By Brian Ives
“Making stuff” and “telling stories” are two phrases that come up often in conversation with Emily Kinney. Had she not been cast on one of the most popular shows on cable TV—Kinney is Beth Greene on AMC’s The Walking Dead—it seems as if she’d be just as happy acting in off-off Broadway shows, recording lo-fi albums and writing poetry.
Alas, she did get cast on that show, which returns for season five this Sunday, and since joining the cast for season 2 in 2011 has gone from a supporting character to one of the main ensemble. With every week that she evades the jaws of the “walkers,” or, worse, the evil humans causing trouble on what’s left of the planet, her profile grows. At this point though, we’re just asking “Where is Beth?” something Kinney is definitely not going to answer in this interview. “I can say that you will find out what’s going on with Beth,” she says. “It’s not like you’re never gonna find out what happened. I can tell you that it’s a lot of action this year.”
But back to Kinney, whose biggest early moment on the show was when she and Lauren Cohan—who plays her sister, Maggie Greene—sang a rendition of the traditional Irish song “The Parting Glass” in the premiere of season three. It was not only a great dramatic moment for Beth Greene, but also showed the world that Emily Kinney has a stunning singing voice.
But as Kinney tells Radio.com she’s been singing at talent shows and church longer than she’s been an actress. “But I quickly fell in love with acting as well,” she says. “I remember watching Kids, Inc. or Growing Pains and the movie My Girl, and I quickly got into the mindset that I loved stories and I loved acting as well as singing. It became important to me, how could I write my own stories [and] be a part of making things?”
Against her mother’s wishes, Kinney soon signed up for her first talent show, singing “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music. She took second place, losing to a tap dancer. The next year she came back and took first, winning with the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” But, thanks to her parents, her music tastes would soon get a bit more contemporary.
“What they would listen to was what I would listen to,” Kinney says. “I remember one of my first favorite songs being ‘Imagine” by John Lennon. I loved Carole King‘s Tapestry and the Carpenters, I used to learn all their lyrics. But then as I got older, I was definitely into MTV’s Beach House and I would watch Sisters With Voices. Remember them? I loved that group! And, I was obsessed with Mariah Carey.”
She eventually moved to New York and was cast in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, which also featured a pre-Glee Lea Michele. Though she landed a few other roles in the theater and in movies, she was also in the studio creating music. By the time she was cast on The Walking Dead, she was finishing her debut EP, Blue Toothbrush, which she released via CD Baby.
Walking Dead‘s music supervisor Thomas Golubic told Radio.com that it was former showrunner Glen Mazzara who decided to have Kinney sing on the show. “I think Glen knew early on, that Emily was also a singer. I think she made that really clear,” he said laughing. “Once that became an opportunity for us, it was really nice thing. One of the roles Emily has on the show is to be a representative for the idea of ‘home.'”
Kinney says early on it was decided that she would sing on the show and agrees that her singing acts like a calming presence in this crazy world of walkers. “I think that [Mazzara] told me that he wanted moments of calm, and ways to let people into Beth’s life,” she explains. “And it’s funny, when you see people sing, you feel like you know them.”
The exposure on the show, which gets an average of 13.3 million viewers an episode, has definitely helped Kinney’s budding music career. Fans of the Walking Dead often check her out when she plays in their town, whether they’ve ever actually heard any of her music or not. They just want to see Beth Greene sing.
“I don’t know what people expect when they see an actor who also does music,” she says. “I don’t know what kind of stories they expect me to tell, but I tell stories about living in New York and boyfriends and identity and trying to figure life out.”
Her song “Julie,” from her latest album Expired Love, fits into the the living in New York/boyfriends/trying to figure life out category. In it, she tries to coax a potential boyfriend to leave his girlfriend, Julie, for her. “I bet Julie’s really smart and you keep saying she’s so cool / But if you pick her over me then you’re just a fool,” Kinney sings. Which begs the question, did she get the guy? “I heard from a friend of a friend that he might be engaged to her!”
But while some are trying to figure out who the guy she’s singing about is, others are wondering whether sparks will eventually fly between Beth and Daryl Dixon, played by heartthrob Norman Reedus. In one of last season’s episodes, the traveling companions ended up in a funeral home together, which, conveniently, had a piano, allowing Kinney to perform a bit of “Be Good” by Waxahatchee, bringing the duo closer together.
Kinney says that the song they were originally going to use in the scene was Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers, but the band wasn’t interested in licensing their music. Something Kinney understands. “If you make something, you’re very precious with it,” she says. “I would love to cover that song on my own.” For now, she’s performing “Be Good” in her sets, along with another song Beth has sung on the show, Tom Waits‘ “Hold On.”
“For that episode, there were a few different song options, but Glen and I wanted ‘Hold On,'” Kinney says of the episode called “Alone.” “I feel like music is the kind of thing—or any kind of art—that makes you feel human, once you have the other essentials, food and a shelter. That’s why people make stuff.”
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