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Emily Kinney is a little too old to be daydreaming in the back of a classroom, soaked in unrequited love for a guitar player in a pop punk band she used to watch on MTV, but on Oh, Jonathan, Kinney’s upcoming release, she just can’t seem to help herself.
It’s been a couple years since Kinney’s last album, “This is War” and she’s been using the time both professionally, in acting and music, and personally to mature and explore.
In acting, Kinney’s transitioned from her young role as Beth Greene on AMC’s hit tv show ‘The Walking Dead,’ where her music and singing were often featured, to more mature roles in shows like Masters of Sex, Ten Days in the Valley, and to her current gig as an emotional, tenacious mother of a young girl battling cancer in the upcoming Netflix series Messiah.
In music and life, Kinney’s path to adulthood has been a little less straightforward. “After I got done touring with This is War, I was tired from traveling so much. There were a lot of opportunities coming off of The Walking Dead, and I started to feel a little like I was on a hamster wheel and not always making the best creative choices, I was just saying yes to whatever opportunities came my way. There was also a lot to learn about the music business. I often felt in the dark making decisions. I wanted transparency. Then, my little sister, who’s seven years younger than me got married, and I started to notice the gray in my Dad’s hair. Even though I had been traveling the world and doing all these things, I felt like I was the one who was stunted.”
You can hear Emily’s plea for adulthood in one track on the album, “Popsicles.”
“I knew I needed to see my family more. I knew I needed a change of direction with my music and a rest. Time was going by a little too fast.
Kinney had always moved at full speed. Heading to NYC from Nebraska at just 19 to pursue a career in music and acting. She started going to auditions she found online and in ‘Backstage’ and would sing back-up for a couple singer-songwriters at places like Rockwood Music Hall, and the now closed Park Slope spot Bar 4. But it wasn’t until she booked ‘Spring Awakening,” her Broadway debut in 2008, that Kinney felt confident to start sharing her own poems and songs which turned into her first EP, Blue Toothbrush, produced by Rod Stewart bassist Conrad Korsch. As Kinney’s acting career progressed, the audience for her music also grew and she continued to release music: a 9 song EP, Expired Love, debut album This is War and a single on 7inch vinyl, Back on Love.
“I started working out of NYC a lot. I would come back to the city for just a couple days and it was great but I had changed and I didn’t feel it fit me the same way it used to. My favorite restaurants or bars closed. It was new bands I didn’t know playing at Rockwood. I had some close friends move to LA, so after tour I got an apartment and moved from NYC to LA too.”
After a long Christmas break in Brush, Colorado listening to Cage the Elephant’s Me talk Pretty and Less in her parents attic on repeat, Kinney returned to LA with new goals for her music and for her romantic life. “I really wanted to find a steady boyfriend, someone who could be a partner and I really wanted a major label record deal. Unfortunately, I didn’t get either. But I did keep moving. I left my management company, I took a bunch of meetings, I tried out songs with different.
producers, and I did writing sessions with anyone….But I kept coming back to Ben from one of those first exploratory sessions,(Ben Greenspan, producer), so finally, I just stuck with him. He’s amazing. I can be myself and i just really trust his taste.”
Likewise, Kinney explains that she didn’t set out to make a whole album all about one relationship, but it just kept coming back around. “At first, I thought Okay fine, I’ll make an EP called Jonathan, but I don’t want to….But they were always the best songs and this person just keeps coming up in my writing and in my life! No matter how hard I tried at new relationships, I just couldn’t seem to move on.”
Kinney’s breakthrough and forward momentum came to fruition with the creation of “Mermaid Song,” which she first released last fall via AWAL. “When I wrote that song, I suddenly felt a lot of freedom. I had been sending songs to managers and labels to get notes as I finished them, but with “Mermaid Song,” I truly didn’t care what anyone else thought. I loved the way it sounded. The synths that you hear became the sonic landscape and starting point for the whole record. Ben and I had just made the coolest song, and I had such a great response from fans. I stopped fighting making “Oh Jonathan,” and felt motivated to get it out in the world. I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission to put out the record or to legitimize my song-writing ability. I had stories and fans waiting to hear them. I could just do my own thing.”
As for Kinney’s romantic goals, you learn all about her hot-and-cold failed attempt at love with a rocker named Jon by listening to the record.
“But I don’t think this album is about Jon.” Kinney protests, “I always feel a song is more about the person who wrote it. It’s my experience. One-sided and unfair. I’m not always a perfectly nice person. I can be a fan-girl, and emotional, and I can fall in love with people who don’t love me back. My imagination runs away with itself. I’m not always a grown-up, but I think by the end of the record, I’ve grown. I’ve learned to move on, but I guess I’ve also learned to take my time.”