Bristol-based Fenne Lily’s highly anticipated debut album On Hold was released in early April and met all the expectations raised by the preceding singles. It delivers incredible songwriting as well as singing. But while reading about Fenne Lily and her work online, the vehemence with which several words were used to describe her and her music struck me. I felt like I would like to know her thoughts, opinions etc. on these words rather than read another text full of them. So, I put four of the most used ones into drawings and let the musician associate freely on a sunny afternoon in Cologne. The result is an inspiring insight into the mind of a very outspoken, passionate and thoughtful woman.
1. Spotify and music streaming in general
Fenne Lily has amassed more than 30 million streams on Spotify with just a couple of self-released songs, so this was our first topic.
‘I don’t want to be that artist anymore.’
‘Obviously, I’m connected to Spotify because that’s how most people found Top to Toe and it had all those streams. But it does kind of irritate me that that is one of the main associations with my act because I felt a little bit pigeonholed by Top to Toe and the fact that it was the most popular song because I released it when I was 15. I don’t want to be that artist anymore. So, it’s difficult because I’m really thankful to Spotify because they’ve supported me throughout the whole process but it is annoying when the first thing that anyone writes about is how many plays Top to Toe has.’
After telling me that she has come to accept music streaming as ‘a really great way of finding new music’ (though she still enjoys vinyl and even structured her debut album around its format), I wondered if she saw any disadvantages to Spotify and music streaming in general. ‘It’s hard for me to think of disadvantages to Spotify because they’ve been really supportive. They’ve playlisted my music and loads of people have found out about me through Spotify. I think generally a disadvantage is, feeling like you’re putting music into the world that has taken a lot of energy and feeling like it kind of just slips into the ether of all the other music that’s there. For me it hasn’t really been a problem because I make my living off Spotify. It pays really well because they’ve playlisted me so much.’
‘Maybe another disadvantage would be having to categorize your work because I would have to say ‘I’m a singer-songwriter’ or ‘I’m a folk artist’ or, the one that really pisses me off is, ‘I’m a female artist’ which isn’t really a category.’
‘Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean my music is the same as everyone else’s who has a vagina.’
‘But I guess, the categorization of a genre is limiting and really limits your audience but at the same time the fact that streaming exists broadens your audience. So, it’s definitely a two-edged sword in that respect.’
Fenne Lily is regularly called a singer-songwriter and compared to other singer-songwriters, so we talked about the term.
‘I’m speaking as somebody who’s trying to move away from it.’
‘The phrase ‘singer-songwriter’ really confuses me because I do sing and I write my music but that shouldn’t be the only thing that defines what I’m doing. Courtney Barnett writes her music and sings her music but she’s not considered a singer-songwriter because of the sonic space in her work. I think as soon as you’re branded as a singer-songwriter there’s like five or six artists that immediately pop to mind, especially if you’re a girl, like Lucy Rose, Laura Marling and Joni Mitchell, which is obviously a great thing but I’m nothing like her; it’s kind of a lazy comparison.’
‘I started really early and I was still forming my idea of what I wanted to be, as a person and an artist, and to be immediately considered on the same kind of artistic plateau as all of these other women with guitars really pisses me off. Because there’s more and less to me than those people. I don’t know how else I would categorize myself, but I feel like you shouldn’t have to categorize yourself. It’s easy to, if you want to appeal to the masses and be accessible. But music itself is accessible, so you shouldn’t have to make it easy for everyone else. I’m speaking as somebody who’s trying to move away from it. If I would put out music under ‘unknown’ as a genre, maybe more people would listen to it. But I realized that that is kind of an impossible thing.’
How would you describe your music?
‘It’s definitely got emo sensibilities based on the fact that all of these songs were written when I was incredibly sad, borderline depressed, not having a good time being alive, so in that sense it’s depressing. There should really be a genre about the necessity to write. It’s kind of like an open diary, in a lyrical sense but also in a sonic instrumental sense. It doesn’t map a certain time, it’s me growing up musically and as a person. I came up with this phrase the other day for a genre that should be a thing:
‘Sadcore. That’s what I would call it.’
And concerning her style of singing: ‘I’m a strong believer that if you want to be listened to, you don’t have to shout. So, softly singing doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have the same passion behind your voice. And I really feel that if something is ugly, you should do your best and make it beautiful. Because I’m angry and because I’m sad doesn’t mean I should do something that sounds angry or sad. If it can be beautiful and enjoyable, it should be allowed to be that.’
We then talked about the music she listens to and her completely supportive parents who – with their punk ethos – have prompted an ongoing self-confidence and authority complex: ‘I self-release because when you’re developing as an artist, there are A&R people at labels whose job it is to develop you. It’s not artist development, it’s artist manipulation and I didn’t want that to happen. Having a guitar, being a girl and having blonde hair: That’s a certain type of person they would try to make you be like. Choosing a path as a person and choosing a path as an artist are both very difficult things to do, even without any kind of industry influence.’
On Hold is often attributed to the break-up of her first important relationship. As I assumed, this is a simplification.
‘I fell in love and out of love with myself.’
‘Obviously I wrote this record influenced by the fact that I had my heart broken but I would really hesitate to call it a break-up record because I don’t like attributing my work to somebody else’s actions. The fact that I was treated that way made me see myself in a different light and work through things that I would never normally work through. It gave me an outlet rather than boxing me in as a heartbroken person because I was allowed to feel a massive high and a massive low that otherwise I would completely have not had the opportunity to feel. So, as much as the songs are about these men that I loved and then lost, the more important thing that I’ve found about making this record was the fact that I fell in love and out of love with myself and how I was as a person and the choices that I’ve made more than I fell in and out of love with those people. It was more a self-discovery and self-loathing project than it was hating other people and what they did to me. They actually gave me a reason to not be crying in bed and throw myself into something rather than letting someone else’s actions dictate how I live my life.
Recently, I’ve been writing about my relationship with myself because I’m not in a relationship and that’s sometimes hard but it’s also giving me a lot of time to write about myself because I’m around myself all the time and, what I was saying about not allowing what someone does to you to dictate who you are and what you make, that’s become a massive thinking point recently’.
Fenne Lily was born in London, grew up in Dorset and now lives in Bristol, a city that occurs in almost all of the Google search results for her name.
‘You don’t have to follow the pack because you don’t even like the pack. Join another pack.’
‘Bristol was the first place I lived that isn’t my parents’ house. When I was 17 or 18 I moved out and moved to Bristol, did an art degree and I associate Bristol with me discovering that I don’t have to be the product of where I am. I grew up in a very conservative area of the countryside. All my friends were kind of rich and academic and they all wanted to get to university and follow this pattern that had been preordained by school and university and so on. I think moving to Bristol was the first time that I had gone against the crowd and said to myself: ‘Maybe university isn’t for you ever, it certainly isn’t good for you now. You don’t have to follow the pack because you don’t even like the pack. Join another pack.’ So, I found my people, finally, and started playing shows and everything just fell into place whereas before I’d spent 17 years feeling like I was out of place but not knowing why. I think it was the act of moving that was really the case. Bristol is the kind of place where there’s no competition between artists, it’s not insular but it’s homely, and everyone’s really happy to work on other people’s work and it’s very open-minded. I think it’s definitely a great place to be trying things out without the fear of being judged.
I don’t like the competitive element of London, I don’t like how big it is, I don’t like feeling lonely around a lot of people. I’m toying with the idea of moving to Germany actually, I love it here. I don’t really like England. England’s a bit stuck at the moment and I don’t want to get stuck. I might give it a miss for a while and maybe come back later.’
I saw many pictures of Fenne Lily including a banana. At the end of the interview, I used my chance to ask for the reason.
‘I don’t know why I love bananas so much. I completely forgot to do my first press shot and then I was in the car coming from Cologne with my manager and got an e-mail and we were like ‘Fuck, what are we going to do?’. We got out at a service station and I had a banana in the car and I was like ‘Let’s just get the picture here’ and I was just holding the banana, it wasn’t meant to be in the picture but I quite liked it. And then I was like ‘Mmh, maybe this will be my thing’ and I started using it more. It is my favourite fruit, I just think they’re fantastic. They look so weird but they’re so delicious which I think is a nice combination of aspects to have by someone or something. I don’t know, it’s just a silly thing. Despite the fact that my music is quite serious, it doesn’t have to be packaged in a serious way and I’m not a particularly serious person. So, why not just throw in something that people would go like ‘Why?’ I love it when artists do something like that, like Gregory Porter wearing his hat. I don’t know if it’s for a health reason or what but it’s something where I’m like ‘You’re a bit strange, that’s cool!’’
The concert that night at Studio 672, which was part of Fenne Lily’s first headline tour, was as entertaining as expected. Supported by her friend and the incredibly talented Tamu Massif (just check out his video for Rare Candy), who produced some of the songs on On Hold, she played songs of said record, a cover of Angel Olsen’s Unfucktheworld and a brand new song. In-between, she made everyone laugh with stories of her brother as the only male person she trusts, how she once tried to learn German with an app and so on. We went for some drinks (= Kölsch) afterwards with her band and support and I enjoyed their contagious passion for silly as well as serious topics. And if you still need another proof of Fenne Lily’s coolness: When she asked me about my way home and I told her that there are no busses and trams on weeknights, she invited me to her tour van and I got a lift to my doorstep. So, pay attention to this young woman’s amazing work!
All sketches by Jessi Schmitte