I’ve never thought of myself as a mermaid.
So, when the first words of Emily Kinney’s single drifted in softly over steady claps and deep humming synths, I’d be lying if I said I immediately related to her sentiment.
I am a mermaid that you dreamt.
Swimming away while you slept.
My reaction was more “Huh,” then “That’s me.” But it was an intrigued kind of “Huh,” because that’s a pretty unusual opening line.
Full disclosure: I knew Emily as Beth on The Walking Dead before I knew her as a songwriter. If you’ve engaged with American pop culture at all over the past five years, you might be in a similar place. If you haven’t, more power to you. But either way, listen to Emily’s music and you’ll quickly start to find the real Emily Kinney in her songs – any roles, preconceptions, and pretense aside.
It’s music that feels deeply authentic, for good reason: Emily writes what she’s feeling. Not something else.
It’s kind of funny how that plays out. Like, Emily told me that she’s wanted to write motivational songs before – you know, something along the lines of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song”, or Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”, or most things by Kelly Clarkson – but couldn’t, because she couldn’t feel it.
Instead, she’ll write songs that are true to her. And, interestingly enough, those songs end up being motivational in a way that’s not as straightforward, but that’s probably more affecting.
Because they’re real.
That’s the place “Mermaid Song” comes from. No, it’s not playing with a theme that’s as universal as the ideas in “Brave.” It’s not the kind of fist-pumping track that everyone and their mom gets right away, from the opening lines to the triumphant outro. But it is the kind of song that gets below the surface – and that’s relatable on what I think is a deeper level.
It’s about struggling to fit in at a 4th of July party. It’s about learning how to value yourself. It’s about shrugging off the tired monotony of expectations and choosing to swim on your own.
It’s about being a mermaid.
So yeah, I can identify with that. And it’s part of what I love about songwriting – how one person’s story can speak into somebody else’s, with words that feel so personal and so relatable all at once.
So go, give “Mermaid Song” a listen. Then come back here to find out how Emily gets beyond pretense to write music that’s true to her – and maybe to you, too.
How did you first start getting into songwriting?
Emily: I guess I first started when I was in high school. I got into music and singing other people’s songs when I was really little – like I would sing at the talent show, the county fair and stuff like that. And then I was really into writing poetry in high school. I would write songs here and there. I didn’t really take it super seriously – maybe I would sing with my mom or something.
But mostly I was singing other people’s songs. In college I wrote a little bit. Then when I moved to New York I started singing backup for a lot of bands at places like Mercury Lounge, clubs, club shows.
All the while I was writing my own songs and writing these little poems. And when I was doing Spring Awakening (the musical by Duncan Sheik), I became really good friends with the bass player – actually, he was a fill in bass player. But I would send him my songs, and he’d give feedback. He was definitely really encouraging, like saying, “You should be doing your own project rather than singing back up for other people.” Before that I had tons of poems – I would write a song here and there, but then once I became friends with Conrad (Korsch) and was sending voice memos, he always wanted to hear, “Oh, what’s the next one?”
So I was constantly writing and then sending him songs. I think he ended up helping me make my first little five song EP. And so then I started playing my songs around New York.
And through the process of those things I’ve just met a lot of other really great songwriters. There’s this girl Lauren Pritchard (her stage name is LOLO) who’s really great, and Duncan Sheik, obviously. So I just kind of ran with it.
How did you transition from writing poems into writing songs?
There was definitely a turn there where I started going, “Oh, these poems are more useful to me in song.”
I honestly love singing and I love music. I play piano, but a little after Spring Awakening, I started teaching myself guitar. And for whatever reason – I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t know guitar as well or what, but that definitely forwarded my songwriting. Because I would sort of come with a riff and write over the riff, where like piano I had learned how to read music, so it was more formal or something.
That makes sense to me. I think learning a new instrument can open up the way you think – almost like learning a new language.
Yeah. It was like meeting a new person that really inspires you, or just a spring that really refreshes your well of ideas. I really didn’t know what I was doing on guitar, so I would just sort of make up stuff. And I think that sort of opened up my brain to just bringing more imagination, bringing more ideas.
Speaking to that, I have to ask: do you feel like acting and songwriting play into your ideas? In your mind, do you compartmentalize those two things, or do they feed into each other creatively?
They definitely play into each other.
I feel like there are certain things about acting that are similar to writing a song. When I play a character I try to find ways that they’re like me. You know, two different people could play the same character and play them completely differently because they bring elements of their personality. I’ve always felt like acting is as much about finding where you’re the same as the character as it is about becoming someone else.
That’s a way I’ve always been able to get into characters. And it’s sort of like with a song where you start with something that’s totally you, but then you follow it through and sometimes not everything is completely accurate in the song. But it starts from your personality, and your imagination fills up the rest.
So it seems like those are both pretty personal creative outlets for you. Do you ever co-write?
I feel like the songs that I’ve recorded and put out into the world are songs that I’ve written by myself. But at the same time, I love writing sessions from what I learned from the other writers. You end up with little tricks and stuff.
But for me writing is so personal. It’s like, “Oh, this is where I finally get to say my side of the story.” And it’s hard for me to do that unless I’m with someone I’m really comfortable with. It’s hard for me get to the really good stuff – the stuff that you can’t always say in real life, but you can put in song and have it be a little easier to digest.
So to get to the words, I tend to need a little bit of alone time.
When you’re writing on your own, how do your songs usually start?
I feel like some of my better songs have come when I have a phrase or something that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while.
Just as I’ve been walking around, or on the plane, or wherever, you know? I get a phrase that sort of sticks in my head for a while, and I start building different ideas around it. And then I sit down to write it and it’s sort of, it’s almost just like I’m putting together puzzle pieces rather than me just sitting at the desk trying to come up with something.
Like, a really old song of mine called “Expired Love,” – I remember that song was in my head for a long time before I actually sat down to write it. That whole idea: You’re a top, back shelf, out of date, too late, expired lover. You’ve run your course.
That idea was bouncing around in my head for a while before I really decided to sit and write it.
So, what happens when you do sit down and start to really work on it?
If I have the phrase, I can just sit down and be like, “Okay, now I just need to fine tune the music under it.”
I hate comparing songwriting to this, but it’s sort of like writing a paper. When you have the thesis, or at least for me, you have the thing you wanna say, then everything else is finding what fits into that. And then when you’ve finally said all the things you wanna say, it’s sort of done – and then you can go back and cut the fat a little bit or you can go, “Oh, but this will make it sound more like the way I’m feeling.” And from there it’s just edits.
But it’s not always that straightforward. Sometimes actually I will bring almost a stream of consciousnesses to the producer, and then we’ll break it up.
When you’re writing, how much of the final sound do you have in your head? Does it start off pretty raw or do you usually have an idea of where it’s going?
Every song is different. I feel like the main thing that I’m thinking about when I first start writing it is just simply the lyrics and the melody and then maybe the sort of meat behind it. I feel like it takes me a while to figure out the details as far as sound. And I would say that’s the part that I am learning the most about, because you can change the feeling of a song so much with what instruments you decide to use.
Yeah, that’s always been interesting to me – how so much of a song is shaped instrumentally.
Yeah. Like, for this record I wrote pretty much all of it in the studio, and I’ve only had one show really performing these songs. But in the past, I’d write the songs and then would bring them to shows before they ever got recorded. My band would sort of create the sound live and then go into the studio with it, so I had it around for a long time.
Would you rather sit with a song for a long time? Or have it be born in the studio?
They both work, I feel like when I do it where I’m performing the songs a lot and then recording them, I get to try a lot of things, but there’s also a lot of the feeling that gets built in, so they get harder to re-imagine. And there’s a lot of the band’s influence in them, too.
Where, for the ones in the studio, you really get to choose the feeling yourself. It sounds silly but you have things like, “I want this to be music that you can drive to.” So for this record I was really thinking, like, “What bands do I like?” And I was trying to create a sonic landscape where all of them stay.
But now I feel more scared to perform them live – because I haven’t had like a year of practice, you know? So I kind of have to approach the show in a different way, which will be really fun. Last time, by the time I went on tour I was like, “Oh my God, I know these songs by heart.” Which was fine. But when something is really fresh, it has a feeling that’s pretty cool.
Okay, tough question: what do you think makes a song good?
Gosh. Well, to me, honestly, words are really important.
I guess I’m most into the music that feels like it’s expressing what I feel. If it’s something I’ve felt but maybe haven’t articulated and someone else is able to say it, then suddenly I feel like, “This person knows me even though I don’t know them.”
I really love this band Frightened Rabbit. I really love Regina Spektor, Joni Mitchell. I love artists that have the ability to connect. And also, I do think whether or not you wanna listen to the song again matters, too.
Like, Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE”. Obviously he’s incredible with words, but I couldn’t stop listening to that one, even though I feel like that one’s more about the music – the cool beats that are put together, and the sound and the feeling of it. But I was like, “I gotta listen to it again.”
And that’s very different Joni Mitchell or Frightened Rabbit. But I do think there’s something about all of those artists that makes you go, “Yeah, I’ve had that feeling.”
How does that affect your writing? How do you balance between expressing things that are true to you in a way that resonates with somebody else?
Yeah. You know, that’s something that I don’t really wanna say I struggle with, but but it’s hard. For this record, even, I was just trying to get like a lot of feedback to see how other people would relate to it. I’d take it to companies and stuff, and they’d be like, “It could be more general so that it relates to more people.”
But I sort of feel the opposite. I feel like if I were to do that, first of all, it wouldn’t be as fun for me. Because part of what I love about writing is feeling like I get to say what’s in my head – to turn that into a story in a very clear way. And in a way that’s more than just general.
And I feel like sometimes being really specific and trying to dig in and find the things that people haven’t said before will make people relate to you even more.
For sure. Along those lines – let’s dive into “Mermaid Song,” which is a pretty specific song. How did this song start and take shape?
So, for “Mermaid Song”, I had been in this mood where I was sort of writing a little bit everyday. And I came up with the guitar riff first – it’s kind of lower in the mix, but that was the first part for me.
Lyrically, the first bit I came up with was the line,
I’m the mermaid that you dreamt.
Honestly, I think it was just because it was summer and I love swimming. But I was also feeling frustrated.
Yeah, it feels like there’s definitely a relationship or a story behind the song.
I mean there were two situations going on. On the one side – I was in a relationship where the person really didn’t get me. You know? And I felt sort of out of the club. Like, “I don’t really fit in with like this group and these friends.”
And then there was another relationship that impacted the song. I was just getting out of a more serious relationship, and I’d had this sort of strange on and off thing with another guy for years. There was almost this expectation, like, “Now that I’m broken up with this other person, I’ll just go back to my old boyfriend.”
But I was feeling like very resistant to that. Like, “I don’t feel like this is me. I don’t feel like I’m being myself in these kinds of relationships.”
I think one of the things that will stick with me was someone saying, “I don’t understand anything you just said.” So I was just in this place where I was really ready to start a new chapter.
And then the mermaid imagery just played into that?
Well, I’ve always loved The Little Mermaid.
Who doesn’t, right?
Right! Yeah, I remember actually buying “Little Mermaid” at Costco, and coming home from Costco and watching it until I fell asleep. I would always sing “Part of Your World” and stuff to my mom. It was a big part of my childhood.
So that’s where it started. And then imagination kicks in. I liked the idea – “Yeah, I’m gonna swim away while you’re sleeping. You’ll never notice.”
I had these little silly fights that were just so stupid, and it was just because we didn’t understand each other. So that’s where the feeling started – “I’m a mermaid, so you just don’t understand me.”
So the song is about not giving into that, and instead trying to be more who I am. I don’t wanna change to fit into this group or these relationships.
It’s interesting to me that the song is directed at another person – like, you’re speaking to someone else. But it also feels like the words are almost more directed to yourself.
Definitely. It’s like, this is a turn for me. I would definitely say it’s more self-motivational than anything else.
The funny thing, too, is that I kind of immediately knew when I wrote it that it would set the tone for the album. I’d been doing all of these meetings, getting feedback, trying to find the right tone. And when I wrote this song I remember I was like, “I’m done.” Like, “I’m gonna record this song immediately. I’m gonna make a video for it immediately. I’m going to start the process of getting this next album out.”
I felt very much like I was done with anyone else telling me what it should sound like, or trying to fit it into a format that some major label would like. And Ben, my producer, was the same way. He was like, “Oh, this is where everything lives now.” Actually, we’d been working on a totally different album. But when “Mermaid Song” came together, it set the sonic landscape.
Yeah, the vibe in this is so interesting, with those heavy synths. Where did that come from?
We were just trying different things. The first thing that came was that drum beat. And at a certain point, I realized I wanted the music to sound like water. I realized the whole album had to sound like water.
So there are these elements that sort of feel weird, like water. Like, on “Boy Band Hero”, I was thinking of the sound you get when you throw rocks in water.
So yeah, “Mermaid Song” was a turning point for me for the whole album. I stopped sending all the songs to different people to get their feedback. I was done at that point.
How would you articulate the main theme of the song?
It’s strange – when I started doing press for it last October, I did this little contest on my Instagram that around this idea: “how are you a mermaid?” You’d have to draw or write a poem saying what makes you unique. It’s funny, because it didn’t start as a motivational song, you know? But it kind of became a motivating song. It’s like, “Hey, I’m different, I’m a mermaid.”
So that’s been cool to see. I love when people are like, “Oh, I’m really good at this thing and that’s what makes me.” I think there’s something so anchoring and grounding to figuring out those things – to finding what you love, and even to be a fan girl over or fan boy over it or whatever – I think that is really important.
For me, the love of acting and music has been such a guide.
Last question: best advice that you would give to other song writers?
To read, and to write a lot. I feel like everyone’s different. So try all different ways, but just actually do it all the time. Because naturally you’ll figure out what works for you.
I think that’s part of how you find your voice.
And then I’ve always felt like reading, for some reason, is a big help, especially if I’m feeling really blank. You can’t just put things out without letting anything in, and I think there’s something about reading that lets you internalize instead of just watching TV. You have to follow along the words, so it kind of enters your body in a different way.
Editors note: True true. But still – go watch Emily’s TV shows.