Sarah Kinsley: Good Karma
What was the beginning of your musical journey?
SK: The very beginning was a long time ago. It's almost been 16 or 17 years now. I started classical piano from a very early age. I did competitions and I was completely in love with classical music. I ended up actually learning how to play the violin as well in middle school and then played in school orchestras. That love of classical music carried on into high school and I started to compose my own classical music. A big part of my music background was not in pop music, but studying classical music theory. When I was in middle school, my family and I moved to Singapore. I went to an international school there and had met this person named Luc Bradford while I was there. We didn’t know each other all that well, but he ended up becoming a producer and artist. We hadn't spoken in seven or eight years and he (he goes by ford. now) reached out to me through a mutual friend because I had been posting singing covers on Instagram and YouTube. He was just signed to ODESZA's record label. It was one of the best surprises of my life.
Oh, that's a big deal.
SK: Yeah. The record label has incredible artists and the producers are really the core of their label. This was my first foot in the door of the music industry. We wrote a song together called Craving; I wrote the lyrics, he produced it and I recorded it in my high school dorm. We released it in 2018 and it blew up for me. I think it’s gotten two million, two point five million streams or something like that. It was incredible, an amazing first experience. I got a ton of amazing connections through that. ford. released an album with that song and then I started producing my own music. I had all this classical music training and I thought it was time to move on and do more things. All the responses I would get on this song were incredible, but they were very twisted sometimes because I was just the vocalist on the track. I didn't have any sort of creative input into the song as a whole, it was just that I was a feature on the track. I didn’t want to be just someone who was featured on other songs.
This is the beginning of your career and you don’t want to be known only as a studio singer.
SK: Exactly. So in 2018 I started learning how to produce.
How did you transition from classical music to pop? Was it due to ford.'s influence or was it because of your own experimenting with music?
SK: It was definitely a mix of both. When I was younger, I loved pop music, too. I wasn't just listening to classical music my whole life. I think if I had just gone in straight away, just releasing my own music, I don't know if I would have been as well-adapted or ready to take on my own artistry and develop my own take on things. I think it was a combination of being exposed to so many different types of music...my dad has incredible music taste as well as my mom. They listened to all kinds of music while we were growing up. I fell in love with pop music at the same time that I was writing my own classical scores. I think the classical music world and the pop world are the exact opposite in some ways and completely identical in others. But I think when I was younger it was a lot easier to separate the two because it just made it easier in general. Before The Fall they were very separate and only through the process of creating the EP did I think to bring the two together.
Did learning piano, violin and viola give you more of an idea about how to construct all the parts of a song by knowing how each instrument should function individually in order to better suit the whole?
SK: Oh, absolutely. I feel like I credit so much of my current capability as an artist to the fact that my parents put me on the piano at such a young age. I think that in classical music, (like playing in an orchestra), you understand that you're just one part and it feels very small, but it contributes so much to the larger sound. I think having that mentality or that philosophy when writing music was so helpful because any time I wanted to add anything to my pop music, whether it was percussion or a violin quartet, it was just another way for me to add a layer of something that I hadn't heard before or to offer something that hasn't been done yet. Those tiny changes have such an impact on what you create.
What was the process like writing the lyrics and producing The Fall EP yourself after starting with a collaboration?
SK: It was really exhausting, scary and emotionally draining. I think it was one of the hardest or maybe the hardest musical project I've ever worked on, or project in general. I started writing the EP in the summer of 2019. It started with Open Your Eyes, the other lyrics for all the other songs came together very quickly. I'd gone through a really terrible breakup.
I'm sorry to hear that.
SK: We were together for around three years. I think falling in love at a young age can be dangerous sometimes. There was so much I wanted to say about myself and how I had been blinded during that relationship. I think that when people go through really terrible or really great experiences, you're forced to look at yourself. The EP was a way for me to express everything I was feeling, especially with the lyrics. I released Open Your Eyes that August. It just just blew up way more than I thought it would. That surge of growth was really reassuring. A publicist reached out to me after the song came out because she loved the song. We spoke a lot and she helped me with the next steps for the EP. December was the production period. It was a very frustrating but rewarding process. I mixed and produced everything at my home studio and my friend mastered it.
What is your experience being a woman in the music industry?
SK: I think on the front end I'm definitely very grateful to have a growing platform, especially as an Asian-American woman. I think at least the face of pop has changed a lot, but what's behind the curtain isn’t changing nearly as fast. I can't speak to it because I produce my own music. My name is on the credits of my music and I'm very proud of that. But there's more to be made. I'm just hoping that I think our generation will be the ones to do it. I think we have a good chance.
You’ve created a lot of innovative vocals on your tracks. In Open Your Eyes you developed atmospheric harmonies, especially in the beginning, that are almost choir-like. What is your process when creating these intricate harmonies?
SK: I think it depends. Most of the time I have one melody in my head and I'll sing it on loop. I think for that intro I must have recorded like 80 something tracks and then picked it out. I'm definitely the kind of person who is willing to listen to it over and over again just to get the nitty gritty parts. I think for most people the main melody is something that sticks with you and everything else around.
In your song “Mist” you have more of a breathy quality to your voice in the beginning; where you explore different facets of the tone and timber of your voice. Is that something that you enjoy doing?
SK: Yeah, definitely. I think for a long time, people have debated very airy vocals versus strong vocals and they're very much opposite. I've always liked different voices in my music. I love Julie London - she was a very famous singer in the 40s or 50s. She knew that her voice could never match the incredible talent of someone like Ella Fitzgerald, who can do crazy runs belted out a lot. She had these vocal techniques that are brilliant and that uniqueness was what she was known for. I think airiness can really bring out a certain mindset as well. It allows people to convey things that maybe their lyrics haven't gotten across yet. I love when people whisper in music and I love when people scream in music.
There is definitely a cinematic quality to your music, do you think it can be partly attributed to your classical roots and intimate understanding of a myriad of instruments coupled with your unique, multi-layered vocal attributions?
SK: I think there's a really big cinematic quality to my music as well. Using instruments like cellos is an instant weird nostalgia or a very bittersweet feeling. They really just pull the emotion right out of you. Whenever a movie or a TV show has a soundtrack with those instruments, I cry like nobody's business. Using those instruments in music is so powerful too, especially when people use that in really hardcore pop or rock. You're hit with so many sounds at once and your body and your brain don't really know how to react, which I love.
Karma feels like a new chapter in your musical journey in terms of content, but retains a similar sound. What direction do you want to take this new chapter? How would you describe your new tracks compared to previous ones?
SK: Karma definitely represents a new door in terms of moving forward in music. I really love the new steps the music has been taking over the past year. It’s hard to define direction, really. I always feel that the music guides itself in the present, it’s rarely ever something that can be determined or shaped or decided. But I do hope it continues with experimenting with new sounds while maintaining this sense of originality, my own tradition. I’m trying to push the limits of shaping my own new sounds whilst paying homage to the things that have molded who I am as a musician. It’s an exciting balance to discover.
It is looking like events spaces are going to open up soon. What are your plans for the upcoming year?
It is looking pretty hopeful. I’m not sure to be quite honest. If it’s really genuinely safe I would love to play more shows. I was only able to play a few shows before the pandemic so I’d love to finally have the chance to play new music. But I’m also not set on playing any time soon really, just until everything is finally able to move forward.
What has been the hardest thing to overcome so far in your musical career?
Definitely unveiling the path of where I want to go next, honestly. I think that’s why defining direction is so unclear and murky to me. Things have really changed since last year, and even since the last time we spoke! Everything is moving much more rapidly and I really want to find a place where I can take moments to slow down, to understand my place in it all. To be aware of who I am and what I’m becoming.
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