Lola Kirke on Her Music Career, Rejection & Why Drinking Counts As Self-Care

Photo: Celeste Sloman
In between mouthfuls of pickled crisps, Lola Kirke talks about the many pressures our culture puts on women. The youngest daughter of British parents (her dad is the rock drummer Simon Kirke) and youngest sister of Domino and Jemima Kirke (a musician and actor respectively) Lola was raised in New York from the age of five, and is the only member of her family with an American accent. But after a phone chat with the 27-year-old actor and musician, whose beautiful debut album is out this week, we can confirm she has a British sensibility. Over 30 minutes, Lola talks about everything from period shame to narcissism in the social media age to admiration for her boyfriend's work ethic, and by the end, we just want to go to the pub with her and continue the conversation.
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Lola made her name as an actor in Golden Globe winning comedy drama Mozart In The Jungle and as the sultry, smokey Greta in Gone Girl. She was also the lead in Greta Gerwig’s 2015 film Mistress America, delivering lines like “Sometimes I think I'm a genius, and I wish I could just fast-forward my life to the part where everyone knows it” with a natural deadpan wit.
Alongside her acting career, Lola has been writing songs since she was 19, more as a hobby than anything else, but now it’s taken off and she’s touring with her album Heart Head West. Produced by her boyfriend, Wyndham Garnett, the music on the record is laid back, sometimes upbeat, sometimes bluesy, and the song-writing profound, evoking intense waves of emotion in tracks like “Sexy Song” and “Monster”. Then there are the music videos, which are more like film shorts because, of course, they star the actor Lola Kirke, a huge accolade for any singer/ songwriter. Even Lola Kirke.
Congratulations on the album! I found the video for "Sexy Song" really emotional as a woman with the themes of self-editing and trying to fit into a mould of desirability. What were you feeling that you wanted to get down in that song?
"Sexy Song" is about feeling rejected. And taking that rejection personally, as an attack on who you are. I was really excited to make a video that was less about the personal and more about culture at large and how women (and people in general, but women especially) are constantly rejected for who they are and told they will be accepted if they present themselves in a certain way. I've felt that personally in a very visceral way, but it's systemic. The feedback that I got from so many women on that video – and in particular women who are also artists – was so exciting. You make the work because you feel so personally inclined towards it and then when you share it with people, your connection with them becomes much more profound, because they feel it too. I think loneliness is an amazingly functional emotion, and it’s so amazing when that loneliness can become a bridge.
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A functional emotion?
Yeah. If I didn’t feel lonely, I don’t think I would make any work, ever. I think all of our normal negative emotions are wildly functional and necessary.
You take selfies in the video for "Sexy Song", how do you feel about Instagram and selfies? Do you think social media is ultimately good or bad for women’s confidence?
I think it adds as much as it detracts from women’s confidence. It’s a totally reciprocal relationship. Social media gives women the chance to advocate for themselves as far as their representation is concerned in a more powerful way than they used to. I think selfies are fascinating. I mean, I’ve taken a billion of them, I don’t know what that says... I was reading about narcissism last night because I was watching a documentary about a woman who is apparently a narcissist and I’m so curious about what narcissism actually is, because it’s a term that gets thrown around. We totally live in a culture that promotes narcissism. And it’s a disease! It’s a mental illness! And we live in a culture that promotes it. There’s a great quote that’s floating on the internet, and it’s been pasted around my neighbourhood, that says: ‘in a culture that profits from your low self-esteem, liking yourself is a radical act.’ I think the culture of social media advocates for you to like and dislike yourself at once. It’s a very confusing time to… be alive.
You directed the video for “Supposed To” yourself, starring broadway actor Deborah Hedwall. Can you tell me about her character in the video? What’s her story?
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The song is about social pressure to be a certain way. I’ve always felt that social pressure of ‘well you’re young, so you should do x, y and z', but I’ve always wanted to do a, b and c. I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit the mould of what was being prescribed for me. And Deborah’s character in the video is imagining what that person looks like much later in life. In particular, in relationships and with the female body. We’re told we should be adventurous and free while we can, but sometimes being adventurous and free doesn’t actually feel that adventurous or free.
I read that "Monster" on the album is about self-care. How do you self-care/ look after yourself?
I have a pretty nauseating self-care regime [laughs]. Self-care is really hard. I think I like making myself feel bad as much as I like making myself feel good... I was about to bring astrology into this… but I’m not going to...
Go on!
No! Ok I hate it when people blame things on the moon [laughs] it’s not the moon’s fault! It’s your fault [laughs]. But… I like to indulge in all sorts of things. I like to indulge in drinking and laughing and talking to my friends and singing. And I like to indulge in the complete opposite of those things. And both are self-care. Lots of the things we typify as ‘self-care’ might actually not be what you need at that time. You might actually need to blow off some steam.
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My therapist says that to me. She says ‘maybe for you, it’s not going for a run, maybe it’s going to a rave with your friends.’
Yes exactly! And I’m so happy they finally have therapy in England [laughs]. If my family had known!
In the video for "Monster", blood / ink starts coming out of your ears and then fills the bath. What does that signify?
It's partly a comment about bleeding all over yourself. It’s such a mortifying part of being a young woman – this constant fear that you’ve bled on yourself. We live in a culture that shames our bleeding and pissing and shitting and all of that stuff, it shames our humanity. A lot of that song is about accepting yourself for who you are and for your limitations and capabilities.
Obviously you come from a musical family, what music did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to a lot of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin and a lot of Motown. As I got older and into the teen years, I started listening to the The Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons. Now I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell. I like all sorts of music, but most of the music I listen to is from the '60s and '70s.
Do you remember the first gig you went to?
Probably one of my dad’s concerts. We used to go to Rolling Stones concerts too. But the first gig I went to by myself I think was a Nas concert that I smoked too much weed at and had to be escorted out by police [laughs].
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Does your dad or your sister give you advice about being a musician?
My dad is really great to talk to because he helps me with the technical aspects of performing, because being a musician is very technical. My sister has always been a big inspiration to me too, I’ve loved watching her perform my whole life and I’ve always been very taken by her lyrical ability.
Who is your favourite artist lyrically?
For the past five years, I’ve been on a major Joni Mitchell tick. She’s my favourite lyricist, hands fucking down. There are definitely less obvious answers than that, but I’m just with her, every word.
Do you have an all-time favourite love song?
One song that really sticks with me… it’s probably more about self-love than about loving someone else. It’s a Fleetwood Mac record on Mirage and it’s called “That’s Alright”. Oh my god I love that song.
I read that you started writing songs after a breakup in your early twenties. But I read another article that said you started writing songs when you were a teenager. When did you start writing and what did you start writing about?
Yeah I’m just lying to everyone [laughs]. I wrote my first song when I was like… 19. It was actually also called “Monster” but it was more about the person I had left. And honestly, at this point, I really only have gratitude for his presence in my life because he made me a musician.
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Photo: Celeste Sloman
You worked with your boyfriend Wyndham producing the album. What’s it like working together? How do you not take criticism or suggestions personally when it’s coming from your boyfriend?!
You have to have a really loving and caring relationship and be open to different modes of communication. I feel really lucky because Wyndham is one of the most patient and talented people I’ve ever met, and that’s such a great combination. Working with him made me fall even more in love with him, because he brings his best self to his working environment and that’s quite rare, it’s so cool and inspiring.
Do you get nervous performing live and is it a different headspace than when you’re acting?
I do get nervous performing live. I started acting mostly on stage because I was doing a lot of theatre in high school and in college. I felt really confident on stage as an actor and these past few years playing shows as a musician, I’ve had to rebuild my confidence on stage in a totally different way. As an actor, you use the language of others to talk about being a human. And as a musician I’m using the language of my guitar and my voice and my own words to do that same thing. There’s less to hide behind. When you’re an actor, what the playwright or the screenwriter says goes. But as a musician, what you say goes. So it’s challenging me to believe in myself more. As a musician you have to believe in yourself because if you don’t then nobody else will. If my musical idols didn’t believe in themselves, I wouldn’t even know what to think was cool. They taught me what was cool.
Heart Head West is out now.
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