Interview: Molly Kate Kestner

Three years have passed since Molly Kate Kestner’s single His Daughter went viral. The Minnesota-born singer/songwriter, now 21, who’s an accomplished pianist and violinist, hasn’t looked back. That breakthrough single has to date racked up 15 million views, but since its release Molly Kate’s has signed with Atlantic, penned a song for Kelly Clarkson and just put out a brand new track called Footprints (watch below) dedicated to her little brother. Emotive, eloquent, talented and humble – not to mention take-your-breath away beautiful – Molly Kate Kestner is creating poetry to fill our hearts. Grounded she’ll remain even if her career is about to soar.

Molly Kate Kestner

Interview with Molly Kate Kestner

Images by Yoshitaka Kono

Hi Molly and welcome to London! People talk of your meteoric rise from YouTube to signed artist. Did you envisage any of this happening at all? Was it part of a plan or just plain serendipity?

When I was growing up I begged my parents to let me audition for Disney Channel or American Idol! Because in a small town, to me that was my only way out; to make it on a show. I really wanted my voice to be heard. I didn’t write songs until I was in high school, so at an early age, it was just a love of singing. My second eldest brother Caleb is super smart and he had jumped on the YouTube wagon really early so he was the one who encouraged me to put stuff online. My whole family all encouraged me, but as it was my family, there’s always a feeling that they may just being nice to you. So it really was a dream come true when that video went viral. If ever I move away from my authentic self or my natural writing [default] it’s like I’m reminded that’s what got me here in the first place.

You have five brothers and one sister and they certainly sound like they’ve got your back. Are they protective of you?

They all are! I’m the second youngest. My sister is the eldest so she was like a second mother ruling the roost. My four older brothers are so protective of me. It’s cool though because when you come from a big family you have these unique relationships with all of them. They are all so different too. A lot of them are musical. My sister plays piano and sings. She has the most beautiful soprano opera voice, so mine is very different to hers. All my siblings either play an instrument or they sing, no one really did it as seriously as me.

How does it feel writing songs for other people? Is it strange to adjust to the way they sing your lyrics for example?

It’s so cool. I just had a song come out with Kelly Clarkson this week called Move You. I wrote it specifically for her. If she wouldn’t have taken it, I probably would have taken it cos I love it so much. She actually cried listening to it for the first time. I mean I have loved her my whole life so it was one of the biggest moments in my life. I then started crying when she started recorded it. It was this moment of ‘ wow, I’ve loved listening and singing this woman’s music and now she’s singing my music'”.

And what about those other collaborations?

One of my first trips to LA, I wrote just the hook to a song with a producer and it got pitched to Wiz Khalifa. That was actually my first cut. I just thought it was so funny. I mean, I would never think that Wiz would want to cut one of my song. It was cool for me to see that my song writing is versatile. It confirmed to me my belief that I can write for a variety of different artists across genres.

People do tend to pigeonhole artists to fit a type of musical genre. It seems like such an antiquated thing to do. Your music was called Christian Pop at one stage…

Obviously the song I originally wrote had religious undertones to it, that was recognised by a lot of religious groups. It was played a lot of Christian radio, so a lot of people deduced I was a Christian artist. I was like, ‘Er, no’. When I came to LA people said I was all about piano ballads; and again I was like no, I want to write upbeat songs that people can dance to. Really it’s trying to let people know that I have so many different influences. I grew up listening to classics like Frank Sinatra and Gospel music, but then I got a little bit older and became obsessed with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson; then even in the last year, I have started listening to bands like Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks and all those icons. I think you definitely can’t box in a writer because we pull from everything. I’m constantly discovering new music.

Who’s on your playlist at the moment? I heard that you’re a London Grammar fan?

ALSO READ:  Interview: BB Diamond on Michael Jackson, Touring with Jess Glynne and Positive Thoughts

It’s funny because I went into a session and someone said, ‘Oh, your voice is similar to London Grammar.’ I thought they meant it sounded British or something! [she laughs] Then I listened to her stuff and just loved it. I am also loving Gavin James, Adele and James Arthur’s new album. And Ed Sheeran. I mean I know he’s on my label but I loved him way before I was signed to Atlantic. He’s someone who’s done a great job of not being boxed in any one genre. I would love to write with him just because I am so inspired every time he puts out a new album, just by his lyrics, because I’m a big lyrics person. I think he’s figured out the perfect balance of quirky, personal lines mixed with universal truths. Supermarket Flowers was one of my favourite songs off the last album, because he has these specific imagery details, where you can just picture it in your mind. There is always this truth in the bridge or chorus that everyone can wrap their minds around.

And how are you adjusting to fame? How would you take to being a household name in a few years? It’s likely to happen…

I mean I have a decent following but it’s small scale compared to superstars like Taylor Swift. But seeing my video go viral, gave me a taste of what those people experience on a day-to-day basis. But I think in my experience, good friends, good relationships with your family and the people who are your core, those are so important because they know you best and will tell you if you are wavering. The only people you can be yourself with. I haven’t got everything right in my life, but I have really tried to stay true to my own moral values. I keep myself accountable and if I set a standard for myself, I won’t ever lower it. So far, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining that. I feel that everything I have put out so far song-wise, is very authentic to me.

A little bit of a chicken and egg question here, but how do you go about the song writing process? Does the chorus come first or the melody?

It really depends. There were songs that were complete inspirations, written in 15 minutes, like an outpouring. His Daughter is an example of that. I had the idea and it was almost like I had a story; I wrote it from top to bottom and the story was done. But then you have other ones, like for example The Good Die Young, that really was influenced by the passing of Prince and also knowing what was going on in my country. Processing all these good people who have died prematurely. I came in with another writer and producer, telling them all this, the song then sort of came about from there. Sometimes songs are very personal but other times, they are someone else’s story. I just wrote a song for a funeral recently, and it was me putting myself in the shoes of someone who has already passed away. If I could say one last thing to the people I was saying goodbye to, what would I say. I would say to them to live a life of intentionality because we’re not guaranteed tomorrow. The Good Die Young has similar meaning. I always try to have this theme in my music that represents light, even if it is a darker subject. But to answer your question, lyrics typically come to me before music. A lot of my songs start out of poems. I want people to connect to my music. I want them to be challenged and inspired. If it didn’t do that, I would feel it would be a lost opportunity.