Una Walkenhorst Gets Uncomfortable
Local musician Una Walkenhorst releases her EP “Woman of the Year” April 16th
View Una Walkenhorst’s music video “Pretty Face” exclusively at the Pitch.com.
Six years ago, Una Walkenhorst loaded up her car and set out on a DIY tour across the US, shouting curse words in dingy bars and even sharing the stage with legends. She briefly settled in New Orleans for a year, until she returned to Kansas City in 2018 to record an album with her father Bob Walkenhorst, who was the lead singer in The Rainmakers, a popular 80s band. Their folksy album featured blood harmonies and ballads so intertwined it’s hard to tell who wrote which songs.
After years of touring, Una found herself back in her hometown, surprised at how willing she was to give it a second chance. Now she’s fixing up a home for her and her two cats and playing solo shows where she’s not afraid to sing about sexual assault or mental health.
The road taught Una how to be alone and how to share her story with strangers. Things happened on that tour. Una survived a sexual assault that shaped her voice and lyrics. And every time she sings, it’s like she’s tracing the scars that have brought her to where she is now.
“There’s power in sharing something you’re not supposed to share,” Una said. Power is a complicated thing. In her upcoming EP, “Woman of the Year,” the artist talks about how she’s seen others abuse power and how she’s learned to claim power over her own story.
In “People in the Paper,” Una sings “You wanna save the people in the paper / Who are far enough away for you to sleep / You’d backpack your way south to the equator / Before you’d ever even think of saving me.” It’s a song about the hypocrisy she encountered in an abusive relationship, in someone who portrayed himself as an activist but was manipulative and cruel behind closed doors.
Now Una’s taking the narrative back and finding power in the songs she writes to process her experiences. “When I was writing ‘People in the Paper I was so mad,” Una said. “That feeling of writing the verse or just a line that totally encapsulates what I’m feeling—there’s a certain power in being able to express it. Finishing a song is the ultimate best feeling. There’s power in the creative process itself and in reshaping those experiences.”
The new EP “Woman of the Year” is mostly songs that Una wrote while she was traveling. It wasn’t hard to pick which ones she made the cut. Out of the many songs she’s written in the last six years, she knew which ones best represented her.
“I toured completely by myself,” Una said. “I learned how to really be by myself, to be okay and like myself.” Other songs on the EP, like “Pretty Face,” are about taking that power back and learning how to be alone. “It’s an album about growth and recovery,” Una added. “About trying to find your way back after you go through something really hard…As far as the recovery process, well, that’s something I’ll always be going through.”
Afraid of the Rain
“When I wrote ‘Afraid of the Rain,’” Una said, referencing a song from the album “For Tomorrow” that she recorded with her father, “that was a jumping-off point of realizing I can do more than just play music.”
When Una lived in New Orleans, she kept encountering anxiety when the rain came. She spent a lot of time in her car—it was her safety net. And every time it rained, she had to move her car for fear of it washing away in a midnight flood. Writing about those experiences and fears on her own terms gives Una power over them.
“It can be overwhelming when people come up to me with their stories after a show,” Una said, “but it’s also such an honor to be able to support someone or for them to trust you in that way. Having struggled with mental illness and PTSD myself, if there’s any way that I could help someone get through that, especially with my music, then I feel very honored that I could help anybody.”
Stand Against Sexual Violence
As Una began to share more of her story from the stage, she became more comfortable with people feeling uncomfortable when she talked about sexual violence.
“For a few years after my assault, I didn’t realize what had happened,” Una said. “I very much thought that it was my fault. But the more we can talk about these things and educate one another, the better we can be in protecting ourselves and others.”
There’s a song on Una’s EP called “The Woman Who Owned Herself” that she’s often played at bars where people were talking over her. As it builds, the story of her assault unfolds and Una, this small, young blonde woman, likely dressed in pink with whimsical clips in her hair, is shouting expletives at the crowd. The song has taken on new meaning the more she’s played it. “It still really mirrors the domestic abuse I went through last year, and the struggle you go through, even after the person is out of your life, to take back control of the rest of your life,” she said.
“But there’s power in that song,” Una added, “because I was playing in all these places where people didn’t care what I was playing. But when I play that song, in the end, the guitar drops out and it’s just the vocals. When I strum the last note the room is quiet every time…Music can encapsulate something that people don’t know how to say, even for the musician themselves. Being able to encounter a topic like sexual assault in that way, there’s something therapeutic about that—in taking power back over a narrative.”
An Unexpected Activist
After discovering this superpower and moving back to her hometown, Una started looking for ways to use her voice to help her community. She sits on the Board of Directors for Friends of Johnson County, an organization that supports Johnson County Mental Health Center by offering resources and initiatives to address unmet needs in the community. Last year, she hosted a benefit concert called “Survivor’s Stories: Stand Against Sexual Violence” on behalf of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA). Una curated a lineup of performers who shared songs, poetry, and other performance art pieces about their experiences with sexual violence or harassment. They raised $3,432 that night, and Una continues to raise money by selling shirts that say “Stand Against Sexual Violence” at her shows.
“That show was one of the best nights of my life,” Una recalled. “We all had such power. We can take art and all these terrible things that have happened to us, and we can come together, and come out feeling super powerful and like a community. If that’s something music can make, then that’s something that we should do.”
The new EP is very much about finding that power after the Stand Against Sexual Violence show.
“I think there’s something valuable about getting uncomfortable,” Una said. “If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably not learning anything. There’s value in shaking people up a little bit—especially people who don’t think about these things—in making people think about sexual assault. I’ve had a lot of guys come up to me after songs like “The Woman Who Owned Herself” and expressing that they’ve never thought of that. It makes me so happy when guys buy the “Stand Against Sexual Violence” shirts that I sell. Men can be victims of sexual assault as well. And it’s cool when it’s not just survivors getting involved, too.”
Through her community involvement, Una’s had more opportunities to talk about sexual assault and mental health.
“The more that I’m doing those things, the more responses I get from people,” Una said. “When they come up and share their stories with a genuine response, that does it for me. If my music is going to make one person feel better in their journey, then I don’t care if I made the person next to them uncomfortable…Making someone feel safer or heard is more important than someone feeling uncomfortable ”
“I don’t think I’m gonna change everyone’s mind,” Una said admittedly. “I don’t expect my songs to make giant changes in people’s lives, but if I can help someone question something that is wrong, then that’s great.”
Finding Power in “Woman of the Year”
The new EP is very much about connecting with the power that emerged from the Stand Against Sexual Assault show. Una just recorded the last song a couple of weeks ago.
This album was the first time Una has recorded in a real studio and without her dad. She’s completely self-taught musically and often plays alone. She said the whole experience was rather intimidating. She felt like an imposter at times since she didn’t know much about recording, hadn’t played with many people, and wasn’t used to collaborating.
She recorded the album with Corey Martin and Sean Lea at Shadow Scape Records.
As she got to the last song on the album, “The Woman Who Owned Herself,” Una and Corey tried playing it a variety of ways. He offered drum parts or tried it with an electric guitar, but it still wasn’t right. Una went home and sat with the song for a week.
“I kept thinking ‘This is the song that matters most to me and I don’t want to f*** it up,” Una said. It’s the only song she’s written in which she didn’t try to play it on the guitar and figure out the chords as she went. It started as a simple voice recording she sang while driving.
In the process of recording the EP, Una had sent Corey a list of influential artists with music that had pieces of instrumentation she really liked, including Angel Olsen and Clairo, but mostly Fiona Apple.
“By the end of the recording, Corey had pretty much done a deep dive into her discography,” Una said. “So, that last day, when we had to knock out ‘The Woman Who Owned Herself,’ Corey asked if I wanted to try to approach it like the beginning of “Valentine” by Fiona Apple, which I love! And I loved that we had gotten to the point in the studio that Corey really knew exactly what I was going for, even when I wasn’t sure. I told him later it was funny because at one point years ago I thought this might be a piano song, but I tried to play it and got really frustrated and gave up and forgot about it.”
“I went into the studio thinking I was going to be crying all day, but I didn’t cry at all,” Una said. “I was so pumped. That was the hardest one. I thought it was going to be intimidating, but mostly the recording process has been really fun.”
A Grown-Up Sound
In recording a new album, Una’s also finding her way into a fuller sound by working with a full band.
“It gives the songs a new depth,” Una said. “There’s a cellist on one. It adds a drama that wasn’t there before that you can’t get when it’s just you and acoustic guitar. I’m a big fan of the ambient stuff in the back of songs—it gives it a space to live in. Like, here’s the song, but here’s the attitude and the emotion. You can get so much more out of that when you’re not just doing it by yourself.”
Una’s vision for her music and space within Kansas City is one of inclusion. With MOCSA, she’s working toward creating safer places for musicians in the city. She doesn’t play at venues that aren’t inclusive, that pay minorities less, or that have a history of causing artists to feel unsafe. She will happily send you that list if you ask.
“I think we can all be activists in our own way,” Una said. “We can’t all stand up for every single thing, so it’s about finding your thing. I’m going to be an advocate for sexual assault survivors and people with mental illness, and encourage people to vote. I think a lot of it has to do with the climate of where our country is. If you have any kind of platform and you don’t use it in a way that can benefit other people, it just seems like a waste to me. I’m hoping that maybe other artists and people will see that you can use your art that way.”
You can check out Una Walkenhorst’s latest single “Pretty Face,” here at the Pitch. The music video features footage from Una’s time on the road and friends and faces from her music community here in Kansas City.
The “Woman of the Year” EP drops April 16th and the release show will be April 18th at The Rino in North Kansas City with Chloe Jacobson and True Lions. Una will be accompanied by her biggest band yet, with Michelle Bacon on drums, Alison Hawkins on keys, and Adee Dancy on cello.
You can stream Una’s music on all platforms. She also has a Patreon, which allows fans to support Una’s work for as little as $5 per month, so she can spend less time worrying about groceries, and more time creating music.