By Grace Adee
Last February, rising indie pop star and producer Sarah Kinsley, CC ’22, sampled her childhood bedroom. In a playful retort to everyone who’s ever told her that “women don’t produce music,” Kinsley captured all sorts of everyday sounds–tapping tables, slamming doors, clinking glasses. With some luminous vocals recorded at home and a bit of technical magic, these disparate noises coalesced into the soaring melody of “Over + Under,” a track on Kinsley’s sophomore EP, “The King,” released this past June.
If this video sounds familiar to you, you’re likely among the 4.5 million people who viewed it on Kinsley’s popular TikTok account this year; the platform played a critical role in catapulting her into the public eye over the past few months. Kinsley stumbled into this online fame, and the pressure to capitalize on it overwhelms her at times. “Keeping up this momentum is like fighting this beast, the ‘algorithm’ that no one understands but that can literally change your life entirely,” she said. While some might become obsessed with chasing the white whale of internet stardom, Kinsley doesn’t seem too interested in reverse engineering a hit. Her creative process isn’t formulaic—she speaks reverently of discovering auspicious phrases in her journals or snippets of sound in her dreams, and the bursts of creative energy that can grow these seeds into songs.
Kinsley started producing her own music in 2019. The year before, she worked with Grammy-nominated artist Luc Bradford—also known as Ford.—on an electronic lo-fi song called “Craving.” Though it was a rewarding experience overall, Kinsley noticed that when reviewers mentioned her vocals, it was only to describe how their “airiness and beauty” contributed to Bradford’s vision as a producer. It was a real-life example of a phenomenon Kinsley discusses often in classes for her Columbia Music major: the female voice as “the vessel for this male creation,” now and throughout history. This experience made her curious about how producing might allow her to assert more creative control over her music. “The producer builds this landscape, builds the canvas,” Kinsley realized. “How can I understand these elements, too? Like, how can I build my own world according to my own rules?”
When writing about Kinsley’s musical world, critics love to cite her many years of classical training. “It does have more of an effect than calloused fingers,” Kinsley acknowledged. But while this theoretical knowledge informs her approach to composition, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. “I feel like all people have a canon of things that they worship,” she said. Kinsley’s personal canon reflects her eclectic taste, spanning Fleetwood Mac, J. S. Bach, Arlo Parks, One Direction, and the Cocteau Twins. Her first live concert was with an ABBA impersonation band in Singapore. She can still vividly recall the excitement as she and her younger brother stood up on the theater’s velvet seats, straining to glimpse the musicians. Once an ABBA fan, always an ABBA fan, we agreed. “Sundays are for ABBA,” she laughed.
Riffs and melodies and lyrical themes emerge, transformed, as her own distinct and fully-realized musical landscape in “The King.” Last year, Kinsley made a list of all the things she wanted to do before she turned 20: dance around her neighborhood in the rain, pull an all-nighter in her childhood bedroom, write a letter to herself at 21. “Then the last thing on the list was like, write the song of all songs. The song that’s a tribute to you—this very potent and felt homage to being young and also getting old and feeling nostalgic for things that we just can’t really have back,” she said. The resulting song became the EP’s titular track, though the rest of the project also springs from that initial eruption of nostalgia.
Kinsley related the EP’s narrative arc thoughtfully and without pretension. She imagined it as an hourglass, she said, moving from the external world to her inner life and back again. “Karma,” the opening track, explores how intuition can challenge superstition when it comes to love; she considers it the most outward-facing, concerned more with relationships to others than to the self. In contrast, “I’m Not A Mountain,” the center track, is the EP’s bleeding heart—“the most honest I’ve ever been in music,” Kinsley called it. The album culminates in the triumph of “The King,” which represents “who I wanted to become,” she said.
“The King” is the purest expression of Kinsley at this particular moment. Even in interviews, she’s meticulous and candid in her emotional expression, unsatisfied with any approximation of truth. I told Kinsley I was tempted to call this EP a coming-of-age story, which amused her. Of course, I didn’t mean to file her under “Teen Angst” among the John Green novels. Rather, in these songs, Kinsley is spellbound by the constant tug-of-war between past and future.
Kinsley’s practice wasn’t always so introspective: Describing “The Fall,” her 2020 EP, she said, “A lot of the songs for that EP were about other people, and they were all sort of dedicated to my growth because of them. This time around, it was like I was really coming into my body and growing out of things I had worn out of, and being free.”
There was another major change for Kinsley this time around: She now works with a UK-based management company called Everybody’s Music, and her songs are licensed through their distributor AWAL—an acronym for “Artists Without A Label.” This indie group allows her to maintain artistic autonomy while easing the logistical pains of releasing music. “They have so much experience with it that it was just such a breeze,” Kinsley said. A bit of residual exasperation crept into Kinsley’s voice as she recalled what it was like to publicize “The Fall” on her own. Unsure of how to get her music out there, she did what many emerging artists do—paid for services that would get her music into the hands of music bloggers and playlist curators who might give it a listen. She found it more frustrating than fruitful. “I just thought it was ridiculous to have to submit in order to get people to even listen to music,” she said. Rejection comes with the territory: When she heard back from bloggers at all, it was often in the realm of “Thanks, but this isn’t really my taste.”
Ironically, many of those same publications have since added “The King” to their featured playlists. British pop culture magazine NME called her a “shit-hot artist” in their profile back in May. She now has fans who comb through her discography, eager to learn the genesis of songs she hasn’t thought about in years. But even though she seems to have cracked that elusive “algorithm,” she’s not leaving Columbia’s music scene in the dust just yet—she’s over the moon about the Postscrypt show she’s booked in September (“I got the 9:30 slot—I can’t wait!”). Kinsley’s a romantic, a sucker for the way you can hear the music “rippling through the stairs of the chapel” when Postscrypt’s line goes out the door.
Her nostalgia is contagious. For that moment, she transported us to that dusky St. Paul’s stairwell—somewhere between this September and all the ones before it.