What You Find in Chilina Kennedy

Photo by Mindy Gough.
Photo by Mindy Gough.
Chilina Kennedy.

Since May is award season on Broadway, our nominee for Person Having the Most Awesome 2015 has to be Chilina Kennedy. Kennedy isn’t up for a Tony or any of those honors from the Drama Desk this year, nor is she in the outer orbit of the Outer Critics. She did, on March 7, take over for Jessie Mueller, who won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for playing the title role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and it isn’t every day that an actor replaces a newly minted Broadway supernova.

But the Canada-born Kennedy is no small star herself. Her vocal chops and her earnest, effortless and empathetic acting are impressing the audiences of 2015 much as Mueller did back in 2014. Critic Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star put it this way:

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She wins the game without even beginning to dip into her musical accomplishments, which all people who have ever heard her on stage know to be considerable.

And it turns out that she has far more going on than merely enjoying her well-earned and much-sought-after Broadway paycheck. On Apr. 14, Kennedy released What You Find in a Bottle, her debut album, which offers 13 indie-folk pop songs composed over the last decade. Almost as if in response to an age of raging cynicism, most of her songs are — forgive the pun — simply beautiful, open-hearted tapestries of love, of mixed emotion.

Here’s a brief bio on Kennedy, provided by her publicity team to the CFR:

Chilina is the only child of a retired Brigadier General father and peace loving flower child of the ’60s mother. While growing up, she lived all over the world from England to Australia and across Canada. Music was one thing that was a constant in her life. As a young girl, Chilina sat in various basements listening to records — among them Woodstock, Jesus Christ Superstar (the brown album) and Abba. Chilina began playing piano at age 4 and writing songs at age 8. Heavily influenced by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King, Bob Dylan and Canadian folk music singers like Stan Rogers and Loreena McKennitt, the songs she’s written are honest.

And now, 5 questions Chilina Kennedy has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’ve been asked many great questions in interviews so I have hard time pinning down the most perceptive. I had a great interview for Mary Poppins not long ago where I was asked about what our society needs today from a modern Mary Poppins. This led to a very interesting discussion.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Being asked to compare myself to others is hard to answer. I’m sure sometimes it’s unavoidable but it’s hard to put yourself on the outside judging yourself with perspective.

Kennedy in Beautiful. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Kennedy in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I was asked once if I was falling in love with my romantic co-star. Well, yes, that was in the job description.

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So, what do you find in a bottle? And what should a bottle contain — if only we’d open our eyes to it?
Here’s a perceptive question. I think the answer to this is deeply personal. Some people might find various dark substances in a bottle. Others might find a message or time. People might find different things on different days.

What was the genesis or backstory behind What You Find in a Bottle? And when did you find the time to write? Who are some of your personal inspirations in terms of this kind of music?
I love folk music and songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. I’m inspired by many artists like Norah Jones and Bon Iver, and I’m drawn to many different styles of music. I had been writing songs for more than 10 years without a thought to putting together an album. Over the course of a few years I went through some major changes in my life and wrote about them whenever I had the chance — backstage at work or over long Canadian winters in small towns. I found the time to write when I had the inspiration, no matter how busy I was. Sometimes that was on the way to a concert — driving and singing a new idea into my iPhone or on a weekend trip to visit friends. I feel strongly that if an idea comes to me or anyone, it’s important to listen to that creativity and give it some attention. Otherwise it might be lost.

Given the indelible voice of Carole King — her singing voice and the unique language and power of her words and music — and given that What You Find in a Bottle is clearly a personal statement, do you struggle to keep ideas, personalities and voices all straight in your mind? Do you ever wake up and think, “Wait, who am I today?” And if you ever do, what is your usual answer to yourself?
I like to describe this as if I were in the kitchen. Playing Carole King is like cooking a steak dinner and my music is like baking a chocolate cake. You would never mix up the ingredients. But sometimes I need a little reminding so I can jump back into whatever it is that I’m doing, especially when it comes to sound. When I sing my own tunes, I color my voice a certain way, and when I play Carole King, I use a different shade. Both voices are mine but they come from different places. Jumping into a performance of Beautiful is like leaping onto a train moving at full speed. You get on and you don’t get off until it’s over. I like to prep by listening to Tapestry and James Taylor and other music that helps me get inside her world.