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Interview: Emily Kinney

Emily Kinney photo
24 April 2021

Photo by Clarion Call

It’s hard to make it big in acting – and just as difficult to build a thriving music career – but Emily Kinney has managed to become successful in both of these fields. Best known for her prominent role on the popular television series The Walking Dead, she was a Broadway actress before that, appearing in Spring Awakening (as well as other theater work). Concurrently, she’s worked as a singer-songwriter, releasing her critically acclaimed debut release, Blue Toothbrush, in 2011. On April 9, she put out her third studio album, The Supporting Character, on which she takes an introspective look at the complexities in her life. Calling from her Los Angeles home, Kinney explains how (and why) she juggles two demanding careers simultaneously.

How are you feeling as you approach your release date for this album?

EMILY KINNEY: This group of songs, I feel like really represents where I’m at right now, so I’m really excited to have it out and available. There is always this other side of it. I noticed with the last couple of singles that I released where I started to go, “Oh, now they don’t really belong to me anymore.” As long as you’re working on it, you’re like, “Well, maybe I’ll send one to a friend, and it’s sort of like this little secret. But as soon as it’s out in the world, people can attach them to their life and they kind of take on new meaning, which is really exciting, but there’s always a little bit of, “A chapter is over.” Sort of like a chapter is over, and a new one is beginning where you’re going to do more shows or work on the next album. So yeah, I feel mostly excited and a little bit of recognition of a chapter closing.

Did you have any overarching themes in mind as you wrote these new songs?

EMILY KINNEY: For me, the main goal, with this album and the last album [2018’s Oh Jonathan], I wanted them to be songs that were reflecting on my life, reflecting on things through the lens that I’m an actor and then I’m a performer and an artist. If you listen to “Omaha Hotel,” which is about leaving home, so much of that is about when I moved to New York City, which is so different from [my home state] Nebraska. I was trying to do this thing that nobody in my family had really done, and I missed out on a lot of the normal things, like cousins and friends getting married, having babies. In theater, there’s eight shows a week, and in TV if you get a job, you’re not exactly leaving to go to weddings. So there was this kind of commitment to a more creative, artistic lifestyle which is so amazing – but there’s another side of it of missing out on family. And then another theme for me was definitely the idea of, I have reconnected with my spiritual side and with God and a higher power. When I first moved to New York City, I definitely had lost a lot of that. It’s always been a part of me but I would say I’ve connected with it in a much bigger way, and especially in how it affects the work that I do. So that is a major theme of it, as well: a reconnection to something bigger than myself.

Emily Kinney photo 2

When did you first realize you have musical and acting talent?

EMILY KINNEY: My parents had a Carpenters record. I really loved Karen Carpenter and I would learn all those songs on the record and practice them. I also became obsessed with Mariah Carey. And John Lennon, because my dad listens to that – I listened to a lot of my parents’ music. My parents were big music fans. I think that’s why I became such a fan. But I knew that I wanted to sing, so I would sing at talent shows and at church as a kid. People would say to me, “Whenever you sing, I really hear the words.” So I knew there was something about telling stories, conveying emotions, that was something I was really good at. I think that’s why I started gravitating more towards the theater. My first year of college, I was a music major, and then I started going to the Theater Department every night working on shows. And then when I moved to New York, I was going to auditions, and then I would go to see my friend’s bands, and I started singing backup for bands. I started writing my own songs when I started working in Spring Awakening on Broadway – I saw a lot of actors that were also doing music. Once I started, I was just hooked.

How has being an actor affected your songwriting, and vice versa?

EMILY KINNEY: Each time you get a new [acting] job, you meet a new group of people, you maybe are in a new city, and new experiences become material that I can use in the words that I write. I do think that music has allowed me to weather the rejection, because there is non-stop rejection in acting, [where] you really are at the mercy of someone picking you. Ultimately, you have to fit into someone else’s world, TV show, movie. One thing that older actors have always told me is that the happiest actors usually have other things that are really important to them. Even if it’s just a matter of, they’re really involved in their family stuff or they have some other hobby.

With both your careers, what’s coming up next?

EMILY KINNEY: I’d like to reach more with my music. I still have so many acting jobs that I haven’t gotten yet… Walking Dead, or Spring Awakening, have that really dedicated fanbase that would follow what you were doing and check out all your new projects. So I do think I have some really special fans that are interested in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s acting or music, and they’ve allowed me to continue to do that.