Toward the end of last year, a part of actress Emily Kinney died. For four seasons, she had played The Walking Dead‘s Beth Greene — the wide-eyed, singing-prone, optimistic daughter of a veterinarian farmer — but as is the show’s wont, her character met its less-than-natural conclusion in November.
Now Kinney is focusing on new roles, with appearances slated on Masters of Sex and The Knick, and a new album. For the past four years, the actress has been recording and releasing albums of emotive indie-pop on her own and has a new one — This Is War (available for digital and physical preorder) — slated to come out on October 2nd. She made the album knowing full well that after her run on one of TV’s biggest recent hits, it would be reaching a wider audience, but she didn’t let expectations faze her. Today, she’s premiering a new tune from the upcoming LP, “Birthday Cake,” which continues in the autobiographical, relationship-themed mold of songs from her prior release, 2014’s Expired Love.
Soft and acoustic, “Birthday Cake” finds Kinney singing to a man she’s crushing on and tells of how they eventually attempt a long-distance relationship after a romantic encounter at her birthday party, moving from making out to making love by the time he visits her in New York City. Kinney tells Rolling Stone that the reason it sounds so sweet and hopeful is because it’s based on a true story.
“I wrote it after I’d gone on a date with this guy I liked and I said, ‘Well, come to my birthday party,” she says with a laugh. “He couldn’t come until late, after my friends and I had gone to this bar, but then later I lured him back to my friend’s apartment. I said, ‘You know, there’s still leftover birthday cake at the apartment, so you might want to…’ So he came over to have some birthday cake and then we fell in love.” She laughs and says that shortly thereafter she had to fly to Georgia to film The Walking Dead, so they tried out a long-distance relationship. When Rolling Stone asks if it worked out, she says with a laugh, “In some ways it worked.”
By her own admission, the tune is one of the more cheerful songs on This Is War. As she wrote the record — whose cover sports her face and the album title written on sticker-covered xylophone keys (“It’s, like, a cute war,” she says) — she constantly found herself in the middle of all sorts of situations, which led to tension in the songs. “The songs are me figuring stuff out,” she says. “The title is about stepping up and standing up for myself, in relationships and in my work. Between auditioning and music, it can be tough. There are a lot of ups and downs.”
With her part on The Walking Dead over, Kinney has found it relatively easy to transition into acting in other shows. When last she spoke to Rolling Stone, in February, 2014, she said that she had to be prepared as an actress to leave the show at any moment because of its nature, that she’d become “hardened.” Now she says she’s been so busy, between new roles and press, that she’s grateful she achieved that mindset. “I miss my friends, Lauren [Cohen, Maggie on the show] and Steven [Yeun, who plays Glenn], but I have been so busy and really love the things I’m doing now that it’s all good,” she says. “Sometimes when things like leaving a show happen, it’s good not to get too comfy. You keep workin’ it.” She laughs.
Kinney has lined up roles on the upcoming season of The Knick and the current season of Masters of Sex. Regarding her role on the former, a bloody show set in a hospital around the year 1900, she says she’s playing a nurse, but beyond that the show’s creator, Steven Soderbergh, has sworn her to secrecy regarding the role. “I only had a couple of scenes where there was a lot of blood, but it didn’t bother me,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s coming from Walking Dead to there, but everything seemed fairly clean. On The Walking Dead, I was covered in dirt and bloody and sticky, so this was pretty organized.”
She’ll be making her Masters of Sex debut later this month in the role of Nora, who as a child was Bill Masters’ neighbor and is now participating as a “sex surrogate” in Masters and Johnson’s study. Kinney makes no qualms about explaining what that means: “At this point in Season Three, they’ve started helping men with their different issues, like, trying to figure out, ‘How do we help someone who can’t get it up or can’t ejaculate.’ So my character has volunteered to be in the program, along with some other women, to help Dr. Masters. They go through training to help men with these issues and through that, a lot of drama happens.”
Kinney laughs when Rolling Stone asks how awkward it can be on set, playing that kind of a character. The kind of a role is “freeing,” she says. “I kind of like stuff that’s sexy and especially when it’s so well written,” she says. “The show is about sex, but they already have such a good system of dealing with all of the very sexy scenes and talking about it on set. It’s very fun and not that awkward.”
The thing that’s awkward, she says, is talking about her role with her parents and family who are ambivalently curious about the show. “It’s your mom and dad,” she says seriously. “They just don’t understand. My family was a little more, I guess, strict, about that stuff growing up. It’s awkward when your family and your aunts and uncles are like, ‘We wanna see that,’ and then I think maybe they don’t.”
But despite family awkwardness, she’s happily moving forward with both her acting and musical pursuits on her terms. Along with her acting schedule, Kinney has booked a few concerts to support her music.
In addition to an appearance at the Walking Dead–themed Walker Stalker Con later this month and a September record release gig in Los Angeles next month, Kinney has set up a special performance — related tangentially to “Birthday Cake” — on her 30th birthday, August 15th, at the Indiana State Fair. “I always think it’s a good time if you’re working on your birthday,” she says. “At least for actors and singers, I feel like it sets up the whole year. Just do what you like to do.”