JBL Emerging Interview: Sara Kays on situationships, body image & screaming into a pillow

In so small part thanks to the viral success of her breakup anthem, Remember That Night? RIAA Platinum-certified singer-songwriter Sara Kays very quickly amassed 677M worldwide streams and close to 2 million TikTok followers. Two years on and the Nashville-based musician is steadily building upon her success with her new emotionally vulnerable track, Show Me Off. In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, the rising singer-songwriter delves into body image, going viral on TikTok, situationships and new music.

Kays’ breakthrough EP, Struck By Lightning was propelled forward by the runaway success of Remember That Night? in 2021. Speaking to Headliner from her Nashville home just days before embarking on a US tour, the introspective singer-songwriter reveals that she was surprised that people were connecting to the personal things she revealed on the EP.

I was writing about things that I wanted to hear songs about when I was younger,” she reflects. “I had a lot of trouble finding songs about body image and certain things I was going through. I would Google search for songs about stuff [like that], so it was a nice surprise that the songs about certain topics were actually reaching more people than I thought,” she says humbly.

Check out her socials and you’ll discover that amongst the posts about her music, Kays is disarmingly raw about everything from body image to mental health. Feeling songs that addressed these issues were scarce when she was younger when she sought to turn to music for guidance and reassurance, Kays makes sure to funnel these topics into her own work for a new generation of fans experiencing similar issues.

“I definitely wish I had more [of that growing up],” she nods. “It took a lot of digging to find songs about certain things, where it's easier now. That is a lot of the reason why I started writing, because I was interested in music at a really young age, but writing came over time. That's part of what drew me to it so much; realising I can make songs about things I actually like, want, or relate to.”

I started getting engagement pretty quickly by posting myself singing about body image.

Despite the buzz on her socials and the fact she’s currently on the road on tour, Kays enjoys a quiet life when not working.

There's not a tonne that I'm super interested in outside of music, honestly,” she admits, laughing. “When I'm at home, I might be writing, or I love to hang out with friends if I have some free time. I used to play a lot of soccer, but that fizzled out because it’s hard to find people to get together and play.”

Kays wrote her first song aged 12 – “It was called Just One Minute and it was about wanting time to myself,” – she remembers, smiling at the memory. Her mother encouraged her gift and took her to a studio in Indiana to record some tracks. By age 17, she was sure that music was the only path for herself. Her intuition proved correct; these days Kays boasts 2 million TikTok followers, and the platform has been instrumental in raising her profile, although she admits she wasn’t sure about joining the app at first.

“At the time I was in school for music business, and I was in a class where we started talking about it. Everyone was like, ‘I'm not downloading that, it's for kids!’ – because it was mostly kids dancing. I downloaded it and started posting because I saw some people singing on there. I started getting engagement pretty quickly by posting myself singing some original songs, which were mostly about body image and things like that,” she explains. 

“One of the first ones was me singing my song, High School, which is about body image, and I gained followers based around that and by being able to keep posting about those types of things and building a community around it, which is super cool.”

You’re left feeling like you have to wait until you get home by yourself to let out any kind of anger, frustration or opinion.

Outside of TikTok, Kays soon garnered critical acclaim and made her national late night TV debut performing Remember That Night? on CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. With more new music on the horizon, Keys is poised to stake a claim as one of today’s most powerful and poignant singer-songwriters. Kays remains humble and grounded despite her rapid rise in fans, sharing the simplicity of her songwriting process:

“When I write, I usually start with a lyric or a concept or something in that vein. Sometimes I think of something when I'm driving or showering – the most mundane times, probably because there's nothing else to do besides sit there or stand there!” she shrugs.

In terms of sharing a vulnerable side of herself through her songwriting, Kays shares that opening up is something she has slowly become used to.

It's definitely got easier,” she considers. “It was harder when was releasing songs and I didn't know who would hear it besides my friends and my family who followed me on Instagram. That was more difficult because I felt more vulnerable and embarrassed almost, which is weird because less people are hearing it! But it's got easier over time knowing that someone who probably relates to it will hear it. 

"It's weird how I feel more vulnerable and embarrassed talking about those things with one person sitting right in front of me than I do releasing a song about it, because I guess if I don't want to acknowledge it, I don't really have to, outside of putting a song out.”

I did have a feeling 'Remember That Night?' was really special but I didn't think that it was going to be the biggest song for me.

The song largely responsible for her intimidating social following and surge is streams, Remember That Night?, came from humble beginnings: a simple idea in the middle of the night.

“I wrote that song in my bedroom at 2am,” she reveals. “Up to that point, I didn't write much about love, relationships or breakups. That was my first time writing about that – I only dated one person and had one breakup, so I wrote about that breakup for the first time with that song. I was really emotional while writing it. I posted it and I wrote, “I just wrote about my breakup and I think it's something super special,” so I did have a feeling it was really special but I didn't think that it was going to be the biggest song for me, like it has been.”

Following the success of Remember That Night? came a string of 2022 hit singles including Math, When You Look At Me, Watching TV, and a cover of Owl City’s Fireflies – the latter which quickly became a fan favourite last year as she performed on tour across North America opening for Alec Benjamin and MAX, followed by Bored and Miss Me The Same in 2023.

New single, Show Me Off tells the story of what Kays refers to as a “situationship” – where a partner acts differently in public than behind closed doors. Kays reflects on her own experiences of this with the lyrics, “I know when the sun is up, I know when tomorrow comes, I know when my clothes are on, he’ll never show me off.”

Kays opens up about the inspiration behind her new single: “I was seeing somebody when I wrote the song – I tend to sometimes dramatise things more than they actually are,” she admits mid sentence. “We weren't dating or anything, but he definitely inspired me because I've felt that feeling before in many relationships that I've been in. At the time when I wrote it, I was seeing somebody who was treating me that way.”

I would definitely recommend the JBL EON One because of how portable it is, and it still can project the same amount of sound.

Kays has recently started using a JBL EON One Compact Portable PA with professional-grade mixer, which she put to good use for rehearsals for a current US tour which sees her support Dean Lewis’ The Future Is Bright Tour 2023, which concludes in October.

“My job throughout high school and into college was playing at bars and restaurants and I did a lot of busking, so I've owned different PAs throughout my life since I was 13,” she says of her experience with having her own portable system.

“This JBL EON One has been really good. I've been using it to rehearse for the tour in the house, so that’s been really cool. My favourite thing about this is that it's battery powered, as I still do a lot of busking. When I used to busk before, I would have loved to have a PA that’s battery-powered because I would have to find an outlet. It's insane – you're not even really, legally allowed to do that in most cities! If someone sees that you're plugged into the city power, they'll be like, ‘Can you please not do that?’ 

"I would definitely recommend this over what I used when I was younger when I was playing gigs – I had a PA system that was just unnecessarily large! I would definitely recommend someone getting the JBL EON One because of how portable it is, and it still can project the same amount of sound. You can just set it down and use it without having to plug it in – that is absolutely my favourite part,” she reiterates. “I probably would normally just practise without any amplification, so it's been nice to be able to use it to practise for the tour.”

In terms of any future music releases, Kays has a lot in the works that she plans to release.

I've been writing a tonne of songs this year,” she nods. “I did three different tours last year so I was really wrapped up in that, but this year has mostly been focusing on writing and making new songs. I have a bunch of new songs I'm really excited about. My next song coming out is called Scream In My Pillow, which I'm pretty excited about. It’s about when people don't expect you to speak your mind or talk back or anything like that, so you’re left feeling like you have to wait until you get home by yourself to let out any kind of anger, frustration or opinion. Also, the acronym for Scream In My Pillow is simp, which I think is pretty cool,” she grins.