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Emily Kinney: “My music is a place where I get to be the lead”

Emily Kinney
(Image credit: Zack Knudsen)

Just off an alley on the Cahuenga Boulevard strip in Hollywood sits the cosy, red-curtained stage of the Hotel Cafe. It's a homey space that has hosted early career performances by everyone from Billie Eilish to Leon Bridges. 

And it’s where actor and songwriter Emily Kinney recently wound down from a livestream. But despite the new-age setting, as we speak over the phone a few days later, Kinney admits the professional performer still got the better of her. 

“There wasn't anybody else in the room so we could spread out and take our time. But there's a certain anxiety to the before and after the show. It kicked in. I was like, ‘Okay, roll up my cords.’ Then I remember thinking ‘No one's coming!’, she laughs from her home in LA, an acoustic guitar leaning against the sofa behind her. 

Like most young performers, it’s taken a lot of perseverance and persistence for Kinney to find herself welcomed into the indie community of one of Hollywood’s local haunts. Her early music memories are rather more low-key, growing up in the Midwest farming community of North Bend, Nebraska. 

Kinney’s dad works as an agronomist selling seeds and fertilizers to the 1,000-odd folks who live there (including all of her extended family!). Freight trains file through the town with one stoplight to guide them. 

Even set amongst the pastoral landscape of small-town America though, the songwriter’s aspirations were always set for the big city. Empowered by the sibling sounds of The Carpenters from her parent’s record collection, she became a regular song leader at the local church. 

Then, when she was just seven years old, she decided to make it official. “I entered myself in the Lions Club talent show. My mom likes to remind me of this. She'll be like, ‘I told you that you were too young,'' she mimics, fondly. 

“But I filled it out in the newspaper and sent it in. I did that almost every year and the first one, I got second place and a little trophy. All those things trigger the thought, ‘Oh, I must be good at this, you know?’”

Kinney also showed a knack for acting, too. A little over a decade on, she moved to New York to pursue theatre armed with a recent degree in the subject. It was in the Big Apple she bagged her first Broadway role in Spring Awakening, a rock musical that explored the turbulent impulses of adolescents living splintered lives. 

When she wasn’t performing in the play, Kinney quickly found herself immersed in the New York nightlife surrounded by musical friends. So, naturally, she offered up her vocals as a backup singer for some of their bands.

“I used to send the poems or songs to a really good friend of mine who is a bass player and he said, ‘You shouldn't be singing back-up. You should be doing your own show.’ He was also the one who told me, ‘Well if you're gonna write songs, you got to know how to play guitar.’” 

A really good bass player friend of mine said, ‘If you're gonna write songs, you got to know how to play guitar’

Kinney had just landed a part in a US tour of August Osage County and so, between rehearsing in Denver, she set her mind to getting familiar with the fretboard. “I remember I was like, ‘Okay, while I'm out of town, this will be a good time for me to practice.’ I would try to learn like some Taylor Swift songs but it quickly turned to writing.” 

This exploration manifested into 2011’s Blue Toothbrush EP which she admits was hugely influenced by her musical theatre setting alongside a fresh curiosity to figure out a new instrument. 

“I’d be like, ‘This sounds like a cool chord, but I don't even know what it is. And then my friend who's much more knowledgeable would be like, ‘Oh, you're playing an A chord but then you're adding the 5th…’”, she recalls intimating the hand action with her wrist. 

After relocating to LA, Kinney began dating someone from Nashville, immersing herself in the Tennessee capital’s Americana roots. Those influences ring bright from her latest, and most personal, release The Supporting Character, with a strong line in Rilo Kiley’s keen sensibility and clean guitar lines. 

Opening track Omaha Hotel reflects on the conflict she felt between her own ambitions and staying connected with her family as she documents heading back to Nebraska for her Uncle’s funeral. 

“Maybe I would have liked to go back for a baby or a wedding, you know?” she jokes, wryly. “It's something that when I first left, I didn't think as much about it, because I was just so driven and so ready to get out of there. But as I got older, it started to hit me that I have missed chapters of people's lives.” 

Elsewhere, on When The Midnight Fireworks Start the songwriter explores her anxieties around pace and progress as an artist, over warbling slide guitars. 

“Sometimes I feel a little like, ‘Is this worthy of my time and my energy?’ But I do feel like it is. Ultimately, you have to believe that you do have something to offer that's different and special and you kind of have to feel like that, or else why would you keep putting your stuff out there?” 

Produced with longtime collaborator Ben Greenspan, The Supporting Character boasts some squalling lead lines from Kinney’s go-to cream Fender Stratocaster (“Partly because of its size, it's easy for me to navigate”) and warm rhythmic strums from her signature Martin acoustic. 

But the pair also welcomed a new member to the stringed family into the studio. “I knew I wanted to get a [hollowbody] Schecter. We actually used it on the album that's gonna come after this. I've already written and recorded almost all the songs!” she says animatedly. 

With a follow-up full-length already in the works, it’s clear that after 10 years as a recording artist, Kinney has finally found her stride – despite the frustrations she might have felt in the past. 

“At different times throughout my career, I've been like, ‘Maybe that's the last EP I'll do.‘ For real. I've said that to people. Now this album is a bit about that, too. Just like ‘No, this is definitely what I should be doing.‘”

Kinney may have won awards for supporting roles in the past but this collection of songs allows her to step out as a self-defined artist in her own right – just like that headstrong talent contest winner from Nebraska. “With acting, people have to choose you. My music is a place where it's like, 'Well, I choose me. I get to be the lead.'”

  • The Supporting Character is out on April 9 via Jullian Records.