When former The Walking Dead actress and singer-songwriter Emily Kinney and alt-country artist/Season 10 American Idol finalist Paul McDonald were fixed up last year by a mutual music-business friend, Dan Spears, neither was initially enthused.
Kinney was “happy to be single” and preparing to release her fourth solo LP, Oh Jonathan, a breakup album inspired by a long-term relationship with a mysterious ex. (“You can probably Google [who it’s about]. Look up ‘Emily Kinney dating history’ and I’m sure it’ll pop up, a guy named Jonathan somewhere,” McDonald quips.) Meanwhile, McDonald was working on Modern Hearts, an equally autobiographical and vulnerable album inspired by his more high-profile marriage and divorce with another horror actress with whom he’d created music, Twilight’s Nikki Reed.
“So for the past few years, this record that I just put out, my solo record, was a breakup record, and I had been in this kind of a funk for a while,” says McDonald. “So when my buddy Dan was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this L.A. actress that I should set you up with,’ I was kind of like, ‘Hilarious, dude. Nah, I just went through that cycle.’”
However, the two finally, reluctantly agreed to the fix-up. (“I feel like any time that I have set myself up in the past, it’s always just ended terribly, so I was like, ‘All right, I trust this guy; he has good taste in music, so maybe this’ll work out,’” recalls McDonald.) And they soon realized it was a match — both personally and, later, professionally.
“We started talking on the phone. … We talked until 3 or 4 in the morning. We probably spent a good week just talking every day, all day, before we ever went on a date or anything,” says Kinney. The two later met in person and attended a Walking Dead event together at Universal Studios (“I had the hookup,” Kinney jokes), followed by a dinner date at Moby’s Los Angeles vegan eatery, Little Pine. And they quickly connected, becoming mutual muses. Soon the real-life sweethearts’ new duo, the Sweetheart Deal, was born. The two songs they’re performing on camera for the first time, for Yahoo Entertainment — “Talk All Night” and “Figure You Out” — were inspired by this early, tentative courtship phase.
“I mean, we’re both artsy. We’re kind of outside the box in a lot of things. And we both work real hard. [Spears] always compares Emily to Patti Smith,” says McDonald. (“It’s a nice comparison,” Kinney remarks modestly, smiling.) “He said, ‘Man, you guys are very similar energies and that way of thinking.’”
“I think both of us just like making stuff, so when we were together, it happened pretty naturally, where Paul is at my place here in L.A. writing a song and then I was like, ‘Oh, can I finish writing it? Can I do the second verse?’” Kinney recalls. “So, it just kind of happened naturally — it wasn’t like we were like, ‘Let’s form a band!’”
Later, Kinney and McDonald went on tour together, playing not only Sweetheart Deal songs but also their respective solo material. So, with so much of their very personal solo songs inspired by their past relationships, do they ever feel awkward performing in front of each other?
“I don’t think so, because those songs to me have a place in time,” McDonald explains. “I’m really happy that I wrote them, but they’re not where I’m at currently. … That stuff is in the past, and actually what brought us together is the similar experiences. And I think that singing about those things and getting it out of your system is also a beautiful thing. I really appreciate Emily’s writing style, because we write in a very similar way, firsthand.”
“I think also since we’re both songwriters, we know that that’s what inspires you. Like, love is one of the most amazing special things in life, so love inspires art,” Kinney adds.
“I will say I had to change up my set just a pinch,” McDonald laughs. “A few of the jokes that I used to do to segue into songs, I’ve kind of had to be like, ‘Well, that doesn’t work, because the people at this show probably know that we’re dating, so I can’t quite make that reference to some old flame or something like that.’”
One of the songs on McDonald’s Modern Hearts, the title track, is a crowd pleaser, but it almost didn’t make his album — because Rihanna was supposed to record it instead, possibly even as a duet with Adam Levine.
“Oh man, I could have multiple homes right now,” McDonald, who currently splits his time between Los Angeles and his home base of Nashville, laughs ruefully. “It could have opened up a lot of doors in the songwriting camp and stuff — the songwriter world, I guess. That song almost got cut by multiple large artists, and then I kind of got to a spot where I was like, ‘Well, if it’s been sitting around for so long, maybe I should cut that for my record.’” Still, the song ended up impressing his future girlfriend, so he got a happy ending after all. (“That’s one of my favorite songs on his record; it’s so good,” Kinney gushes.)
While the Sweetheart Deal are still testing out their new songs, on the road and at Yahoo Entertainment, they plan to put out an independent EP in early 2019, followed by a full-length release later in the year. And they’re continuing to gain new followers as a duo, crossing over to the Walking Dead and Idol fanbases. “I did go to a comic book convention for The Walking Dead, and someone showed up to the table and they had Sweetheart Deal T-shirts on! It was two girls, and they had beanies,” Kinney recalls. “They were like, ‘We love Sweetheart Deal! We saw your first show in Nashville.’”
So, surely Kinney and McDonald will continue to make beautiful music together, literally and figuratively. “Oh man, it’s been good so far,” says McDonald. “So far, so good.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.