Sarah Kinsley Talks TikTok, Cocteau Twins, and Perfectionism (Tonight at WCL)

Tonight, The Lounge at World Café Live is hosting a sold-out show from singer/songwriter Sarah Kinsley, a young (but lifelong) musician who scored a 2021 viral hit on TikTok...

Tonight, The Lounge at World Café Live is hosting a sold-out show from singer/songwriter Sarah Kinsley, a young (but lifelong) musician who scored a 2021 viral hit on TikTok with “The King,” the title track of her sophomore EP.  Kinsley grew up performing classical music in youth orchestras, before going on to write and produce bedroom pop from her actual dorm room while studying music theory at Columbia University.  Last month Kinsley premiered her latest single, “Lovegod,” a dreamy indie pop track off of her upcoming fourth EP, Ascension, which drops this Friday, June 9th.  Last week I got a chance to chat with Sarah Kinsley about the first era of her burgeoning musical career.

Izzy Cihak: You recently released “Lovegod” as a single.  How did this particular track come about?

Sarah Kinsley: I don’t really remember when it was written.  I think it was many months ago at my parents’ house, because I sort of grew up playing music there.  So, whenever I go home I kind of play on their piano – they have a really lovely piano — and I was playing these chords, and this really fun, beautiful kind of eccentric melody got stuck in my head. And this song just kind of came out!

Izzy: And you also recently released a really cool music video accompanying the track.  So, I’m curious, where did you get the concept for the video?

Sarah: Thank you so much!  It was a lot of fun to make.  I think because “Lovegod” is such a weird song, we wanted to make something that would just be very odd, and we were thinking of either going in a horror direction, or thriller.  And I was talking to my partner — who I’ve worked on a lot of videos with — and we were kind of thinking about this creature like, “What if you could personify the Lovegod?  And what would the Lovegod look like?”  And yeah, I just made this design and spent a few days in LA sewing the whole thing together.  And it was a lot of fun.  It was definitely one of my favorite videos we’ve made to date.

Izzy: You’re just about to kick off a week-long tour of Canada and North America.  What can be expected of these upcoming dates?

Sarah: Hopefully, a really good time!  I am really excited!  I’m in rehearsals right now.  I’m just so excited to play the new songs for people.  You know, they haven’t really been like birthed into the world yet.  They’ve just been living in my head.  So, it’s just very exciting to imagine them being played on stage.  It’s a very, very new and different set list for people, so I’m very excited about that!

Izzy: And even with a relatively short run of dates, you’re playing a pretty wide variety of settings.  Here you’re playing a listening room, you’re playing a few nightclubs, and you’re even playing Governors Ball.  Do you have a favorite setting or type of venue to perform in, or one that you feel like kind of best fits with the kind of performances you like to put on?

Sarah: I don’t know, I feel like I haven’t had my fair taste of every kind of venue yet.  But I will definitely say that there’s a real beauty to the intimate settings, and the more expansive outdoor festivals.  I’m very new to the festival world, like playing on a big stage outdoors is still such a weird feeling.  And it’s really bizarre and expansive and open.  Most of the shows I’ve played are smaller — like 200 cap rooms, maybe like 600 at most — so it’s a really new feeling, but I think the music suits both, I hope.  I really love the intimate setting, though.  It’s nice to be able to actually see faces, instead of just a blur of stage lights.

Izzy: As we were discussing, you’re playing Governors Ball in the very near future.  So, I have to ask, is there anyone you’re especially excited to hopefully get to see perform, if you have any downtime when you’re there?

Sarah: On the day that we’re there, I’m really hoping to catch Rina Sawayama’s set later.  She’s amazing.  I’ve never seen her live…  Actually, I have. She came to play at my college like a really short set many years ago.  It was one of the craziest shows I saw.  It was my first year in college, and it was Tierra Whack, opening for Rina Sawayama, opening for SOPHIE, and it was insane.  But yeah, I hope to see her again, because she played like a very short set.  The other days… I would love to see Kendrick live.  I just feel like I’ve seen videos of his concerts, and they seem just immaculate, like such attention to detail.

Izzy: So, your music kind of blew up after the title track from The King went viral on TikTok.  How was that experience of this kind of like TikTok fandom?

Sarah: It was really overwhelming.  I was really grateful for it.  The song definitely propelled me to many new places, like these festivals and whatnot.  But it just happened really quickly.  I think most of your life people tell you to have patience, and that things really take time, but this happened so quickly!  It was just so counterintuitive to everything that I’d ever known about music, because music is really about patience and time, and like sitting with things.  It was so wacky!  I am very grateful for the experience and TikTok as a whole.  Obviously, I feel kind of indebted to the app.  It was wild to see so many videos with the songs!  Like, I don’t know how many graduation videos I watched! It was very cool!

Izzy: I know you’ve been making and performing music all your life, but then, about five years ago, you made a point to start producing all of your music itself, in hopes of bringing more females into that facet of the music industry.  So, I’m curious, how was that process?  Did it feel like a natural evolution of making music, or did it feel like something new?

Sarah: It felt very natural.  When I started out doing it, I wasn’t thinking about like, “Oh, this giant, grand scheme of me being the vessel for young women producing.”  I think it was more like I was really in awe of a lot of other women and people in general that I had either learned from, or listen to, and feeling so like in awe of their excitement for production and their passion for being behind the computer and being the person carving out this sonic landscape.  Like, I wanted to be that person.  I wanted to be the decider and be the one to fill out this canvas.  So, it was a super easy decision, because I think most of my life growing up, I was kind of a super perfectionist, and wanted to be in control of all these different elements.  So, production was just like another one to sort of latch on to and be very excited about.

Izzy: I realize this is a really huge question, but what have been some of the personal highlights of your musical career so far, whether reactions your music’s gotten or just experiences?

Sarah: I think one of the best experiences I have had was when I played this show in Chicago last year on my first headline tour.  We played at Shubas Tavern; it was a wonderful venue.  The show kind of started out really wonky because we had some sound issues.  So, I was feeling really out of balance.  Like, the energy was just off.  But the crowd was so great, and after the show I was wearing these really uncomfortable shoes, so I took them off immediately, and I ran off.  And you have to like go outside onto the street to go back into the building, without having to climb through the crowd, to get off the stage.  I went outside the building, and my feet were so cold standing on this pavement, and this girl rushed out.  Like, she must have gone to so many shows there, because she knew the exit and stuff.  She just grabs my arm, and she pulls her shirt sleeve up, and she’s literally not speaking, and I’m like, “Who is this stranger?”  And she just shoves her sleeve up, and she’s got one of my songs, “I’m Not a Mountain,” tattooed on her arm.  I was on the verge of tears.  She’s so emotional and she was just talking to me about this song.  We just talked for a while, and that was definitely a big highlight of my time and music.  It was just so wonderful to have such an intimate moment with someone that I haven’t met.  So, I would definitely say that moment!

Izzy: I was looking through your Spotify playlist and I noticed you’re a fan of a lot of my favorite artists that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected, like Belle & Sebastian, Le Tigre, and Iggy Pop.  So, I’m curious, do you have any favorite music that you might recommend for your fans to check out, that they may not already be so super familiar with?

Sarah: Someone asked me the other day what my guilty pleasure song was — and it’s been a guilty pleasure song for like the past probably six months – and it’s been this song by Cocteau Twins that’s called “Watchlar.”  It’s not off of an album, it’s off of like a really weird spin off.  It’s not even an EP or anything.  It’s a collection of singles, which is why I feel like it was never promoted, maybe, or that people don’t know about it, but it’s become one of my all-time favorite songs.  I would highly suggest that, and literally anything else by that group.  I love.  They can do no wrong to me.

Izzy: And finally, how are you hoping and planning to spend this summer after these dates wrap, whether in relation to your music or anything else you might be excited about?

Sarah: You know what’s so funny?  It’s not in relation to my music at all.  Literally a week after Governors Ball, I’m being dragged by one of my best friends to go to our high school reunion.  I think it’s gonna be so, so weird, but it’s kind of funny that it’s right after Governors Ball.  I just feel like I’m gonna have this peak life moment and then return to like a kind of horrible place, with a lot of weird, angsty teen emotion. But yeah, it’s gonna be fun!  I’m looking forward to that!  And I’m really looking forward to other festivals throughout the summer.  We’re playing two other ones in some great cities that I’m super stoked for!

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.