WBRU interviewed Fenne Lily the morning after her performance this March at the Columbus Theatre alongside Lucy Dacus and Mal Blum. We spoke about her tour, upcoming album, influences, process, and importantly, her first taste of the Rhode Island specialty, coffee milk.
How are you doing this morning, after last night?
I’m ok, what did we do? We, uh, played in some kind of theatre. It was really beautiful. I normally don’t like seated venues, but everyone stood up, so that was cool. And then, I actually met somebody who grew up in the very small English town that I grew up in, so that was weird.
You grew up in Dorset?
Yeah, uh, specifically Bridgeport, which is really tiny. Yeah, I met a girl who grew up there, and she took us to a diner and we had some… we were given some… uh, coffee milk, with our sandwiches.
Wow, you had a real Rhode Island experience.
Yeah! And then, oh—I’m teething! My wisdom teeth are coming through so I’m always in pain!
You mentioned last night that this is only your second tour in the US—how have you liked the experience so far? Travel can be such a revelation in terms of understanding people, and I’d imagine that being able to connect with audiences around the world could inspire a sense of personal growth– have you found that touring in different countries inspires you?
We did a tour with Andy Shauf before, but I think more than anything, traveling has shown me that everywhere is pretty much the exact same place, in terms of people. Apart from very aesthetic differences, like language and accent—how it seems on the surface—it’s ultimately—ultimately people that I speak to at shows are like (a) I’ve never heard of you before, and I’m like, “that’s perfect”, and (b), they’re all like, why do you keep picking the people that you keep picking, because all your songs are way too sad to come from a 22-year-old brain. But, um, it is inspiring. I’ve been writing a lot while I’ve been traveling. We started this leg of the tour in Chicago—we were recording for a week, me and my bass player Joe. We’re making record number two!
That’s very exciting!
Yeah! My choice was to do a week of recording, then to do this tour, then to go straight back to Chicago because I know that by playing the new songs and exposing them to other people’s ears, and getting their reactions from these unfinished pieces, it gives the finished product more direction, because I know how they need to interact with each other and how they need to interact with the world, and, um, also, basic stuff—having five hours a day to read books, listen to demos, and make music and speak to people. I’ve been getting really sick as well, which kind of weirdly helps with inspiration—it puts you more inside your own body.
You speak a lot about the personal significance of your songs and your lyrics, and I find that writing in general can be so therapeutic, and the process itself helps you get a handle on what you’re actually feeling.
I was just wondering then, do you find you use music that way? How do you deal with the negative emotions that writing music brings to the surface? What does your writing process entail?
I think it used to entail, well I’d write about what I couldn’t speak about, and using the process of creating as some kind of free therapy for myself. I think now my music is less of an open book of figuring stuff out, and more of the ending of a process of healing. It’s not, like, my first port of call when it comes to figuring out an issue anymore. Because I literally used to just kind of, yeah, um, it was like venting and it, was very heart on sleeve, and raw wound, day one, but now, maybe it’s like, a, growing older thing, and realizing that it hurts to re-open a feeling or a time on a nightly basis if you haven’t come to terms with it or made peace with it yet. I think this next batch of songs was written in a place that’s like, a little bit less irrationally super-emotional, hyper-sensitive. But my process varies, I think I’ve been writing faster recently because a lot happened in the last year, that I didn’t think would happen. And not as, kind of centered around relationships and boys! I don’t want to make another record about how people affected me! I want to kind of write about what’s going on in my head, and I think maybe that’s the difficult part about writing a second album, because this whole past year has kind of been focused around me talking about and working retrospectively on the first record, so it’s almost like, some kind of weird paradox where you have to write about having a record already. But, yeah, um, I’ve been writing songs. I’ve been writing songs on the road and then realizing that I’ve just written, like, a song that I’ve just heard on the radio, and it’s just plagiarized, and I’ve had to like, delete it from my mind. It’s inspiring, also, to be watching other musicians every night. And, like, watching their stagecraft, and like, listening to what they’re listening to, and talking to them. Lucy’s [Dacus] very open, and she writes all the time! I always see her, like, writing in a book, and I don’t really do that a lot, and now I’m thinking that I should because, just to be constantly creating, it’s like no other resource—the more that you use it, the more that it exists.
Speaking of Lucy and being inspired by her process and performance, what other artists inspire you? Who do you look up to or recommend we listen to?
At the moment, I’m listening to Damien Jurado—he’s so great, and I only discovered him recently because I was given a bunch of records by, um, a label, and off their roster, and I listened to his recent record, and I was like, “holy shit, this guy is insane”, and now I can listen to all of his back catalog, because I was late to the party. Who else am I listening to? Big Thief is probably my favorite living band. And, just the way that Adrianne [Lenker], who’s the main singer, creates a world that is so confusing but that makes you feel something so clear—like, I have no idea what her songs are about and I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in, like, knowing where they came from, just where they take my head is unlike anything else. So I’ve been trying to… not be more abstract with my lyricism, but definitely less, um, less like, “this is the story, and this is how I think that you should feel about it because that’s how I feel about it”. It’s more like a roundabout way of getting to an emotion.
I think that the raw honesty of your first album, while now it might feel like an early teen years diary to you, is really admirable to your listeners– there’s the emotion and honesty of the lyrics, but also this passion in your voice that evokes a similar emotional response in the audience. In particular, so many of your lyrics are relatable to women our age. I don’t want to overhaul all your old songs as you’re moving past them, but, I noticed an interesting evolution which is—I don’t know how much I can speak about what you played last night or your new songs, but—in Car Park, you talk about “villainis[ing] your body”, and in one of the songs off your upcoming album, you sang, “I don’t hate my body, I just hate you”. I just wanted to say, I love that evolution! There’s this definite growth there.
I didn’t even notice that!
It really parallels so many of the experiences of women our age, moving from the original misconception that villainizing your body is completely your own fault to the idea that someone else is projecting unrealistic expectations onto you, and there’s nothing to hate.
I love that you noticed that! That’s really nice to hear.
No problem! The other thing I wanted to touch on—something you mentioned in a previous interview— is that you didn’t like the pre-ordained path so many people our age get pushed down of college or university. So many people in our generation identify with that discomfort of having that goal, kind of, foisted upon you. I think so many of us have toyed with who we’d be if we stepped off of this track, so I was just wondering about your experience with that discomfort, and the decision to leave university—was it music that inspired that? Or was it more the same sort of general discomfort that so many of us feel and aren’t brave enough to act upon?
I have my parents to thank for this. They’ve never been the kind of people that—I grew up with kind of boundaries, but knowing that having my own mind and following what I wanted to do was ultimately the most important thing. They actually took me out of school for a bit—I had a few years where I was homeschooled and we traveled around as a family, and then I decided to go back to school because I missed people and interaction, and then from that point, I knew that I was going to school by choice and I was taking what I could from a situation and I wanted to learn, but I knew that I wasn’t cut out to be in that environment of being told what to do by like, old men, and having to tick boxes and socialize with people just because they were my age, and I never felt like I fitted in, but I knew that I needed that structure to, like, I don’t know, be part of a society that respects academia, and I’m also very competitive so I was like, “I need to, like, win at school; I need to get the best grades”, not in like a horrible Summer Hathaway from School of Rock kind of way. I was like, “I’m gonna ace this and then I’m gonna leave”, and my mum was always like, “School years are not the best years of your life”, because she was always told that like, “these are the best years of your life—you don’t have responsibility, you live at home”, and I was like, “Actually, I don’t like having no responsibility and living at home, I want to be a person”, so as soon as I got to 17, I left home, and did an art course, purely just because I didn’t want to be a full person yet… and I think music, it was less of an inspiration to leave the system of education and more of like a, vehicle, for the being outside of that, because nobody that I grew up around was musical, really. I didn’t have a childhood band that I was in [she laughs], my parents aren’t musical, music wasn’t always something that I wanted to do, but it allowed me to go to shows and feel like I had something to talk about with strangers that I met and open mics are an easy thing to kind of slip into and meet like-minded people. It was more like a vehicle for that discontent with being lumped in with all of the other 16, 17-year-olds. But what you said about toying with the idea of what you would be like, if you had gone the other way, I sometimes wonder if I missed out because I didn’t go to university, but, um, yeah, I missed out on like, living in student accommodation and having to muck in, and like, get really close because you’ve all been through this horrible experience together, kind of like being in prison!
I’m not sure quite what you’re missing on that one…
I’ve always kind of liked, I don’t know, being alone. I like feeling like I am self-motivated and doing things by myself for myself. But, yeah, I sometimes think that maybe I should’ve gone with the crowd a bit more. But also now all my friends are in debt, out of uni and without jobs, and I’m currently standing outside a petrol station, on the phone to you, so who’s winning? [laughs]
That’s a good question to ask—that’s your competitive instinct kicking in.
Ah! It’s not a competition! [laughs]
You’re off to Jersey City, is that right? Are you excited for the next stop?
Yeah! I kind of don’t want these shows to end. I think we have three more with Lucy and then we have a headline show in New York, which is cool. I don’t want these shows to end, I don’t want to go home, but also, I kind of miss my flat and it’s a weird life, being away from everything for so long.
So after the tour ends, are you going back to Bristol, or are you going to be back in Chicago for a bit or…?
We were going to go immediately to Chicago but my producer got called into a panel, because he’s kind of a big deal [she laughs], so I’m just going back to Bristol. And then we’re back in Bristol for about ten days, where I have to do some homework and add some little bits to some of the songs, um, and, yeah, I purposely left some pieces of the puzzle unfinished for flexibility in the studio. And now we’ve kind of, structurally sorted out the songs so now I have some lyrics to write and some grounding to do, and some doctors’ appointments to book!
Ah, that’s what always happens when you go home.
Yeah, just the recalibration of my body and mind. And then we go back to Chicago after 10 days, and then two and a half weeks there recording, and then come home again, and then go back out on tour with SOAK, in the States for a little bit, so yeah.
You’re doing a lot of touring!
Yeah, I think it’s the part that I love the most. I kind of get scared of recording. My manager’s kind of like, treating me to a tour, after every recording session because it’s what I like.
One last question would be, since you’ve been speaking about the writing and recording process, do you bounce ideas off anyone or play the songs to anyone in particular to gauge whether you like them, or is it more just a personal thing?
I used to play my songs when they were finished to my mum and pretend that they were Laura Marling songs, to get her honest feedback, but now, I think it’s really important to not let anyone into the process when you’re feeling unsure. It’s ok to feel unsure in an artistic sense, like maybe this song should be faster, or I don’t know if it needs this extra bit of… whatever, but when I’m feeling unsure in terms of my feelings towards how I’m doing things or what the song’s about, that’s a really vulnerable stage that I keep to myself. But then definitely, like my bass player Joe, is my whole band, and I will have a four-minute song and I’ll play it to him and he’ll say, “yeah, you should just take out that middle trunk and it’ll be great”, or “you should play this faster”, and he makes all of my songs like 200% better with the fact that he listens to a lot of different music so it’s good to get his spin on instrumentation and structure, and yeah, but um, thematically and emotionally, I have to be in the driving seat. But I’m definitely becoming less precious with my songs, and like, getting less attached to them, because I lived with them—the first record—in whatever capacity, for a long time! And it was like, really hard to go to a studio setting and to have people be like, “yeah this has to change” or “you need another chorus here” or something—I was like, “No!!”. This is how the song is now! This is the song! But yeah, now that I’m working faster, I just want to make a dynamic record that I am proud of and I know that I’m the worst musician in any room, which is a nice position to be in…
I don’t know about that!
It’s true! I’ve chosen the people around me to make it that way, because I want to feel like I can just, I don’t know, I don’t want to be carried but I do want to be around people who are like, “oh yeah, I can just do whatever on this because I have, like, a wealth of experience that you don’t”.
Maybe more professional experience but I have a lot of friends that put your songs and Big Thief’s on the same playlist.