Emily Kinney isn’t afraid to stand her ground. Whether she’s fighting hoards of zombies as Beth Greene in AMC’s massively popular series The Walking Dead or conquering love, relationships and life as an emerging pop singer-songwriter, Kinney, 29, doesn’t hold back when it comes to survival.
Although her songs are bathed in catchy, quirky and melodic pop sensibilities—and with a instantly warm and inviting personality upon talking to her—it might be easy to take her lightly. But she’s not scared to get down and dirty when it comes to writing lyrics (or portraying characters as an actor for that matter) and liberally expressing her true feelings. As a songwriter, Kinney is not afraid to name names. It’s this mentality that’s captured in her debut full length album, This is War.
“I just can’t be beat so I will stand the heat until your love, your love is sure,” she sings on the title track, a song she wrote about standing up to someone who doubted her.
“I know that you think you’re a much better writer. And that might be true, but what I’ve got on you is I’m a fighter,” she sings later in the song.
Kinney knew when she wrote the track that she wanted to continue its fierce and bold theme and energy for a full album.
“When I wrote ‘This is War’ I said ‘Oh wow, this is what I want the whole album to be based in and I want to name the album that and have it be an album that’s a little bit of a step up and a standing up for myself.”
“With music the words are very important to telling stories and emitting certain emotions, and I think my music is really grounded in the lyrics,” she adds.
Although 2013’s Expired Love EP and 2011’s Blue Toothbrush EP dealt plenty with relationships, Kinney says her new recording has a different and more potent energy.
“I feel Expired Love was more like a sad, saying goodbye to relationships kind of album,” she says.
Following the re-release of Expired Love last year, she promptly set forth in putting together War.
“After Expired Love I had many songs that I wanted to record so it was always the next thing,” she says. “I was like ‘What am I going to record next?’ It’s like a never-ending thing. Even though I have this album coming out I honestly already have ideas for what I want to record after this. So I always have projects out there in the atmosphere.”
Kinney recorded most of the album at Fireplace Studios in New York City, her current home, as well as Ultrasound Studios in downtown Los Angeles. She reunited with producer Caleb Shreve, whose credits include recordings with Jennifer Lopez and Norah Jones.
“He’s a really great producer and he’s worked on a lot of records. But mostly he’s a really good friend and really good musician,” she says. “So he produced all the songs. And then I had friends of mine play the different instruments. Elliot Jacobson did drums. Simon Kafka did a lot of the guitar stuff. I play guitar. And then sometimes Caleb would play bass.”
Even as her profile rose as an actor on The Walking Dead and other shows, she’s decided to release music independently, at least for now.
“Right now I love it because I can control when stuff comes out. I write pretty often and I have a feeling that I want to keep churning out music and putting it out there,” she says. “I feel it’s important for me to have my songs available.”
“And so far [being on a label] hasn’t made sense for me,” Kinney continues. “I haven’t come across something and said ‘Oh that’s the next thing. That’s how I should put out my next album.’ So far I’m staying independent just because so far it’s always looked like the better option. But you never know. As things grow and they definitely are growing on a daily basis, you never know what will happen.”
Given that Kinney is now done with The Walking Dead, her character having died a grisly death, she now has more time for music and is currently in the midst of her biggest tour, with 31-dates around the country. Although she admits it’s pretty time-consuming driving to each venue while repeating the process each day, this journey has been a very satisfying one, especially when she gets to her destination and plays in front of her fans.
“Hearing some people singing the words to some of the songs feels really nice,” Kinney says. “And the band is getting tighter and tighter. There’s something about playing shows every night that’s really good for your music as far as performing goes. So I’m having a blast.”
As she readies for the LP release, currently planned for the fall, and nears her 30th birthday in August, she says she feels fortunate for what she’s been able to accomplish in music and acting.
“I’m excited and I feel I’ve met a lot of amazing people in my life that have given me good advice,” she says. “It’s been a really fun ride so far and I’m just happy to keep chipping away and working and making stuff.”
Balancing Acting with Music
So far, Kinney’s been able to support herself with both aspects of her craft and find a satisfying balance between the two. Following the end of her time on The Walking Dead that balance has swung more toward music, but she’s still equally committed to both.
“It’s kind of a daily choice of what I’m going to work on that day,” she says. “But the focus is music for the next month at least when I’m on tour. And then hopefully I’ll be working on some acting stuff too that’s very important to me. I just focus on each project at a time. Each project is its own little thing so I focus on each project as it comes.”
Besides The Walking Dead, she’s appeared in a variety of TV shows including Law & Order: Criminal Intent and The Flash. Sometimes her talents intersect, such as in The Walking Dead where her character Beth sings a cover of Tom Waits’ “Hold On” and traditional Scottish song “The Parting Glass.” She’s quickly found that being able to use both talents at once has it’s advantages.
“For actors that open up certain gigs for you,” Kinney says. “You can do musicals or luckily I could sing, so that became part of Beth’s character. If you can do some music or have that ability I definitely think that can help you as an actor, especially when it comes to theater work.”
Indeed, her acting has had a valuable global influence on her music.
“With acting it takes me to a lot of places and I meet a lot of great people,” she says. “I think anybody who has a freelance type job is always doing new jobs and going to different places and acting has brought me to different places like Georgia for The Walking Dead or I was in Osage County and traveling doing the theater show to certain cities. So every time you meet new people you form new relationships and those new relationships and locations get infused into the things I write.”
Before she got into the spotlight in film and music, Emily Kinney came from fairly humble beginnings, born Aug. 15, 1985 in Wayne, Nebraska. Singing and acting were both immediate childhood activities, starting initially with singing and playing music, and moving into acting through theater.
“I would sing at talent shows. The first time I sung was at a Lion’s Club Talent Show when I was 7. I would sing at church and the county fair,” she says. “Eventually I got into theater and acting. I would see actors on TV shows and be like ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m looking for.’ A certain character or story would really hit home with me or make me think ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So I started realizing that both acting and singing were very important to me.”
Growing up, she listened to music new and old, including Mariah Carey, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, James Taylor, Tom Waits and some of the music her parents listened to such as The Carpenters. When we was older she studied theater at Nebraska Wesleyan University and then, after moving to New York City, New York University. She would stay there to pursue acting and music, a decision that changed her life greatly.
New York Spotlights
Kinney says her decision to move to New York was a long time in coming.
“I was someone who really wanted to get out of Nebraska. I loved acting and singing. And I wanted to do it on the biggest stage possible, so the best place to go would be New York City.”
It wasn’t easy at first with the extreme difference in cost of living, but it proved to be an exciting change of scenery. She soon found herself finding success with auditioning—particularly theatre roles, including on the Broadway musical adaptation of Spring Awakening and play August: Osage County—as well as playing music on the side.
“I learned a lot. I still feel I’m still learning a lot,” says Kinney. “I learned even within the first few months certain things about auditioning. It was tough making that change, Nebraska is very different than New York, but it was also a really exciting time because I was learning stuff on a daily basis, getting acclimated to a new city and learning how to navigate the world of auditioning and open calls and that kind of thing.”
Kinney says some of the first friends she made in New York help encourage her to pursue acting and music. One of these friends, Conrad Korsch, helped convince her to pursue a music career and to go beyond back-up singing.
“I met him during Spring Awakening. He was probably one of the first people who really listened to the songs that I was writing and encouraged me to perform them and record them,” she says.
When she wasn’t acting, she would go see many of the local Brooklyn bands, including Wakey! Wakey! and Bright Silence.
“There’s a guy Kevin Johnston that’s in a band called the Bright Silence. His music I would go see all the time at Rockwood Music Hall and Pete’s Candy Store,” she says. “My friends, they’re such hard-working musicians. A lot of musicians that I met when I first moved to this city really inspired me to write my own music.”
Surviving Zombies and Searching for Lyrics in Georgia
Though New York was a big change, none may have been bigger than her landing a role on zombie horror series The Walking Dead. When she joined in 2011 the show was fairly popular, but she had no idea the role of Beth would be as long-lasting as it was, nor the depth to which she would eventually be featured.
“When I was hired it was as a recurring character, not as a series regular. Later on between season three and four they bumped me to series regular,” she says. “But at that point when I was doing recurring characters it was only a few episodes. So when I was hired I assumed it was only going to be a few episodes. But of course my character lasted longer and became a big part of my life and I’m really thankful.”
Kinney moved to Georgia during the filming of the series. Although the show proved to be pretty time-consuming, she found plenty of moments to write new music and pursue her music career.
“There’s times when you’re on set or when I was in Georgia on days off and wouldn’t be needed for scenes, so for me music was definitely a way to fill that time that I was in Georgia,” Kinney says. “But now especially when I’m on tour and stuff, taking the time to write is something I definitely make time for because it’s important for me and honestly it helps me emotionally to spend time writing and sorting out my thoughts.”
When not on set, Kinney would explore spots around Georgia, like Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, GA.
“I have a lot more space in Georgia, in a certain way. I have room to have a little piano and have a room with all my guitars and stuff. A place where I could really sit down and write, and I think there’s something about Georgia that’s very quiet and you need some space and quiet in order to write,” she says. “I always try to carve it out wherever I am but I definitely got a lot of writing done when I was in Georgia.”
Although she’s no longer on the show, Kinney continues to find new opportunities and ways to survive in a sometimes unsettled world, doing it her way and not being afraid to speak her mind.