On first glance, Emily Kinney’s songs are sweet and bubbly; but when you give them another go-round, especially those on her upcoming album, Oh Jonathan, out next month, the layers start peeling open like a slow-motion blooming rose and you begin to inhale what is really going on. Kinney’s voice may be all innocence and purity but her words give flight to pain, emotional mood swings and, as she told me last week during our interview, “low blows.”
Singing and writing songs is nothing new to Kinney. She has been a performer since her adolescence when she was singing in talent shows and school plays back in her home state of Nebraska, where she grew up in small communities surrounded by family and friends. She wrote poetry and daydreamed and decided to pursue her dreams of acting, moving to New York City after graduating from university around 2006. She worked at a coffee shop, went on auditions, found a group of kindred spirits all pursuing artistic paths and fell in love with a place that could eat you alive if your backbone wasn’t strong enough.
Kinney was singing then and she is singing now, although most people recognize her as wholesome Beth from her four-year stint on The Walking Dead. When her character was killed in Season 5, it was heartbreaking to fans of the show. But although the preacher’s daughter may eternally remain in our culture’s memory bank, Kinney moved on to Masters Of Sex, The Knick and Conviction. She also started releasing her music, hints of which we got via her role on The Walking Dead, beginning in 2011 with the EP Blue Toothbrush.
Oh Jonathan shows Kinney outdoing herself, going easy on the sonics while illuminating her words; turning out a silken tapestry of youthful love, spirit, emotional maturation and finally, satisfaction. Her new video for “Boy Band Hero,” with glimpses of snapshots from her own days as a starry-eyed teen, actually plants seeds of doubt that the relationship was as real as she remembers it to be; while “Loser” boils up frustration and anger. If this is your first real foray into Kinney’s music, it will certainly whet your appetite to dive into more of it.
Glide spoke with Kinney a few days ago, while she was home in LA tending to some plumbing problems, about her new album, moving to New York, The Walking Dead and the little stories from her life that give birth to her songs.
So Emily Kinney is actually a normal person who has plumbing problems like the rest of us
Yeah (laughs). It’s like it’s always something. I’ve always rented apartments or had roommates and this is like my first time buying a place, which is awesome, but I’m learning so much that I never knew before about how everything works – pipes, electricity and plumbing and stuff – cause before when you’re renting if something happens you call your landlord and they figure it out. But you know what, there is just always going to be something so I feel like I’ve gotten better at placing it in this place in my brain like, yep, if you own it, it’s your responsibility. There’s always something to be like worked on (laughs).
You have really outdone yourself on your new record, Oh Jonathan.
Thank you so much. That’s so nice. I worked on it for a while. I took more time than I had in the past to figure out the sound and stuff. I experimented a little and was like, this is the direction I want to go.
Were these all new songs?
Some of them are pretty new. I had actually been working on a different album before Oh Jonathan, so some of those songs were older, like “Jonathan” was one I wrote during my last tour and then “Same Mistakes,” I had written half of it. So some of them had been sitting in my head and in my world for a while. I was going to make this other album and then I was going to do like an EP called Oh Jonathan and release that first. But once I made “Mermaid Song,” I abandoned that, cause “Mermaid Song” has this cool little synthy stuff and I ended up feeling like, okay, this is the direction I want to go in, this is the sonic landscape of everything. I felt like I knew what I wanted this to sound like, where before I was sort of working with different producers and I would send songs and get notes back from labels or from managers I might work with. But when I decided to make Oh Jonathan, it was, okay, I don’t need anyone’s notes, you know what I mean. This is what I want it to sound like. It’s just me and Ben Greenspan, who was the producer, and I felt like it was our creation.
I also realized I really wanted to finish out this idea of this relationship. I had been writing a lot of different songs and I felt like these were the better songs and I felt like it was just important for me to like put it all together and put it out into the world. So I felt very motivated. And once I wrote “Mermaid Song” I was like, okay, I want to be done with this relationship, I want to be done with these songs (laughs).
You could have gone all out yet you kept the sounds around the words quite minimal. Why didn’t you pull out all the bings and whistles and all that fun stuff? Why did you keep it minimal?
Well, for me, I feel like my strong point is words. Before I was writing songs, I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories, and I still do. I think it’s important as an artist to keep learning and to keep getting better and figuring out what makes you special or what your skill is that makes you where you can really connect with people. And for me, that has been the words and I really wanted to be sure that people could listen to the stories and listen to the words. So that definitely affected the production. That’s just where, I feel, my stronger talents lie when it comes to making music, kind of painting a picture with the words.
What’s interesting about the songs on this record, I think, was a lot of them started out as voice memos that I wrote and I didn’t think they were very good. I was literally just writing them as like a response to something that happened, a very emotional response. When I wrote “Soda Glass,” I remember being like, oh, this is a song that I’m just writing to get to the next song, you know what I mean. I just want to finish this one out. It was a reaction to this email I had gotten and I felt like it was a little immature or silly or something like that.
Then “Loser” was similar. I wrote “Loser” in a hotel in Shoreditch, London and I was just really frustrated and feeling very low. I do these conventions cause of Walking Dead and everything and I had decided to extend my time in London and go to Paris and travel around solo, by myself, and right before I left I had had this sort of disagreement with this person and I was feeling bummed out and I wrote that song. They leave you guitars in the hotel, at the Ace Hotel, if you ask them. And I wrote that song on that guitar and I played it for Ben and he was like, “Oh yeah, that’s a winner, that one’s going on it; that’s for sure.”
I thought “Loser” sounded like it was the most serious song on the record
When I wrote it, I was sad and I feel like the song is low blows. It was like, no, I don’t want you and here’s the reasons why and I’m going to pick at all your insecurities. It’s like all the things that men will tell you, or a lover will tell you, in confidence and then I was sort of like throwing it back at the person in a kind of mean way. I feel like it was a way that I was trying to convince myself not to like this person anymore but it was also sort of like, when someone doesn’t care, you try to get their attention. So this song for me, even though I originally wasn’t going to put it out, it was a way for me to write down sort of like, yeah, well, I don’t want you because of this; like low blows. And I always feel like a song is more about the person who wrote it.
It’s also the one where when I’d send it to people, they’d have very strong reactions. Some people would tell me, “I don’t think that needs to go out;” like, that’s not you. And then I’d also get people being like, “Oh my God, that track is so funny!” or “Oh my God, that track, I love it so much!” So I got a lot of very strong reactions in all different ways and to me that was a sign that it was a good song (laughs). Even to people that were like, “I hate that song!” They weren’t just saying it was okay; they had like a very strong reaction so I felt like that was a keeper. But I was listening to it from beginning to end last night and it kind of calls back to my insecurities, you know, of like, oh, I’ve been on this huge TV show so am I a has-been? (laughs) In “Same Mistakes,” I say something like, “If I’m a loser, I’m a loser fair and square.”
I like the horn on “Loser.” Whose idea was that to put it on there?
It was kind of both me and Ben’s. We wanted to have like a moment. One thing I learned from my last record to now is I recognized that my songs tend to be very wordy, a lot of information, and I think sometimes people miss things or it can be overwhelming, especially for a song where you’re listening to the music. So I tried to really have moments where people could just listen to the music and let the words kind of sink in. So that was definitely like a conscious choice – and you hear it in “Popsicles” too. But in “Loser,” what we imagined it to be, or what Stuart said, “I sort of imagine this being like a response, like the one chance where the guy is kind of responding.” Like the trumpet was sort of this response and I wanted something that felt sort of sad and that’s when we started going, what would that be? It wouldn’t be strings, it wouldn’t be this or that; but then trumpets, they play at like funerals and stuff like that and can be a sad sound if you want it to be.
When you first started writing, were your compositions like they are now, little stories, or were they more all over the place?
My poems are similar to my songs, I guess. Sometimes they are less. I’ve always loved rhythm and rhyming so I do feel like a lot of my poems almost could just be little songs. Some of them are more like little short stories, just written in kind of a different way than you would normally see a short story. But I write about all kinds of things. I tend to write about relationships, I guess because when they don’t work out, there always seems like there is some sort of misunderstanding so maybe it’s a way of feeling understood.
Did New York give you a lot of inspiration?
Yeah, one of my favorite things about New York, and also about acting because when you get a job you go somewhere new and all those new people you meet kind of reinvigorate your imagination. And also you take on this other person’s point of view and that sort of can spark things. When I was in New York and I’d walk around a lot, I would end up writing about things that I would see, because one of the great things about living in New York City is that everyone rides the subway so you come in contact with all kinds of different people.
When you first moved to New York, were you intimidated or overwhelmed because you’re in this huge new city trying to follow your dreams?
It was very overwhelming. I came from Nebraska, which was very different. I moved around a lot, which I think helped, but it was mostly small towns. I mostly lived in North Bend, Nebraska, which is where my grandparents lived, and then Wayne, Nebraska, where I went to high school. But I think North Bend is like a thousand people and Wayne is four to five thousand people, so really small towns. And nobody in my family was really in the business so it’s not like anyone could give me any guidance really.
But yeah, the first year was tough. I started working at a coffee shop where I met a lot of other artists and I think that was awesome. Even when I go back and happen to talk to some of the people that worked in that coffee shop during the time that I worked there, we kind of go, that was a special time, cause we were all playing in bands or I remember this guy Peter was an artist and he was always having these art shows. So that neighborhood that I lived in, there were people trying to do the same thing as me, that had also moved from some other place, so I guess that made me feel not as alone.
I would also go to the Rockwood and Pete’s Candy Store and I started to make friends with musicians and again, it’s like people doing the same things I wanted to be doing, so I kind of quickly figured out about just staying focused on what I was there to do. Then I started to love the lifestyle after that. You get used to it and now I love New York City and I want to live there when I’m like eighty and do theatre.
Did you have places to go and sing while you were working at the coffee shop?
Yeah, basically when I first moved there I sort of immediately started going to auditions that I would find out about on the back of Playbill or Backstage and that kept me really busy during the days. Then I love to see live music, like I’m a fangirl, and working at the coffee shop I met other musicians. So I started out singing backup for other singer-songwriters. There was this guy, Dave Beck, who I would go see, there was this band Lowry, there was this guy Kevin Johnston. There was this whole little group of people that would go. There is this place called Bar 4 in Park Slope that I would go to a lot. And Rockwood at the time was just one stage, now it’s like three stages. And those were kind of my spots and I started off singing backup and then eventually I met this bass player who I would send my songs to – I met him when I was doing Spring Awakening on Broadway – and he would say to me, “Your songs are really good, you should sing a show. Why don’t you do a show at Rockwood.”
So I kind of slowly started putting together my songs and he recorded my first EP, which was Blue Toothbrush. And then I met my first guitar player in my band, Simon. I met him at that coffee shop. He came in one day and he said, “I heard you write songs. I play guitar. Do you need a guitar player?” And this is over different periods of time, but at first I would always see him cause he lived in that neighborhood and we just became friends and he was kind of in my first band. But I remember him coming over and me saying like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to play at Rockwood?” and he was like, “Oh yeah, I know the guy, I know Matt who books Rockwood. When do you want to play?” And then he emailed him and was like, “He said he’d have you.” (laughs) So I was like, “I guess I’m playing a show.” That’s how it kind of started. It’s crazy.
How nervous were you in those first shows?
I was nervous. And I could barely play guitar. I mean, I’m still not the best guitar player but I taught myself. I always played piano growing up and I feel way more comfy singing or even playing piano, and guitar is just not in my muscle memory from when I was seven, you know. It was something I learned more as an adult and I always have this sense that it could just kind of go away. But I taught myself guitar so I’m always a little nervous. But I remember the first time playing a Jaymay song. That’s one of the ways I learned guitar was playing her songs cause they’re very simple. She was also someone that played in New York at Rockwood and I would go see her every time. I was a huge Jaymay fan. I don’t know if you know her stuff but it’s so good and it’s what I really connected to. So I played a Jaymay song and I totally messed up and I was like, I have to start over, but everyone was like, “It’s okay.” So I guess you can always start over if you mess up. Nobody’s perfect and that’s the fun of a live performance. If you wanted a perfect performance, you could listen to the recording.
Since you are also an actor, have you ever felt your characters infiltrate themselves into your songs?
In some older songs, or songs I haven’t released, I’ve realized how sometimes I’ll write a song and be like, oh man, I feel like that is more what my character is going through. Somehow they just ended up bouncing around in my head. On this album, there are elements of my lifestyle as an actor but I would say they are mostly my own experiences.
The Walking Dead is a very physical show. For you, what was the most physically rigorous scene you remember having to film?
There are a couple but the one that really sticks with me, probably cause it was in the last season that I was on the show, but it was when I was doing that elevator stuff where I would fall. I don’t know if you remember any of these scenes cause they go by so fast in the show. But when you’re filming it, you’re filming at all different angles, you’re doing it over and over, and we were in these sort of braces so that we wouldn’t actually be falling. They’d get rid of the wires and stuff [in post-production] but those braces, I just remember taking tons of Advil at the end of the day because I was in real pain. Those ones were really tough for me.
There was a lot of falling and stuff but it’s funny, the falling stuff was actually more difficult than like fighting the zombies or something, cause that you would practice the moves and most of it is the reaction. So it’s the person having to take the fall that physically is doing more work. If you hit someone, you’re kind of just faking it with your arms and your muscles, and the person who takes the fall has to sort of maneuver their body in a weird way or fall to the ground. So I would say, it was the ones where I had to take the falls, like falling down that elevator and during some of those scenes where the police officer would hit me a lot. That stuff was kind of difficult.
What about mentally exhausting?
I would say the last season again. I mean, it was mentally tough to get through the last couple of episodes because I had a lot going on – the character had a lot going on and it was very emotional and then I would say my life had a lot going on. I was going through a lot of transition: my old job is ending and I want to do a great performance and this is my last chance. Season 5, I feel, was probably the height of it’s viewership so I was also dealing with this strange fame and my family was dealing with it too so it was probably the most taxing but also probably the most rewarding and super fun.
You’re filming a new series. What can you tell us about the show and your character?
I love the character. The series is called, right now, and it might just be a working title, but it’s called Messiah and it’s on Netflix and it’s about a guy who is seemingly performing these miracles. The government starts to get involved because he starts to kind of gain these followers. And I play one of the people who is seeking him out to help my daughter who has cancer. It’s one of the first times I’ve gotten to play a mom, and even gotten to play closer to my real age, which is exciting. I love it and I think this is a great show. I feel like it deals with real people and their real hopes. I don’t know when it’ll start airing but I’m assuming not till 2019 cause it’s not done filming until October.
Your new music video is for “Boy Band Hero.” What triggered that particular memory to cause you to write a song about it?
Well, I wrote the song on a plane. I knew I didn’t want to end the record with “Loser,” cause originally that was ending it, and maybe I shouldn’t end with this sad, bummer song. So I realized that that can just be a turn and then “Mermaid” is sort of about finding your own path. When I wrote “Boy Band Hero,” I was like, this is great because a lot of the record talks about things feeling like, did I just make that up in my head? And the words that kept swirling around in my head were, “Maybe this was all like a daydream, a fantasy.” So I started to work with those lines and then it kind of triggered me back to when you’re in high school and when you’re sitting at the desk and your mind is wandering. You know how you will have a conversation with someone and then you keep having the conversation after you’ve left them? And you go like, what would they say to this? What would they say to that? I think that happens when you really like someone or when you have an intense reaction to someone or when you’re really nervous, that kind of thing. So I was sort of going back to when I remember as a teenager doing that, like still having the conversation after the person would leave.
I did begin to feel that because this was such an on and off relationship that maybe a lot of it was imagined from my end. Also, this person is a musician and was like in a really popular band that I used to listen to when I was in high school so it all sort of tied everything up, I felt. And that’s why with the video I’m wearing this cool Kinks shirt and I wanted images that were sort of like Junior High/High School and I had my mom send me a bunch of old pictures.
What was the first song that you obsessed over when you were a kid?
The first song I really obsessed over was on a Carpenters record because my mom and dad had a record player and they had that Carpenters album and there was this song (singing) “Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear, just sing, sing a song.” I loved that song. It’s so weird, when I was a little kid I used to not want to sing songs that were about love because I was like, oh, I haven’t experienced that yet. So I loved finding songs that were about like me (laughs). So I loved that song cause it was just about how you love singing. And this was when I was like five years old but I loved that song. I also loved that song “Imagine” by John Lennon. It’s still one of my very favorite songs. I remember the first time I heard it was in my dad’s pickup truck and I was sitting in the backseat and I was like, “What song is that?” My mom and dad listen to a lot of Classic Rock so that song would come on all the time on the Classic Rock stations. “Imagine” still is one of my very favorite songs and I think it had a huge effect on me.
You and Paul McDonald are partners in The Sweetheart Deal and he also has a new record out.
It is so good and I love his record. My favorite song is that song “Modern Hearts.” I just love it because it’s so unique to the times right now. But we’ll probably put some songs out after my record comes out and stuff. It came about because we were both like stressed out about our music careers and we would have these big long talks and we’d be like, “You know how music is just fun and fun to write a song?” And then we were like, “Yeah, maybe we should just do a project for fun that’s like happy with love songs.” And he had written a song, cause we’re dating, and when we first started dating, he’d come to visit me and naturally he’d be like working on a song and then he would say, “Oh, this is the verse and the chorus.” And then I would say, “Oh let me try to write the second verse.” (laughs) That’s how we wrote the first song that became Sweetheart Deal.
Then it just kind of kept happening. He’d be like, “I wrote this song in a session today but we didn’t finish it,” and I’d be like, “Let me finish it.” And it became a thing and I think we both just liked working, I guess, and then we were like, “Let’s make a website!” So we made a website and came up with the name and then someone immediately contacted us to play at Sundance and we were like, “I guess we’d better get a show together.” (laughs) Then we were like, let’s keep doing this; if people ask us to do shows, let’s just do them if it works out with our schedules. Then our friend Jordan recorded a couple of the songs and if something takes off we want to have things people can listen to. So yeah, it’s just sort of been a side thing and we can do shows together, which is really fun.
Are you going to get to play any shows for your record coming up?
I think so. I am planning to do a tour. I don’t think it’s totally confirmed but that is the plan.
Photographs by Storm Santos & Lindsey Byrnes