By Heather Stas
When Emily Kinney‘s Walking Dead character, Beth, met her demise on the show last year, it seemed like the entire country was in shock the next morning. But Kinney herself had already been working on her next creative move: album #2, This Is War, which is out now.
She recently spoke with Radio.com about the album, as well as her more recent roles on The Flash and Masters of Sex (she’s also playing a character in the upcoming season of The Knick). She also addressed the question: does she still watch Walking Dead now that she’s no longer a cast member.
You tell very vivid stories in your songs. Is your process that you create the narrative first, and then the instrumentation comes later?
Yeah. I tend to write by myself, write the songs and the lyrics, the melody, independent of thinking about the production. And so, once that is completed, then I go into the studio, and I have a song that has a whole narrative and has a whole melody, and then I start to think about, okay, what kinds of sounds do I want kind of underneath the lyrics? I love writing words and poems, so the music is kind of all supporting that.
This album feels like it has one underlying theme. When you were deciding what to put on the new album, were you thinking about that or just saying, “I love this song, I love this song?”
Yeah. I actually, when I wrote the title track, “This is War,” I wrote that, oh, I don’t know how long ago, but I actually, I was still working on Walking Dead. I was in Atlanta. And when I came up with that song I sort of had this moment… originally I was having other ideas for what my next album would be and what the theme would be. I played around with this idea of “the fun part” being the next one, or I had all these other ideas that were bouncing around in my head.
But when I wrote “This is War,” I thought, “This is what I want the whole album to be about.” That was the theme, and I wanted the tour to be named that. It became this whole thing that I wanted to do, and then I started picking songs based on what I thought would fit on the record.
Some of the songs, like “Michael” and “Berkeley’s Breathing” were actually songs that I wrote quite a while ago, and some songs like “Birthday Cake” were super, super new, and “This is War” was super new when I was deciding. So it was more about finding songs that felt like I was really in the middle of something, rather than saying goodbye, and songs that songs that felt like I was sticking up for myself.
Where did “Weapons” come in?
“Weapons” was a song that I wrote when I was really feeling hopeful about a relationship, and really happy. And there’s something about me when I’m really deep into a relationship, like especially when everything is great. And it just felt very peaceful, and I feel like I wanted to close the record on that, because I really wanted it to be like, oh, this is kind of like what I’m fighting for is this sort of peaceful love.
The early stages of the relationship, the bubble that we all enter.
Yeah. Yeah, but I guess the hope is that it lasts a bit longer, you know. So that’s what I imagine; I would love if it became a really comfy bubble where I could still do work.
Everything can happen. Like we can do this, and we can do this at the same time.
Which lends to “Birthday Cake” too.
Yeah. Yeah, and actually “Birthday Cake” and “Weapons” were written around the same time. I feel like “Weapons” was the way I kind of wanted to close the album on sort of a more peaceful way and that I put these fights or whatever behind me.
“Birthday Cake” was one where it’s a happier song and it’s really hopeful, but it’s definitely like, “I know I’m far away, but this is just the start, let’s fight for this. I know this is long distance, but we could make this work.” And I’m laying out all of my dreams and laying out all the reasons why we would be so good together.
Can you talk a little bit about “Mess?”
When I wrote that song, first I sort of created the verses, actually. And it was all about the idea that—that particular song was about a situation where I was always hanging out with this person, but afterwards I’d feel like suddenly I had lost, like lost control of my life. It’s exactly what it says. There’s like cookie crumbs all over my apartment, and everything that was so nice and organized, now feels messy.
And I always felt like that right after hanging out with this person, but I couldn’t stop. Because then in the chorus there’s all these things I like about them, like the way that their leather jacket smells and their cigarette smells. But the cigarette smells sort of like dirty. You know, there’s something about it that’s just sort of messes up my life, but in this really exciting way.
It’s amazing how in your lyrics you’re always speaking to someone. I wonder if you’ve ever gotten a reaction from someone that knew it was about them. Have you ever gotten any interesting reactions or feedback?
Yeah. Hmm…I’ve definitely gotten feedback from people who have wondered. You know what’s the worst? Okay, this is kind of taking a sidetrack. You know, “Michael,” what’s the worst is if you date someone new with the same name, and then they say after it, they come to your show, and then they see you after, and they say, “Oh, that song, ‘Michael,’ is that about me?” And then you have to say, “Oh, no.” So I’ve gotten that reaction.
But as much as a song can be to someone or about something, it’s always my point of view, and it’s always my experience. And I am a creative person, so my songs come from a really real place, but then my imagination takes over. So even if I say something that might seem harsh, maybe I don’t feel that way even an hour later from when I’ve written it.
But that’s part of the fun of being a songwriter or an actor, is getting to really dive into an emotion and really explore it. And I feel like a song is a very safe place to say exactly how you feel. Like I feel like one of the reasons I love writing songs is because in real life you don’t wanna say something to someone that could hurt them. But a song feels like a safe place, or I’ve decided somehow that that’s the place where I do say what I wanna say and when I do say what I mean.
I dated two Michaels in a row, so I get it.
Oh, so many Michaels in the world. It’s impossible to avoid it. Yeah, I’ve dated too many Michaels. Actually, I’m not dating any more Michaels, so…Yeah. No more Michaels. I’m done. I’m sure there’s some nice Michaels out there, but they’re not for me.
Now that you have so many other albums under your belt, what would you say would be the proudest moment in finishing the album or during the making of the album?
I feel really proud of this album, and I feel like I’ve given it a lot more attention than I’ve given some of my past things, even just in the amount of press and touring. This is the first time I’ve toured with an album in this big way. We did a national tour; I think we performed 33 cities, something like that, sold out a lot of the places, and the band was amazing; they became really great friends.
And I remember at the start of that feeling like, how is this gonna work? How’s this gonna happen? I’m supposed to be the boss of this tour, you know? Something’s gonna break down; I’m gonna go broke; something really bad’s gonna happen.And when we finished that tour, I felt really proud of that.
It’s a different lifestyle than acting.
With acting you’re hired to play a role. Of course, within the role, you’re creating the character and you get to be very creative. But you’re still fitting into someone else’s vision; someone wrote this play or this TV show. There’s another thing that you’re fitting into.
But with music… I wrote the songs, so that’s where it started, and then of course there’s all these other amazing collaborators, my band, producer and my managers who help me. But ultimately, it’s my thing, and as empowering as that is, it also can be very scary.
Does it lend toward helping you get on stage and being that person?
I definitely think having a theater background is super helpful when it comes to performing music, just in terms of even like your voice. It’s such a boot camp being in a show. I worked on a show called Spring Awakening; I worked on a show called August: Osage County. Having to sing like that eight shows a week, you learn to take care of your body in a very specific way. And I do think when you’re on the road you can’t abuse your voice, and you learn to take care of yourself and perform in that way. So I do think that kind of training has been super helpful as far as for being a musician and being a singer.
But yeah, for me, being on stage is a very safe place, because I feel like it’s a very focused place. I tend to feel a bit overwhelmed in the real world where it’s like phones and TV screens and all these people. So for me, I love performing because I feel like, well, now the show’s started; now it’s 8:00, or now it’s whatever and we’re on stage and we’re all doing this thing. And I like that. As much as we’re up there singing and making noise, it feels very quiet for me.
People used to always ask me, or sometimes even now people are like, “Aren’t you getting sick of singing this song?” or if you’re doing theater, “Are you getting sick of doing that show?” I’m like, you can still mess up every night. It’s always a new audience, and it’s always like, anything could happen. You could sing something a different way and it lands really well.But just as much as something bad can happen, something really special could happen.
How do you fill your time when you’re on the road?
It just depends. A lot of times we’re driving. When you’re on the road, you’re usually just getting to the next city, and it’s all about the show. You’re like, okay, we need to eat, and we need to sleep, so it’s all about just finding those things, and since it’s a new place each day, that takes a lot of your time.
But I really love coffee, and making sure to stay caffeinated throughout the day like in a constant stream is pretty important to me, so I make a point to seek out all the local coffee shops. I try to go find them in between sound check and the show or while I’m just waiting around. That’s really fun, and you can learn a lot about a city just from going one place, their coffee shop. I also like book shops. It sounds so boring. I like looking at books, old books I guess.
That’s not boring at all. What’s your favorite book that you have in your collection?
Oh…I love this book, Beautiful Ruins. I love it; I could read it over and over again. I actually only read it just like a summer ago, but I love that one. And I love Atonement. I also love Mary Oliver. I sound like such a nerd right now. And I love real books. I had an iPad, and I left it on the plane, which, oh, I know sucks. But I never replaced it, because I missed having my books. And then I just think, whatever. I like to feel the pages, and underline stuff.
Tell me about the song “Last Chance.”
I remember when I wrote it, I wrote it the day after a show at Rockwood [Music Hall in New York City], and I had flown back from working on The Walking Dead just to do a quick show at Rockwood, and the next day I had basically the whole day off. And I kept coming up with the little chord progression.
And it was kind of inspired by this idea of it being the end of the world. It was inspired by certain people and ideas in my brain, but I was definitely thinking of it being like, “This is our last time to try to make this work.”
But I do think that’s the one where people are always like, “Oh, did Walking Dead influence your music?” And that’s the one song where I was sort of like, oh, this idea of this being the end of the world kind of thing, I guess it kind of did enter into my song.
Let’s talk about acting roles in general. Is there something that you’re still hoping you can tackle?
Yeah, I haven’t played a fairy yet. So, someone make that happen. I feel like I’m gonna get too old to, and then I’ll either have to play an old lady fairy. I really wanna play a fairy though, really badly. I would do it on stage too. But I kind of like the idea of it being in film or TV, because then there could be like flying and stuff.
I don’t know. I mean, definitely, now that I’ve done Walking Dead and go to all these conventions, it’s more in my world, so I’m much more aware of amazing costumes and all of that kind of stuff. And actually, yeah, I do like working on shows that involve period costumes and stuff like that. There is something about it that really makes it easy for you to kind of enter into the world and be that character. Like I do have to say, working on Masters of Sex and working on The Knick, you put on those costumes, and it’s like all of a sudden you stand different and you sort of talk different, and it definitely helps to bring the characters to life. Your costume is everything.
Masters of Sex‘s season just ended. Will your character be returning next season?
Oh, I don’t know. I end up being sort of a bad guy, and I get Michael Sheen’s character, Dr. Masters, into some trouble, so…You know, I feel like bad guys only can last so long. So I don’t know. It’s not like Walking Dead; I don’t like die or anything, so I guess it’s possible.
You got hit in the face though.
I do get hit in the face. I don’t think, though, that she’s that bad. I think she just wants to belong somewhere and so, yeah. And she’s heartbroken. ’Cause I do think that Nora really did develop a crush on Dr. Masters, and they do think that she had really fallen for him. So I think she was just a bit heartbroken.
I had a blast working with Michael Sheen; I think he’s awesome. It was great to work with everyone on that cast, and the writing is amazing too. It’s the kind of writing where you wanna remember the lines and put them in your pocket.
Are you returning to Flash or anywhere else in the CW superhero universe?
I don’t know. I hope so, because I loved playing a bad guy. I really want to pitch it. I have had people come to me at conventions to meet me, and they have their Walking Dead gear and Beth stuff, and that’s really cool, but a few people have brought Flash things too for me to sign, so that’s cool. I feel really like, The Flash feels similar to Walking Dead in that it has that kind of like great fan base that is just so supportive and warm and love everything that you do and supportive on social media.
Walking Dead fans, I feel like they’ve given me an opportunity with my music that they—you know, a lot of times I’ll play shows at a convention. I’ll bring my band. The reason I’m able to do that, and a lot of other musicians wouldn’t have that opportunity, is because those Walking Dead fans are so supportive of not just Beth, but also me as an actor and me as an artist, and they wanna see what other kinds of projects you might have going on, and I’m super thankful for that. It’s a gift.
Do you have the random person yelling “Beth”?
Oh, sure. People call me “Beth” on the street. I don’t mind. I played that character for four years, so it’s definitely a part of my—there’s a lot of Beth that’s a lot like me. She does love singing, she’s from a small town. There’s a lot of things that are different about us, but there’s a lot of similarities too, and I definitely went through all those experiences with her. Even though they were pretend, I felt them as if they were real a lot of times. So if someone says, “Hey, Beth!” I look and say, “Hey.” It’s fine with me.
Do you watch Fear the Walking Dead, or do you watch Walking Dead in your spare time?
Yeah. I think someone wrote something once where it was like, “Emily Kinney stops watching,” and it’s not that I’ve stopped watching, it’s just like honestly, I don’t watch that much TV. As much as I love making TV, I don’t sit and watch hours and hours of TV. Maybe once in a while I’ll binge watch a certain show, like when I’m on tour I get into a certain show. I love TV, but Walking Dead is on Sunday nights. A lot of times I’m flying on Sundays somewhere or flying back from an event if the event was Saturday.
I didn’t really wanna watch my character die, that’s true. But I also after that point, it just wasn’t convenient, and I wasn’t making necessarily a specific effort to watch. But I did catch the last couple episodes last season, and I do wanna watch Fear the Walking Dead, ’cause I’ve heard it’s awesome. So it’s just like any other TV show now, I wanna watch it, sometimes I get to it, and sometimes I don’t. But I’m excited like everyone else for the premiere. I wanna see it. It’s my friends, I wanna see them do their thing. It’s hard to keep in contact with everyone, but those are the kinds of friends that you make and you can always reach out if you needed to. So that’s really special.