A different voice

Lola Kirke on finding rebellion and refuge in country music
By Conor Hudnut | Music | 29 April 2022
Photographer Conor Hudnut

We’re in the Hollywood Hills, perched somewhere underneath the Great Hollywood Cross, photographing Lola Kirke as Lana Del Rey plays in the background. The scene feels almost too on the nose. Kirke, a beautiful, British-born New York native, comes from an iconic and dynastic family of TransAtlantic glamour and has a thriving career as a film actress, starring in the likes of Mozart in the Jungle and Mistress America. But much like the betrodden chanteuses Lana sings about, Kirke has sought refuge from the ferocious show business circuit, finding sanctuary in country music and a relocation to Nashville. But more than retreat, country music also represents a rebellion against her upbringing and the world she was born into.

“Making country music was a way of rebelling,” Kirke tells us. “I think there was always something really snobby and bohemian about my European family, and for whatever reason, and not that I’m not a snob, but I didn’t identify with it. Maybe there was something I liked about how I experienced country music, something more earnest and for everyone.” Kirke’s latest album, Lady for Sale, out now via Third Man Records, charts this tension between the upper-crust New York society she was brought up in and the truer America she yearns for. Throughout, Kirke sings with the vigour and clarity of vision found in someone desperately trying to find a channel of communication that feels their own. 

Lyrically, Kirke flits between scenes of running around Los Angeles and New York causing or avoiding trouble, or caught in the overwhelming passions of an at-times tumultuous relationship based on, presumably, her current life in Nashville. And yet, true to the album’s title, Kirke remains for sale. In the cosmopolitan scenes, Kirke sings of exploitation from Hollywood and high society. As she charts on If I Win, a particularly damning indictment of LA, “Like all good hunters I lie in wait/And try to avoid Cazador Street/I’m all too prepared for when we meet/I ain’t hunting for you, I’m hunting for me.” Meanwhile, in Nashville, where Kirke finds herself not as a movie star but an ambitious and rising country starlet, she finds herself caught in the carnal excitements and devastations of being a woman in love in non-coastal America. As she pleads to an upset lover on Broken Families, “Now we’re fighting again/I wasn’t flirting with your best friend/I was just trying to impress you.”  

At times, Lady for Sale can feel like a willful self-excommunication from the altar of show business – that her more robust life in Nashville is enough to keep her happy. And yet, after each foray into the wild west of America’s non-coastal cities, Kirke always finds herself once again embroiled in the familial and vocational chaos of her life in New York. However, it ultimately seems that this continual cat and mouse dynamic is what propels her musically. As Kirke herself puts it in a cheeky moment of self-awareness on Fall in Love Again, “Hey taxi! Follow that Tacoma!” 

CH: You’ve just finished touring, were there any cities that surprised you this time?
LK: Um, I have to say I really like Vegas.

CH: How come?
LK: I think there was something about being in Vegas after days off in LA that really felt refreshing. I guess what I mean by that is… I feel like in LA everyone’s tring to hide their vices, like everyone’s obscuring it with wellness, or, everyone fucks up their face and it looks different. In Vegas everyone is just a mess. The city is an incredible display of American humanity that’s dark but also quite refreshing and real. I was really into that. 

A lot of the cities we played were interesting. We were playing less coastal places, and I’ve never really experienced that. It felt like everyone just showed up and wanted to have fun and get drunk. There was fighting, puking, fainting, and all sorts. I loved it.

CH: One thing I’ve gleaned from your music so far is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong– wait, what’s your sign again?
LK: Libra life, XOXO. 

CH: Interesting. What I was going to say is I feel like you enjoy and thrive in a chaotic situation – would you agree?
LK: Yeah, I mean I appreciate balance and I’m frustrated by extremes, even though I also find balance in extremes… Does that make sense? Chaos has always been a part of my life. It was there growing up in a creative family, and definitely in a town like New York City. That’s something I’ve appreciated over this past week being back here [in New York], there’s just so much life everywhere – not unlike Vegas. Cities like Los Angeles and Nashville, where I live now, can feel quite suburban at times. It feels good to be back. 

CH: How would you describe your relationship with New York as it stands?
LK: I really am loving my relationship with New York right now. For a long time I was so confused by how obvious it made the passage of time. When you’ve lived in a city for a long time… I’m still grappling with it because it feels so profound and the moment I try to articulate it, it just evaporates into something completely trite. But I’ve really come to appreciate New York as being a very private place for me. I really understand solitude here, which is obviously ironic in many ways because it’s incredibly crowded. It can feel quite sad at times, but I feel like there’s a way of measuring my own personal growth within this city, at the moment I’m just in awe of it. It’s springtime, people are just ecstatic in that way that can only happen when you’ve experienced a hard winter. It’s really nice to share [that feeling].

CH: I get a sense from your music, particularly across the new album, that music is a form of rebellion for you, maybe against growing up in New York in a family like the one you described. Do you view your music as a rebellion?
LK: Yeah! I’m flattered because I’ve never really experienced myself as rebellious. It’s an interesting observation, that even though I grew up in a family of musicians, my making country music was a way of rebelling. I think that’s true.  I think part of my life, as with many creative people, has been this experience of feeling other. I felt other living in a house where I was the only person with an American-sounding accent, and then I felt other being the only person at school with an English-sounding accent. And then wanting to be an actress and a musician, I just always felt different. 

CH: Have you found that your experience as an actress informs your songwriting and performance musically, and vice-versa?
LK: For the first few years of my life as a musician I really didn’t take up space on stage the way I had growing up in theatre. I had been so comfortable on stage growing up, but I wasn’t able to bring any of that to my work as a musician because I felt like I needed some kind of mask to make me feel more authentically myself, perhaps. 

At first, when I was a musician, I didn’t really have a persona. I felt like it was just me up there, and that was really scary. With this particular project, I was able to craft this sassier, more fun-loving version of myself, which is part of me, but it’s certainly being amped up on the record – it was very much inspired by some of the sassiest ladies in 80s country. Every night before I’d go on stage I would play three Shania Twain songs on repeat while I teased my hair, and doing so made me feel like I was putting on a character. So in that way yes, I’ve been able to breathe more life into my work as a performing musician through my work as an actress. 

As for the other way around, that’s interesting. It’s been funny coming straight from touring and into shooting again. I feel this great relief in working right now, because every day I go back to the same one place. There’s gratitude I feel for being on set right now where I’m like, “Yeah, this is great, I just have to go each morning and then come back home.” But I also think that both mediums are incredibly collaborative, and both require the ability to just hang. You can be a dick, but it will make everything worse. Also, I love writing my own music and singing it, but I don’t have any interest in writing dialogue for film and performing it. 

CH: Your music feels distinctly you, like you’ve had complete control over what’s going on from start to finish with each song. I particularly felt this way while listening to Broken Families.  Is it important for you to have that control while writing songs and is it difficult for you to give some of that up while collaborating?
LK: I think because I’ve spent so much more time on sets and working as an actress, I’m really open to direction. Control, to me, is actually really overwhelming. I really don’t want it, I like to have my lane and stay in it. I think sometimes when I’m working as an actress I try to make my lane bigger, or rather I only try to make my lane bigger when the writer hasn’t made it very big for me. Then I’m like what the fuck, this is the thinnest character ever and doesn’t exist at all and I end up over-burdening the character with all these ideas that really don’t make sense. 

A lot of the songs on the record are co-written, there was just so much room – I had so much space on my own half of each song to put whatever I wanted there. I guess control isn’t that important to me, I mean the record is heavily produced by Austin Jenkins, but then again I specifically chose him to produce it. I seed control when it makes sense, I almost don’t want anyone to ask me any questions, like you do your thing and I’ll do mine, and we’ll make it together and it will be great. 

Every night before I’d go on stage I would play three Shania Twain songs on repeat while I teased my hair…”

CH: Touching again on Broken Families, I remember it was the second song in your set at The Fonda Theatre, and you gave a disclaimer that it was going to be a bit of a downer. With songs that contain heavy material like that one, is it unusual to play them live? Is it unusual to play it for your family?
LK: That one is definitely a melodrama. It was constructed by me and Courtney Marie Andrews and it’s something I’ve completely experienced, maybe more than I even care to admit. There was a long time when I couldn’t even sing that song without bursting into tears, I was so nervous to play it live. No one in my family has addressed that song to me, so fingers crossed it goes right over their heads!

CH: Did you find it cathartic to play it live?
LK: Maybe, it’s actually a funny song. I’ve become so much more accepting of the things about myself I don’t like. I’m not proud of being broken, I feel like some people are really into that, they’re like, “I’m broken! Don’t trust me!” And I’m like, that’s literally the opposite of what I want. I want to be everybody’s best friend, I want to make sure everyone is happy. I don’t want them to see that I’m in any way broken. I just feel so shitty about that, there was a certain point in my life where I was very humbled by the cycles I would keep finding myself in that I was yet to break, I would think I had come so far and then found myself there yet again. So it is cathartic just to be… human. To be able to celebrate that through a song is very nice. 

For the first few years of my life as a musician I really didn’t take up space on stage the way I had growing up in theatre.”

Conor: Can you explain the universe of Lady for Sale?
LK: Yeah, so that song is an outlier on the record, it’s the only one that’s explicitly about a character, instead of just the narrator – though how distinct the character and narrator are is yet to be seen. It’s about a person that sings in a bar and has a side hustle trying to make it all work. What becomes increasingly clear to me as I begin to know friends on all levels of success – people who have yet to discover any of the success they want professionally, and people who have achieved so much of it they’re completely bored and don’t know what to do with themselves – is that when you have that drive in you, it’s hard to ever be satisfied. The serenity or peace you think is on the other side never really comes. When I was writing that song, the character I was writing about became this kind of unique way for me to express my own desires and frustrations, and lack of recognition, or rather feeling of lack of recognition, the feeling that no one cares. 

As an actor I’ve experienced some really amazing pinnacles I never thought I would. I’ve been to the Golden Globes, I’ve been up on that stage, I’ve flown fancy aeroplanes, blah blah blah. But I’ve also lived this double life as a musician who sleeps on people’s floors and plays for no one. I’m grateful for my music, it keeps me grounded and keeps me hungry, but at the same time it’s confusing sometimes. I’m not being that articulate about it, but I’ve been thinking so much about the concept of a lady for sale. I’ve been counting the amount of things I’ve heard said to me about my body over the last three months, both in-person and online. There have been an exponential number of comments on TikTok telling me about my armpit hair, or my jiggling stomach, and then there have also been three really intense in-person comments made to me. One was from a guy at a party who is a famous comedian, another was at the merch table in Vegas by some drunk guy, and another I won’t get into. Sometimes I forget that this commodification of self is present at all levels for people pursuing any kind of career in the spotlight. Selling yourself is exciting when it works and humiliating when it doesn’t. 

CH: Do you think the feeling of being for sale is something you’ve always felt – did this start before you were even working?
LK: Absolutely. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but growing up in a family that was very much in the world of, you know, famous people, I was used to everyone always being for sale. That’s just the way it was, it never occurred to me that I would be anything different. I think the way we sell people now, or that people sell themselves, is crazy. I mean, I never heard the word ‘brand’ be used about a person until 2017. 

I also think it’s kind of democratised now, anyone can do it. You don’t have to be ‘special’ to be bought or sold in this way anymore, if you believe in yourself enough you can make yourself into a product. It’s funny, I was at Olympic Spa in LA the other day, and there was a famous actress there, and everyone’s naked at that place, so it’s kind of hard not to stare at people. But every time this person walked by I found myself really staring at them, and I realised that must feel really bad, because this is probably the one place this person can go and not be made into some shining product, and here I am doing it again. It just felt important to me to make an album that commented on what it is to release an album while actually releasing an album. 

I’ve been counting the amount of things I’ve heard said to me about my body over the last three months, both in-person and online.”

CH: What message do you hope the record communicates to women and girls who can relate?
LK: Just that they’re not alone. That actually makes me want to cry. It’s so alienating. Even when you get what you want, it’s alienating. And when you don’t get it, it’s alienating. I know there are probably people out there who this never occurs to, and to them I am envious. I think it’s kind of passed off as normal now. At least with the people I know, it’s completely normal to make yourself more easily consumed by changing your face, or dieting. I think a lot of people right now are scared to rebel against that. 

Like, right now I have hairy armpits because I’m filming a show where I play a hippie, I was talking to a friend and she was like, “The reason people attack you on TikTok when you have hairy armpits is because you’re leaving the hive, and they don’t want to let you do that.” It’s like we have this horrible bond with the world where we say we’ll conform even if things aren’t necessarily right, and if you don’t people get angry and confused. 

In this show I have to be naked in a much more robust way than I ever have before on screen. Every day I would tell myself that I was going to start dieting. I would be like, “I’ve got three months! I have time.” And then every day I would be like, eating pizza, and then tell myself, “Tomorrow!” Then the next day I would be drinking an entire bottle of red wine. Then I finally just realised it was just never going to happen. Instead of being sad, I was like, “You know what? I love eating and drinking, and doing whatever I want.” So much so that it’s a huge part of who I am. I’m actually really proud of my body, no matter what. 

I hope the people who listen to this record can feel less alone, and I hope they can enjoy it and have fun. There’s a lot of guilty pleasure in the references within this record, I’m referring to music I listen to secretly, or not so secretly, but that I would play loudly in the privacy of my headphones. I hope this music can speak to guilty pleasures that others have too. It’s not very cool to like the kind of country music we’re making, but like it’s only not cool if you’re a huge loser [laughs]. I hope people are rediscovering Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, and Rosanne Cash after listening. It’s about fucking time! And Shania Twain. Everyone loves Shania but acts like it’s ironic. To me, liking Shania Twain is the least ironic thing ever.

Lola Kirke ‘Lady For Sale’ is available now via Third Man Records. 

Photo assistant: Livia Lange


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