Lola Kirke: ‘I wanted to be this sad white girl with a guitar singing folk songs’
Lola Kirke has a confession to make. She might be about to release her fabulously catchy second album, Lady For Sale, on Third Man Records, but she has still never met the US indie label’s rather famous founder, the rock musician Jack White.
Weirder still is that while Kirke’s on her current US tour, the former White Stripes frontman is shooting a new music video at her Fifties ranch house in Nashville. “Maybe I’ll meet him there when I get back?” she wonders, when we meet on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, a few hours before she hits the stage at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre.
Here’s hoping she can hold it together when they finally get introduced. Kirke, 31, has been a fan since she was 11 and heard The White Stripes’ furious garage anthem “Fell In Love With A Girl”. “Me and my friends would listen to that song for hours,” she admits. “I loved that record.” That said, White’s grittier sound is nothing like Kirke’s own joyfully upbeat music, which takes its cue from country rock trailblazer Tanya Tucker and Nineties singer Jo Dee Messina, adding in a little Seventies disco and Eighties power pop for good measure.
But Kirke does have something in common with White – neither Nashville resident is a native Southerner. Despite her throaty New York accent, she was born in London to Simon Kirke, drummer with classic rock bands Free and Bad Company, and designer Lorraine Dellal. When she was still a kid they moved to the US and Kirke was raised in Manhattan alongside her older sisters, the Girls, Sex Education and Conversations with Friends actor Jemima, and Domino, an A-list birthing doula to stars such as Amy Schumer.
When Kirke’s own movie career took off in 2014 with a supporting role in Gone Girl, a breakout lead the following year in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and a recurring part in Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle from 2014 to 2018, she was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles. But now that she’s also a musician with a long-standing love of country, Nashville makes even better sense. It’s an obsession that runs deep, the proof not just in her songs but in her monogrammed pink cowboy boots and a tattoo in tribute to Rick Danko of The Band, whose tender 1977 solo song “Sip The Wine” she covered a few years ago.
Along with The White Stripes, Kirke has been obsessed with the Americana pioneers and Bob Dylan collaborators since she was a teenager. As a freshman at New York’s Bard College she’d make regular solo trips to The Ramble, a rough and ready gig night helmed by The Band’s former drummer and vocalist, Levon Helm, until his death in 2012. She loved it so much she even tried to work there, offering her services as a volunteer valet parker, despite the fact that she couldn’t drive. “It was 2007 and I was living in the sh***iest dorm ever,” remembers Kirke. “I would hire a taxi and you would have to book it days in advance for it to take you up to Woodstock.” But it was worth it to hear her hero play the likes of 1975’s grooving “Ophelia”.
It was the earthy likes of The Band and the more psychedelic Gram Parsons that inspired Kirke’s under the radar 2018 debut, Heart Head West, a ballad-heavy album that showcased her easy, smoky vocals, as well as her love of vintage guitar sounds. Its follow-up is a marked stylistic shift, however. “There was a long time where I was making music that I just wanted to sound like other music,” explains Kirke. “That’s very much me being an actress and being like, ‘What role am I gonna play?’” She pauses. “And it’s also me as a person that has no idea who the f*** I am! I think that I wanted to be this sad white girl with a guitar singing folk songs...”
‘You are a fun person, why don’t you make a fun record?’
In the beginning stages, her second album was set to go that way too, with a collection of “emo and heavy” tracks on the table, she says. That was until Kirke’s producer, Austin Jenkins of Texan psych-rockers White Denim – known for working with Grammy winning soul singer Leon Bridges – had a simple suggestion. “Austin was just like, ‘You are a fun person, why don’t you make a fun record?’”
So Kirke did just that. The songs were good and she knew it. “My manager at the time was shopping them around and I thought they were f***ing shoo-ins!” she says. And yet she couldn’t convince a label to take her on. Kirke later expressed her frustration online, writing: “The demos I was making for this record weren’t generating any interest… It was the same refrain: “You need to be like 14 and massive on TikTok.”
Just when everything seemed like it was over, a neighbour whose living room Kirke would regularly find herself in for impromptu karaoke sessions introduced her to the team at Third Man. They were instantly impressed by the likes of “Stay Drunk”, a shameless chart country bop about cheating, the Stevie Nicks-style synth swoon of “Pink Sky” and squelchy Prince-like electronics of “Better Than Any Drug”. To finally find that support was a relief, especially as she was struggling to get booked for film or TV roles, too. “People in the industry, on the acting side, were naming my weight as the problem, which felt humiliating,” Kirke later wrote on Instagram. She shakes her head when I mention it now. “It’s so f***ing f***ed up,” she says.
For Kirke it’s an issue that has deep roots. “That’s been present my whole life,” she says of the pressure to present her body in a certain way to achieve success. “I come from a family of women who are very beautiful, but also have been very concerned with the way that they look. I somehow avoided any kind of horrible eating disorder and kind of defiantly ate my whole life and have taken great pleasure in eating.”
She laughs when discussing the weight she gained during the pandemic. “I guess I ate a lot during Covid,” she says. “I had no idea because I was living at my boyfriend’s house and he’s really tall and only had one mirror and it was really high up. So it wasn’t until I got back to New York that I tried on my jeans and they wouldn’t go up my thighs.”
But now things are getting going again. Around the same time as she signed to Third Man, Kirke won a spot in the vast ensemble cast for Winning Time, HBO’s new drama about the LA Lakers, which premiered in March to rave reviews. She plays Karen West, wife of the basketball team’s manager Jerry West (Jason Clarke). “I’m really moving into mom and wife age now,” she notes of the swift transition from playing twentysomething ingenues to thirtysomething mothers. But despite her return to the small screen, she admits that getting booked continues to be a struggle. “I got rejected, like, 40 times this week,” she says.
Frustrating it might be, but Kirke is happy to admit that it comes with her very particular kind of territory. “I don’t know if people know how to digest me, because I do this thing and then I do that thing,” she says of straddling screen and studio and stage. It’s true that it’s less rare – or cringe – than it used to be, with Kirke joining an increasing group of indie artists that are acclaimed for both music and acting. There’s Brit actor Keeley Forsyth’s experiential singer-songwriter sound, Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard’s garage rockers Calpurnia and Zoë Kravitz’s electropop band Lolawolf for starters. Even so, sometimes Kirke would like things to be just a little bit simpler. “Part of me wishes that I could just streamline whatever it was that I am and whatever it is that I’m making – but that’s just who I am!”
‘Lady For Sale’ is out via Third Man on 29 April. Lola Kirke is touring the UK in June and September