Sarah Kinsley: New Yorker’s alt-pop embraces youthful uncertainty

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you'd have no doubt seen opening the bill for your favourite bands. This week, New York-based Sarah Kinsley on about "amplifying female producers" and utilising the fear of growing up in her new EP

A 20th birthday is a pretty significant milestone: having to bid farewell to your teens is a big, weird and scary prospect – and if anyone knows the pressure of making your first tentative steps into young adulthood, it’s Sarah Kinsley.

“That swift change from childhood, where you’re allowed to be slightly ignorant and unaware of the world before then moving on to a new decade is overwhelming,” the singer-songwriter and producer says over Zoom from her New York City apartment. “It’s like, ‘What happens now? Where do I go next?’

“But I don’t know why our society has created this odd fear of growing up,” she continues. “The focus should instead be on this resurgence of energy that you get from entering a new decade. I want to take all of my anxiety and awareness of the fact I’m getting older, and let it help me bloom.”

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The transition that Kinsley has just described – when a switch flips, and suddenly you have to start figuring out the next chapter of your life – is keenly explored on the now 21-year-old’s forthcoming EP, ‘The King’. Her transformative songs of growing pains and discovery share a similar intimacy to the introverted, deeply human alt-pop of Maggie Rogers and Lorde; Kinsley’s music, above all else, is self-reflective. “You’re still young and you’re still free,” she sings to herself on the soaring title track.

For Kinsley, imbuing her music with a rich sense of wonder has long been the norm. As a classically-trained pianist that grew up playing in youth orchestras, she made a name for herself amongst conservatoire circles for her intense style. “There was always this joke with my teachers and friends that I was way too emotional when I was playing music.” She rolls her eyes ever so slightly, before flinging her arms out for emphasis. “I couldn’t help myself – I would take my time and feel the music so deeply!”

Kinsley always knew that one day she would funnel the discipline and technicalities she learned from playing in an ensemble into her own solo work. Her training taught her how to “understand the relationship between a melody and a harmony” – a lesson that stuck with her as she began to venture outside of classical music as a teenager, and started posting covers of Justin Bieber and Julia Michaels songs to Instagram.

“I actually used to be so shy when it came to singing,” she admits today. “I had all the training for my instruments and the other foundations of music, but I was too nervous to sing out loud. But my confidence came from sharing music with people online – it was a weird process of validation.”

As a current undergraduate student at the renowned Columbia University, studying music theory has remained a focal point of Kinsley’s artist development. But her education often intertwines with her burgeoning career; Kinsley laughs as she details how she had to submit her spirited recent single, ‘Over + Under’ for an assignment. Did she get positive feedback from her professor? “Oh yeah, I got a great grade in that class!”

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Though, for Kinsley, working towards a degree in music has shed light on a long-standing problem within the industry. She frequently references a 2018 report from The University of Southern California, that stated that approximately 2% of producers identify as female – an alarming statistic that she wants to challenge through her own artistry. “Of course, no one is saying to my face that women like me don’t produce music, but it’s about the very subtle things that build up over time,” she says.

Sarah Kinsley
Credit: Julia Khoroshilov

“When we talk about producers in an academic sense, we often assume that they are a man. We need to recognise and amplify female producers.”

In-class discussions surrounding music production have become a source of frustration for Kinsley; she has found that her male counterparts often speak over her. “I have spent so much time in these classes, waiting for people to let me prove myself,” she exclaims. “When we talk about producers in an academic sense, we often assume that they are a man. We need to recognise and amplify female producers.”

Kinsley recently turned to TikTok to raise awareness of this issue. One viral clip shows how she sneaks in samples of man-made sounds from her bedroom studio – knocking on wood, tapping on glass et cetera – into her work. It’s these intricate production methods that make ‘The King’, sonically, a marvel of understatement. Underneath the gorgeous synth layers of the aforementioned ‘Over + Under’, you can hear Kinsley slowly hitting her bed. Then there’s the pulsing, ‘Body Talk’-era Robyn rhythms of ‘Karma’. ‘Caught Up In A Dream’, meanwhile, is made up of transcendent piano runs and breathy vocals.

“I’m always trying to innovate new sounds within my songs. The feeling of being at home with my instruments is irreplaceable,” she says. “There’s always beauty to be found in the mundane – and seeing how people connect with my music reminds me that I’m on the right path.”

Sarah Kinsley’s ‘The King’ EP will be released June 4 via Everybody’s Music

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