Words by Tommy Johnson
When I spoke to Madeline Kenney a few years ago, she was in the midst of a vocational audio engineering course devoted to women. In addition to prepping to release her album Night Night At The First Landing, she had been curious to learn more about the inner workings – on top of the other projects and jobs that she was tackling at the time.
Fast forward now to this past July. Kenney and I are back together, engaged in another phone conversation. To no fault on her own, Kenney doesn’t remember anything involving our first chat, but what remained the same was the seeming annexation of work dropped upon Kenney these days to fulfill the void of live shows. She revealed that she just wrapped filming a performance video, which means Kenney had to be the videographer, key grip, set up the light, and now editor.
On top of all this, Kenney is primed to drop her latest effort (the second with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner producing) Sucker’s Lunch. Matched up with the other half of Wye Oak Andy Stack, Kenney’s recent journey into a more guitar-driven sound carries a little more substance; synths, saxophone, and intricate harmonies attach themselves to the tracks. Lambchop’s own Kurt Wagner’s vocals on “Sucker” further creates a deep connection within the music.
Lyrically, Kenney finds herself looking inward as she examined her relationship she is currently in. At the time of our chat, Kenney revealed that her partner was upstairs and hoped he couldn’t listen to her speak about him. Kenney flipped the fundamental algorithm of writing love songs: gush uncontrollably about love and yell about it at the highest levels. Instead, you find the musician studying the inner workings of how a bond between two individuals matures into something special, even in the tiniest of moments.
“I realized that about three-quarters of the way through writing when I started seeing a pattern. I was feeling like a big idiot. Like I didn’t know what I was doing and my role in this new relationship or what I was doing with my career, yet I was just like going for it,” said Kenney. “When I brought that up to Jenn and Andy they were like, ‘Oh yeah. Yep. That makes sense. We’re idiots too.’ It’s like understood immediately. I was like, oh, maybe this is the thing. A lot of people feel like it’s, it’s so common to feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just trying to enjoy something along this journey.”
Off Shelf: You bounced around writing this latest album. When you were writing, did you find yourself inspired by the various locations?
Madeline Kenney: That’s a good question. Living in North Carolina inspired me as far as what kind of sounds I wanted. I was just interested in things that were like maybe a little bit more… I don’t know how to describe it…Neil Youngy. Steady drums and open guitars. Not jammy, but thick [laughs]. Maybe it was due to the muggy weather. But I would just sit on the porch by myself and stare at the trees.
OS: What made you decide to come back to Oakland permanently?
MK: I spent four years in Oakland before moving to Durham and built up a good community. And then, you know, went through a breakup, was touring a lot. I needed an outside view of it, to be honest. I think that was just knowing you are in a city and you make groups of friends and like you’re aware of other groups of people that you like somehow can’t break out of your social circle that you’ve built? I think I just need to do something and kind of refresh. And so I did, and it was wonderful.
I love the city. I love the art and music and the culture here, but I wanted to this time be more intentional about who I’m hanging with and collaborating with. Also, I just had such a good time making my record, Perfect Shapes with Jenn and we just got along so well. We went on a bunch of tours together and it was nice. It was an amazing time. I do miss it sometimes, but I think moving back was the right choice.
OS: What did Andy and Jenn show you as far as writing, recording that you did, that you haven’t already tapped into?
MK: Well, I wrote 90% of the melodies and everything. I think what they helped with is the arrangement. Jenn would just come in with a ripping guitar solo, and Andy is so tasteful. I’ll be like, “I want more” and he’s like, “no, I think we need a little less.” I’m so thankful that he, you know, turned the dial down a little bit on a lot of these songs because restraint in certain parts is very him.
OS: You already had this great relationship built into working with both of them. I’m guessing that helped out with the recording.
MK: I was also not with my touring band, who I adore. Camille, my drummer, played on Perfect Shapes and just like killed it. She’s also a self-taught kind of cocky musician who plays all these crazy kind of unpredictable things, which I love when we tour. In this record, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted everything to be. I am really bad at progression, but here’s what I imagined and then Andy could be like, “okay, yes, I speak that language and I’ll translate it into something.” They were just around when I was making the demos so they knew the songs. They knew my state of mind when I was riding on that. It was really easy to like, get in the studio and record them and have everybody on the same spot mentally.
OS: Since I heard your album Night Night At The First Landing, I have noticed this effortless evolution to you musically. I wonder if it’s partially due to you working with Jenn. Is that fair to say?
MK: Yeah. I’m obviously ever grateful for everything Chaz has done for me, and we continue to do things together. I just think it’s like a different kind of creative relationship; we tend to make things that are just like fun and like elements of pop. With Jenn it’s like… I am deeply in love with Bill Callahan and want to be him, and I’m able to bring out these elements that are a little more dramatic. I can be a little more vulnerable. I think that making this record and diving into this relationship that I’m in coincided with this evolution. I decided to be more vulnerable and open up in my writing. I was deciding to do that in my relationship and vice versa and be like, “Oh, this is like real stuff.” I felt that I should try and give it my all.
OS: Being as open and vulnerable as you were, did you at any point question yourself about being so?
MK: You mean in the record?
MK: Yeah. I mean, I think I definitely have this little bit of a distaste for love songs. I find many love songs to be corny and I really don’t want to hear about it. I don’t know…the kind of quote-unquote love song that I enjoy is very particular. “You Are A Light” by Pavement, “Sleeping Is The Only Love” by Silver Jews are like are my beacons for a good love song, you know?
OS: I have to say that those are two pretty good songs to rattle off.
MK: What else? Yeah. You know the other one that I would say is “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” by Yo La Tengo. That one is about having an inside joke. He says, “You don’t have to say ‘I love you’/Just say what’s in your heart” and “Just say what’s in your heart/Non-sequitur or not/And without even trying/Find your punchline.”
It’s just something small, so good. I don’t know; I like stuff that’s like a little bit often… I’m trying to find the word… kind of, it’s like the opposite of idealistic. It’s realistic, you know? I think for me, I was like, okay, you know, I’m obviously seeing about caring about somebody and like that puts me in a vulnerable place. Do you go the route where you write about stuff that’s like kind of corny and cheesy and gooey and poppy or do you kind of lay bare the things that are on your mind. I think it is a conscious decision; I would rather look back in forty years and say I was honest with myself when I made this record.
OS: Do you find yourself being pressured to write basic formulaic love songs?
MK: As far as writing music like that from outside sources?
OS: Yes. Do you feel that pressure in any way?
MK: Definitely, sometimes. I am so grateful for Carpark. They deserve all the props in the world because when I was feeling self-conscious about those demos after having shared them with someone who has in their mind powerful in the industry say there weren’t any singles. I was, well, why should I even do this? You know, maybe I am bad and this does suck. Carpark was so supportive and was like, they didn’t even ask to hear the demos and then said “we support you as an artist. Whatever you want to do, we trust you and we believe in you.” And I was like…I just like started crying. So that makes all the difference in the world.
I think there are times when you’re like, well, I really need to write something that it gets on a Netflix show or something because I mean financial pressure can make you think, “Oh, I’m not doing this right.” But again, I try and remind myself of a few things. One – I always thought of this job as impermanent. I’m going to make music forever, but is it going to be a job forever? No. Two – what do I want to make that I can look back on and be proud of? Like, I don’t want to do things just for the money. There are people that are really good at that and they should do it. If you’re good at that, that’s amazing. You should definitely make money off of the things that you can in this industry. But I would much rather be unsuccessful and proud of my body of work.
OS: Now, have you always wanted to get into music? I know that you played the piano when you were younger.
MK: I took piano since I was little and played guitar when I was in high school and was in like a horrible high school band and, um, a couple of them. Thank God for that Myspace data breach; that’s all I say.
OS: Maybe you had some hidden bangers in that file [laugh].
MK: Oh no, no, no [laughs]. I have nightmares about those horrible songs.
OS: Were they solo songs or part of the band?
MK: We had a little band and you will never figure out the name. I will never tell you.
OS: We will just get ahold of your parents and ask them what the name was.
MK: I don’t think they remember. I was avoiding them at that time [laughs].
You know, no, no fault of my parents at all, but I just feel like I was not made aware that music was an option. My dad owns a masonry business, so he was like, “you could take over the business,” and I really don’t want to do that. I love him, but I don’t care about brick blocking stone. My mom’s a midwife. She was like, “oh, won’t you please come to births with me?” And I was like, hard pass on that. Thank you. But I was good at school, so I went into the hard sciences and I studied neurobiology. Then I just was like… I don’t want to be a lab rat all day. This is embarrassing, but I just played open mics for years and just like did it for fun.
OS: Why is it embarrassing? It’s one way to get your work out stuff.
MK: Because it’s just embarrassing [laughs]. I will say I learned to sing really loud in open mics because they are harder than a show. So I played open mics and did shows in high school and stuff. It was always sort of a hobby and I wrote music just purely for fun. The first song that I put out was when I was living in Oakland and I made the song and made a video just for fun. I was just going to upload it on YouTube and then my friend was like, “no, dude, you should like send it to somebody to premiere.” I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” I started playing shows, and yeah, kinda just went from there.
OS: How much do you miss performing right now?
MK: it’s like part of my reason for being alive, to be honest. Like singing in a dark room full of people is one of the best feelings in the world. That and swimming in a lake at night. Those are the two best feelings.