| May 2012
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By Rebecca Huval
The Voice: Singer-songwriter Kif Bender (right) is music to the ears of local audiences. Two of his biggest fans are his brother Colin and mom Holland Bender. Photo by Pamela Gerard
When he sang his first angelic notes at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market three years ago, singer-songwriter Kif Bender stopped time. The vendors and customers, bleary-eyed at 8:30 a.m., paused over their carrots and kale to listen to the 9-year-old sing.
“It hasn’t happened before or since,” said Richard Hildreth, the market’s music booker. “They wanted to see where that beautiful voice was coming from, and when they saw it was him, they stopped what they were doing to watch.”
Now 12 years old, Kif Bender has amassed a loyal fan base at the Farmers’ Market, played the main stage twice at the Noe Valley Harvest Festival, gained the support of professional musicians such as Megan Slankard, and designed his own website (KifBender.com). He also has graduated fifth grade at Town School for Boys, learned to dance the foxtrot, and asked out a girl for the first time (she said yes).
Kif Bender, whose stage name is just “Kif,” sings a Leonard Cohen song at a 2011 performance at the Noe Valley Harvest Festival on 24th Street. Photo by Sally Smith
On a recent Thursday night, Kif told his mother, Holland Bender, the good news about his girlfriend. His younger brother, Colin, was downstairs in his room. His Betta fish, Martin, was swirling in its bowl, and his gray-and-white longhaired cat, Harlow, sought attention on the closest lap. From a large window in his mother’s home, the family overlooked Eureka Valley and, in the distance, the twinkling harbor lights beside the Bay.
“We were dancing and afterwards I said, ‘Hi, Caroline, do you want to go out?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, sure.’” After a moment of silence, Kif giggled. He was also lightly strumming his acoustic guitar.
As a sixth-grader, Kif juggles many activities. He splits time between his mother’s house in Twin Peaks and his dad Jason Bender’s place in Noe Valley. In addition to playing solo performances, he performs in a band called the Mifs, studies assiduously, especially in his Spanish and Latin classes, and bakes his family cookies dipped in chocolate or nutella.
Still, for Kif, music is the priority.
“I hate homework,” he confessed. “I am totally against the idea of homework because you work so hard all day at school and then it takes up all the afternoon and then I can’t do something musical.”
Despite his manifold obligations, Kif makes time to practice every day at school and then at home for at least a half hour. He takes a music class at school that he adores, and, after classes, he also plays at the Bird School of Music in Nob Hill. On his own time, he writes songs, hones his guitar licks, and learns covers by a variety of musicians, from Suzanne Vega to Kesha. He doesn’t think of it as practice, he said. “It’s fun.”
In his living room, Kif performs a cover by one of his favorite musicians: “Dirty Wings” by San Francisco recording artist Megan Slankard. He tosses his long dirty-blond hair as he effortlessly reaches for the high notes. With a developed sense of dynamics and musicality, Kif digs into the pathos of a song that is years beyond his own life experience: “She turns the lights off/Electric bill is high/She’s glad Harry’s out/’Cause she hates to cry, cry, cry.”
In the next verse, Kif’s voice soars in a pop style of breathy vibrato. Instead of crescendoing, as an amateur might when stretching for peak notes, Kif’s voice gets softer. He draws listeners into his distress and convinces us he has an electric bill he can’t afford. Those Farmers’ Market fans are on to something. For a 12-year-old, Kif is eerily talented.
Kif first got interested in music at the age of 2, when he started to listen to Cher and Shania Twain. In the first grade, he joined the San Francisco Boys Choir as a first soprano (his favorite choral song is “How Can I Keep From Singing?”). He inherited a guitar from his uncle when he was 8. He started performing at the Farmers’ Market in 2009, and he still does today.
Kif doesn’t even get nervous while performing, he said. “I just love to do it so much that I don’t worry about being on stage. I like mistakes because they make me feel human on stage. It bonds me with the audience. I just laugh it off, and they laugh with me.”
On a recent Saturday, Kif played at the market in his same early-morning time slot to a crowd of 20 adults and 10 toddlers and babies. He sang a cover of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, complete with his glittering high notes.
Clarice Angers of Noe Valley sat in the tent with her 5-year old, Eliza Ettinger. “I like it,” said Eliza, who attends the Little School in Laurel Heights. Her mother had more to say on the subject.
“I think he’s really good,” Angers said. “He puts a lot into it, and [they’re] good pop songs.” Her daughter clutched onto a stuffed bunny. While Kif was singing, Eliza had tried to give the bunny to him on stage. That was a high compliment, Angers said. “She’s very attached to this bunny.”
After his 21/2-hour set ended, the next band on the lineup greeted Kif. “You’re amazing,” said Lisa Safran of the Bitter Mystics. “I loved listening to you. I saw you a year ago. You were amazing then, and you’re even more amazing now.”
“He’s a hard act to follow,” she said. “At this age, to have that talent, and staying with it—he’ll be phenomenal. He has great stage presence, too. And he can connect with the audience.”
In the next year, Kif hopes to record in a studio (it was one of his Christmas presents) and to play bigger gigs, “though I love the Farmers’ Market,” he said. He’ll write more of his own songs and fine-tune his covers by K.T. Tunstall, Shawn Colvin, and others, including the rock song “Tik Tok” by Kesha.
In the long-term, Kif has no doubts about what he wants to be when he grows up. His Plan B is working as a baker. His Plan A: “For sure, singer-songwriter.”
Kif says he’ll post his next dates at the Farmers’ Market on his website. To hear him sing, go to listen.kifbender.com.