Interview: Emily Kinney on her new album, 'Oh, Jonathan'.
With her new album ‘Oh, Jonathan’, Emily Kinney transforms an autobiographical heartbreak into song-form, with songs like ‘Boy Band Hero’, where she reflects, “Maybe I just wanted love so badly.”
Currently on tour for the next two months in North America in support of the album, and with two new television projects in the works (‘Messiah’ and ‘Anhedonia’), Kinney shows no signs of slowing down soon.
Coup De Main spent a morning with Emily Kinney in Los Angeles to discuss ‘Oh, Jonathan’, her other upcoming projects, and the innate human desire for love…
...I like being around people who are different than me, to sort of understand how they work, I find it really exciting at first. But when it comes to a romantic relationship or a best friend, you do want people who you feel like you’re yourself around, and they enjoy you as yourself, not an idea of you.
COUP DE MAIN: Your upcoming album ‘Oh Jonathan’ is your first release since back in 2015. Did you find the process writing this album different compared to on ‘This Is War’?
EMILY KINNEY: On my last albums, I played a lot of clubs around New York. How I started out, is I would write a song and I would have a show coming up, so I would play it for the band, and we would create a song. I would’ve at least played it for a few times for an audience, and then I came to the studio and had an idea of what it sounded like with a whole band. This time, I wrote a lot of the stuff, and went to the studio before I had played it out, so there were less people involved as far as the creation of the parts of the other instruments. It was just me and my producer Ben Greenspan, so it was more of making it in a small room, rather than trying out a bunch of stuff, building the tracks, and then recording - even the bass player that I’d use would come in and play the bass parts. There were musicians that would come in, but we’d start usually with something like some programmed drums, and then bring in a real drummer. It was created in a smaller space, before going out into the world.
CDM: In ‘Boy Band Hero’ you sing, “Maybe I just wanted love so badly.” Why do you think it’s so instilled in society that love is something necessary for a satisfying life?
EMILY: I think it is something that we naturally want, that connection with other human beings. It doesn’t necessarily have to be through romantic love, and I feel like this album definitely chronicles an on-and-off romantic relationship - it was a time in my life where I was travelling a lot and despite being around a lot of people, I did feel isolated. I think I wanted some sort of anchor in my life. I’ve always said that my acting career is my anchor, it always dictates my next thing, but that’s not a very <laughs> stable anchor. Most people would say where they grew up, but my family doesn’t really live where I grew up anymore. I wanted him to be the person so much-- Also in the album there’s a lot about making someone up. There’s a song ‘Oh Jonathan’ where I say, "I'll trace his face, colour his shoes," it’s almost like I’m making this person be the person I want them to be, the perfect boyfriend, but I’m not listening to who they really are.
CDM: I feel like people always create a version of the person they want someone to be, and it’s hard to live up to that.
EMILY: Yeah, and it’s part of the reason I have that as the last song on the album, as a reflection of all these little stories, and going, ‘Oh, maybe I thought this was this intensive love affair, but really maybe it was just not a big deal?’ Maybe we just dated for a while and then it became this more casual thing - maybe we’re just friends, maybe it had less weight, maybe I created the weight.
CDM: It’s weird how our minds create our own version of reality.
EMILY: Yeah, and I have quite a good imagination being an actress.
CDM: You just announced a tour supporting this new album too, which is super exciting! How do you balance touring with your acting?
EMILY: Having people help me a lot, and communication helps a lot, and that’s how I balance it. It’s a constant calendar, I’m very married to it. I didn’t use to be, and I was always stressed out, and now I kind of take things bit by bit. I see things as projects, I don’t know where they will lead me. This album is like a project, so I want to tour with it, and get as many people as possible who might be interested in it to get to see it. So when that’s over, I’ll be looking for my next project, and that might be starting to create my next album, but then also maybe I’ll get cast in something and that will be the next project.
CDM: It’s nice to look at it as fragments, rather than mapping out a whole year.
EMILY: Yeah, I’ve started doing that a lot more. When I was younger, I looked at things long-term, but not so much anymore - things change from year to year, you never know what could come up, and part of me wants to enjoy where I’m at. I used to try to smoosh in as much as possible, because I would feel like, ‘I’ll strike while the iron is hot,’ but then I couldn’t quite enjoy the thing. I remember having an after-party after finishing my last tour, but I had some huge event the next day, and I still do that, because I like being busy, but I couldn’t even enjoy it. Someone had gotten me a cake as congratulations, and I was like, ‘See you later!’ Now I’m enjoying what might seem like smaller things, and making them bigger deals - like a birthday, going to your sister's play, little things I’m making a bigger deal out of, because I’m realising those things make me happier than long-term plans.
CDM: You shared with Fuse that ‘Mermaid Song’ is about leaving situations where you don’t fit in, which is a really relatable sentiment. What made you want to write a song about that in particular?
EMILY: It was connected to this on-and-off relationship, but I also had just broken up with a boyfriend that I’d been with for about a year. A lot of times he would say to me, ‘I don’t understand anything you just said.’ You can be in a relationship, but if it’s the wrong relationship, you still feel alone, you still feel not connected to someone. It’s better to be by yourself, and completely be yourself, than to be around people. I do think there’s something for me as an actor and artist, I like being around people who are different than me, to sort of understand how they work, I find it really exciting at first. But when it comes to a romantic relationship or a best friend, you do want people who you feel like you’re yourself around, and they enjoy you as yourself, not an idea of you.
CDM: In ‘Mermaid Song’ you sing, “I don't know the intention of your heart.” Why do you think that we as humans are so drawn to love, when it’s such a mysterious feeling, especially as you can’t tell what someone else is feeling?
EMILY: I just listened to this podcast about people who have fear of intimacy, so sometimes they do seek out people who are a little aloof, because it’s like, ‘If I’m never going to get them, but that’s who I can love and make the object of my affection, then I also never really have to be.’ So I think it’s a little bit of that, but I also think like you said, there’s something about mystery, and trying to crack the code of what’s going on, that I think becomes like movement, and I think sometimes people feel like they need - and I’ve done this too, like rather than just settling into, ‘Oh yeah, we both love each other, everything is cool’ - to be working out something, in order to feel like it’s moving forward. But I think there was a part in me though too, it does sort of go back to this same on-and-off relationship where I truly didn’t know what they wanted from me. I felt confused.
CDM: For this album you’ve been working with Pledge Music for the pre-orders, creating special packages for your fans. How have you found that experience? It’s like a new way of being able to sell products to your fans without the likes of Spotify and iTunes.
EMILY: So with music, I have found it’s a very different industry. Although I feel like for me writing songs and creating a character, they come from similar places in my heart and my brain, but as businesses they are very different. Acting is freelance, you get hired for the job, whether the show even goes to television, you get paid for your time on set. With music, there are so many in between people - I would say, gatekeepers. There’s all the people who own the streaming, there’s people who have labels, and they all have their different connections to move you forward, and I think I used to chase that a little more. I felt like, and I do still feel like those people can really open up your audience. But in the last few years that I haven’t released music, I was doing a lot of exploring, I left my management company, I met with tonnes of labels, I would send them songs, and I started to realise that regardless of expanding my audience, I do have a true real audience that doesn’t care - if you like a song, you like a song. It doesn’t matter how you consume it, or where it’s coming from, and doing the Pledge pre-order store was a really great way for me as a small business. I don’t have a distribution company, but financially, I go, ‘Oh, I have this many orders, so I can order this many things,’ and I’m not ordering tonnes of stuff. The communication is more direct, and I was like, ‘Why do I need all these middle people?’ If they want my music, they’ll buy it. One thing I’m doing too is I’m offering a single on the Pledge Music page that you can’t get on Spotify or iTunes. Those tools are really useful for discovery, especially for new bands, and for me too, they’re such a useful tool, but if you’re trying to service fans that are already there, and I do have a lot of true music fans, I can offer them something directly, and it’s easier for me.
CDM: In your Pledge Music bio you shared that you originally had been working on a completely different record prior to ‘Oh, Jonathan.’ What was it about these stories, and these songs, that made you want to release them now?
EMILY: I felt like those songs in particular had more of an immediate feeling, like I needed to get them out sooner rather than later, just because I was moving on from that relationship. Originally it was just going to be an EP that I put out before my full-length album, and then I realised the songs that I was writing, and liking, were all connected with this same theme of imagination and making someone into your boyfriend. <laughs> So I just felt a strong urge to change and write this first. I think those songs that I was writing, I was going to write another album that was more about identity, and different topics. I think when we figured out ‘Mermaid Song’, I felt a strong urge to create the album. I would send songs when I was done with them if I was talking to a certain label, and be like, ‘Give me notes, give me feedback.’ And then when I wrote ‘Mermaid Song’, it was so much about, ‘Just be who you are, do exactly what you want,’ and it got in my head and I was like, ‘I’m not sending any of my songs to anyone, because I don’t need to, I’m gonna make what I’m gonna make,’ and that sort of got me in motion to put this album out.
CDM: Do you think you’ll go back to any of the other songs for your next album?
EMILY: Yeah, I will.
CDM: ‘Oh, Jonathan’ is a really autobiographical album, do you ever write from different perspectives? What other things do you like writing about?
EMILY: I love writing about my own experiences because I started out writing songs more as therapy for myself.
CDM: It must be cathartic, it’s like when you’re younger and told to write a letter and burn it, but instead you turn it into a song.
EMILY: Yeah! But now it’s forever. Sometimes someone will tell me a story and it will get my mind going. As an actor, sometimes the stuff my character is going through will end up in my lyrics. Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Why am I writing about this?’ and then I’ll realise it’s what my character is going through.
CDM: It’s like a good way to get into character.
EMILY: Yeah! I know people who read books and then write a song about the book, from the point of view of a character.
CDM: You also make music with your partner in the duo The Sweetheart Deal - how do you find that process compared to your own musical career?
EMILY: Usually Paul will come up with an idea for a song, and I’ll be like, ‘Okay, let me write the second verse.’ But then we’ve also done things where we’ll be like, ‘Let’s write a song about this,’ and we’ll sit and have a writing session, me and him. I love it because I find writing sessions sometimes difficult for me to say what I really want to say, because a lot of times you’re just meeting someone--
CDM: It always seems like blind-dating, you just meet someone entirely new and have to share your feelings with them.
EMILY: Yeah, you want to be collaborative, which is great, and sometimes you make an awesome song, but it never really feels as satisfying as when it’s like, ‘This was my side of the story, and it’s exactly how I feel.’ Sometimes people are really good at helping you find that, so then the session is helpful. The reason it’s great with Paul, is since he’s my boyfriend, I can be like, ‘No, that idea sucks,’ and I’m not scared I’m gonna hurt his feelings. I feel like there’s so much honesty and trust there, that I can truly be myself in a writing session with him. In that way, I feel like the songs are things I’m more connected to. It’s also really fun to perform - I find some of my best friends are musicians who played in my band, because you make something together, I think there’s something really bonding about making something together.
CDM: Have you played many shows together as The Sweetheart Deal yet?
EMILY: We’ve done a few, and actually they’ve gone really well. I think we’ll do more, for sure.
CDM: What do you think is the difference between a good song and a great song?
EMILY: I think great songs have a point of view - they’re very specific, not always, but they have a real voice. I think you can have a very general song which is fun to listen to and it’s really good, but I think when something cuts through it has a point of view, or you feel like you can know the person who’s singing it.
CDM: You’re set to star in the upcoming Netflix show ‘Messiah’ next year, and also ‘Anhedonia’. How do you go about choosing your roles? Is there something you look for?
EMILY: I really like to do stuff that I haven’t done before. I love acting in general, but I do really feel like I look for projects that feel grounded in reality. If you look at ‘The Walking Dead’, there’s zombies and it’s a horror genre, but there’s so many moments of real conversations about our humanity. So even if it’s a superhero movie, I feel like there has to be moments grounded in reality. What attracted me to acting in the first place was, you take two people having a conversation, then you put them on-stage, and now it feels special. So I feel like music, and movies, and TV, are a way to shine a light on real stories, and real people, and make them special. I really like scenarios and conversations that feel real, that’s what I’m always looking for. If I’m looking at a character, I go like, ‘Is there something in me that feels like I could be that character?’ Or that feels like in my spectrum. We all have this spectrum of who we are, around certain people--
CDM: You’re kind of different versions of yourself.
EMILY: You’re different versions! So I look to go, ‘Is there a version of me that is that person?’ Or someone I know.
CDM: ‘Messiah’ looks so cool.
EMILY: Yes! It’s fun to play a mum too. And in ‘Anhedonia’ I play a mum too, it’s two projects in a row.
Emily Kinney’s new album ‘Oh, Jonathan’ is out now - click here to purchase, and watch the 'Boy Band Hero' music video below...