Walking Dead Week: Emily Kinney on Playing Beth, Songwriting, and Balancing Music and Acting | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Walking Dead Week: Emily Kinney on Playing Beth, Songwriting, and Balancing Music and Acting

Singing Past the Graveyard

Oct 07, 2014 Emily Kinney Bookmark and Share

This week is Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar’s website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post apocalyptic zombie drama starts this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show’s return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show’s current cast and will be posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week.

As much as The Walking Dead is known for its striking sceneszombified little girls, beheadings, throats being ripped outits true genius is found in its smaller, more reflective moments. One of the most poignant of these came in the season three premiere, when the teenaged Beth Greene is asked by her father, Hershel, to sing for the group of survivors. Having just weathered a winter of going house-to-house, searching for shelter and food after their farm was overrun by zombies, the group is ragged and worn but hopeful that the prison they’ve found can serve as a permanent refuge. After some prodding from Hershel, Beth agrees to sing the Scottish folk song “The Parting Glass,” apparently a Greene family favorite. As the survivors sit around a flickering campfire, she begins to sing, timid at first but growing in confidence as she goes, as if momentarily forgetting the world has gone to hell. It’s a touching scene, and it doesn’t take long to realize the song represents something deeper for the group: they might have found a new place to hide, but they’ll never have a real home again. Music is a reminder of a way of life that is now gone. All they have left are memories.

Memories are a common theme on Expired Love, the second EP from Emily Kinney, the actor behind Beth. With her softly expressive voice and playful sense of arrangement, Kinney writes songs that double as richly drawn stories about her life as a 20-something in New York City. Even better, Kinney’s music career is no vanity project, as she possesses a genuine knack for straightforward, earworm melodies that are as unambiguous as her references to Brooklyn parties, stoner boyfriends, and dreams of romance. And just as Kinney approaches her character with a wide-eyed innocence, she seems to approach her music with an uncomplicated optimism, using her songwriting to catalog her confessions, triumphs and fears. Here, Kinney discusses the origins of Beth’s musical contributions to The Walking Dead, explains her songwriting approach, and compares the crafts of acting and singing.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): When you first signed on for The Walking Dead, did you know that you’d have opportunities to put music in the show?

Emily Kinney: I didn’t. In the second season when I was cast, it wasn’t necessarily part of Beth’s character at all. It wasn’t like they were looking for someone who also sings a bit. It became a bit of her character in season three after [then showrunner] Glen Mazzara and [co-executive producer] Evan Reilly, they came to one of my shows in New York, and they knew that if they wanted to add that to the character they could, because I could sing. It just became part of her character. It was lucky, I guess, because I love to sing. [Laughs]

Did they come to you and say they wanted to add that part to her character?

Yeah, actually the first time Beth sang was that scene around the campfire in the first episode of season three. Right before we came back down to Georgia to start filming, Glen had called me and said, “Hey, we’re thinking of having this moment in the episode, because there’s a lot of action, and we need a nice quiet, family moment. Would that be cool, if you just sing while on set? Does that work for you?” And I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great!” And then they were like, “Then that will become something about Beth, that she’s into music. That totally works for her character.” And I think that was a smart way to have people feel like they could identify who Beth was without necessarily having her being one of the main characters, especially early on. It was a smart way, I think, to have the creators let the audience know who she is without necessarily having her have a ton of screen time or dialogue. You can identify this character and that character, and it was a way to separate her a bit.

Having Beth sing seems like a really nice way of providing a bridge between who Beth was before the outbreak and who she is now. Music seems like the one thing she could take with her.

Yeah, totally. And there’s something about singing where music makes people feel close and connected, so it was a way for the audience to feel close to Beth without knowing her that well.

When you think about her as a character, do you think about the kind of music she’d like and build that into her personality?

Yeah, definitely. It’s something we talked about, like the whole Tom Waits thing and how his music comes up for her, and we’ve talked about what music she would have listened to and been exposed to. That has become a part of her, as well.

Do you talk a lot about music with your fellow cast members?

Yeah, they’re all into good music. Sometimes Norman [Reedus] will send me something, and Steven [Yeun] always has a lot of thoughts on what he’s listening to. Lauren [Cohan] is always introducing me to really great music, so they’re all up on it. We’ve been to shows together. Last season we went to see Emeli Sandé, and the whole cast is into music and going to shows.

Well, it seems like your songs have a really catchy quality. If you listen to them a couple times, they’ll get stuck in your head.

Oh! That’s great news! That’s great! So you’re like “Take home Julie!”

Yeah. That’s a particularly catchy one.

That’s one that Norman is always singing on set.

So how do you find time to work on your music while you’re shooting The Walking Dead?

Well, obviously, we’re not all filming all the time. It depends on scenes and episodes and stuff, so I know I’m going to have some time to still fit in some stuff. But it’s funny how this has become a home base for me, because when I’m here I’m focused on just working on one thing, and it’s quieter. I’m usually not trying to fit a million things into one day. As much as the show is not a calm show, there’s something really nice and calm about being in Georgia. It’s a great atmosphere. Now it’s beginning to feel more like a home, because this is my fourth year on the show. It’s very familiar here. I’m sure the season is going to be amazing, and it’s great to be around my family. During the break, we all go off and do our own things. I’m doing my music, and Norman does his photography. But it’s always good to be back. It’s such a supportive group.

So your record is very much a New York City record, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, it is. Of course, I love New York City. It just comes up. I tend to write about my life or relationships, so when I’m describing the scenes, that’s what comes upNew York City-type things. I spend a lot of time walking around in the city, and sometimes I’ll have a bit of a song but not the whole thing finished, I’ll figure out what the rest should be by taking a walk. So New York City ends up in the songs, because that’s what they’re aboutthe people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve had in New York.

Would you say most of the songs were written before you moved to Georgia?

And during. Actually, I wrote much of Expired Love while I was working on Walking Dead. I think it was between the second and third season. I do a lot of bouncing back and forth between New York City and Georgia, but New York has become the backdrop for a lot of those songs. But I was writing some of them in Georgia. I remember writing “Married” after being in New York for a weekend and then coming back to Georgia and having some downtime on set. That one talks about being at a party in Brooklyn and that kind of stuff. Now, it’s changing, but I would say my first season on Walking Dead, I was doing a lot of life stuff in New York and then coming here and working. But now we’re all such good friends and I have an apartment here, I’m living more of my life here. I still have an apartment in New York City, and when I’m there I have certain friends I have to see, and if the show ended New York is my real homebase. But I was writing those songs when I was doing more life stuff in New York and doing more work stuff here.

Do you think Georgia will start turning up in your songwriting?

I don’t know! There was a song that I wrote recently that was talking about it. I’ve been traveling so much that I think that is turning up in my songs, like this sense of not being anchored in one place. That’s something that when I sit down to write something I feel like I have a point of view on. That’s what I’m living, just not really feeling completely anchored anywhere. I’m more anchored in my work than anything specific as a place. [Georgia] is coming up here and there, when it’s right.

Would you say most of your writing is autobiographical or are they imagined scenes?

It depends. Every song is different. I would say they start with something true to me, maybe a phrase that keeps coming up. Then sometimes I stick to just what I really know in my life, and sometimes my imagination goes someplace else. But it usually starts with something from my own life, then moments that are imagined later.

It seems like a very personal record, since you’re writing about boyfriends and intimate situations. Does it feel vulnerable when you’re performing these songs?

Definitely. I do feel like it’s a way for me to let people know how I’m feeling in a certain moment or in a certain situation. And I feel like it’s a safe way to do that, with a song, instead of just telling all of my friends, “This is what happened, blah, blah, blah.” I find that writing music is a safe way to let out your point of view and let your feelings be heard and understood in a certain way. So, yeah, I guess I do feel that way, that you are vulnerable in that moment of performing songs that are so personal. And now people are like, “Oh, what does this mean? What is this about?” And it’s funny, because maybe that’s how you feel in that moment, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t move on later. People are always asking me about the “Julie” song, like, “Did you get the guy? Did you steal him from Julie?” And it’s kind of fun to relive that or make jokes about it, but in reality you can move on from that and not even actually want that person anymore or not care anymore. It’s good in the moment to let out your feelings. It can be that for me.

From what you can tell, do people take from your music what you’re intending for them to hear in the song?

I feel like they do, actually. At least from the feedback that I get on social media or even at shows, especially on Twitter, there are fans that are very vocal about a certain song and what they heard. When they tell me, I’m like “You got it!” So it is a place where I feel understood. Sometimes in interviews or with acting, they’ll interpret moments differently. With songwriting, I feel like I’m able to get across a certain point of view or feeling and that people pick it up. It doesn’t mean they agree with it, but it’s understood. But there are also interpretations. Sometimes people are like, “this is a happy song” or “this is a sad song,” and I don’t know if it’s happy or sad. But I like that everyone takes music and puts their own story with it sometimes.

It seems like a lot of the songwriting language that you use is very direct. I would assume that makes it easier for people to get to the root of what you’re talking about.

Yeah. I guess that’s what I like about songwriting. I like being very clear. Sometimes in real life, you have to worry about coming across a certain way or hurting someone’s feelings, but I like being clear and specific.

Do you think people are surprised when they hear your music that you’re not just an actor? That was my first thought when I heard it, just because you don’t really expect people to be talented in two different worlds. It seems like they should be amateurish in one of them.

Well, thank you. But, yeah, obviously, friends that know me aren’t surprised, because I’ve been doing shows around New York City for a while, and I’ve written little poems and songs forever. Whoever was my roommate, I was always like, “I wrote this poem!” [Laughs] So people that are close to me-not so much. But Walking Dead fans, they’re like, “I knew you from Walking Dead, but I had no idea. This is different than I was expecting.” There are other actors doing music, so I don’t know what the expectation is, but people tend to be surprised in a good way. Maybe they’re expecting a super mainstream pop sort of thing, or they don’t expect me to write my own songs. I do get that exact thing where it’s a surprise and not expected, and I think that’s kind of exciting and fun to get to be a surprise. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, like, “Oh, I came to your show…stick to acting.” [Laughs] For the most part, it seems really positive, and that makes me happy. The last show in Philly was sold out, but I’m so happy when there’s even 10 people there, like, “Yes! Look at all the people!” [Laughs] I’m happy that they keep coming. That’s awesome.

Did you start with music or acting first?

I would say when I was really little I started with music. I would enter myself in talent shows starting at age six or seven, so that was my first in on performance. But I quickly realized that what I was interested in was more about stories and connecting with people, and it started to not really matter if it was singing or acting that I was doing. It was more about something else, more about stories, I guess. I definitely feel like my songs are little stories.

Is the performance of singing similar to the performance of acting, just getting into the character of it?

It’s not. It’s different for me because when I do a show of my music, I feel like I’m just being myself, and that is a different thing for me, and in some ways it’s harder. But they’re the same, too. You realize a certain flow that works, similar to the arc of a character. If you’re doing theater, there are certain choices you can make, and if you’ve done a show a hundred times, you realize what choices are going to work. That’s the same way with doing music; you start to get a flow and realize what choices you make and what kinds of stories are going to connect with audiences, and you want to have an arc in your music show in the same way you’d have in a theater show. I feel like something about performing music is a little more direct. I feel like you’re inviting the audience to be with you in a way, and you talk to the audience. All of the theater shows I’ve done, you don’t talk to the audience. We’re in our own world, and they are observers. At least in my shows, I’m talking to the audience, like, “At this part do you want to snap [your fingers]? Or do you want to yell ‘Take home Julie!’” It’s more of a communal experience, which I find really fun, and it takes the pressure off. They’re both special in their own ways, and I like both.

It seems like music has an interactive quality that TV can’t really have.

Yeah, definitely not television. Theater, I’ve always liked that you can hear when they laugh or clap, and it becomes a communal experience, even if they’re just meant to be observers. They become a part of it. Live performance is really cool that way.

So, as far as your music career is concerned, what’s your next step? Do you plan on making a full-length album?

Yeah. I’ve already started. I basically know what songs are going to be on it. I have a lot of songs I’ve written and haven’t recorded, so I know which songs I want on it. I just have to finish recording, and I’m hoping to fit that in during my next break. I have a bunch of records going in stores, like independent record stores around the country. Expired Love is going to be available through physical distribution, but after that I’m going to be focused on making my next album. Hopefully, when we’re done shooting season five, I’ll go on tour. I have a new booking agent, so I’m hoping to do a really cool tour next spring. That’s my plan.






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