“It’s always bittersweet when you put out a song into the world, especially when you’re a songwriter as well as an artist, because songs are like your babies,” says L.A.-based singer-songwriter Molly Kate Kestner. “You have to release them, and you lose all control over what happens to it at that point. That can be a really small feeling because all the sudden, your song that has been your entire world goes out into the universe and it becomes one second in the existence of all songs. You just have to hope that it can go on to take on a life of its own.”
Kestner admits to experiencing this mixture of excitement and nervousness with her latest single, the impassioned “Get Up,” which came out on February 5 (the accompanying video was released on February 12). This is especially the case this time, she says, because she feels particularly strongly about this song, given the way it came into existence.
“It’s interesting because “Get Up” was actually the last song I wrote before the world shut down [due to the pandemic],” Kestner says. “I did it with my husband, Brock Monroe—he’s the featured artist on the track and produced it—and our friend Gigi Rowe. At the time, personally, I was coming into this state of really owning who I was as an independent artist, and I wanted to write a song that was empowering from my perspective of having to leave a record label and then figure out life on my own.” The song’s empowering lyrics reflect this sense of self-determination.
Soon after recording the track, though, the implications of the pandemic became clear, and Kestner found that this made “Get Up” even more significant for her. “It took on a whole deeper meaning in the following month as I literally felt like, ‘Wow, I’ve gotten all the wind taken out of my sails. Any momentum I have built, it’s gone. Any inspiration I had, I feel like it got sucked out of me,’” she says.
Kestner recalls thinking to herself at that point, “I can either choose to just lay here and wait until things go back to normal, or I can get up and start fighting for what I want in this life, and start figuring out how I move forward in this new atmosphere.” She chose the latter option—and realized she had already written the perfect rallying cry with “Get Up.” “I wrote it for myself, not knowing that I was going to need it in a few months.”
This isn’t the first time in Kestner’s career that one of her songs has blossomed into something far beyond her original expectations for it. The same kind of thing happened with her very first song, “His Daughter,” which she wrote when she was seventeen years old. As she tells the story behind that song, Kestner still seems amazed about what happened.
“My songwriting journey started kind of abruptly,” Kestner says. “I’m from a small town: Austin, Minnesota. I’ve loved to sing my whole life, but I’d never really written music, and I had just started teaching myself piano.” Still, she says she didn’t believe she was destined for a career in music. Instead, “I was working as a janitor at my dad’s electrical shop. First job. When I would go clean there every weekend, I was all by myself, and I would just sing and sing.”
One day while on the job, Kestner says, “I remember having this idea. It came to me like a story before I even realized, ‘This is a song.’ I started writing it down on a piece of paper that was there. I came home, and I think I knew about four or five chords on the piano at that time, so I used those ones and started creating a song. I had no technical knowledge. It was just instinct.”
That song evolved into “His Daughter,” a moving story-song about a woman coping with an unplanned pregnancy. Kestner played it for family and friends, but she still didn’t realize that she had created something special until she made a video of it the following year, when she was a senior in high school, and posted it on YouTube—and it immediately went viral. “That changed my life in a matter of weeks,” she says. “I went from having written a song and nobody knowing who I am too going on Good Morning America and flying to New York and L.A., meeting with record labels and publishers, having zero connection to the music industry prior to that.”
Since releasing “His Daughter” in 2014, Kestner moved to Los Angeles and has furthered her career by released a dozen more singles. She has also found success co-writing two songs for Kelly Clarkson, “Move You” and “Slow Dance,” which both appeared on Clarkson’s 2017 Meaning of Life album.
Looking back, Kestner says she feels immense gratitude for whatever drove her to write “His Daughter,” which changed everything for her. “I really feel like writing, to me, was a gift—it brought out a side of me that I had never seen before,” she says. “It’s one of the things where you go, ‘Wow, I believe things happen for a reason, and I’m so thankful because my life would look so different if it hadn’t happened.’”
Even though Kestner has proven that she has songwriting skills, she says she still can’t fully explain how it’s done. “I feel like if anyone really knew why songs sometimes work and sometimes don’t, they’d be very, very rich,” she says with a laugh. “For me personally, I just try to be as honest and authentic in my lyrics as I possibly can be. I try to write songs that I would want to hear.”
Kestner says she feels she has accomplished this especially well with “Get Up”: “I’m super pumped about it,” she says of the track. She says she looks forward to seeing what else comes out of her writing next, even as the pandemic still rages—and she predicts that other songwriters will feel similarly inspired.
“I think that we’re going to see some of the best music this coming year that we’ve heard in a long time because we’re going through seasons that are emotionally and circumstantially overwhelming,” Kestner says. “I think it really brings out the most raw, pure form of music and songwriting. I know it has for me.”
Photo by Sarah Laos