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Classically Trained Sarah Kinsley is Alive With the Sound of Music

Bending and blending genres, the NYC singer has a penchant for unpredictability and a disdain for labels.  

by Ben Boddez

Photo by Julia Khoroshilov

It’s become abundantly clear over the years that the idea of genre is dying – something that New York City singer Sarah Kinsley certainly believes in, often speaking about a goal to be as sonically unpredictable as she can to her listeners. Kinsley’s other goal takes this idea a step further: forget a genre, she wants to craft music that can’t even be situated in a particular time and place. Dialling up a sense of suspended otherworldliness – partially due to a background in classical music that often informs her work – it gives her immaculately produced tunes a certain X-factor that separates her from the pack.

“I hope that tying together classical and pop music invokes something nostalgic for people. I always try to write music that feels timeless – not in a self-aggrandizing sense of ‘My music is going to outlast me,’ but more that it can remind people of a time that they didn’t know existed, or recall a sort of experience that isn’t necessarily the past or the present. Something that just feels outside of us,” she says.

“The other day I saw a video of people reacting to one of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, which I thought was so funny, just because I don’t think those composers ever imagined a world in which people would be talking about their songs with such fervor.”

With a background in music theory from Columbia University – where she ultimately began writing and producing music in her dorm room – Kinsley could easily go on about dominant fifth chords and the Phrygian scale, but she prefers to use her theoretical knowledge to work backwards. Wanting to be as free as possible in her creation, she’d rather use it to explain why elements of a finished product are effective than create based on its teachings. Kinsley was a bit of a musical prodigy growing up as well, performing in youth orchestras and mastering the piano at a young age.

“I think when I was younger, I thought ‘Okay, I’m this chosen person because I like music and I can play these pieces well,’ but obviously as you get older you realize it’s such a childish way to think sometimes,” she says. “I thought that because I was slightly good at music, classically at least, that it was my calling. Now I feel like it’s just because it’s the most fulfilling thing for me, and I can really connect with people and help them through music.”


“Getting older is such a gift, but for now, I’m very happy being 23.”

— Sarah Kinsley


Deep meditations like the ones above on topics like destiny and growing older, navigating through the impenetrable walls of time and carving out a path for yourself, are some of the most prominent themes throughout Kinsley’s music – often accompanying narratives about feeling romantic successes and failures incredibly deeply, as if they were the cornerstones the pathways hinged upon. Of course, most people romanticize youth, scared of getting older and wishing they could go back and do it all again knowing what they know now. Kinsley’s view is a little different.

“I think getting to be older is a real privilege – it’s such a weird coincidence that we all happen to be alive at the same time,” she says. “I also indulge in the stuff about feeling so free at a young age, because I feel that too. But I don’t think that’s limited to being young. I’m excited to see what music I’ll be making when I’m 70. Where will I be at that age? Getting older is such a gift, but for now, I’m very happy being 23. There’s no rush.”

If Kinsley had any advice for younger fans worried about entering their twenties and kicking off a new stage of life, it would be to push themselves to feel alive by doing things they’ve never done before, and to go outside – “I randomly went swimming in a lake with some friends really late at night, and we just jumped in. It was so simple, but I was like ‘Oh my god, this feels incredible’,” she adds.

Kinsley’s latest project, Ascension – the fourth in a series of EPs she’s been dropping yearly since 2020 – is based around another high-concept idea. Kinsley and a romantic partner often had conversations about the idea of an island of memories where every inside joke and happy moment with a partner is stored.

The tracks gesture at the idea of visiting, or ascending, to the island after that relationship comes to an end, which stirs up intense feelings of happiness and sadness at the same time. One standout track, “Lovegod,” finds Kinsley addressing a topic like searching for a rebound with the creativity and poetics that only a true songwriter could provide, comparing the ability to delay the feeling to something of a spiritual release.

“There were definitely times that I was so desperate for a certain feeling that it was almost religious how much I cared about it. I’m not really religious at all, but I imagine that that is the closest to what religion might feel like to some people – calling out into the void or at times being questioned in your belief because of not receiving an answer,” she says. “It was really fun to make those emotions clear, because they’re not very flattering at times. I liked the idea of turning it into a song that could be really celebratory and ironic and satirical.”

Despite Kinsley’s penchant for unpredictability, disdain for labels and predilection for deconstructing her work – both lyrically and with the many layers of production that she toils at for hours on end – to the furthest possible degrees, you won’t find her actively trying to buck the trends of the day like some of her contemporaries who also possess a flair for experimentation. It’s part of the aforementioned X-factor – Kinsley’s songs feel simultaneously cinematic and intimate, simultaneously deeply personal and specific and widely accessible.

“I am constantly craving stuff, even if they’re trends, or whatever you want to call them to make it seem like it’s not artistic music because it’s popular,” she says. “I don’t really believe in shutting out certain things just because millions of people enjoy them. It’s what makes us human! It’s so human to only like even a certain 30 seconds of a song. Even what can feel digitally really boring music has a specific story behind it, and people are drawn to it for a reason, and it gives people an excuse to make videos to it.”



Kinsley gesturing at TikTok makes sense for someone who joins quite a few young artists making a name for themselves after having one of their songs go viral on the app. For Kinsley, it was her 2021 track “The King,” an ode to experiencing all the world has to offer. It opens with a flurry of piano and synths that Kinsley once said was supposed to sound like what it feels like to be alive.

The track – as well as a video where she outlined her process in creating her track “Over + Under” with simple sounds made around the house – boosted her career to the next level. These days, she continues to show off her quirky production techniques, including her recent innovative work with contact mics.

A kind of small disc that’s meant to be used to sense vibrations from acoustic instruments, Kinsley has experience building them by hand at music school and instead applies the microphones directly to her throat to create what she calls an “intimate, guttural” sound. She was inspired to do so after watching videos of throat singers – “which is obviously completely different than what I’m doing, I don’t have the talent or skill for that” – and many of her fans have affectionately dubbed the ethereal, watery results “whale song.”

Speaking of Kinsley’s production, however, her most ardent hope during our time together was that an inaccuracy, which can be found in just about any article about her, be corrected. It’s often been reported that Kinsley was inspired to start producing her own work after learning about a statistic that only 2% of producers in the music industry were women, wanting to raise the number.

While Kinsley remains incredibly passionate about the cause, imploring that her female listeners try it out for themselves, she actually learned about the statistic months into her newfound hobby. While trying to determine who her influences are, she mostly found a lopsided number of men having worked on her favourite songs. Some of the exceptions, whose influence can clearly be heard across her work, were artists like Kate Bush, MUNA, Caroline Polachek and a truly beloved Lorde.

“I think Lorde’s music is one of the few times I’ve experienced true bliss while listening to something,” she says. “I’d probably say the same thing for Kate Bush. Both made their drums sound so distinct and alive, and [Lorde’s] Melodrama also has some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. It’s so raw; no one can write as vulnerably as that.”

Looking ahead, Kinsley is contemplating making the jump to a full-length album, but her most ambitious goal is to provide the score to a film. A longtime fan of period dramas – she’s drawn to big emotions and running through fields – Greta Gerwig’s Little Women remains one of her all-time favourites (“I could really hear my music playing under some of those majestic scenes of them at the beach”).

Lately, however, she’s been thinking about the Ascension EP’s aesthetic parallels with the work of Studio Ghibli. With someone with Kinsley’s boundless approach to creativity, you never know where you might see her next – all you can be sure of is that you’ll be seeing her.