Emily Kinney is known for her role as Beth Greene from the hit series The Walking Dead, but she has much more under her belt than that one show. She’s been in numerous television and film spots, as well as on Broadway in Spring Awakening and August: Osage County. Kinney has also been busy with a budding music career, and we’re eagerly awaiting a new album from her this year, titled This Is War. I got to talk to Emily about her upcoming tour, album, and how acting and music have worked together in her life:
A lot of people know you from The Walking Dead, but you’re also an accomplished musician. Did acting come first, or was music/acting a joint venture for you?
Music in some ways came first as far as like, when I was little […] I loved music and the radio and singing and singing for people and even just starting when I was seven, I was singing in talent shows and at church. But then, as I grew up, I started getting involved in theater and musical theater and the TV shows I watched, I would think, “Oh, that’s kinda what I’m looking for.” […] They both have been a part of my life for quite a while, I would say music kinda got me in.
When I moved to New York, I was definitely moving to pursue acting and music was just something I’d always do no matter what. I started singing backup for bands, I went to go see a lot of music, started writing my own songs. It took me a second to start deciding to actually record my own music. I guess professionally, acting came first, but what hooked me into performance was my music.
Your music has a very playful nature to it. Even with your songs that take a more serious tone, there’s still this, I want to say ‘innocence’ to it. Do you find it easier to write your music that way?
I do think that it’s very playful and happy, like a lot of people will tell me, “Your songs sound so happy, but then when I really listen close to the words, they suddenly are very sad.” I just tend to think about the actual words themselves, and I think for me, music or writing music is a way for me to feel better and work out what I’m going through, so I don’t know if that becomes part of the process, it starts out trying to be really honest about what I want to say, and saying those things in a very honest way, but then when I sing them wanting them to feel happy and feel like a release.
So I think that’s why they might come out in that way. I also think my sense of humor comes across a little bit in my songs, and even if I’m upset about something, I do tend to make fun of the thing I’m upset about, and I don’t think that any of my problems are maybe all that awful. Usually, most of the issues I’m writing about are things like boyfriends and love and really things that I’m lucky to have had in my life. Sometimes, I try to find a way to sort of make fun of the problem.
Along the lines of the last question, the videos for “Rockstar” and “Be Good” contain choreography, but the way that they’re shot, seem candid and very natural. Was that the whole goal of the shoots?
Yeah, I mean, I have to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of, well, when it come to making music videos, my music is very, very personal, and I wanted the music videos to feel, and especially with “Be Good” to just see me being silly with my friends and seeing a very natural and raw side of me, and I also didn’t want to try to tell a story within the images. I wanted the words to tell a story, and the images to support the words, if that makes sense. I feel like, a lot of times, when we watch TV shows and movies, we have music that supports the story that the TV shows, y’know, the images, are showing. But in this case, I wanted the images to be somewhat secondary to the music. I sometimes watch music videos and find that they’re telling such a compelling story with the images, that the actual song is forgotten. So I kind of wanted it to be more like the images are the tool and the music is the focus.
In “Rockstar,” I wanted it to feel very raw. I remember even telling the director, “I’m not a pop star. I want this to just be raw and fun and funny,” and the song itself is very silly, and we have some elements, like my friend Marcus coming across the screen with a shaker. I wanted that song to come across as a little silly and fun. It is sincere, I mean, I guess what I’m saying are things like, “Oh, I feel like me and my friends are the kind of people who’d have a backyard party, in fact, my friend Simon had a backyard party for his wedding. We’re not the kind of people who go off to some island and have a million-dollar wedding, and that’s fine, it makes us really happy. I didn’t want the video to be some like, shiny, glossy thing. I wanted it to be what my life really is, which is a little more relaxed and a little more fun. And silly.
The tour you’re about to embark is called This Is War, and it’s named after your upcoming album? Is there any particular reason for the title?
Yeah, and yeah, my album is gonna be called This Is War and actually the first single that we released is also called “This Is War.” I mean, actually, when I was putting together my second album, I had a different idea of what I wanted the title to be, then all of a sudden, I sat down and started writing the song and called it “This Is War,” and I suddenly was like, “Oh my God, everything has to be named ‘This Is War,’” because the song was to a friend. I wrote it as inspiration to a friend. He would come to see a lot of my music shows and he’s a really great songwriter and someone that I really respected, but after, this is my very first show in New York City, or one of my very first shows, but I was really nervous […] I hadn’t even started on Walking Dead yet, but he had said to me like, “Your songs are cute, but you should probably stick to acting,” and it really got in there and it stuck with me, and this song, I feel, is in response to that.
I mean, I’m not actually at war with anyone. […] I write songs all the time, so it’s not like it was just songs from this year, just songs from like, the last few months; I tried to pick songs that almost felt like little battles for me, not necessarily good or bad, just actual little fights I had with people and then I would write a song, or within myself, like little battles of trying to decide what to do about this or that. So I kind of feel like each song is a little battle.
In your four-year tenure on The Walking Dead, the character of Beth grew immensely from a sheltered teenager to a hardened fighter, all while keeping this sense of hope. Would you say this has translated into your life or music?
I definitely feel like being on the show affected my music. I mean, I don’t know if directly, like, I don’t know if what Beth went through necessarily directly shows up in my music, but I do think that me as an actor, being in Georgia, and all the people that I met, it was such a big part of my life. I met a boyfriend that I had for a year, so that […] a lot of songs. Just spending time in Georgia influenced a lot of the music that I wrote, and I can’t help, but Beth became such a real person to me and given that I knew her inside and out, I feel like no matter what, it probably came through in my music, whether or not I’m totally conscious of where.
I have a song on the album actually called “Last Chance,” and that song just sort of came to me. Sometimes, well a lot of times how I write songs, I have something that I do want to get out and I have a phrase that keeps coming up for me, so I end up writing the song around that phrase. But with that song [“Last Chance”], I kept having these images of like, the end of the world, and I wrote this song in one day and it’s a really fun song, but I remember thinking to myself, “What is this about my life?” and I kind of quickly realized that it was because I had been dealing with a lot of these emotions like, the end of the world and survival and the feeling of not having enough time.
What kind of projects do you have lined up in the near future?
Well, The Flash will be coming out soon and that was really fun to work on and I’m working on The Knick right now, we’re actually shooting tomorrow. It’s a show on Cinemax with Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen. Mostly this has been consuming my life, this album (laughs), to be honest. When I’m done with the tour, like, directly the next day, I’m working on Con Man, so that’ll be cool.
I’m working on new ways to get the music out there. I think the internet’s so cool, I’m trying to make videos or think of interesting ways to really fit and not just put it on iTunes and then it’s there. I’m trying to make videos or something special on Spotify, you know, stuff like that. That’s what I’m working on.
Emily Kinney is kicking off her tour May 1 at YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore, NY, and will be stopping at Gramercy Theatre on May 4, and MilkBoy in Philadelphia on May 8. This Is War is set to release later this year. For more information, go to emilykinneymusic.com.