"I think this record is less about me trying to prove a point and more just me writing about what I want to write about" In conversation with Fenne Lily
One of the best things to come out of the horror show that is 2020 was Fenne Lily’s sophomore album, BREACH, released in September on Dead Oceans. We caught up with the Bristol-based singer-songwriter this week for a chat about her new label, David Attenborough, and learning to let her ‘unserious’ side show.
First of all, it’s such an honour being in the presence of such a practised interviewer! I’ve seen your BathTime interviews on Instagram – where did that idea come from?
[laughs] I was just kinda sick of reading and doing interviews where the questions are pretty much exactly the same and you probably could have got the information from another interview. I was feeling bored generally. And also, it was just at the start of lockdown and I was feeling so isolated - obviously everyone was - but one good thing to come out of the beginning of lockdown was me actually having FaceTime conversations with people I barely see. Like I’ve got friends from being on tour that I can’t visit and will just text, but I realise that FaceTime is an actual thing I can do and it feels like you get a lot more out of speaking to someone’s actual face. So why don’t I have these conversations with interesting people that I know publicly because other people might be interested to know what they’re like also?
Totally. You talk about these friends you’ve made on tour - a lot of them are quite high profile, like Phoebe Bridgers, and her collaborator Lucy Dacus too. Your new album was released under Dead Oceans, which Phoebe is under as well I believe. Has the label fostered a good community then?
Yeah. Lucy is on Matador, which is equally as cool. But Phoebe came to one of my shows in LA and we were on the same label so she’d heard of me through that. Lucy I’ve been touring with for a couple of years - we’ve done two tours together and we were gonna do a third one this year - but it does slowly feel like I have a community of similar people around me, despite the fact they don’t live near me. There’s an amazing music scene in Bristol, but I do feel sometimes that the kind of music that I make isn’t totally the norm here. The music that comes out of Bristol tends to be a bit more experimental and dirtier, and ultimately a bit cooler, so I’m part of a community but also outside of it at the same time. It feels like from signing to Dead Oceans - which I should say is a label that I have been obsessed with since I worked in a record shop when I was sixteen, like I would just go on their website and look at anything they have released to sell in the shop because I knew I would love it - it feels like I’m part of, and this is going to sound so shit, a "family".
So how has releasing an album with them been, both in comparison to your first album, but also just in this strange global climate?
Well I self-released the first record, so there was a lot to do, and a lot of things could have gone wrong, a few things did go wrong, but ultimately it was quite stressful. So it took a lot of weight off my shoulders to work with a team and especially a team that doesn’t push me, doesn’t stress me out, they’re very chill people who I would be friends with if I met them and I didn’t have to work with them, and I think that that’s an important thing that I knew I should be aware of when I was signing. Because I was really aware that if I signed to a label, I would be contractually obliged to make more music, and that was a scary thing for me, and I was like, if I decide on the wrong team it’s gonna feel like a chore and a hassle, and I’m gonna not like it, so only if the right label comes along will I sign.
So the right label did come along and it’s been really chill, apart from obviously the COVID thing. We finished recording the record at Christmas, like on Christmas Day we did the last mix, or Christmas Eve. I’m really slow and don’t do things when I am told to do them, so I left every single part of it so, so late. So when it came to doing artwork and getting all of that together, I’d left it til like early March, so it was literally like, we did a photo shoot, and then we were meant to do two more, and then lockdown came along and we couldn’t do more stuff. So it felt a little like we were limited by what we’d already created and it didn’t feel like everything came together perfectly. We had to make some compromises.
But ultimately, I’m working with people who are emotionally intelligent, know me really well, and I generally feel supported. If not bored, because I can’t do stuff right now. But I called my A&R the other day and I was like, “I know we’re meant to be having a meeting, but I literally just made a big list of things that I’m sad about and I’d like to read them to you.” So I took him through this list, and at the end I was like, “I should probably get a therapist, I don’t know if this is part of your job role.” And he was like, “it’s honestly fine.”
I know this is kind of a cruel question right now, but obviously you can’t really tour at the moment. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
That is really, really mean. [laughs] I watched a David Attenborough documentary about animals that take over urban environments, and there are these murmurations over Rome, I don’t know when they happen, but it honestly brought me to tears just seeing it on TV so I feel like if I saw that in real life it might change me as a person in a good way. Can I play in the colosseum? Is that an option?
Oh yeah, of course. Travel right now is a dream for everyone, so anything can happen in this theoretical fantasy. Speaking of that actually, you recorded a lot of BREACH when you were alone in Berlin. Why did you choose to do that?
It was ultimately a very good choice for me. I let myself fall into patterns which aren’t great, and I don’t change them unless I have one big wake up to change them. So I will be with someone I know is wrong for me until they dump me and I have to deal with the heartbreak of being thrown away, even though I didn’t want to be in the relationship in the first place. I smoke, even though I know that it’ll ultimately break my voice and make it impossible to do what I love. I let myself fall into these bad habits, and I’d just come off a tour in 2018, and I really didn’t wanna go back to my daily life because every single day is completely new when you’re on tour and I didn’t feel ready to go back to everything being the same. And I also really didn’t pay attention to the fact that I had an instrument and it should be as important as my voice. I didn’t feel very proficient or confident playing guitar. So I thought if I go to Berlin and I don’t have any existing social life and I don’t have the same streets I walk down and the same shit that I do, I won’t waste time and I’ll be able to focus on actually what my job and passion is.
So I did it to push myself out of being lazy, but I did find new ways to be lazy. I made a friend on the first week, she had a kid and a boyfriend who played shows and I hung out with them quite a lot, and we got tattoos.
What tattoos did you get?
I got two flights of stairs that don’t go anywhere in a domino on my arm, and she got a naked lady on her leg, it’s really cool.
But yeah, I did it because I didn’t want to go through life being scared of stuff. And I was up until that point really scared of being by myself. And I was like, if I don’t do this now - if it feels like a pressing issue and I’m not going to address it - I’ll probably never address it. And then off the back of going to Berlin by myself, I got a house by myself and it’s brilliant, I can work and live on my own schedule and it’s changed the way that I navigate life, and it’s a positive for sure. At first, it was really scary, I was like, “Everyone’s gonna want to mug me! I’m so English!” [laughs]
I feel that! Your second album is notably a bit rockier, so do you think this renewed ability to live with yourself and by yourself affected your sound?
I think it did, and I think one of the main reasons this record feels sonically a bit tighter and a bit clearer is because I taught myself how to record at home based on going to Berlin. I went to Berlin and recorded everything on my phone voice memos, like a voice note, like I did for the first album. Then on the plane home, my phone died and I lost everything. So I thought, this is a bad way of keeping [music], I need to teach myself how to use GarageBand at least. So there’s definitely some independence arrangement-wise, where I planned out everything on the record before I went into the studio and that made me feel more in control of the outcome.
But I also think it comes with age. When I made the first record I was 17, 18. When I was writing this record, I was 21, 22. It feels like that confidence in what I’m doing has improved the older that I’ve got.
But also I made the first record in my friend’s bedroom. Bar two songs, we recorded everything with - like, most of the instruments, if they’re not guitar, it’s my voice sampled and sliced up and moved around. It was very DIY and we didn’t have any budget because I was self-releasing it and I was a child, so I think that maybe the tightness and clarity and sonic depth of this record is somewhat based on the fact that I went to an actual studio with a legit producer and had time and resources to make it seem a bit more polished.
You talk about your growing confidence as you get older – I can definitely detect a lot more humour and self-deprecation in this album, which I really enjoyed. Do you think that’s because you’re more comfortable in the process, or do you feel more OK to laugh a little bit at life in general now?
I think I always did, but I thought that that didn’t have a place in the music that I was making. I felt like what I was writing was the serious side of my otherwise unserious personality. Purely because I was living at home when I wrote that record, and then I finished it when I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time. I was still a kid, and I felt like I should be proving I was a serious person. For this record I was like, “Why did I decide that?” Because the music that I appreciate and that makes me feel like I’m close to the person who’s making it is self-effacing and self-aware and does have a tone of “I’m kind of an idiot as well.”
But I was also reading a lot of Richard Brautigan novels, and that was a good thing to come out of a bad relationship, this guy introduced me to Richard Brautigan, and he’s hilarious and writes about normal stuff that makes it feel poetic just because he’s turning the lens on that small thing.
Also, I recently revisited Sufjan Stevens' old stuff - his new record came out, and it’s not my favourite record of his, but it made me go back to his other stuff - and he’s got that line: “You checked your text while I masturbated.” When I first heard that song I was like, “What the fuck is he talking about? That’s insane! He’s so sensitive and emotionally evolved and delicate, and he’s talking about wanking!” But then I realised that that’s fucking brilliant and he’s just a guy in the world and that’s part of his artistic outfit also.
I think this record is less about me trying to prove a point and more just me writing about what I want to write about.
One last question - it’s probably like picking between your children, but is there a specific song or two on the album which you wrote and you were like, “Yeah. That’s the one”?
[laughs] “I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You” - I wrote that when I had a fever and I wasn’t thinking straight, and I was feeling sick and rubbish. And it’s the first song that I’ve written up to that point that accurately, step by step, took someone who doesn’t know me through a situation and maybe knew me clearly by the end of it. I felt like it was a really clear story and there’s no fabrication, and I felt like I was being as true to life as I’d ever been whilst also having fever brain and not completely thinking about it - it felt like a subconscious, exact reflection of what I was going through. And also it’s the first time I’d written something where I was openly frustrated with someone, like I wasn’t trying to hide it in sadness or being compassionate. I was like, “Yeah, I fucking don’t like you, and I’m not gonna lie about that.”
Secondly, “Elliott”, which was the last song which was written. I never decide what I’m gonna write about and then write about it. I’m never like, “I’m gonna write a song about my mum,” “I’m gonna write a song about this.” I write about something and then I realise what it’s about afterwards, which can be quite a problem. But for this song, I thought I was writing about one thing and then realised it was about my dad as a kid and his relationship with his dad, and it felt like the first time where I’d taken on board someone else’s pain and not butchered it [laughs]. I felt I was writing sensitively about someone that I love in a sensitive way and I feel really sad when I listen to that song. When I play it, I feel horrible that someone that I love and someone who has treated me so well from the minute I was born was not extended the same courtesy. It makes me feel like I have a huge ego, like “I’m moved by my own art,” but I genuinely do feel so sad when I hear that song.