Local Current Blog

Molly Kate Kestner talks about staying grounded—and starting college—after 10 million YouTube views

Photo via Molly Kate Kestner's Facebook page

This past spring, Molly Kate Kestner—an 18-year-old high school senior in Austin, Minnesota—captured the hearts of millions of people with a wildly popular video, recorded off the cuff with a cracked iPhone, of herself singing and playing her original song “His Daughter.” The song, about a young girl who transcends a turbulent family situation thanks to her faith in herself and the Lord, rises to a soaring chorus that—as delivered in Kestner’s confident voice—earned comparisons to Adele and Jewel.

The Internet caught fire with the video, and Kestner was featured on local and national programs including Good Morning America. A fully orchestrated version of the song was released as a single on iTunes, where it entered the top 50 on the retailer’s U.S. sales chart. When our short blog post about the video became the Current’s most-read article of the month, I saw how fascinated people were by Kestner and her music, and I asked if she would sit down in our studios to talk about her inspiration and her roller-coaster ride.

She stopped by Thursday morning after sound-checking the National Anthem at Target Field, where she’ll sing before the Minnesota Twins game on Saturday. She’s also in the process of moving on-campus at North Central University, a Minneapolis Pentacostal school that was also attended by Jeremy Messersmith.

With her clear conviction and articulate poise, I was unsurprised to learn that Kestner is interested in becoming a motivational speaker someday—but first, she has a freshman year to think about. Here’s our conversation.

Let’s start at the beginning. You’re from Austin, Minnesota. What do your parents do?

My mom is a stay-at-home mom and raised seven kids, so I have a lot of siblings. My dad is president of an electric company, so…Kestner Electric, if you ever need a lightbulb changed!

I saw on your Twitter you were initially home-schooled. Is that right?

Sort of. I was home-schooled until first grade, and then I went to a private Christian school until sixth grade and then I went to public middle school and high school. So I’ve kind of experienced it all, I guess, as far as school.

And now you’re off to college.

Yes, North Central University.

How did you choose that school?

It just was one of those college I’ve heard about, a private Christian college. I know some people who go there and really like it. They have a great music and ministry program, which is what I want to do, so it just seemed like the right option—and then I ended up getting a full ride to go there, so I was like, okay, that’s a sign! I should go there. So I’m excited to take classes there.

So you started playing violin at age five. Do you still play?

Yes, I do—not as much as I used to, because obviously singing and songwriting is kind of my focus right now, but yeah, I still love to play. It always will be with me, I guess. It’s kind of like riding a bike: you pick it up where you left off last time.

When did you start playing piano?

Just a year ago! I still have some work to do there before I would call myself a pianist.

And then you started writing songs.

Yeah. That’s kind of why I started learning how to play piano: I was like, well, I want to write music, but I don’t know how I can write songs and sing with a violin, so I’ll learn piano.

So you started writing songs and posting some of your performances to the Internet. Before your sudden rise to fame happened, what were your goals in posting songs to the Internet?

Honestly, I didn’t have goals. I was basically posting them because I have family who live out of state who I never see, and my mom—even when we were little, she would always take videos and send them to her mom and dad and her brothers and sisters. So she was like, well, you should put the stuff that you sing at home, you should put that on YouTube or Facebook so that my family can see. That was basically my goal, and just to document my progress as a musician and singer. Then, all of a sudden, all of this stuff happened out of nowhere and it was like, okay, need to make some new goals! What am I aiming at now that I have a bigger audience?

This brings us to the story of “His Daughter,” which has now been told many times. You initially wrote the song, and you performed it first at a choral recital?

Yeah. So, I wrote the song at the end of my junior year, and then I played it for my choir teacher; I hadn’t really shown anyone yet. He was like, this is really good—you should save this and sing it for your senior solo, your senior recital. I was like, yeah, that’s a really good idea: do something original. So I didn’t post it anywhere, I didn’t really show anyone except for close family and friends. Then I sang it for my senior solo and it went great, so then afterwards I was like, well, I did it, might as well post it now. From there, it’s kind of history.

Things happened pretty quickly, it seems, once you posted it.

I can’t even describe how quickly it happened. It was just kind of like a blur, to be honest.

The whole story is wonderfully unexpected, but one of the most unexpected aspects of it is the role that Star Trek actor George Takei played.

Yes, George Takei! What happened is that it went viral on Facebook first; I didn’t even have it on YouTube originally, I just posted it on my Facebook page for, like, family and stuff. Then, a few days later it had like 50,000 shares or something on Facebook—which I thought was, like, crazy. So my brother was, like, you should put it on YouTube! So I put it on there, and then somehow George Takei saw it and posted the YouTube link on his Facebook page—and that’s what made the YouTube video go viral. Which is just…still just blows my mind. If I ever meet him, that would be awesome.

Are you a Star Trek fan?

Yeah—I have five brothers, so I grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars. It was pretty cool; I think they were more excited than I was that that happened. And my choir teacher, too—he’s the one that got me to save the song, and he is the biggest Star Trek fan ever. So that was like, oh my gosh, George Takei shared your video! He thought that was cooler than anything. Cooler than me, like, going on Good Morning America or anything else.

Tell me about how things unfolded after that. At first you were seeing the shares go up, and then, cool, George Takei shared it, and then…how does it start to snowball, where you start to realize, this isn’t just a popular video, this is kind of making me a star?

It was so weird. It started and the first week people were like, your video’s going viral! And I was like, no it’s not, like, whatever—viral videos have, like, millions of views. Mine has a few hundred thousand. But I guess what you don’t realize is that most of the time when you see a viral video, it’s already gone viral—and you don’t get to see it go viral. So I just kind of was like, well, whatever. I guess, George Takei shared it, and then a few other celebrities saw it. Jordin Sparks saw it, a few Disney people saw it, and so I was like, well, that’s really cool! And then, I think it was almost exactly a week after I posted it, Good Morning America called. And I was like, oh my gosh, this isn’t real! Looking back on those weeks, I probably should have journaled or something, because it feels like all of it just mushed into one day. That’s what it feels like: I feel like I never slept. I was trying to finish high school, because I was graduating, and mixing this video with high school and then a scholarship program that I was doing, so I was writing essays for that every night and it just was the most stressful week of my life by far. It was good, though.

And so then you start to realize, I should probably get a team…right?

Well, first, I’m so lucky—my older brother Caleb, he’s a genius. So the first day after this stuff started happening, he was over at our house, helping me sort through things. He got it on YouTube, started monetizing my videos. He knew what to do, and I just would have been absolutely lost. I would have just sat there and had no idea what to do. Then we got in contact with a few other people: Troy Groves is helping me with a lot of managing stuff, and I’ve just been really blessed to know so many people who are willing to help out because they care about me and not because they care about what’s happening.

And now you’re off to sing the National Anthem at a Twins game—which is not even your first National Anthem at a professional sporting event!

Yeah, I sang at a Lynx game, which was awesome. This is definitely a little bit more nerve-wracking: there’s definitely going to be a lot more people there, but I am so incredibly honored and excited.

So let’s talk about your music. Who would you consider your musical influences?

Oh, my goodness. All right…so, I hate this question because I feel like every single person I listen to influences me. I guess one who sticks out would be Sara Bareilles, because, one, she writes amazing music. She’s an amazing songwriter, and that’s something I strive for is to write songs that have different messages than the typical ones you hear. Not just your average cookie-cutter love song or breakup song—songs with meanings in them, and emotion. Then also, the fact that she sounds just as good live as she does when she record her music. To me, I think that shows a true sign of a genuine artist: when they are a great live performer. So she definitely influences me a lot. She’s great.

Thinking about where you might want to go in the future, do you feel like the style you’ve been working in feels really good to you and that’s where you want to cruise for a while, or are you thinking, hey, maybe bring in a rapper or play a rock song?

There are so many different styles I love listening to, but as a songwriter, I like music that’s raw, emotional, singer-songwriter/indie, but definitely not pop music. I wouldn’t box it into any [genre such as] country or Christian or singer-songwriter. It kind of has influences from all those areas. I love writing stories, which is popular in country music, but I also love just writing songs that have more an R&B/jazzy feel, but that’s not all of my music, so…there’s a lot of different influences. I love gospel music, love jazz music, love indie music, [and] I listen to top 40 songs too. So there’s a lot of that that comes into play in my songs, just depending on the song, how I’m feeling. I’m open to anything, to see where my path takes me.

It’s an interesting moment, because right now, when people talk about you, it’s generally “YouTube sensation,” but as you make more music, you’re going to start being identified with a genre. Wikipedia says “Christian pop,” but maybe that doesn’t completely encompass everything you do or want to do.

Yeah, people, as soon as they find an artist, they want to put them in a genre or label them, like, what kind of artist are you? But to me, it’s like, I’m still figuring out who I am as an artist, so I don’t want to put that label on myself. There might be a day where it’s like, you know, I want to transition into more of this kind of music, or that [kind], and I don’t really want to be confined—like, oh, you have to stay this kind of artist or sing this kind of a way.

So this brings us to plans! You’ve been on the coasts, talking to people. What can you say about that trip?

Amazing, amazing experience. Really [a] growing and learning experience for me, because I’m so new to all of this. I met with labels, I met with booking agencies, I met with publishers, I met with lawyers. That’s a completely new ball field for me. It was cool hearing from them and learning the potential of where they saw me going, possibly, just throwing out ideas. I haven’t made any decisions or anything yet, but it made this all seem very real. Before the trip, it just had been like, yeah, you had a video go viral, but nothing had really changed: I was still a high school senior in Austin, Minnesota. So going and meeting with these people—that made it feel like, this is real, this is happening.

But no decisions yet.

I’m not in a hurry to make decisions. This all happened so fast, and it’s tempting to be like, okay, let’s jump on the wagon, let’s go, let’s put an album out, let’s go on tour, whatever. But for me, I want to make sure that I’m ready as an artist before I jump into anything. I’m going off to college, and I want to make that a priority too. So I’m taking my time, and all the people I talk to were like, that’s great: take your time, we’ll still be interested when you can make a decision. I’m not in a rush.

You do have at least one gig booked: you linked from your Twitter to an October 12 show in Nashville.

Yes! It’s not just a singing thing, it’s a convention. Ryan Wesley Smith talked with me, and he’s the one who basically came up with the idea for the Activate conference. It’s a bunch of different people on Vine, Twitter, YouTube who have a big following, coming to kind of share their faith. Even though I wouldn’t identify myself as a “Christian artist,” a lot of my songs have a faith base to them, because I am a Christian and that’s going to come through in my music. So it’s a super-cool idea, and I’m excited. It’s a new idea, and I’m going to be interested to see how it plays out, but I was definitely willing to help out. I’ve never been to Nashville, so I’m really excited for that, and the people involved with it just seemed really great.

So that’s coming up, but other than that it seems like you’re most focused on getting started at college.

Yeah, this summer has been crazy—but for me, I just want college to to be as normal of an experience as possible. I am blessed enough to have a full ride to go there, and I don’t want to waste that opportunity. I don’t want to be missing school all the time, and I really want to make connections there and meet people, so that’s my main focus and my main priority. Then, just fitting in music and all of that stuff as much I can, because that would be my next priority—but I’m young, so I’m not trying to become a world-famous singer right now. I just want to grow as a person and as an artist before I do any of that.

How do you think about your daily life differently now that you have such a large online following?

This is what I say: I haven’t changed, the people around me have changed. It’s really true, because honestly, the things that I post, the things that I tweet, they’re the same things I tweeted about five months ago—it’s just people respond differently now, which is really interesting to see. Even the way I act, the way I am around people…I’m the same person, but the way people act to me is different, and that’s something that’s been hard to get used to in some cases. In some cases it’s really cool. People ask me that all the time: is it hard to be yourself, do you feel like you have to put on a face when you do social media or whatever, and honestly, I feel like that’s the complete opposite of what even fans would want. They want to see what you’re like, so I just kind of have been myself, and if people don’t like that, then it’s okay. They don’t have to follow me, so it’s fine.

Your songs address really specific issues like bullying and abuse, so at this point I imagine you must have heard from a lot of people who are experiencing those challenges and have been moved by your music.

That, honestly, is probably one of the most rewarding things that has come out of any of this: just hearing the lives and the stories of people that my songs have impacted. It’s so humbling, because I never was abused as a child, I obviously haven’t had a baby as a teenager, but I guess the way I look at it is: that’s not my story, but I can kind of be a voice for those people who aren’t able to share their story. Like, I don’t know what you’ve been through, but I feel for you and I can sympathize with you and I think that’s why my songs have really connected with people. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s faced hardships. Even in “His Daughter”: you might not have gone through what the song talks about, but everyone’s felt lost at some point. They’ve felt confused, wondering why something has happened in their life, and it’s going to be okay, and there’s hope. That’s a message that a lot of people are searching for right now is hope, and if that’s something I can give to them, then that’s an honor and I would gladly do that every day for the rest of my life.

Is there anything that’s important to you that you feel like you don’t talk about very much?

Something that’s really important to me as an artist and as a singer and as a person is just to be a role model for younger girls, and that’s really my main focus. I think this society has created such an insecurity for younger girls: they’re constantly looking at ads, looking at videos, where women are portrayed as objects, and it really cheapens your value. Obviously not all my songs are about this, but my message that I want to get across as an artist is that you don’t need to be the prettiest person, you don’t need to be a sex image, you don’t need to have the right look or the right body type to be successful. You just need to have a passion and a work ethic, and you’re only as beautiful as your heart is. That’s really, really important to me: having girls not define themselves in the way that a guy looks at them or the way that society looks at them, but defining themselves by where their heart is and what they want to do with their life.