After gunshots and zombie growls, Emily Kinney is the go-to sound for hit AMC show The Walking Dead, which returns for its fifth season on Oct. 12. Her character Beth Greene is known for her sweet singing, but in real life, Kinney, 29, is also a pop-folk singer who has dropped two EPs.
How did you get your start in music?
When I moved to New York from Nebraska, I pursued acting, but I was also singing backup in bands and hanging out at [Brooklyn venue] Pete’s Candy Store all the time. (Laughs.) That’s how I met all of my first really good friends in New York, by going to shows. I was a fangirl.
When did it get more serious for you?
When I started doing Spring Awakening, I met my friend, musician Conrad Korsch, who was the first one to say: “Your songs are really good, you shouldn’t just sing back-up.” He definitely pushed me to start booking my own shows, so I started playing at Rockwood Music Hall and Pianos.
Has it been difficult to balance the two?
My music is gaining a lot of momentum, which is really exciting. I want to take every opportunity, but it’s something that I’m definitely balancing. Before, my acting gigs took precedence, and now I’m trying to figure out a way to give both of them a lot of attention. With scheduling, I’m learning, because it does become difficult. You know how you separate your life into years like, “Oh, when I was in eight grade, or ninth grade?” I do it by seasons. I remember writing a lot of my Expired Love EP during season 3, going back and forth between New York and Atlanta. I recorded all of those songs in New York at Fireplace Studios and Scrumptious Music.
How have fans of The Walking Dead reacted?
It started out with mostly Walking Dead fans checking out my music and now it’s really grown to a place where I get so many tweets of lyrics that I’ve written, which is awesome. I feel like almost more tweets are tweets like, “Hey, I’m listening to your music this morning,” rather than just, “Oh, where’s Beth?” It’s cool to see the cross-over.
The music you’ve performed on the show has a dark, folky-Americana vibe to it — which fits with the show. Was that easy for you to take on?
Even though I know my songs sound sort of poppy and happy and fun, I feel like they actually come from more of an folk-Americana place. That kind of music is really what inspires me. A lot of my songs start in that kind of space, and then as they develop I start to go, “Oh, glockenspiel!” That part of my personality starts to make its way into the music.
I really loved your Tom Waits cover “Hold On.” Are you a big Waits fan?
I am! I mean [showrunner] Glen Mazzara suggested it and I was like, “Oh man, Tom Waits would be cool…” so then it became this thing where Beth liked Tom Waits, and it worked for me because I love him as well. Mule Variations is one of my favorite albums.
How did your singing become such a big part of the show?
When I auditioned, it wasn’t a part of the character. But they were looking for more sensitive moments, and they knew I could sing. Some of the writers came to my shows.
Beth seemed to be kidnapped last season. What can we expect to happen to her?
You’ll find out where she is — I can’t tell! Music is part of her, so you will see that come through.
Have a lot of zombies shown up to your gigs?
Oh yeah — they’ll either be zombies or at my last show, someone brought a little miniature Daryl [cutout] and was really intent on me posing with Daryl [Norman Reedus’ character]. I get a lot of that kind of stuff but I love it, because like I said both are so important to me. On the street when people recognize me, it’s usually like “Oh Beth, hey Beth, oh my god!” So I’ve gotten to the point where I just sort of respond to both (laughs).
In your opinion, what kind of music do zombies listen to?
Music-wise, what’s next on the horizon?
I’ve tracked 11 new songs and I’m not sure when those will all come out. I have lots of big plans! Even though I released Expired Love last spring, there’s a lot of people just now discovering my music. Everyday I get 1,000 more Instagram followers, so I’m realizing there’s still a lot more to do with it. I don’t feel tired of performing those songs yet. I’m going to do a lot of one-off shows in the winter and then at the end of spring a full two or three-month tour. A big tour, I hope. That’s in my mind.
An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.