Singer-songwriter and producer kennedi notably co-wrote "Fake Smile" for Ariana Grande's thank u, next, "Hesitate" for the Jonas Brothers' comeback Happiness Begins, and "Boys Will Be Boys" for Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia. Our founder and CEO Drew talked to the rising artist on her debut EP self, her roots in music, and "Confessions with kennedi." Read the full interview below.
Drew: “Where are you originally from?”
kennedi: “I'm from this tiny ass town called Spicer, Minnesota. There's 1000 people in it — like, actually — so it's super small, super conservative, and super bubbled from the outside world. I lived there for 16 years of my life in that bubble, before moving to Minneapolis when I was 17 for my junior and senior year of high school. That's where I like to say I'm from, because I feel like that's where I came into myself. There, I was able to be myself. Before, I was never able to be my own self, or own my sexuality. I didn't even have room to discover that. So I feel like Minneapolis is where I was really born.”
D: “That completely makes sense. How did being from there affect you as an artist?”
k: “It affected me like crazy. I didn't have many music opportunities; I played different county fairs and stuff like that. But the type of music I listened to when I was there also affected me. I listened to a lot of Bon Iver, and I used to listen to a lot of folk stuff with my dad, like Alison Krauss and the Old Crow Medicine Show. My dad also listens to Outkast and other stuff, too. Because my dad loves music so much, I definitely got submerged into all types of music. I never really got any type of training though, which I'm actually happy about. I get into sessions and stuff all the time where the people are like, it needs to be this or it needs to be the seventh of here and it needs to be this and I'm like, ‘it needs to be a different note — not sure what it is — but we’ve got to fix it. It just doesn't feel right.’ And most of the time, that's what it is. Music is about feeling. You don't have a listener sitting in the car thinking, ‘that should have been a seventh off.’”
I never really got any type of training though, which I'm actually happy about... Music is about feeling.
D: “Who would you say were like your favorite artists growing up? If you had to do like top five like who would it be?”
k: “Growing up, it was for sure Amy Winehouse. It was probably Alison Krauss as well. That was a big one. James Blake was also one. Oh, and Ashlee Simpson. My first favorite song ever was “Pieces of Me.” I remember the moment when I heard it the first time. I don't know where it was or who I was with. But I was painting a rock, like, decorating a rock. And I heard it for the first time and was so obsessed with it.”
D: “That's how you know you love something; if you can remember a significant moment where you were listening to it.”
k: “Exactly. I found out I wanted to write music when I heard “National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey for the first time. I was with my brother. I think I might have been 14; it was the first time I was going to record a song in Nashville. He played me “National Anthem '' and I thought, ‘I want to write a song that feels how I just felt when I heard that.’ I submerged myself in Lana and was just so consumed with her. When I wrote my song “Last Cigarette,” which was the first song I put out, I was actually trying to emulate her and channel her. It's still my most popular song, which is crazy, because I wrote it alone in my bedroom at 14 or 15 or something crazy like that.”
D: “I’m a Lana stan, so I love that.”
k: “I’ve literally had the chance to meet her about four times. I want to do it, but I won't. We have to be best friends, anything else and I will be disappointed for the rest of my life. So I need to calm down before I can deal with that.”
D: “I feel you. How old were you when you decided to start really taking music seriously?”
k: “Four years old. I just wanted to sing. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I never said anything else, which I think is really cool. I got to spend four to 22 years working on my craft. That doesn't mean I worked on it for that many years — I love basketball and other things too. I just wasn't doing only singing, but I knew that that's what I wanted to do, which is so important in this industry. I'll find people, who are like 25 or 27, who are just now deciding they want to do this — not that it's ever too late to do something. I'm just thankful because I got all of this time to find myself and grow into myself, while also writing songs and watching that progression of myself. Something else that was such a gift was my parents believing in me, and gassing me up. So all together, I'm super thankful.”
I'm just thankful because I got all of this time to find myself and grow into myself, while also writing songs and watching that progression of myself.
D: “Parents' support is so key. Because if you have parents that always tell you ‘maybe you should find something else,’ or ‘maybe you should find something that's more stable,’ it's hindering you. That's wonderful that you had it that way because a lot of people don't, especially in this industry. In your career so far, have there been any obstacles or hardships that you've had to overcome, and if so, how did you overcome those?”
k: “Yeah. I think the biggest hardship that I've encountered is being a woman. I, myself, am a full producer. I play all the instruments when I'm at home, and I create songs myself —
Actually, I have this song called ‘angel,’ because 11:11 is my number. Let me do a quick side story on this. I was in London, and there I met a person who is the most beautiful individual. We connected over 11. She was waiting for her train to go back to Paris, and I was playing the guitar. Because I started writing the song, I wanted to write it about her. I wanted to write about being an angel. The song starts out with a voice note of that moment, because I have it on tape. I wrote the song, no joke, in 11 minutes and 11 seconds. I swear, it's on video. And it’s the first song that I wrote and produced myself. Nobody touched it.
Anyway, back to the hardships. When I'm the only girl in the studio, let alone 15 years younger than everyone, sometimes it's difficult. But now I'm like, ‘Get out the way, it's my time.’ The second hardship I would honestly say is other women. There's a pressure of ‘there can only be one best.’ It pins us against each other. No matter how much we want to say, ‘That's my girl.’ There's still that underlying gut feeling when you’re questioning, ‘how come she was in the room and not me, because there can only be one.’ And that just reinforces the competition, the judgment. There's women who I love to death, where I still feel that way. But I'll check that fucking feeling. I want to be able to work with other women. I want to feel comfortable with that. I say, ‘I'm worthy to be here. And so is she.’’
D: “Completely. When it comes to girls, their comments [on social] will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, she's good, but she's better.’ When you're in the studio with guys, for me — I'm on the business side. I'm young. I'm a girl. And so when I walk in, people think that I'm a groupie or something. And I'm like, ‘yep, I'm here to interview him’ or ‘Nah, I'm working with his management.’ You have to learn how to carry yourself a certain way that you can stand up for yourself.”
k: “It takes time. I'm just happy that I got there, to that point. But there's a lot of people who aren't as secure where they don't get to feel like that. And that's sad.”
D: “Definitely. If you could collaborate with any artist dead or alive, who would it be?”
k: “Amy Winehouse. Because I think we're very, very similar people. I know that because we were alive at the same time, I couldn't be reincarnated [as her]. But I feel like we were connected in another life. I don't know how to explain it. But watching her documentary, and her story, I felt like I was in her body. We've dealt with a lot of the same issues, mental health-wise and addiction wise, and dealing with people in our own family using us. I feel super connected to her and her writing style and how she wrote all that herself. That’s genuine artistry — you can tell because it killed her. That's devastating to say, but I knew when I was four, I was born on the earth to do music. I have this conversation with my parents all the time. Because when I go through hard stuff, my mom's like, ‘you can move to Montana, and you could become whatever, you could just disappear.’ And I say, ‘No, my purpose was to be on this earth to do music, even if it does kill me.’”
D: “If you were talking directly to a young woman who wanted to break into the music industry, what would you say to her?”
k: “Don't take no for an answer. And also don’t have a plan B. If you have a plan B, you will not make plan A. That's what it is. The only reason why I'm here, when I'm here, is because people thought I was crazy. I know that I'm gonna play stadiums, I know that I'm gonna get there, because that's my purpose. And that's all I want. It's not on some, like, ‘I want to be famous, blah, blah, I want everyone to hear my music,’ because it's real. I believe that that's why I'm here. It's not on some crazy ego stuff. There's nothing better than performing live and seeing people connect with you. When I put something out, I just see streams, I see numbers going up, I see people tweeting me like, ‘whoo!’ There's nothing better than sitting and seeing, someone crying and connecting with you. To any young woman who wants to be in the music industry, I would say be honest with yourself. Because everyone's going to come at you and say that they can change you, or develop you. If you just focus on one vision, you'll get there. It's gonna be the hardest fucking thing you've ever done, because you are going to be beaten down a million times. But go for it. Because you can get there, you just gotta grow some thick skin because you're gonna fight.”
D: “Okay, I'm putting you on the spot again. If you had to pick one or two lines of lyrics on self that resonate with you the most, what would they be?”
k: “It would definitely be from my song ‘what I need.’ I think it goes exactly like this. ‘You're telling me that I'm selfish / I'm trying harder to be / I been so goddamn selfless that I'm losing me.’ That's my favorite one. That's from a song where I was in a really intense relationship. When we were writing it, it just poured out of my soul. I think that's one of my favorite lyrics I've ever written.”
You're telling me that I'm selfish / I'm trying harder to be / I been so goddamn selfless that I'm losing me.
D: “Great. Has quarantine changed the way you develop and make your songs?”
k: “During quarantine, it gave me the time to develop that craft [of producing]. Being in the studio, I was never given a chance. But when I was at home, I was forced to do it all myself. During quarantine, I produced my own five-song EP, that nobody touched. I played every beat, all the guitars, no loops or anything. I was so proud of it. Because when I came back, and I showed people what I could do, they were shocked. I was so thankful for quarantine because it was like, ‘I did that.’ It's secret ammo.”
D: “You feel a different type of connection, obviously, when you're performing live. Have you done a lot of IG lives or different streams to help you connect with your fans?”
k: “Yes, but it's like I'm singing to myself. It's painfully awkward. I told my management and everybody, ‘if I do this, it's gonna have to be on the whim and on my own. I can't do it through a performance.’ But I started this thing called ‘Confessionals with kennedi.’ Girls on Twitter, were calling me the ‘lesbian Holy Spirit,’ So I got ordained as a Reverend, for real. Then I had this idea of confessionals, where people would email me in confessions, and that could be either funny or dark or whatever. I've read them on IG live and either given advice or we would laugh about it. We even had merch, it was really fun. But I still had anxiety every time before because everyone forgot how to talk to each other during quarantine. So it was nerve-wracking, but I loved it because I was able to connect with them.”
With the release of her debut EP self, kennedi continues to prove that her music is ultimately just as rare as she is. Her music speaks with complete candor about mental health struggles, sexuality and queer identity, and her incredible journey from a tiny snowbound Midwest town to the west coast. Listen to kennedi's EP below, which is out via Platoon, and check out the music video for “i don’t wanna like you yet,” which dropped today.