Fenne Lily is getting rave reviews for her third album, the recently-released Big Picture. The UK-born, New York-based artist recorded it in North Carolina with producer Brad Cook.
The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Fenne about how Big Picture took shape and about throwing her voice.
Click here to listen to the interview with Fenne Lily:
Or, read a transcription of it here:
MD: How are you enjoying The States these days?
Fenne: I love being here. I moved here in September because I love being here so much.
MD: What do you love about it?
Fenne: The people. Meeting people is immediately interesting. Nobody bothers covering the ground that I find English people to cover. I’m not trying to shame England, but it feels like the conversations I have here with strangers are fulfilling.
MD: Oh, cool. Have you ever been to New Zealand?
Fenne: I haven’t. I have friends from there but no, I have never been. I’d love to go. I’ve watched a lot of movies that have been shot there
MD: Jane Campion films. Yeah, probably. Or Peter Jackson.
MD: We have quite a few good directors here. So I don’t know what’s in the water. But there you go. Are you a movie fan?
Fenne: Yeah, I mean, more on tour, because there’s not a lot to do in the van. I’ve been watching a lot of movies in the van. Yeah. Was on Hunt For The Wilderpeople shot in New Zealand?
MD: Yes, it was.
Fenne: Yeah, I love that movie.
MD: Taika Waititi, he is a guy who’s around. So, the album, your album, Big Picture, was out a couple of months ago, what’s the reaction been from your fans and for you…as far as your reaction to their reaction?
Fenne: Most of the reaction I’ve been paying attention to has been live reaction. We started the tour the day after the record came out. So that was really nice. So immediately, I was getting kind of live feedback, which is something that I didn’t get for the second record, because it was released in the pandemic. So that’s been really cool. And like, yeah, just seeing, seeing people showing up is something that I don’t take for granted. So even if it’s not gonna be like a huge hit, people being in the room and knowing some of the words, it’s a really, really cool feeling.
MD: And you commiserate with people after the show and hang out at the merch table and do stuff like that?
Fenne: I do. Yeah, it’s Yeah, I like that part of the night
MD: Yep, that’s a pretty cool thing to do. I’m an old guy. And I can’t imagine back in the 70s, when I was going to lots of shows, anybody ever doing that, to have that one on one connection with the artists, so it’s, it’s pretty cool.
Fenne: Yeah, I mean, in the 70s, potentially i t was a little bit cheaper to tour. I feel like there’s a lot of like, artists interaction and like DIY touring going on, because there isn’t as much money in touring. And it’s yeah, it’s very expensive and quite competitive in a way that other areas of music aren’t competitive. I don’t feel competitive when I’m, when I make music and when I release music, but when it comes to touring, especially post pandemic, it’s very much like every band for themselves. You need the venues to allow you to play kind of thing. So it’s not a given that,
MD: Right, it’s interesting. I’ve been having this discussion with Kiwi artists here, having been a veteran of the US music scene and comparing it to here, it’s much more collaborative here in New Zealand and everybody’s looking out for everybody, whereas in the States, it was definitely competitive.
Fenne: I don’t know if I feel… I mean, at the moment on this tour where we are, we have a band called Work Wife opening for us, so I’m doing a co-headlining tour with Christian Lee Hutson And my friend’s band from New York is supporting us, and we’re all playing in each other’s bands. I currently have a banjo player, and Meredith, the lead singer from Work Wife, playing on my set, she’s playing on Christian’s set, and Christian is playing on my set. It’s all…
MD: That’s the way the way it should be.
Fenne: It is the way it should be. And it’s hard to…whenever I’m in a tour, whatever the vibe of the tour. That’s how I think of all touring. So I’ve done some bad tours where it feels very like us and them. Right then on this tour, it couldn’t feel less like that. So I have a real positive view of touring at this moment in time because of this tour.
MD: Cool. So it sounds like it’s going well. So it sounds like you have a lot of the same people who played on the record on the road with you. So that must be fun.
Fenne: Yeah, I have my whole band apart from my bassist. We all recorded the record together. Christian produced a song and played guitar on the record. The only person we don’t have is Katie Kirby. I’m gonna get her to join us in New York because she’s living there.
MD: So let’s dive into the record just a little bit if you don’t mind and talk about how it came to be. I know it’s kind of a pandemic record as all of them are these days. But for you, when did it start becoming a record? When did you…because I know you had a period where you weren’t writing songs for a while, and you were afraid that was gonna be it. So how did you get out of that?
Fenne: I started playing guitar…I don’t really jam with people. I don’t really, like, do music for fun in that way, or I historically haven’t. But my friend, Willie J Healey started coming down to my flat in Bristol. And we would play guitar on my roof every week, for a few hours, which is something I’d never done before. And that really like kick started my…it just made me want to write music. I wasn’t really listening to music before then. I was trying not to think about it. Because I didn’t know if it would still be a job that I had at the end of the dynamic. So yeah, I immediately just seeing someone who was passionate, and I and I wanted to be that passionate again, I wanted to get back to caring about music. So he made it possible for me to start writing, I think he kind of opened the floodgates. And I had a lot of stuff to talk about, lyrically, I just didn’t think that I did, because I wasn’t having conversations with people or going to shows or comparing my art or thoughts to anyone else’s. But as soon as we started hanging out, it made me want to get going again.
MD: So if you didn’t get going, again, if your music career was for whatever reason over, what would you do with yourself?
Fenne: I don’t know. What skills do I have? Sadly, I would probably be…
MD: Flipping burgers?
Fenne: Copy writing, like copy editing or whatever. Like I’m really into grammar. So maybe just go through other people’s work and edit it.
MD: The world needs good sub-editors!
Fenne: Well, sadly, there’s software for it now. I feel like there’s software for everything now. I’m not sure. I think that that was part of the reason why I was in a creative slump. ecause I was thinking, I have been categorized by the government as non essential. Yeah, it made me feel like a has-been before I’ve even done anything. Which is tough. I was like, 22, 23. And just feeling like my whole life had passed. And I was sitting alone at the end of my small life, wondering where it all went. It was weird.
MD: And that categorization of being essential or non essential as a completely random. For instance, I was working as a video editor at a place called Sky Television when the pandemic hit. And we had to keep working through it because we were considered essential. And it was only because we had to get the rugby on the air you know. That’s not really essential, but apparently it was. So there you go. Whereas, you know, music is apparently not so essential. I don’t understand it.
Fenne: I guess the things that make that continue, or like precipitate fear and like reliance were essential, in some way. Do you know what I mean? Like news. That’s essential. It keeps people reliant on
MD: Yep. Well, and the thing is they’ve learned to count on and as long as it’s there things can be on a relatively good basis, stable basis, I guess. Once that goes down the toilet then it’s all over. Anyway, so there was a tune I wanted to touch on called Dawncolored Horse, which I think I read somewhere that you had been listening to Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance and that somehow… and I have the Ronnie Lane album. I was going to show it to you but we’re not doing a video thing, just to show off. I have a massive record collection behind me. So how so you’re what 20 some years old? How did you get into Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance which is pretty obscure for even a 70s artists.
Fenne: The first artists that I started listening to semi religiously when I decided to start listening to music again, mid pandemic, was Townes Van Zandt. And I think I honestly, I really respect Spotify for their ability to give you like linked artists that are accurate to you, I think. It’s great. It’s such a good tool. I think I found it through that. And yeah, that song Roll on Babe, as soon as I heard it, I was like, Oh, holy shit. I was doing a radio show through the pandemic as well. And I was actively seeking out music, which is really healthy. Going into trying to write a record to be back. I feel like my beginnings in music when I was 15 was purely because I was obsessed with finding and owning music. It felt like something I had control over that didn’t have anything to do with anyone else.
MD: Having 25,000 records, sometimes it controls you though. So be careful.
Fenne: You have 25,000 records?
MD: I do.
Fenne: Oh my god, I have like 40 at my parents house.
MD: That’s all right. It’s the quality, not the quantity that counts.
Fenne: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that record is, I mean…I like records from that kind of period of time because streaming and like…I feel like this new era of music is strange because in order for a record to be big, you need at least five songs on it, four or five songs that are equal quality and wildly varied in tone, to get you heard by lots of different sections of massive audience base and to get you categorized on streaming. But in the 70s, and 80s, a lot of the music from that time you put on a record, and it establishes a vibe of the beginning of the record, and it doesn’t really stray from that. I’m not saying that those records are like, not as dynamic or interesting. I think they’re more interesting and dynamic because they’re not trying to tick five different boxes. They’re just like, This is what we’re doing. This is how we sound. And I really, I fuck with that in a way that I don’t think modern music really does. I can name like three bands, recently that I get the same feeling from.
MD: Who are they?
Fenne: A band called Friendship, from the States. They’ve got an album called Love The Stranger. It’s amazing. Uh, Jessica Pratt.
MD: I know her.
Fenne: Yeah, she’s so cool. And a band called Lewsberg. I think they’re Dutch. It’s kind of like a like droney guitary but like lo-fi. A little bit Lou Reed-y vocally.
MD: So when you discovered Slim Chance, did you do like more research about Ronnie Lane and discover The Faces and blah, blah, blah. Did you go down that rabbithole?
Fenne: I did discover The Faces. I actually had heard a lot of The Faces stuff and I didn’t know that they were linked.
MD: Rod Stewart was just here about two months ago and he did play Ooh La La, which is a Ronnie Lane song. A nice little tribute to Ronnie. So now I see you also have a music video you made for In My Own Time, in which you kind of are a ventriloquist. And there’s a puppet of you. I immediately wondered if you were able to throw your voice.
Fenne: Oh, I wish! There was a children’s book about an elephant. It’s not Babar The Elephant. It’s…I don’t remember what the book is called. But in the book series there’s one about an elephant who who’s a ventriloquist, and he uses it to fuck with other elephants in the forest that they all live in. Since I was a kid, I was like, ah, I’d love to do that. No, I’ve never really tried. I should make an effort to to add that to my skill set, which is small.
MD: When I thought of it I was like, Is that a thing these days? You don’t hear about people being able to throw their voice it might be a lost art.
Fenne: Oh, that’d be so sad. Like calligraphy. Damn. And copy editing.
MD: Now I understand that the last song on the album, Half Finished, is kind of like the song that got you started writing again. And then it almost didn’t make the cut. So tell me the journey of that song and how it ended up where it did.
Fenne: I wrote that as a reintroduction to write music. It’s kind of like a…if you have like a running notes page on your phone….I almost had it like that. But in GarageBand I’d be adding weird guitar lines and trying to write my own guitar solos in this GarageBand project, and swapping out verses and whatever, it was kind of like a patchwork of ideas. And I sent it to Christian, Christian Lee Hutson and I have been internet friends for a few years. So I sent it to him. I was like, I don’t know what this song is doing music. That’s right. And then when we came to record the record, he was like, “You better record that song”. So I didn’t even think of that song as a song to record. We should do that. But when we recorded it properly in North Carolina, it ended up feeling really flat and strange and almost like it was trying to be dead, but it wasn’t. So I got back to New York, I was hanging out with my manager and Christian, we were just having a beer. And they both, like an intervention, were like, “so we’ve been talking, and you need to put Half Finished on the record. What don’t you like about the recording?” And like a sulky child, I was like, “I don’t like anything about the recording. It needs to be completely different”. And Christian was like, “Well, what if we go into a studio tomorrow?” This was like two days before the record has to be handed in, right? So I was like, “I don’t know. Yeah, I guess we could rerecord some guitars that are and Christian and I went into a studio in Brooklyn. And we recorded all of the guitars over a couple of hours. And then yeah, it’s finally made it onto the record. But I was really like, “I don’t understand why anyone wants to song on the record is actually it’s not a good song.” And I’m not saying that to get like attention. I know what’s good and what isn’t good, I thought about my about my stuff. But it seems like this is one that even like when we’re playing these shows, people want to hear it. And I don’t like I actually don’t really understand why. And I can understand why people want to hear other songs I’ve written. I’m not fake modest. But this one is just like a weird, like, yeah, it’s such a surprise that people like it was is cool.
MD: Must be a perspective thing. You just are in one perspective, and everyone else is seeing it from theirs. So there you go.
Fenne: It’s weird to be in a position where things that I’m making are really close to me, but they can mean completely separate things to completely different people to the point where I’m like, this doesn’t belong to me anymore. It does, but it has a life aside for me now. Which I think that’s why people refer to their albums as like babies or whatever.
MD: And they go off into the world and blah, blah, blah…
Fenne: Yeah. Go off to college and make new friends.
MD: rebel against their parents.
Fenne: My albums are going to take themselves off streaming at some point. They’ll start smoking and…
MD: Alright, one more song I wanted to kind of touch on was 2 + 2, only because I think it has my favorite line about inflight movies always making me cry. So just elaborate and say whatever you want to about that, but I just wanted to bring that up.
Fenne: I like that you like that line. I am referencing The Lion King. I was 21 when I first saw The Lion King on a flight and I cried. I couldn’t believe I’ve never seen it before. It’s great. Yeah, that songs’ a strange one, I kind of had the…I almost feel like we missed an opportunity to make it sound like kind of like a, like a Bruce Springsteen song, but I kind of wanted it to be a spooky moment in the record, because thematically to me, it’s a transitory piece of writing. It’s the eventual recognition that this relationship I’m in isn’t working, but I’m going to try my hardest to fix it. The relationship I focus on, primarily in this record is with my ex, and we had a lot of breakups and getting back together during COVID.
MD: Sounds exhausting.
Fenne: It was very tiring. It was stimulating, though. It’s like, I don’t know, what else am I gonna do? But this was the song I was finally ready to admit to myself that this is probably going to end for real. Now. Unless something big changes. I also really pay attention to tracklisting on an album, like, I think it’s important to pay attention to the story that’s being told. So the fact that this comes fourth to me, I don’t know it’s almost a cheerful record up until this point, and then it starts to change into like being doubt based, alluding to the fact that perhaps, things are just about to dissolve. Right. But it’s never like made that clear. Which, yeah, at least that’s how I hear it.
MD: So are you writing all the time? Have you broken through that whole writer’s block thing?
Fenne: I haven’t really been thinking about writing. I’ve just been thinking about touring. I think it’ll be easy to write now because I now have surrounded myself accidentally with creative people. We hang out. We all just like come to each other’s apartments in New York and play music. It’s not like a thing that I feel private and scared about anymore. It’s more of a collaborative kind of community feeling thing that doesn’t have to be so impregnated with like, stress and pressure. Yeah, I feel like it will be easy to write next time. Fingers crossed. Fingers crossed. Who knows what’s gonna happen? Maybe a second pandemic…
MD: Could be a third one by then who knows? Anyway, fingers crossed. Yes. We’d love to have you come down here. So think about, you know, making your way down.
Fenne: I would love to.
MD: In the meantime, thank you for spending so much time talking to me. And going in depth on the record. It sounds like it’s all going well over there.
Fenne: Thank you for having me. Sorry, my camera doesn’t work.
MD: I keep thinking you can see. I’m used to doing zoom so much, I’m like nodding and you don’t see that I’m nodding.
Fenne: (Laughs) Sorry. Next time.
MD: Very good. All right. Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Big Picture is out now