Emily Kinney Delivers More Than a “Breakup Album” with ‘Swimteam’

After the release of her 2021 album The Supporting Character, Emily Kinney was convinced that was her final album. She had already dispensed some of the more personal chapters in her life, from her 2011 debut EP Blue Toothbrush and 2015 album This Is War, through Oh Jonathan in 2018. Then, The Supporting Character cut a bit deeper.

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Facing elements of loss—the 2018 death of Scott Wilson, her former on-screen TV father on The Walking Dead—along with a more spiritual look at her place on screen, and off, and where she truly belonged, Kinney believed The Supporting Character was her musical coda.

As she moved away from songwriting and turned towards poetry, short stories, and hosting her podcast, My Caffeine Withdrawal, a chance interview with Cursive frontman Tim Kasher helped Kinney find new songs again.

“We really clicked, and I remember saying to him [Kasher], ‘I don’t know what I want. Maybe I’m done,’” Kinney tells American Songwriter. “ I said ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna write more songs,’ and before he left, he said ‘No, you’re never done.’” That evening, Kinney revisited a stanza she had written in one of her journals that read “I don’t want to be a teacher, but love is a class. He’s the one who can’t focus sitting in the back,” which led her to the song “B or C for Effort,” a sweet and sour missive to her ex and the first track off new album Swimteam.

Still mulling over a breakup that happened before the onset of the pandemic, more songs began trickling in for Kinney. “I spent a lot of those first days of the pandemic writing the songs that were all about a breakup I had gone through, right before the pandemic,” shares Kinney. “So I was really alone.”

Once she began writing again, Kinney explored online dating and chatted with one guy who told her that he had too many “false starts” to relationships. A former swimmer in school, the phrase—given to swimmers who start before the starting signal—stuck in Kinney’s head, which led to her writing “False Start” a few weeks later. 

At first, Kinney wanted to call the album False Start but instead pulled a line from its lyric—Kinda wanna just quit swim team entirely—for the title.

[RELATED: Emily Kinney Goes Beyond the Screen on ‘The Supporting Character’]

“I was on the swim team when I was a kid,” says Kinney. “You’d anticipate the buzzer or the whistle, then jump in. Then it would be a false start, so you’d get back up on the starting block. To me, that was really capturing that idea of being completely soaked in the shame that you jumped in and messed up the whole race. It also captured how I was feeling in many aspects and different areas of my life.”

She adds “That’s when I knew I wanted to do a full album again. I was writing about this breakup to sort of process the breakup. With ‘The Supporting Character,’ those were a collection of songs handpicked from different parts of my life, and it was all written in the same era, from beginning to end. There are songs about dating and different things capturing this whole separate moment.”

Dubbing Swimteam her “breakup album,” Kinney also offers her play-by-play of “shame, regret, embarrassment, modern dating, and spirituality,” and opens up by grading her ex for his efforts during their relationship on “B or C for Effort.” Filled with drifts of Americana and folkier pop, Kinney keeps a steadied tempo on “Broken Air Conditioning” and “It Won’t Last Through the Weekend,” before the more contemplative “Walkin’ Round Your Dreams” and emotional ballad “Let Me Win,” where she deliberates I’m working hard to learn the rules.

Before the end, Kinney gives a subtle nod to the Avett Brothers and the folk rockers’ merchandise with a song named after them. “I love cool band shirts,” says Kinney. “I had this joke between my friends that the people I dated should watch their T-shirt collection because I might steal them. The joke spilled over into my ex having a cool Avett Brothers shirt.”

Kinney considered the song one of the more “kinder” tracks on the album. “As far as looking back, there were some moments that were nice,” she says. “The main way that we bonded was with our love of music. Although it was a pretty bad situation I got myself into with that relationship, I can still say, ‘At least the T-shirt was nice.’”

More Americana vibes pass through “No Man’s Land” and the changing tides of “Reasons to Stay Alive,” ruminating on why do I reach so high just to look down and dive. Giving a nod to the 2004 romantic drama Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kinney closes on a more hopeful quest for a new love with someone unknown at this time on the aptly named “Untitled”—Send me all your songs and all the books I’ve never read / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind / ‘Cause I need somebody to love / Someone who makes me feel brand new.

Kinney admits that there was more self-doubt and outside noise around her previous detour from songwriting. “My last relationship was one that was centered around music, and I think that relationship left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, and made me think ‘This isn’t the world I want to live in. This isn’t the kind of energy I want be around.’”

Shortly after the demise of Kinney’s relationship, she also learned that her ex was engaged to someone else. “We had been in a two-and-a-half- three-year relationship, and that was pretty jarring,” shares Kinney. “But obviously, I was doing music way before I ever had met or started dating this person. I think I just needed a detox of some kind.”

Then there’s this “up and down, love-hate thing with music,” Kinney says she’s had for some time. “I love writing, and I love writing songs, but I keep thinking about where I should put it, or where it belongs in the world,” she shares. “You start wondering ‘Is this successful? Is this reaching an audience that wants it?’ You want to go where you’re wanted.”

Wading through the songs of Swimteam has helped Kinney discover more about herself, where she is creatively and spiritually, and where she belongs now.

“It’s a breakup album, but it’s not just about the other person,” says Kinney. “It’s more about my journey. It’s about getting through the breakup, and in some ways I’m coming back to myself.”

Photos: Drew Bienemann / Courtesy of e2 PR

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