Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
It is quite rare, and tremendously reassuring, when you stumble on an artist who is truly living out the "American Dream" of the music industry–and doing so with grace and humble reassurance. Molly Kate Kestner is that artist. Her story is a sincere reminder that it is in fact possible for inherent talent and hard work to lead to noteworthy success, even when you're up against all odds.
Kestner was born in Austin, Minnesota, and she was raised by an electrician father and a stay-at-home mother alongside six other siblings. While her entire family was musically inclined, playing instruments and songwriting were considered just hobbies–that is, until a homemade YouTube video instantly (and unexpectedly) propelled Molly into the spotlight. Her emotionally-charged "His Daughter" has since reached over 15 million views, triggered her move to Los Angeles, and signified the start of what has become a flourishing professional career.
Molly Kate Kestner is known for her powerfully earthy voice and a captivating songwriting style that tackles serious, sometimes tragic, issues while maintaining a glimmer of hope in each and every song. Her latest, "I Don't Know," is a collaboration with cowriter/producer Starsmith (Ellie Goulding, Marina And The Diamonds, Clean Bandit) and cowriter Amy Wadge (Ed Sheeran). Kestner's Austin High School Sessions rendition of "I Don't Know" provides a raw display of her vocal (and step dancing) talent, and your first look at the video is below.
Plus, get to know Molly Kate Kestner in our Q&A, as she shares more about her viral beginnings, current projects, and valuable advice for aspiring artists.
OTW: Let's start from the top. What was your upbringing like, and how did you initially get interested in music?
MKK: I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, big family. A lot of my siblings and my parents were all musical in some way. I grew up in a family that loved music, and I started playing violin when I was only five years old because my older brother played, and I wanted to start playing piano because my sister played, I wanted to sing because a lot of my siblings sang. That's how I got introduced to it, but then I really fell in love with it for myself.
OTW: So it all stated with your song, "His Daughter," which you wrote in high school. How did that idea come about?
MKK: I'd never really written songs. I sang, and I liked to write, but I didn't teach myself piano until later in high school. So once I started learning piano, then I wanted to write music, but I just wasn't really sure how to write a song. I was a junior in high school, and I was a janitor at my dad's electric company. So I was cleaning there, and I got this idea for a song. It was just the beginning of the song, "Everything's going to be alright, she whispers to herself." I just started writing down the story on some bright paper, I remember it was yellow. So I brought all the papers home with me that night, sat down at the piano, and the song kind of wrote itself. It was one of the coolest experiences, even to date, that I've had with writing a song. I ended up waiting for share it for like a year, and when I put it up, it started getting a lot of attention within a week or so.
OTW: How did it attract so much attention?
MKK: Well, originally, I just put it up on my Facebook for family and friends. It got a couple thousand shares within the first day or two, and I was like, "That's so cool," so then I put it up on YouTube as well. When I did that, George Takei, who plays Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, shared it on his Facebook page. And even though he's not a music person, he has like 7 million Facebook followers, and he wrote something like, "This brought me to tears. Could this be the next Adele?"–like something really, really nice. That obviously propelled it even more, and it just kind of snowballed from there. If I could tell you exactly why that happened, I would be a lot richer than I am [laughs].
OTW: So did all of that unexpected success lead you to taking your music career more seriously?
MKK: Yeah, you know, it was a dream before that, for sure. I think the limitations I put on myself because I was from a small town, because I didn't know anyone or have any connections to the music industry–those were all excuses that I was like, "Eh, it's probably not going to happen." And then, with the video going viral, it just opened the door and all of a sudden, the dream was actually an option.
I think it gave me the courage, and maybe the reassurance, that my ideas were actually ones that people want to listen to.
Photo: Jimmy Fontaine
OTW: So how long have you been in LA now?
MKK: I've been living in LA officially since February 2016, so about a year and a half. But I've been coming out to meet with labels and on writing trips for a long time. It was a process of coming out here enough times to feel comfortable enough to move here, because all of my friends and family are back in Minnesota. So it was a big deal when I finally made the decision to not go to school, and take a leap of faith to move here.
OTW: And how has the transition been?
MKK: It wasn't easy, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. I never once questioned if I was where I was supposed to be, which, I know I would have done if I stayed in Minnesota.
As soon as I moved out here, I was in sessions and meetings, and everyday was me just working my butt off to develop myself and develop my relationships, and I saw opportunities come up because of that.
OTW: Any highlights from your studio sessions?
MKK: Well, I think a funny story is, the first time I went to London, I was in a session with a British producer named Eg White–yes, he's as crazy and awesome as his name sounds. It was my first time to London; I was still very new. A guy walked into our session accidentally, and he was like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, I'm here early" And I realized it was Jason Mraz! And I'm like "Uhh, it's fine, you can interrupt." I was so starstruck because I love his music.
Well then, flash forward a couple months, I end up signing on with new management, and they manage Jason Mraz! So that was my moment where I've gotten to work with and be around people I've really admired growing up. It's given me a lot more insight into musicians and celebrities and taught me that they're a lot more human than people make them out to be. I think it's actually a little bit less intimidating–you realize everyone is just trying to figure it out and doing their best.
OTW: I read that you're working with Kelly Clarkson too? Tell us more.
MKK: So what happened was that I wrote a song in an early session after I moved to LA, and I really liked the song, but obviously I wasn't putting out any music yet. Kelly ended up hearing that song through some miscommunication and wanted to cut the record. So they brought me out to Nashville with the writer and producer I'd written the song with, and we got to write a few more songs for her. That was my first experience getting to write for an artist, and it could not have been better. I think she's just such a great example of a strong, successful woman, and someone who has handled fame really well. And she's just really cool too, she's just an awesome mom.
OTW: Yeah, "Miss Independent!" So, I've noticed that your songs tackle very serious and sometimes sad topics, but there's always a glimmer of hope in there. Where do you pull from for your lyrics?
MKK: I think my faith is a big thing to me, where that's how I find hope in my life–when things feel dark and uncertain, I always come back to that. So to me, in my music, I want there to always be a message of light, because I do believe that there's hope in the grand scheme of things. Every song I write, I am writing in the hopes that other people will like it, but I'm really writing it for myself too. So a lot of times, it might be my own situation, it might be a friend's situation, it might be a story I heard, where I just don't get it–and me writing about it is me trying to find the light in it. So it's been a really good medium for me to try and express those questions in a way that I wasn't really ever able to before.
OTW: So your last single was "It's You" with Ryan Tedder–and the lyrics are quite real. What inspired you to be so honest?
MKK: Well since I was a little, I've always been someone who would rather not say anything, or even tell a lie, because I didn't wanted to hurt someone's feelings. I would do anything to avoid having a confrontation, but then I end up carrying all the weight of that. This song was the first time I'd been honest about a person in my life that had hurt me. And the whole time I had just been taking it, and thinking it was my fault, but then in that session someone just pushed it out of me, and I was like, "You know what, it wasn't me, it was him!" The song is sassy and sarcastic, but it really was just about me being honest with myself.
When you part ways with someone, take ownership for what you did wrong, but also don't take on things that weren't yours to take. It just feels better when you're honest.
OTW: What is your advice for other aspiring artists from small towns?
MKK: I would say, the internet is an amazing tool–use it. I mean, don't become obsessed with it, because some people let it define who they are. But I can't hate social media because it's what gave me this opportunity, and it connects me with people from every country in the world. You just never know–you can't count yourself out just because you're from a small town and so far removed from the music industry.
If there's a dream in your heart, you have to let it be bigger than your fear of failure, and let it be bigger than your circumstance.
OTW: Who are some artists on your Ones To Watch list?
MKK: Well, it's funny, I sneaked on your guys' page, and Hippo Campus came up. I love Hippo Campus–they're Minnesota people too!
There's an artist who I really love right now–her name is SIGRID. I'm obsessed with her. "Don't Kill My Vibe" has been on like everyday.
Actually this duo that I worked with yesterday–they're incredible. They're called Strandels and they're a Swedish duo, brother and sister, and I wrote this song for them, and I was like, "I want to hear this on the radio."
OTW: So you're only 21. As you navigating through the music scene, how do you stay grounded, and stay your age?
MKK: I think, again, a lot of it comes back to my faith. It reminds me who I am at my core, and what my purpose is. My purpose isn't to get money, it isn't to get famous–it's to love people. I can do that whether I'm in a session or whether I'm in a stadium filled with thousands of people.
But I think also family and friends plays a huge part in it. Because my family is all in Minnesota, my management, my label, and a lot of the writers I work with–they've become like family to me. And I'm glad I've chosen good people to work with–I see a lot of people kind of getting thrown around in the wind, and it's because they don't have solid people around them. And my husband–coming home to a great person is the best thing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON MOLLY KATE KESTNER:
Website - http://mollykatekestnermusic.com/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/mollykatekestner
Twitter - https://twitter.com/mollykkestner
Instagram - https://instagram.com/mollykatekestner
YouTube - http://youtube.com/mollykatekestner