You know when you sometimes hear a song and it immediately appeals to you? You want to know who sang it, what it’s called, and why it pulls at your heartstrings so hard. That was how I felt when I first heard “Nothing Left to Lose” by Kari Kimmel. I was in the movie theater with my cousin watching The Duff, a very fun teen-comedy film that everyone should see, and that song was featured in the sad climax scene. My hands itched to take my phone out and ask Siri what song it was, but I adhered to the no phone policy in theaters, and opted to wait until later.
When I got home, I looked up the soundtrack to the movie and found Kari’s song, downloading her entire Black album along with it. Then months later, when I was starting The Fosters, a Freeform TV show, the theme song sounded very familiar, but not because I heard it before, but the vocals and stylings of the singer. Turns out, Kari sang it (“Where You Belong”) and I ended up downloading that as well.
Kari’s syrupy, sweet voice and innate ability to write heartfelt songs are only two of the things that made me want to get to know her better. With a simple Google search, I found that she’s a low key artist, but has written hundreds of songs, many of which have popped up in our favorite movies and TV shows. I also found out that she has no official manager or team. In fact, Kari manages and markets herself while being a stay-at-home mom. So, in a way, she’s Hannah Montana without the wig and fake name.
With five studio albums and another one on the way, four EP’s, and nearly a thousand song features in film and TV under her belt, I got to chat with Kari about how she got started, her entrance into a different audience than expected, and what she has in store for the future.
Teal Magazine: I want to start from the beginning and ask you when music became a big part of your life.
Kari Kimmel: I mean, I started singing when I was probably three years old. So it’s always been a very big part of my life. I’ve always loved it. You know, it’s made me happy and I was always a big daydreamer. Even in school, I would just check out and, you know, be in my head. I’d be writing songs and kind of dreaming of performing and all of that. It’s always been a big part of my life since I can remember.
TM: That’s so sweet. When did you realize that this was what you wanted to do as a career?
KK: I’ve always wanted to do something with music, but I think as you get a little bit older through high school and getting closer to college, you have to make a big life decision. Am I going to really pursue this as a career or am I just going to keep doing it for fun? Then probably when I was a junior or senior in high school, I realized that I had to decide. So I made the decision that -- I’ve always loved music and I’m actually going to pursue this as a career. For a while I was going back and forth between veterinary medicine and music. I thought I could maybe do both, but [laughs] turned out that’s really hard. I chose music and I didn’t look back. I’m really glad that I did it, but it was definitely a leap of faith because, you know, it’s very unpredictable. Anything in the arts is super unpredictable. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and so I would say junior or senior year of high school, I was, like, this is exactly what I want to do and I’m gonna do it at any cost, whether I succeed or I fail.
TM: Yeah, I completely agree that anything in the arts is a total chance type of thing. Where do you draw most of your inspirations from when you’re writing songs? Is there a certain process?
KK: I mostly get it from real life experiences. I definitely draw from things that I’ve been through, but sometimes I draw from other people’s experiences. Or even from a movie I’ve seen or a show that I’ve watched if it’s really impacted me, or hit me in a really creative way and it takes me to a place where I can draw on the emotions.
TM: Before we get into movies and TV shows -- you’ve written songs for other artists as well, like the Backstreet Boys and Ke$ha. How is that process different from when you’re writing songs for yourself?
KK: I try to make the process the same. I’m maybe a little more conscious of making it more commercial sounding and a little less artsy sounding, but for the most part I do try to make it a very similar process by just reaching into me and coming up with something that I think people would relate to. I always try to say things in a way that hasn’t necessarily been said before, which is really difficult because almost everything’s been said in a certain way. I still try to put my own spin on things and I try to put things in my own perspective. And I hope that that really resonates with people -- that they can relate to it and it touches them in that way.
TM: Everyone has musical inspirations. Who would you say is your biggest one and why?
KK: My biggest musical inspiration has pretty much always been Carole King. She is a singer-songwriter who was really big in the ‘70s. My mom would always listen to her when I was growing up. I became kind of obsessed with her when I was in college. She’s a phenomenal songwriter, but she’s also one of those singers who’s not really, like, this amazing singer. but I love the way she sings her songs. They’re real and emotional in a way that when other people cover her songs, they don’t really capture it the way that she does. Of course, there are exceptions, like Aretha Franklin. She covered one of Carole’s songs, “Natural Woman,” and of course, Aretha freakin’ nailed it. I still love the way Carole King sings “Natural Woman.” I love all the songs she has written and I feel that she’s just a true artist. There are so few artists where I’ve loved the majority of their work, and so she’s always been a very big inspiration.
TM: I’m really glad you said that because I think that you definitely have a similar sound to Carole King. I’ve listened to maybe one or two songs by her, mainly the Gilmore Girls theme song.
KK: Oh, okay [laughs]!
TM: I was obsessed with that song just because I was so into the show. I definitely see the correlation there. So speaking of shows -- you’ve had hundreds of shows, movies and even games feature your songs. Did you ever think that the reaction to your music would be that big? Or that your music would cater to completely different audiences?
KK: When I started signing, I didn’t know that this is where I would be. I didn’t know that songs I’d write would wind up in shows, movies, and games. It’s really cool. I feel super lucky that I get to do what I love. I get to do so many different types of music. I pretty much get to do whatever I want because of that and have a different outlet for it. It’s been really cool. I didn’t really know the impact I would have. I just knew that I loved what I was doing. And I was hoping that other people would love it too. In that way, I got really fortunate. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t think I could ever be that big, touring musician. I kind of always loved being more behind the scenes. This way I get to really do that. I mean, I still perform, but I think that majority of my life, I get to create and I get to sing through all different types of music and I still remain a bit anonymous.
TM: That’s awesome. I love that, too! And you got to appear on some of them as well, like Ella Enchanted. What was it like being a part of some of these movies and shows?
KK: That is definitely a very different experience. Ella Enchanted, specifically, I wasn’t in the movie. I did the music video for the title track. That was so much fun and that was actually the first thing I’d ever really done in music. You know...apart from being in my own high school band [laughs]. So that was really awesome. I got to do a bunch of on-camera things, like the red carpet awards and doing some of the things behind the scenes. Then I’ve also been on camera in a couple of shows, like The Middle and The Voice. I was in a movie called Danny Collins with Al Pacino. When I was on camera with him, that was really fun!
TM: So cool!
KK: I realized after all these on-camera things that it’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’ So it’s a lot of sitting around and touching up your make up. Just hanging out. I wasn’t really used to that, but I kind of liked every bit of it. Definitely being on camera is a much different experience than being in my studio and doing everything on my own time.
TM: I wanted to ask you about your theme song that you wrote for The Fosters. It’s a part of a really important show that tackles different societal issues -- what can you tell us about the process while making that song?
KK: For that show, specifically, there was a brief that went out to a bunch of writers and I was one of them. Whenever you’re writing for a theme song, most times, you’re not the only one. And most times, there’s a bunch of people submitting for it. It could be anywhere from 5 to 100 writers submitting for the same thing. On this one, in particular, they had sent out the brief and I had read it and something just really spoke to me. It inspired me to write “Where You Belong.” I immediately started writing that song and I think that song was done within a half an hour. I didn’t know if I was going to get it or not, but I knew I wrote something that was very special to me, and I really loved it and hoped that they chose it. Then when I found out they were going with my theme, I was super excited. I had really just gotten the synopsis at the time and I couldn’t have imagined it would come this far. We’re going into the fifth season now. I feel like this show is so much bigger than what I could have imagined. I’m not even in the show and I’ve gotten emails from people about how the show and the song has touched them. People relate to this show unlike they relate to any other show. I think it’s a really, really special thing. I am so proud to be a part of it because in a lot of ways this show is really groundbreaking, especially for Freeform. They’re addressing issues like gay marriage and fostering children and different ethnicities. They touch upon subject matter that I’ve never seen before. It’s been pretty amazing watching this show evolve.
TM: I completely agree. Have you been watching the new episodes [laughs]?
KK: Oh yeah! [laughs] I’m totally hooked. I’ve done a lot of music for different shows and I’ve literally never watched them. I started watching this one originally because I wanted to hear the theme song, then by, like, the third or fourth episode, I was totally hooked. Now I watch it every Tuesday night. And I forget I did the theme song. It comes in a few minutes into the show and when it starts, I’m like, OH! That’s me! I forgot! [laughs].
TM: Funny story -- I got introduced to your music when I heard “Nothing Left to Lose” in The Duff then months later when I heard “Where You Belong” because of The Fosters, I thought they sounded familiar. Then I realized it was you.
KK: [laughs] Oh, that’s so funny! You know, both the songs are similar in the sense that I wrote them both very quickly. I was very inspired. Another song that I did was for The Walking Dead. It’s a song called “Black” and it’s very different from those other two songs, but aside from “Where You Belong” it’s probably the second most well-known song of mine. That was also just one of those songs that I wrote so quickly that it felt like it wrote itself. So for me, those are the best ones.
TM: I actually have your Black album, so I’ve heard that too.
KK: Oh, okay, cool [laughs].
TM: What’s interesting about you is that you are your “people.” You handle your music managing, you market yourself. You’ve basically done everything yourself. Why did you choose this route?
KK: I started out having a record deal with Atlantic Records and with that I had a publishing deal and then another record deal with Virgin. Those experiences were invaluable to me. They were amazing and I have no regrets. On the flip side, it made me realize I wanted to be in control of everything I wanted to do. From the music to where the music winds up. Nobody is going to be as passionate about my music as I am. After I got out of my record, publishing, and managing deals, I just decided I wanted to do it all on my own and see how it went. And I’ve had so much more success while being in control of what I did than not being in control. So I started down that road and I never looked back. Since then I’ve had over 650 movies, TV shows, commercials, trailers, and promos feature my songs. And I’ve been building relationships along the way and it’s a lot of work. Sometimes I really don’t like the business side. I would rather be sitting in my studio and creating music all day, but the whole business part of it takes me away from that. I mean, I have to promote the songs and I do the best I can. The marketing, promotion, and where the songs are. I love being in control of where my career goes and I only have me to blame if it doesn’t go well.
TM: Given this fact -- what is the biggest thing you learned while being in this industry that you wish you’d known when you first started?
KK: That’s a good question. I don’t really know if I have a good answer for it, to be honest, because so much of what I’ve learned I’ve had to go through in order to learn it. I don’t think I’d know any of the things that I know now had I not experienced it, going through every step. When you’re doing something that’s creative, like music, art, or acting, there are going to be hundreds and thousands of opinions. Everything really becomes subjective. If you are great at what you do, and you -- this is going to sound really corny because it’s been said over and over again -- follow your heart and stay true to yourself, then you kind of tune out the noise. It’s hard not to get affected or down about people’s comments. It could be your fans, not your fans, or even people who pass on you for whatever. If you just ignore that, look at yourself in the mirror and say, this is me and I’m going to do what I do and love. I don’t really care what other people think, or if that business person didn’t like that song, or the person I pitched a song passed on it. When you go through this process, you become tougher and tougher, and you grow thicker skin. I’ve definitely become that way. I had to become that way and I’m so glad I can look in the mirror and say I’m doing what I love. If other people don’t like it then I don’t really care. I’m just going to keep doing what I love even if there is opposition or whatever the case may be. So I guess that’s one thing that I would have liked to have had from the beginning. Because you know, when I was first starting out, I was very sensitive. Every little thing affected me and I would get super down and depressed if somebody didn’t like something. And now I literally give it, like, a half a second thought and then I just don’t care. And it helps me! I don’t let stupid things get to me and take away from my creativity.
TM: Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d really like to accomplish now or in the future?
KK: I wanna keep doing what I’m doing and keep having the successes that I keep having, but now in an even bigger scale. I wanna keep challenging myself and creating music that I not only love, but I want to create music that’s unique and pushes boundaries. And you know, some of the music that I do is very straight ahead, and that’s fine because there is a time and a place for that. There is a lot of music that a lot of people actually haven’t heard yet. It’s a little bit more outside of the box. That’s where I get to go a little crazy with the creativity and it’s different from the straight ahead pop and mainstream stuff. I want to continue making that music and also do quirky, outside of the box music as well. Hopefully people will get to hear that, too. I’m already starting to license some of that music. It’s coming out in some different shows and so, like, I’m really happy with the path I’m on and I want to continue that path.
TM: What’s next in terms of music? You recently released a new Covers EP. Have you got a new album coming out or any new film/TV features?
KK: I’m working on a new album right now. It’s probably about almost halfway done. It’s a little more on the electronica side. It’s really fun! I’m having a really good time working on that. This week I did a song that I’ll be pitching for ads and commercials. It’s very fun, full of claps and snaps. That’s not something that’s going to go on my album, but something that I did with a purpose. I also worked on a song for a super creepy horror trailer. That was also a lot of fun, but that won’t go on my album. I get to do so many different things. I also worked on a theme song for a kids show, a new one called Spirit. It’s a Dreamworks animated show coming out in Netflix this year. I did another song for that show and that was more of a fun, poppy song for kids. That’s also not going on my album. So I’ve got these projects I’m working on and I’ve got the album that will hopefully be coming out later this year. That’s what I’ve got going on right now. Working on music that I love when I’m inspired.
TM: You’re tackling several genres all at once. That’s awesome. Do you think as you’re working, your sound keeps developing?
KK: Yeah! It’s what I love about this business. I get to be a bit of a chameleon and try different different things.
TM: What about live shows? Have you considered touring?
KK: I did a show at Hotel Cafe on February 24th. That was a more stripped down, acoustic show. I tend to go there the most because that’s my kind of home base. I’ve definitely thought about doing other cities as well, but I have a 1 year old and it’s hard for me to leave at the moment. But I’ve definitely considered it. Touring isn’t something I’ve ever really been into, but I do get requests to play other cities. I may branch out when my daughter doesn’t need me as much.