From her time on AMC’s hit show, The Walking Dead as Beth Greene, to her music, Emily Kinney has a knack for storytelling through any artistic medium she chooses. Having experience both as an actor and a musician, Kinney is able to flow in and out of each role with ease and use the skills she has mastered in either profession to complement the other. As on The Walking Dead, Kinney’s character was known for singing folk and singer/songwriter music in very pivotal moments during the show making her a fan-favorite.
Lately, the Nebraska-native has been focusing on telling her own story through her music. The latest album, Swimteam, paints the picture of a breakup via folk-pop tunes and Kinney’s witty, yet deeply personal lyricism. Swimteam is soft on the ears, but the songwriting is where the album hits the heaviest. Tracks like “B or C for Effort” and “False Start” demonstrate the reality of a relationship taking its course, and the difficulty of moving forward from the relationship.
After performing a couple shows to celebrate the new album, one in Los Angeles and a show in New York, Emily Kinney talked with mxdwn about the process of writing Swimteam, the way she incorporates her acting skills into her music, and the roles she hopes to play one day in her acting career.
mxdwn: The new album, Swimteam, which is beautiful with its very witty and honest songwriting, tells a vulnerable story of heartbreak. Is there a different kind of anticipation of releasing personal music into the world than when you are performing an emotional scene when acting?
Emily: I do find them both similar. I do think that with me, for acting there’s an element of… within the character revealing something about myself. Something about me that can be true if the circumstances were right. Or at least being able to see from someone else’s point of view how they ended up in that position or their feelings about it. So I do feel like, even though with acting you’re creating a character and you’re creating circumstances you haven’t been in, there is an element of revealing the truth of the matter, or a truth. I feel the same way with songwriting, it’s not like I necessarily feel that way every single day. But it is revealing the truth of how I felt in a particular moment. So yeah, they both touch on that same bit of vulnerability for me.
mxdwn: I really like the title of the album, Swimteam. And being that this very much is a breakup album, it makes me envision that being in this relationship felt like drowning and the idea of a swim team captures the tug and pull of a relationship where it feels like there is no winning staying together. How does the title of the album reflect your overall head space when you were writing the album?
Emily: I think you found some of the ties that I was thinking of…I was on the swim team as a little kid. And the idea of “false starts,” like jumping in before the gun or before the bell, having to get out and being completely soaked and start all over again. I think in life there’s so many times where you don’t even get to the end to lose. You just kinda feel like that wasn’t completed but now I have to start all over at the beginning and jump in again.
Also the idea of it being a swim meet where there’s people watching somehow, or maybe in your perceived mind there’s a shame involved. With it being a breakup album, I think the idea was being sort of stuck in this, not even competition but kind of, where you don’t even know if you want to be in it anymore. There’s this line that says, “I kinda want to just quit swim team entirely.” And that was the idea for the album, was, “Oh! Swim team. I’m in swim team.”
mxdwn: I know you’ve had a few performances since the release of the new album, one in LA and another in New York. How has it been playing these very personal songs live? Especially after writing these songs during the pandemic which was such an isolating time, has performing these songs in front of people given them a new life?
Emily: Oh, it’s so satisfying. I was just talking to my manager today about how the day after a show, I have that motivation to get things done that maybe I’ve been putting off. Because there’s something about a show where you’re seeing people in front of you receive the thing you made. It’s very forward movement. It feels that way, in a physical way. So I always feel really motivated right after shows.
Also it’s really satisfying to hear people laugh or react to certain lines, particularly the song “Broken Air Conditioning.” People sort of getting the joke or being in on the joke and seeing how what you’ve written lands with people in a real, not over the Internet, but in a face-to-face, in the room kind of way is really satisfying and exciting.
mxdwn: I feel like when you’re writing, even if you can make yourself laugh, that only does so much. But being able to see other people react to it, that’s a whole different feeling.
Emily: Yeah, it’s very motivating.
mxdwn: When creating art about personal relationships, do you find yourself in your songwriting, staying true to your own experiences, or do you try to paint broader metaphors for a wider audience to grasp?
Emily: Even though I’m so excited about my music reaching audiences, I feel it’s important for me as an artist to keep things somewhat personal. I actually think sometimes it’s the little moments and the little specific things that make people attach even more because you’re describing the room. You’re describing the experience. I think the more specific you can be, it might not be exact, rather than broader, more general brush strokes, being really specific about a relationship or about the room or about whatever it is that you’re creating makes people also be able to put themselves in your position. And they can laugh at the things that are similar in their life.
I just went to see a movie this weekend, it was called Cat Person. There’s a moment where she goes into this guy, that she’s dating, she’s just seeing his room. This guy that she’s gone on one date with – and there’s a moment where there’s an empty cup with a little bit of liquid. And it’s so specific, but I feel like there’s so many women or anybody who dates this person and you’re noticing all these little things about their room. Specifically cups that haven’t been put away. It was such a specific thing to this story, but again, I can go, “Oh my gosh. I’ve been there.” And specifically that cup.
It’s something that I go back and forth with when I do sessions because a lot of times you’re writing for a particular moment and you’re encouraged to write in a broader way. And I actually think that sometimes it’s the more specific things that end up appealing to a broader audience. Or the kind of audience that I want.
mxdwn: And I think the more specific things, you can definitely hold onto those more than with a broader way of writing. I feel like a common theme throughout Swimteam is the uncertainty of this relationship. And the very last track of the album is “Untitled.” The way that I interpreted this was the leaving of the relationship coinciding with leaving the album in a rather unsure place. What was your intention for placing this song at the end of the album and leaving it as an “Untitled” track?
Emily: The intention for that song was, if you listen to the song, it’s very hopeful. I wrote that song about dating someone online. You can kinda tell it’s about the pandemic because it’s like, “We’re only talking through the computer. I’d love to meet you in person someday. Maybe the world’s ending, but maybe this is the beginning of something new, and that would be nice.”
The idea is that that is the end of the old relationship; it’s the hope for something new. And investing in a new person hoping that can become romantic love and not knowing though, for sure. So that’s why it’s “Untitled,” unfinished. Maybe similar to (500) Days of Summer, he meets Autumn and it’s sort of the beginning of a new movie in a way. That was the intention for that song.
mxdwn: So it’s like the start of a new chapter, but you don’t even know what the title of the next chapter is going to be. When you are acting, I presume the process is more telling a story of someone else’s words through your performance. But with music, it is you individually telling your story. What helps you shift from one way of storytelling to the next, and do you ever use the skills you’ve mastered through acting in your music and vice versa?
Emily: Definitely! I think that, especially when it comes to performing my music, I’ve learned a lot from being in theater about feeling ready to take the stage and how I conduct myself. Being on stage, having the theater training is really helpful for that in particular. Although it is very different venues, you’re interacting in a different way with the audience. Where in theater, you’re not breaking the wall, really. And even in preparation for shows, I’ll think back to how I prepare for being on set and getting ready to truly know everything so well that you don’t have to think about it. I think that’s really important. So there’s definitely crossover in training, in your voice… saving your voice. One thing I do feel good about, I’m not touring this album, but in the past when I’ve been on tour, knowing my limits with my voice and stuff. Having theater training has been really helpful for that.
It’s a relief when it’s my own project because there is a little bit of, well, if I mess up or if I change a word or something, it’s mine. I wrote it, it can be exactly how I want. Where when you are an actor, you are fitting into someone’s bigger picture. So I can practice all day in my room one way and be like, “This is the way I’m doing it.” And then I get to set and they might be like, “Oh, but our camera is going to be over here, so if you do that performance that way, it’s not really going to show.” You really are fitting into someone else’s much bigger picture.
And so, collaboration just becomes, it’s always important and in music too. But I try to learn the words as well as though they are my words and I’m thinking of them. I think having the experience with music and knowing that the song can be so personal and exactly what I did, and I have memories of when I wrote those lines and why I wrote them. That same kind of personal attention also needs to happen for the acting roles I do. So it’s really important to me to know the lines so well I don’t have to think about them and have thought about what did my character… all the things. Like what my character wants, what I did that day before the scene, what I’m doing after the scene. Like really knowing inside and out as much as possible who the character is. And in fact in a way I could almost put myself in their position and slip it on where I’m not even thinking about creating a character, I’m just living in the moment.
mxdwn: So as much as you know yourself with your music, you have to do that process with whoever you’re playing as an actor.
Emily: Yeah, and for me, it’s a lot of repetition. So it’s something where I can be in the moment and be experiencing what the character is experiencing, but all the other stuff is intuitive. It’s almost automatic.
mxdwn: I know you had a podcast where you talked to musicians such as Local Natives, Silversun Pickups, and other artists about their creative process. What’s the difference between discussing the creative process with musicians and actors? And what is some of the most insightful advice you’ve been given for telling your story through music?
Emily: I think one reason that I created the podcast is because there is this thing that can happen with musicians is, you kind of get into a bubble of, if you write by yourself, then you’re kinda by yourself a lot except for maybe you’re manager and if you have a band once in a while. Or if it’s your band, it’s you and your band and you can sort of feel like you’re on this journey by yourself.
And I’m such a fan, and so many of my best friends are musicians. So in the time that I created that podcast, I was feeling very isolated and very on my own in my musical endeavors. I think having a place where we can chat about our different processes and what we were going through like with management or hearing their whole story. It definitely makes you feel less alone and it kinda creates a community. There’s definitely people in that podcast that I’ve kept in touch with and people I haven’t, but it was this opportunity to create a real connection. I think that’s really important to have a group of other artist friends.
Then for acting, you kind of have a built-in group. Like for The Walking Dead let’s say, everyone was going through a similar thing being on the same kind of set, so we have these connections already. When you’re auditioning, it’s that same thing, especially now with self-tapes and you’re not going into the casting office. It’s similar to music where you’re creating things in a bubble and you’re not really getting to connect with other actors. But I think if you’re working a lot, there could be a little more opportunity for community with other actors.
mxdwn: You’ve cited Jenny Lewis as an artist you are heavily inspired by. What do you find about her music and songwriting that resonates the most with you? And being such a fan of hers, what do you envision having the opportunity to work with her would be like?
Emily: In my mind, it would be cool to sing a song with her like a duet kinda thing. But I also think it would be cool to tour with her and see what her process is for performing shows and things like that. But I’m also happy to just be a fan. I think the reason her music inspires me is it feels very honest. It feels like specific situations. But I also find that it’s really fun and silly sometimes. Even “Puppy and a Truck” is a little fun. Even if she’s talking about something sad, there’s an element of it’s all kinda fun. That really appeals to me.
I also just like that she’s older than me (laughs). Just having someone to look up to I think is good. There’s a lot of artists I love that are younger than me too, but she’s very much still putting out new music and that is inspiring to me.
mxdwn: I visited Nebraska this summer for the Maha Festival and learned a lot about their rich history of music from the underground punk scene to Saddle Creek Records. Do you feel like Nebraska gets overlooked in regards to their output of music from Bright Eyes to Cursive? What would you say makes the music that comes from Nebraska so unique?
Emily: Honestly, when I grew up in Nebraska, I wasn’t aware of the music scene except maybe for punk. There was a band called JV Allstars that I used to go see. The more punk-pop kind of scene was a local scene that I was into a little bit. But when I was growing up I was really listening to my parents’ music which was classic rock. And then I was really listening to straight up pop music. There’s this station called Sweet 98 that was just all the Mariah Carey, Casey Kasem Top 40, MTV Beach House, that’s what I was listening to.
Then it was when I got to college that I was really exposed to Saddle Creek Records and the Omaha music scene. And that was through my friend, Brooke, who was my roommate. She grew up in Omaha, and her now husband was a musician in bands and she had a whole other connection to that scene. I think you could make special, beautiful music anywhere. I think specifically, for whatever reason, that label seemed to really curate amazing artists. I don’t know who created that label or I don’t know a lot about it; I’m just a fan. But that music started to really shape how I was writing, and I just happen to also be from Nebraska.
mxdwn: How would you say you incorporate your Nebraskan roots into your own music?
Emily: Especially now, not so much when I was first writing songs, I feel like I was really… this album is focused on a breakup and relationships. But The Supporting Character is an album where I really take a look more at my family and where I came from. And my next album will be, obviously it’s not finished yet, but I get a lot more into Wayne, Nebraska, the place that I come from. I think it shows up in my writing but maybe when I was first writing, I was focused on the love songs.
mxdwn: So you feel like as you grow as a songwriter, you kind of incorporate the different elements where you’ve been and environments into your songwriting?
Emily: Yeah, I think there’s more to explore. I think at first I really used songwriting as a way to get my side out, especially when it came to romantic relationships. As I worked my way through that, there’s not as much to say about that. And then there’s stuff to say about other things. And I go, “Well, what else do I want to get my side out on?” Maybe it’s something about where I came from or exploring the genetics of my family. That kind of thing.
mxdwn: Being in this stage of your career, how do you feel when people initially recognize you from your acting roles when you’ve been concentrating on your music career as of late?
Emily: Oh, I love it! I feel like it doesn’t matter how people find the music. A lot of characters I’ve played, particularly Beth, she sang. So people are able to get in there and explore the music because she sang. And specifically, Beth sang Tom Waits songs which are very folk, storytelling songs. I think whatever connects you to a person works. I also think it’s interesting, a lot of shows I’ve been on, maybe people came to shows because they wanted to meet Beth. But then I’ve had people say to me after a show, “This is the first concert I’ve gone to.” Like they’re not your traditional music fans. So there is a little bit of satisfaction of, “Oh! Maybe they’ll go to more folk-pop shows.”
mxdwn: So Beth was a segue for them into at least your music, and maybe other genres of music. That’s really cool. Being on that show, did you ever imagine the show finding a new life even beyond the initial series and how impactful it’s been throughout all these years?
Emily: When I first started, I had no idea what was to come. By the time I left, as far as it being such a massive, worldwide phenomenon. But by the time I left, I knew that the writers and the producers had their mind set on more, more, more. So I knew there’d be more spinoffs, more seasons, everything.
mxdwn: I’m sure songwriting and the process of making music has taught you a lot about yourself. But what kind of lessons did you learn channeling the character of Beth for so many years?
Emily: Just being on the set, I think I really learned something about… with Beth a little, being a really good listener. I feel like Beth didn’t get to do a lot the first season. It’s a very great set to be on where everyone is so collaborative and involved and learning those lessons about setting the bar really high for my acting has made me an asset to the shows I went to later.
So being surrounded by other actors who were there to be their very best set a bar for me. In addition to being Beth, I got to listen a lot. I feel like listening is a huge part of acting that people sometimes don’t pay attention to especially if you’re a newer actor. You’re like, “My line, my line!” There’s a joke about that, going through the script only highlighting your lines.
So really being a collaborative player. Yeah, setting the bar high. I think it served me in the shows after where maybe there wasn’t as much of a process. You’d just show up on set and there wouldn’t be much of a rehearsal which is fine because some shows don’t have that built into their schedule. But because I had that with The Walking Dead, I made sure to do that myself.
mxdwn: As of recently, we have seen a huge shift in the way people who work in entertainment are valued from the WGA deal and the SAG strike. If you are able to speak on it, what do you hope to see come to fruition when a deal is made for actors? And do you think artists in the music industry will eventually follow suit to renegotiate terms for the work they create?
Emily: I’m really hoping that we come to a decision soon. Obviously I’m in SAG, so I’m on strike. Big companies have to remember who actually makes the content. If you own Spotify, if you own Netflix, like yes, you created this platform. But there’s nothing to put on your platform unless you have people writing shows and making shows, and being in the shows. So paying those people properly is extremely important.
I think with music, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the kind of coming together that you see with the WGA, and you see with SAG-AFTRA in the music side because the music business is set up very differently. I think what it’s going to take, rather than people coming together, because we have unions that have been set in place for a really long time for actors and writers, and for other various people on the set that work on TV and movies.
But with music, there really aren’t those same kinds of labor unions in place. I think what it’s going to take is more individual artists deciding what they’re bar is, what they’re willing to put up with. Are they willing to make their music for free? Are they not? I think it’s going to take people individually setting the bar themselves for what they’re willing to put up with.
mxdwn: Going back to the album a bit, there’s a song titled “Everything on TV” where you describe having every streaming service available to watch pretty much anything. What shows are you currently watching and are there any shows you wish you could be a part of?
Emily: I’m watching Invasion on Apple about the aliens. I love it. I sort of watch one show and then move on. I watched Morning Show from the beginning, and so I’m going to start that because I saw that they have like three new episodes out. So, Morning Show, Invasion, what else? I want to start Yellowstone but I haven’t yet. I loved Succession, so being on a show like that would be awesome. There’s so many kinds of shows I want to be on. I want to be on funny stuff, I want to do more drama, I love anything about aliens. I have this dream of playing a doctor like Meg Ryan in City of Angels. I have this sort of dream of that kind of role for some reason. It comes up to me in meditation. So if anyone has a doctor role for me to play.
mxdwn: It definitely could happen. I feel like with TV, there’s so many different kinds of shows being made now and so many different voices being heard. I’m sure someone would love to have you play a doctor in one of their shows.
Emily: Yeah, so that’s sort of a little dream. When I was little, I loved Quantum Leap and the new, I don’t know if that ended up getting picked up for another season or not, I think it did. But that would be cool to guest star on Quantum Leap.
I love anything period too. I want to watch Yellowstone mostly because there’s all these spinoffs of it and I always love when you get to wear a cool costume. I feel like I fit in really well in different period pieces.
mxdwn: At this point of your career, which side has been more creatively fulfilling, the acting side or the music side? What do you hope the future looks like for both of these endeavors? Do you wish to blend your two worlds eventually, perhaps musical theater again?
Emily: One way I wish I could combine them, so much of music for me is writing the music and I do write scripts as well. Like I’m working on a script now that has country music. So something where I can be doing both the television side and incorporate my music would be so satisfying. But I feel it’s all been better than I ever could have imagined as a little kid moving from Nebraska to New York City. It’s already been more than I thought. So I’m already satisfied. I used to think, “I want to make one album someday,” and this is my fifth album. I’m in this time in my life… I feel proud of even making the album. But I would like to be able to do bigger shows. There’s so many more, I have lists of dreams. To just keep being able to do that and to make my living as an artist to me is the best.
Make sure to listen to the new album, Swimteam by Emily Kinney available on all streaming platforms now.