This has been a big year for Chilina Kennedy. In September she gave birth to a baby boy. Last month she assumed the role of Carole King in the Broadway production of Beautiful, taking over for Tony winner Jessie Mueller. And today she releases her debut album, What You Find in a Bottle.
"It's been totally crazy and wonderful," she said, "truly the best year of my life." Beautiful is not Kennedy's first time on Broadway (she appeared in the 2012 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar), but it is her first time leading a major musical. Kennedy spoke to TheaterMania about how her work as a songwriter has influenced her portrayal of Carole King on Broadway.
What has been your biggest surprise from the past year?
A lot of it came as a surprise. When I started writing music I never thought it would ever make it past my bedroom, let alone launching my own album. It's crazy. If you showed me a snapshot of my life at this point five years ago, I wouldn't believe you.
How long have you been writing music?
I've been writing since I was a kid, but mostly just for fun. I studied piano when I was a little girl. I love writing music. I actually have major stage fright when it comes to the piano, so it's ironic that I'm playing the piano in a Broadway show as Carole King.
But you're actually miming the piano when you're onstage, right?
That's true, but when I first saw the show Jessie Mueller [who originated the role] really convinced me that she was playing. My agent told me not to worry about the piano. I said, "Are you kidding me? Didn't you see Jessie playing in the show?" So I learned all the music and I actually accompanied myself for my audition. So to go from having stage fright about my piano skills to playing Carole King's songs (and having her hear them) was a big leap.
How did you feel when you found out you were being considered for this role?
I was elated. I had a funny past with this show. I wasn't able to go to an audition for the original run and I was so disappointed. But I did something I never do, which was to save all my music and sides from the audition. Normally I throw them out, which is a great way to let go of a part you didn't get. But I kept mine and I never gave up hope that the role would come around again. When they called me I was over the moon. There I was, thirty-three weeks pregnant and doing my final call. It was pretty great.
What is What You Find in a Bottle?
It's a collection of over ten years of songwriting. It represents a crossroads in my life, a specific time from 2004-2014. It goes through my marriage and other relationships. I felt that these thirteen songs represented that journey.
The song "I Wouldn't Call It Love" has some very dark undertones.
It's a lot about jealousy and anger. It's that scenario where you see the person you want to be with and they've been toying with you, but they've found the person they want to be with. The song is in that moment, seeing it happen between three people. The solo takes on a different voice throughout the song. It's interesting to see where it goes from different people's perspective. At one point it could be all three.
Click below to hear "I Wouldn't Call It Love" from Chilina Kennedy's debut album, What You Find in a Bottle :
How did your experience as a songwriter prepare you to play Carole King on Broadway?
It made me understand the bravery of people who write. Carole King had a lot of number-one hits, but also many albums that didn't succeed. To open yourself up and write something that everyone could hate… from the age of sixteen she decided she could write songs as well as the next guy and she went into Don Kirshner's office and played for him. That's bold.
How do you compose?
Sometimes I write with the guitar, other times the piano. Honestly, a lot of the songs write themselves. I know that's a cliché, but often the songs are just there and I hear a hook or a lyric that I feel needs to be written. And I'll just sit down and it will come out. And if it doesn't come out I know it needs more time to percolate. I'm working on my next album now. I've had the chord progression on one of the songs for a year and a half. I didn't know what it was until after my son was born and I realized it was a lullaby. Finally, I sat down and wrote it in an hour. You go a year and a half and can't get any ideas and then all of a sudden it breaks.
You grew up in Canada, right?
I grew up all over the world. I was an army brat. I spent time all across Canada, but also England and Australia.
I imagine you have to learn how to make friends very fast.
You do. The theater is kind of the perfect job if you grew up in a military family, because you move all the time and you're constantly having to enter into new groups of people. It's not that I don't crave a little more security, but that's the wonderful thing about having a community like Broadway. If you stick with it in New York, people go from job to job and work with the same people.