The past few years have felt like a total blur for many people, but for those that experienced milestone birthdays in the thick of lockdown, time has also felt somewhat wasted. “I didn’t feel like I’d really gotten to live my 18th birthday, which in my head, I’d always built up as such a big year for me,” Bonnie Kemplay says of her heartfelt and vivid debut single ‘19’ – a track that ruminates on the anxieties and resentment of feeling trapped during lockdown. “And then I felt like I was suddenly turning 19, and I had lost this whole year.”
Sat towards the back of a local coffee shop, the Edinburgh-raised musician is reminiscing on the events of the past three years, including the highs and lows that inspired much of her music. Kemplay is back home for the festive period, taking a well-earned break after what she describes as a “whirlwind”, which started in 2021 after she was named the winner of BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge Introducing talent search.
Kemplay beat 10,000 applicants to win the inaugural edition of the competition, which was launched to propel some of the UK’s best new acts onto a national stage. “I don’t think it’ll ever really properly sink in; I can’t even imagine 10,000 just as a number,” she says of her win. “I very much viewed it as an opportunity rather than a competition because I don’t think music should ever really be competitive. When I got longlisted, I thought that was crazy, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s enough’. And then getting down to [number] one was just unbelievable.”
Kemplay soon signed with Dirty Hit, who released her aforementioned debut single, and she became labelmates with the likes of The 1975, Beabadoobee and Wolf Alice. Then in November 2022, she dropped her introspective debut EP ‘Running Out Of Things To Say, Running Out Of Things To Do’ and was subsequently announced as an opener for The 1975 on their current arena tour across the UK and Ireland.
It may all seem very sudden from the outside, but watching Kemplay’s performances for Radio 1’s Live Lounge, where she covered The 1975’s ‘If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)’ and unveiled her own track ‘Blushing’, you can almost foresee the magic that is to come – the emotional depth of her compositions is what sets her apart in the wider bedroom pop sphere. There’s a cinematic element to her music too, one that transports you into her world and places you in the thick of her emotions, be that related to change, isolation or feelings towards the future.
“It all started before I won the Live Lounge competition,” she says of her journey to getting signed. “I’d submitted my video entry, and BBC Radio 1’s Head of Music Chris Price sent it to [Dirty Hit label boss] Jamie Oborne, who emailed me straight away asking to chat. Signing record deals usually takes a bit of time, but Jamie was so certain that he wanted to sign me from that one meeting.”
Music was always on the cards for Kemplay, having attended the Edinburgh youth music group Totally Sound from an early age, which led to her auditioning for the City of Edinburgh Music School. At the former, she was surrounded by like minded teens, who were all encouraged to try different instruments. It was here that Kemplay had her first ever guitar tutor, who also happened to be the first person she ever sang to. “I made him face the wall and I sang him this Irish folk tune,” she says, laughing. “I remember I was shaking because [singing out loud] was the first hurdle for me.”
Kemplay’s experience at Totally Sound gave the confidence to audition for music school, which is where she began learning classical guitar, albeit reluctantly at first. “I was very much a moody teenager,” she says. “I didn’t want to practise or make use of the resources that I had. But learning classical guitar has massively informed my technique.”
Though she now calls Manchester home – having moved to the city at 17 to study at the Royal Northern College of Music – Scotland remains a core part of Kemplay’s musical identity. She cites Edinburgh’s 100-capacity Sneaky Pete’s – which has played host to everyone from Lewis Capaldi to TSHA – as her favourite venue, and also describes getting played on BBC Introducing Scotland as one of her biggest career highlights to date. Kemplay is humble when she talks about her achievements, but when the subject of radio play comes up, you can hear the passion and gratitude in her voice. “I didn’t sleep that night, I was so excited,” she recalls. “It literally felt like I’d finally broken this wall.”
Having taken a significant break from the guitar due to a repetitive strain injury, Kemplay is thankful to be playing again as she hits the road with The 1975. Though the injury had previously affected her physically because of how much she had to restrict using her hands, she describes how it forced her to switch up her songwriting process, which in turn helped further her production skills.
“Another silver lining is that I wrote some songs about my injury and how difficult it was, and I really like those songs,” she says. “Even though I’ve had so much time off, when I get back into [playing live], it still feels like second nature to me. The idea of performing to an arena of people is definitely daunting, but I think I can do it. Or rather, I know that I can do it.”
Kemplay is quickly forging a future that she can feel extremely optimistic about. As she takes on arenas for the first time, it’ll soon become clear that this is exactly where her voice belongs.
Bonnie Kemplay is currently supporting The 1975 on their UK and Ireland arena tour