Fenne Lily: “I thank Tinder for the creation of this record”

Fenne Lily doesn't take life too seriously and that's why we like her. That, and the fact she's about to release a really good album. It's called 'Breach' and Gemma Samways gave her a call to find out more.

“You have to choose a step-dad, and your choices are Jack Black, Will Smith and Guy Fieri. Who do you choose?” Welcome to the surreal mind of Fenne Lily, the Bristol-based, indie-folk singer-songwriter who has spent much of lockdown semi-naked on Instagram Live, smoking weed while interviewing fellow musicians from a neighbour’s bathtub. 

We presume she was clothed when we called her to find out more about ‘Breach’, her brilliant second album – and first for Dead Oceans – which was written in isolation in Berlin, and recorded in Chicago with Modest Mouse-producer Brian Deck. This being Fenne Lily, we covered quite a lot of surreal stuff too, including solo trips to Berghain, Phoebe Bridgers’ luminsicent “hologram” complexion and that time she mistook Steve Albini for the tea boy. Oops.

Tell us about the concept behind ‘The Bathtime Show’.

It was almost a reaction to doing FaceTime all the time. Also, I was getting kind of sick of the same questions being asked to me, like, “What’s it like to be a woman in music?’ And, ‘Do you like Joni Mitchell?” I thought it would be cool if there was a place where I could ask questions that I normally don’t get asked. Plus, it was a weekly milestone during lockdown. Because, I don’t know about you, but I started drinking at 2pm every day.

Have you found that people are more candid in the bath?

Well, I’ve noticed that the best episodes have been the ones where the guest has also been in a bath without clothes on. Maybe it does break down that barrier a little bit when you’ve committed to being half-naked in front of thousands of people. I didn’t really think that part through to be honest, but I quite like that. And I want to keep doing them but I don’t know how much longer I can keep going round to my friend’s house for baths.

The Phoebe Bridgers episode was fun. Aside from her being your label mate at Dead Oceans, do you feel a kinship with her?

Yeah. When I found her music I had this weird collection of different feelings. Initially, I was like, “Fuck her, she’s doing what I do but she’s amazing at it.” (Laughs) And then it became absolute fandom, and now when I hang out with her I hope she can’t tell that I’m a massive fan. 

Her way of writing is obviously very heartfelt but it’s also tongue-in-cheek and very self aware, and I really appreciate that combination. I think it’s assumed that maybe that’s a male way of going about things; being able to laugh at yourself but still have everyone taking you seriously. She seems to have just broken through that assumption.

But yeah, she’s hilarious and her skin is amazing. You meet her in person and she’s like a hologram, she’s so perfect. I hope she doesn’t hear any of this being said. She will never text me again. (Laughs)

Humour seems integral to your songwriting too. Is that fair?

I think so. It’s hard for me to separate my personality from my music, and I’m not super serious. I don’t like to think that I’m being sincere all the time, like, “I’m going to close my eyes and you’re going to feel something when you watch me sing!”

When I started playing shows I’d be funny in-between songs, almost as a defence mechanism to be like,”I’m not taking myself that seriously, so even if you don’t like my music it’s fine, I’m not gonna get upset!” And then I realised humour helps people relate. Like, you can be a self-effacing, self-aware person that hates themselves sometimes but also is emotionally intelligent enough to write a song about a painful situation without taking the piss out of it too much. 

[Writing ‘Breach’] There were all these big, emotional decisions to make so I was writing through that. I don’t do therapy so I was writing constantly as a way to calm myself down. 

The arrangements are a lot more expansive than on your 2018 debut, ‘On Hold’. Was that always the goal?

Well, my main goal was to write a record that we’d enjoy touring, which obviously now feels like a bit of a moot point. But I wanted to make something bigger, and with strings on this record because I think strings can give songs this ethereal importance. 

This is going to sound so pretentious but it was important to me to make an album that made sense on vinyl because I didn’t have WiFi in my house for two years and I just had a record player and that’s how I consumed music. So I wanted to make an album where Side A made sense, and Side B made sense, almost like a type A/type B personality thing? Like, the first side of the album’s gonna be my mind before I became OK with myself, and the second side is the conversation the other way. And generally I wanted to make something a bit closer sonically to how I feel now, which is less confused, a bit stronger, and a bit more angry, generally? (Laughs) 

Why are you angrier now?

Maybe I’m the same amount of angry, but I think for the first album I had a lot of feelings of being thrown away and being fucked around, and on this album I didn’t want to write an album that was about relationships breaking down entirely, though obviously that sneaks in because it’s a big part of my make-up. But I think on this album I wanted to focus more on my own inner workings and less on my reaction to other people’s shit. I say the word “hate” too, which is a big thing for me.

Speaking of which, ‘I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You’ offers such an accurate portrayal of how we compromise ourselves for someone we love. Is it based on a real experience?

100%. I thank Tinder for the creation of this record, because there was a period of time when I was just going on a bunch of Tinder dates, and then I eventually met this guy and I was like, “He’s amazing but he lives in America.” We met back up while I was on tour with Andy Schauf, and I got this sudden rush of, “Actually, you’re a total arsehole.” So I was like, “I’m going to finish that song I wrote about you and I’m not going to pretend that you’re not a dick.” He’s definitely going to hear it and be like, “Oh shit.” Which I’m actually quite excited for.

Fenne Lily interview
Photo: Nicole Loucaides

‘Breach’ was written during a period of self-imposed isolation in Berlin. Why?

I think I just didn’t want to go home after a tour, so I tried to elongate this feeling of me being a different person for a while. It was brilliant as well. I mean, for the first few days I was terrified and I didn’t really leave the house, but then I started to feel like it was fine if a day passed and I didn’t talk to anyone. And I was happy in my own head which was a first because I think about everything a lot and I’m very full emotionally all the time. You know when you eat and you’re so full it’s almost in your throat? Well I’m like that, but with emotions. 

You went to Berghain alone, right? How was that?

It was alright. I only stayed for an hour because I got a nosebleed and had to leave. (Laughs)

Do you usually suffer from nosebleeds?

No. (Laughs)  I think I was stressed. And I did get elbowed in the face, which probably helped. But yeah, there’s a reason why you’re not allowed to take photos in there – it’s absolutely foul. There’s a lot going on. Lots of fluids. I’m really surprised I got in to be honest. It was like a research trip, and when I got home I was like “I’m glad I did that but I never want to go clubbing again because I don’t like it – there’s too many people, it’s too loud.” And I thought it would be funny to write a folk song about a techno club.

And how was it working with Steve Albini? He always seems mildly terrifying.

Well, we only recorded guitars at his studio. And I actually didn’t know who he was to his face. So he turned up in this boilersuit, looking kind of like a mechanic, and he was like, “Hey my name’s Steve and I’m here to help if you need me but otherwise have fun. Do you need anything?” And I was like, “I’d love a coffee.” And Steve went off and my bassist was like “What the fuck, you can’t ask Steve Albini to make you a coffee,” and I was like “Ohhh, that’s Steve Albini…” (Laughs)

But it was a great experience. I want to work in a different way for every album, I think. Because I know I’m not going to do music forever. I get bored of things pretty fast and I also get complacent if I’m doing something that I’m not completely excited about. And I think people’s lives are chapter-based. I’ve got lots of other interests and I don’t know whether I want to be one person forever.

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