Fenne Lily’s work is subtle but impactful. Her words rise and fall with a weight of emotional sincerity. Her voice exchanges gritty, hushed, supple caresses with pitch-perfect feathery highs. Delivering lyrics of articulate observation and lived understanding, Lily is one of those artists that once witnessed can’t be forgotten or unheard.
Striking significance with lines that read as open diary entries, the debut record ‘On Hold’ contains a plethora of affecting and tangible personal notes set to breathy, but driving full band immersion (with the occasional solo take nestled in amongst to provide further nuance and absorption). It’s an album of integrity and bristling candour, skill and astute self-awareness, breathtaking performance and sensitivity. Debuts seldom arrive this intensely realised, or as immaculately fulfilled. It’s the inimitable sign of an artist equipped for the long haul.
Meeting Fenne during a time where the tectonics of her career and personal life are experiencing an all-time flux, it’s remarkable to even be in the same room as the artist. Considering that Fenne is halfway through the UK run of a headline production (her biggest touring venture to date) and has freshly released her life’s work into the world, only a week before–an unforgettable achievement in and of itself. Joining Fenne in Manchester, we speak at length about the record’s meaning and creation, how important creativity is to Fenne, and what Fenne’s hopes are for the future.
It’s taken a few years to reach the debut album, now that it’s complete and the songs are physically out in the world. How does it feel to have created a body of work – a lasting imprint of you at a time in your life?
Fenne Lily: “There’s two sides of the coin. One side is that, ultimately all of these songs came out of a place of pain and now I can’t really ever forget that point of my life, because it’s literally pressed into wax, and it’s going to be around forever. So I’m coming to terms with that, and having to kind of live two years in the past, in a way. Because this whole break up and that frame of mind is a while ago, and now I have to revisit it every night on tour, and talk about it, and hear people’s judgements on it – so that’s kind of tricky. But on the other side of the coin, I don’t have a label; I never thought I would have the money, or the mental capacity, or the emotional range, or the drive to create something like this, so I kind of have to keep reminding myself that it’s a pretty impressive thing that me and my manager have done – because it is just me and my manager doing this whole thing by ourselves. So, yeah, it’s a massively conflicting time because when it was released, I literally stayed up to ‘til midnight and I was refreshing my Spotify page and I was like: ‘So okay, at 11.59 there’s nothing there and then at midnight, my whole life’s work is on the internet for people to judge, and whatever.’ So it’s a strange time but I kind of have to separate myself from my work, and respect that people aren’t criticising or having opinions on me, it is a creation separate from my personality. So yeah it is difficult but I am really proud of myself and everyone that’s helped me because yeah, it’s a pretty big thing.”
You said there that the album has taken two years to create, have you started writing some new music since then?
Fenne: “Umm, yeah. As soon as I finished writing this record, I didn’t want to fall into a slump of just thinking about and singing about all of these past experiences, so I immediately started writing again. It is important to… as my music is, not stream of consciousness but immediate and based on current feelings, it wouldn’t be healthy or particularly artistically intelligent to give myself a break. So I’ve been writing a lot and recently I came up with another four or five tracks that I really like, so as soon as this tour is finished, I’m gonna go and record those and just keep that balance between playing live and creating. Because I think once your album comes out, you can feel a bit like, not complacent, but like there’s a lot to do and it’s easy to let the reason for that busyness become the reason that you don’t continue anymore.”
So have you found new themes are emerging in your writing?
Fenne: “Yeah absolutely. It’s really ironic but I’m probably writing about the process of being an artist who has a record, it’s kind of weird, and all of the anxieties that come with that because I never thought I would put myself in a position like this. Where people are looking at me – I’m saying judging a lot but it is essentially, I have to get on stage and put my face to something I believe in, and some days I don’t believe in it and it’s really hard to be like: ‘Buy my record!’ when I’m feeling like I wouldn’t buy it, if I wasn’t me.”
Charlotte, BSS: “It’s just that you’re so close it though, isn’t it?”
Fenne: “Exactly! And it’s hard to project an image of someone who wants to be loved by strangers when you might not feel like that. But it is ultimately a job. It’s coming to terms with the fact that something I did for passion, and as a way of getting feelings out, has now become… Yeah, coming to terms with the fact that it is now a job and I can’t just quietly create things.”
Charlotte, BSS: “In a way it is a product – and that is a weird thing.”
Fenne: “Yeah! And I want to stay away from ‘the industry’ as much as I can because I want it to still be this pure thing that I’m making, mainly for myself. But yeah, the main themes are, at the moment, that kind of struggle.”
What was your first reaction to hearing the album in full – can you actually listen to your own work?
Fenne: “Aside from mixing it and stuff because we obviously listen to it, to mix it – but I was mainly focussing on the beginnings and ends of the songs to see if they all sonically matched. The whole record process took so long… we thought that we would be able to get the records done in time for the tour and it was this mass panic. Then it was like two days before I left for the tour, my manager brought round the test pressings and put it on my record player, and I was like dreading it because a, I didn’t really want to hear it and b, I didn’t wanna hear it and hate it because it was already done. But I listened to it and it sounded exactly how I wanted it to sound. So yeah. I was singing the words along, like at karaoke, it was great. It was a good feeling.”
Did you learn or uncover things about yourself during the writing process that surprised you?
Fenne: “Yeah. So much. It’s weird, I did just mention to you that my ex-boyfriend–who all the songs are about–turned up last night [to the show in London]. I had a conversation with him before I played, and I was saying that as much as writing helps you get through stuff and work through problems and address things that you otherwise might not address, it kind of forces you to come to some kind of conclusion. So especially [with] the kind of songs that I write, it’s like I should be angry at this person–I’m trying not to be angry–but because my songs, and my work, and this album needs a conclusion and a message, it kind of forced my hand and my head, in a way, to come to a conclusion about a person that I ultimately didn’t need to come to a conclusion about. I could’ve just let myself be sad but I had to kind of process my feelings double time, so that I could get across an articulate message. So yeah, I came to realise that I’m very changeable, like my feelings are very changeable and putting songs out and having to commit to a certain vibe is bizarre for me, because I can wake up really excited one day and then the next day, I’m like: ‘What the f*** am I doing?’ So it’s been tricky but I realise I’m quite an angry person, I think ultimately.”
Can we talk about the bookending of ‘Car Park’ on the album – an interesting touch and obviously an important track to the album? What inspired the idea to create the two different versions, and open and close the record in this way?
Fenne: “So the last song on the record is a voice demo–the first version of the song–and when I took it into the studio with my band, I was like ‘this is beautiful in its own way’ but because of the reason that I wrote it, which was coming out of a pattern of choosing the same boys that made me feel a certain way, and putting myself in positions that me feel sad and uncomfortable.
“Because that was why I wrote the song, I needed to make the final version of it really different from these acoustic sad songs, so I took it in and I was like: ‘Even though I love it this way, we need to make it bold and strong and beautiful because I don’t feel like that at the moment.’ But it felt almost ironic to end the record with that first version because it’s so raw, and because I wanted to change it so much when I wrote it.
“Also, Big Thief did it and I love Big Thief. Also, it’s like the ultimate vulnerability putting yourself [in a position like that through sharing a demo]… there’s no editing, that was literally done in my room on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in my loft–yeah I wanted to end it on a vulnerable note but also I think there’s strength in showing a journey in a sense.”
The first song you ever wrote was ‘Top to Toe,’ what are your present feelings towards that track right now?
Fenne: “I’m so torn. It’s literally like I’m married to it and like we sleep in the same bed but we don’t have sex. So I wrote it without thinking I’m going to be a musician, I’m gonna write more songs. So, on one hand I love it because it showed me what I wanted to do with my life, for the moment, and I‘ve based my writing on how honest it was and how it didn’t really filter what I was saying, and I’ve tried to maintain that style throughout. But on the other hand, I’ve been playing it since I was fifteen, so that’s like six years, so I kinda f****** hate it. But I have an affinity towards it because it just puts me back in that headspace that I was [in] when I was fifteen, and not a lot of things can viscerally do that for me, because I haven’t really kept any of those friends, I don’t live in the same house, I don’t really see my parents that much, so it’s like the only real connection I have to that part of my life which was very informative and quite difficult, is that song. So it’s like a…”
Charlotte, BSS: “Frozen in time.”
Fenne: “Yeah! It’s kind of like a Tardis situation.”
Charlotte, BSS: “I like that analogy!” [We laugh]
When performing live, do you ever travel back to the place you were in when you first wrote the song?
Fenne: Absolutely. I try not to because sometimes singing and playing things and completely ignoring where they came from can allow you to move forward more easily–and trying to focus on sonically what I enjoy about those songs, rather than emotionally what I enjoy about them, or what they make me picture. But I do think it would be disingenuous to disregard the place that I was in, so in small doses I try and cast my mind back to that pain or happiness, or whatever, because it helps with a genuine performance but also it’s kind of draining sometimes [She laughs].”
Second to that point, do you find that your perception of a song changes after you played it live for the first time?
Fenne: “Absolutely. I chose the songs that are on the record by crowd reactions, so I had a residency at a venue in Bristol and I wrote a song for each residency day, there were like four. And based on crowd reaction and how they made me feel when I was playing them, that’s how I chose. I think aside from crowd reaction, when I was playing them and I wasn’t committed enough to the song [when] it allowed me to think about other stuff, I realised that wasn’t something I could play continuously. If I was either bored or not feeling completely in it, then it was probably not a good choice for the record.”
How has the incorporation of other instruments and people informed the live show?
Fenne: “It’s so nice that I now have a band because this whole time, like the past couple of years when I’ve been touring supporting people and I’ve been doing it on my own, I’ve had all these other instruments in my mind and I’ve wanted to present a full picture of what I’m trying to get across artistically, and I just haven’t been able to. It’s very easy to just be branded a girl with a guitar, it’s like: ‘Oh, she’s just like Lucy Rose because she’s got a guitar!’ and that really started pissing me off. So it’s really cool to be able to show more dynamic within my live show–because the album is up and down, sonically and dynamically and emotionally. And now I have more tools at my disposal to get that across–and also touring is way more fun!”
Of all the songs on the album, which resonates with you the most at this time?
Fenne: “I would try and say ‘Car Park’ because I’m still trying to get out of that pattern of allowing people to determine how I’m feeling and take charge of situations and look after myself more, so I wanna say that one’s resonating because it’s true. But I don’t think I’ve quite reached that point, so probably–after last night’s saga–the ‘Hand You Deal,’ I think. I wrote it about trying to accept someone else’s decisions and respect their wishes at the expense of my own comfort.”
You’ve talked about how sadness and anger are two influencers in your music. What is it about these emotions that makes them so fascinating to write about?
Fenne: “That’s a really good question. They go hand in hand because my go to feeling, when anything gets through my shield, is to try and force it out. I’m quite impulsive and very reactive, and I always have been, and I’ve tried massively hard–through this whole massive break up–to just allow myself to be sad, and not get angry, because as soon as you get angry you’re treating the other person or the situation as an attack. And this break up was multifaceted and very hard to pin blame on anything, and I don’t think there should ever be blame pinned on anyone when it comes to heartbreak. So, they’re interesting to me because they’re so so similar and they come from the same exact place but they precipitate very, very different, finite final points. So struggling with trying to be more sad because it does disappear in time, and anger just sticks around and grows into something really ugly and unhealthy. So yeah, does that answer your brilliant question? [She laughs].”
I’m not sure if you know this… On YouTube, a bunch of people have covered ‘Bud’ and ‘Top to Toe’–
Fenne: “Yeah my mum sends them to me.”
What are your thoughts on people reacting to your music in this way?
Fenne: “It is totally bizarre, because I used to do that to other musicians. I didn’t put them online but I started out learning guitar by playing other people’s songs. I only wanted to play music because music touched me–and if people are covering my music, it must mean the same for them. And that’s kind of mental because I wrote all of these songs on my bed without thinking anyone was really gonna hear them, and [to know that] someone’s taken that on board and translated it into their own style, is massively flattering. I’ve watched a few ‘Top to Toe’ covers and they can hit notes that I didn’t even hit in the recording, so respect to them. But yeah, it’s [the] ultimate form of flattery.”
This is still just the start of your journey in music, I’m sure you have lots of dreams and untapped ideas that are yet to be realised. So, what’s the ultimate ambition? What do you want to achieve in the future?
Fenne: “Ultimately, I want to maintain integrity and sanity–and those are two things that are quite difficult to keep hold of if you’re going to tread the industry path, which is why I’m trying to distance myself from getting into a five year plan and like: ‘What kind of venues do you want to be selling out in two years’… I’ve been trying to remind myself that this is only happening because I had a spark and I wanted to create something, and I shouldn’t let a trajectory distract from creating things that I genuinely believe in. So I guess my ambition is, over the course of my career–however long it is, if it’s a year, if it’s ten years–to have a body of work that I can look back on and be really proud of, and that accurately reflects things that I’ve been through without being pushed along or disregarded by people that have been in the industry for ages. I think [the goal is] just to make real things with real people and not lose my mind, that is what I want to do [She laughs].”
Well, expanding on that point, do you see yourself signing to a label in the future?
Fenne: ”At the moment I’m coming to realise that self-releasing is exhausting–and it can only go so far. So for this record, I think it was really good to have this time, and these resources, and this attitude of being self-driven and self-promoted and self-released, but I think that part of that was just that the right label didn’t come along because I think that part of the ‘draw,’ if you want to call it that, of me as an artist and my music is that, it’s come out of nowhere really.
“I’m very much connected to my music, personally, because I’ve had to make it all happen. So now, I’ve been approached by quite a few labels since the record came out and they’ve been the kind of labels that respect the way that I’ve been working and respect the way that I think about myself and my art–and that makes me think that there probably is a label out there that would suit me, that has the same ethos that me and my manager have maintained this entire time. And that aren’t just like ‘Oh you’ve got a huge stream count on Spotify,’ so I’m not disregarding the idea of having a record label at all.
“I think for record two–whenever it gets made–I’ll probably be going through a label but saying that, creating it will still be an unsigned thing. I’ll take my creation to a label and see how they can help me get it out into the world–because I really want to keep the creative side very insular, because I’m very easily swayed when it comes to what I write because I sometimes hate myself, so it’s very easy for someone to be like: ‘You should do this and you’d feel better’ and I’ll be like: ‘Okay yeah, cool I’ll do it.’ So yeah, I probably will sign and it will have to be somebody I really believe in and that gets the whole thing that I’m trying to do.”
Fenne Lily’s debut album ‘On Hold’ is out now – and is available to purchase on various formats here.
Catch Fenne Lily on tour throughout April and May:
16th Apr – Birmingham – The Cuban Embassy
17th Apr – Bristol – Thekla
19th Apr – Amsterdam – Paradiso
21st Apr – Nijmegen – Merleyn
22nd Apr – Utrecht – Tivoli (Club 9)
23rd Apr – Cologne – Studio 672
25th Apr – Hamburg – Nochtspeicher
26th Apr – Mainz – Capitol
27th Apr – Munich – Orangehouse
28th Apr – Magdeburg – Wohnzimmerkonzerte
29th Apr – Berlin – Privat Club
1st May – Gent – Nest
2nd May – Arlen – Les Aralunaires Festival
Photo Credit: Hollie Fernando