confidence.”
Johnson also believes in doing hair “with integrity.” When a client asks for something that may be potentially damaging, she may refuse to do it that day, instead insisting on preparatory conditioning treatments and delaying until the client’s next appointment. This ethical compass, for Johnson, can extend beyond a clients’ hair and suggest deeper relationship connections. “Because I’ve been doing their hair long enough, if somebody wants something I know they’re going to hate, or I know they change their mind really fast, sometimes I will tell them ‘I’m so down to do that, but you just decided that right now and I don’t want you to hate me, so I want you to think about it.”
Johnson talked about a client she’s known since the girl was in middle school. “I remember the first time I met her, giving her a pep talk before her cheerleading photos, trying to make her feel really confident, and guess whose hair I’m doing for a wedding in a couple months? It’s so sweet!” Another woman, around Johnson’s age, came to the salon amid a divorce, Johnson did her hair when she entered a new relationship with her current partner and now Johnson cuts the hair of her three children. “I lost my grandparents a long time ago,” she added, “and I’ve got these clients who are in that generation, so it’s nice to have that void filled a little bit.”
The other advantage of styling hair is how compatible the career is with creativity. “I rent my booth, so I’m self-employed technically, so I can make my own schedule,” Johnson explained. “I try to keep a fairly consistent schedule and always make it up to clients for anytime my art schedule is inconvenient for them.” When she was getting out of high school, Johnson had decided music was her passion–whether she “made it big” or not.
However, the road has not always been paved for Johnson, who experienced opposition when she first started in bands. “People thought I was just some idiot girl, a poser trying to front this band,” she told me. “I got a lot of haters.” After that first show, however, she sensed a shift. Instead of being “that-one-girl who’s hanging out with that-one-guy,” she felt like she became her own person.
Johnson still faces another sexist irritant: “I’ve never been in a band with another female in my life. Ever,” she told me, her voice flat. “‘You sing in that all-girl band, right?’ And I’m like ‘no, no, I just… happen to be a girl!'” There’s nothing wrong with all-girl bands; Johnson loves them. “It’s just silly to assume that just because I’m in a band I’m in that one band that has a girl that you know of.”
Between bites of her sandwich, Johnson gushed about her four bandmates. “The dudes [in The Snarks] are really supportive and proud to be in a female-fronted band. I told them I had some ideas about songs that kind of touched on some of the flack I’ve gotten over the years, and their responses were like, ‘Oh man I can’t believe you had to deal with that. Why didn’t you ever say anything?'” Now, Johnson guesses she encounters 50 times more encouragement than discouragement and chauvinism, but said “talking with other women in other cities about their experience, I feel like I have it really lucky here in Fort Wayne.”
Young women express to Johnson their desires to perform like she does. She encourages them, insisting that, despite “a definite lack of all-ages shows” in the area, it’s important to experience as much live music as possible. She is also a enthusiastic proponent of practicing in the car. “Every time I drive anywhere,” she confessed, “I’m blaring whatever genre I’m going for. It was hilarious when I was in metal bands. I would scare people all the time.”
She also advises aspiring musicians to simply write down lyrics.”If they sound stupid, great! All lyrics sound stupid! It’s just about how you sing them…I’ve had people ask me what specific lyrics are about because they really relate to it, and I say it can be about whatever you think it’s about. Sometimes it’s fun to leave things ambiguous.”
The Snarks just spent a weekend in the studio recording six songs to be released online two-by-two over the summer on their website, Spotify, and iTunes. “Cheeseburger,” an upbeat tune, has gut-wrenching lyrics: “We drift apart but I don’t want to/Tell me what to say or do…Things getting weird and we’re grasping/All tangled up in heartstrings…Feet on the floor because my head’s still spinning/One foot out the door because it’s not worth winning.”
One of “the greatest satisfactions” of Johnson’s life is to eat a cheeseburger, but with food allergies, finding that satisfaction can beget heartache. “I was trying to wean myself off cheese for awhile–and you can’t have a cheeseburger without cheese–and I was on a chicken wings kick, so then felt like I was cheating on cheeseburgers. So I wrote this song and it sounds like it could be about anyone I’ve ever dated, like maybe there’s a little bit of relationship trouble, and people would think that it’s really meaningful, but it’s not. It’s kind of a spoof.”
“If you would have told suicidal Kendra in high school that she’d be in her fifth band, have the opportunity to write songs and play all around the country, get to enjoy going to work every day and live downtown with a cute dog: I couldn’t have imagined a better life for myself. When you’re a teenager, you’re like ‘Oh my god, who knows how it’s going to work out,’ but honestly, the beauty is in the mistakes. Every mistake had something come from it, so I regret nothing.”
After polishing off her cheeseburger at CS3, Johnson checked the time on her phone. “Look at this!” she exclaimed, opening her Facebook app. “I love getting tagged in selfies.” The photo on the screen was of a woman, hair freshly curled, out for martinis with her friends. She was beaming. So was Kendra.