Five months ago, Kate Bollinger uploaded a submission to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest.
In the video, as she strums an amber-colored guitar, Bollinger and her band (guitar player Chris Lewis, bassist Jimmy Trussell, and drummer Jacob Grissom) perform “Candy,” a breezy, shimmering original, carried along by Bollinger’s willowy vocals.
If ever you feel cold
I hope you’ll come on over
I hope you’ll think of me
Bollinger didn’t win the contest, but since releasing via Level, “Candy” now sits at over a million streams on Spotify — not such a bad consolation prize. And since then, she’s been exceptionally busy, putting out a whirlwind of new music, including her latest EP, I Don’t Wanna Lose, and earning several inclusions on popular playlists, as well as a feature on the cover of Spotify’s Fresh Finds.
Bollinger has accomplished so much in only a few months and is continuing to gain momentum. So why would the idea of losing be in the peripheral of this budding singer-songwriter, much less be a driving force? She relates it back to the growing pains one faces in life, the ups and downs, the motion of the tides.
“The EP is about a lot of things in my life kind of happening at the same time and making me feel like I’m going to fail in different ways,” the rising senior explains. “I think a lot of people can relate to getting to my age and not knowing what they’re gonna do.”
It’s a familiar anxiety that transcends generations, one that’s exacerbated by social pressures and the belief that a choice you make now will determine the rest of your life. Coupled with the fear that the goals you’re pursuing will always be out of reach, it’s enough to warrant an existential crisis.
But if these past months are any indication, Bollinger’s path may have reached a turning point.
Bollinger first became interested in music when her mom, a music therapist, would have kids over for practice. She recalls wanting to perform in musicals but because she was “terrible at acting” instead joined local operas and children’s choruses. And whether it was hanging around her brothers as they held band practice or attending shows at The Southern, the communal power of music has always been a part of Bollinger’s upbringing.
For the time being, Bollinger’s keeping it close to home (even the Tiny Desk submission video was shot a local yoga studio). And while Charlottesville’s vibrant music scene has upheld the crucial sense of community and support, she, in turn, has found herself connecting with others outside of her immediate radius.
“It’s definitely a music city. A lot of the music that comes out of there is folky; there’s a lot of jam bands and bluegrass, which is awesome,” she explains. “But I didn’t necessarily find a group of people wanting to make the same thing as me. So it’s been awesome to turn to the internet more for that.”
Otherwise, Bollinger probably wouldn’t have found Madeline De Michele or Spanish artist Lorena Rivega, who illustrated the covers to her “Untitled” single and I Don’t Wanna Lose EP, respectively. Likewise, a newfound friendship with London-based musician Hope Tala began with a simple follow on Instagram, a connection that Bollinger has found fruitful, being able to share her experience with someone who’s going down a similar path.
“I knew that it was going to be positive,” she says. “I just had a strong sense from her music and stuff that we would connect on a lot of things.”
So far, following her intuition has worked out. For Bollinger, the uncertainty of what’s next is not a cause for paralysis but rather part of the exploration, as reflected in her songwriting process.
“I pretty much always start with the guitar part and then I‘ll sing a melody and find the syllables that sound like they belong,” she explains, comparing it to dreaming. “Sometimes it feels like I’m not writing the songs ‘cause I think it’s just from my subconscious, like the words will just become what they are.”
And having people, namely her band and producer John Trainum, around to help make sense of it all has been of immeasurable value.
“I’m able to sing something and [the band] will know exactly what I’m talking about, which is cool,” she says. “They all went to jazz school so they’re very technically good and a lot better than me, which I think is a really good thing to have in a band.”
Now at work on several new singles and an album for next year, Bollinger is looking forward to touring as much as possible and releasing videos soon. Much like her rapid rise and approach, Bollinger’s just going along with whatever the future may bring — whether or not it turns out to be the winning move.
“I don’t know what’s the correct thing to come next,” she says. “So I’m not like hung up on it. I just do it by ear.”
Kate Bollinger’s latest single “No Other Like You” — out now via Level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.