100% Bonnie Kemplay: the Scottish musician turning melancholy into gold

Photography by Rory Barnes

The UK’s top emerging artist (according to BBC Radio 1) talks sad music, winding up her dad and taking a cautious approach to astrology.

Bonnie Kemplay has been playing music for so long that there are pictures of her on the potty holding a guitar. My dad’s a guitarist, so they were always lying around the house,” she says, Zooming in from her bedroom in Manchester. My guitar was as much of a toy as Bop It!”

Now, the music thing is getting serious for the Edinburgh-born songwriter. Last year, BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge named her as the UK’s top emerging artist over 10,000 applicants. She’s inked a deal with Dirty Hit – the label also home to Beabadoobee, Rina Sawayama and The 1975 – and this July, she opened for Adele at her BST Hyde Park shows.

Kemplay once used the term indie sadcore” to describe her music, which is often based around an acoustic guitar and delicate production, but she’s since moved on from it.

When I was 15, I loved really sad music. All I listened to for two years was Julien Baker, whose stuff is very overtly depressing,” she says, smiling now. “[Now] I cringe a little bit at the sadcore thing, because it does feel like you’re commodifying unpleasant emotions. But then for me and a lot of musicians, writing is cathartic when you’re sad. I also listen to happy music now, though. I’ve chosen happiness these last few years.”

A self-taught guitarist until the age of 13, Kemplay then got into the City of Edinburgh Music School, where she kept sharpening up her knack for playing, before enrolling at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. Two years ago, she developed a repetitive strain injury which meant taking a break from both studying and guitar, but it forced her to figure out new ways of making music. I’ve only just got back to playing the guitar in the last month,” she says. In the time I couldn’t, I was using Logic on my laptop, which has helped me as a producer. I thought it was this techy, nerdy thing, but it’s really creative. It was rubbish not being able to play, but it’s changed my process for the better.”

While you take in Kemplay’s new EP Running out of things to say, running out of things to do, get to know her a little better with her 100% questionnaire below.

10% Where were you born, where were you raised and where are you now based?

I was born in Edinburgh and grew up there until I was 17, which is when I moved to Manchester to go to the Royal Northern College of Music. I love Edinburgh a lot and I was very involved in the music scene there. I’d busk during the Fringe Festival.

20% What kind of emotions and experiences influence your work?

I self-analyse quite a lot, so I think my music is quite introspective. It’s like storytelling, a mix of different experiences and then how I felt about them – trying to capture a moment or a feeling in time.

30% What’s the most pointless fact you can share?

There are gay penguins in Edinburgh Zoo, a little couple. I don’t think penguins can really tell what each other’s gender is. If there’s a spare egg, one of the male penguins will just go and get it.

40% You rule the world for a day. What’s going down?

I’d make a really fast train from Edinburgh to London. Like 15 minutes long. The rest of the world? Not my problem!

50% What’s a bad habit you wish you could kick?

Being hot and cold with stuff. I’m either absolutely girlbossing life or doing nothing. I wish I could be more balanced.

60% What’s a piece of advice that changed your life?

The band Muna were on a podcast recently. They said something along the lines of: Individuality makes you irrelevant to competition”. I really liked that. Being at college, I think it’s so easy to get sucked into that competitive environment. For a while I got really lost in this obsession of being the best at my instrument, which is never what I actually wanted. It’s better to focus on being unique rather than technically good at something.

70% Love, like, hate?

I love autumn, I like summer rolls. I hate… I want to say jazz, but I don’t really. My dad’s a jazz musician and I feel there’s a pretentiousness about it. I kind of say that I hate it as a joke. I’ll go with that.

80% How did you celebrate your last birthday?

I honestly can’t remember it! I think I just went out for drinks with my friends.

90% Do you believe in star signs?

I think they’re fun but I’m not super invested. I do identify with my star sign. I’m a scorpio – well, apparently a scorpio sagittarius cusp. I sound like an idiot even saying that. I take it all with a pinch of salt.

100% What can artists do to help save the world?

Not have private jets.

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