If you have been keeping up with British artist Fenne Lily, there’s a good chance that you have already fallen in love with her all to subtle charm, wrapping notions of the existential in between warm covers of mellow acoustic harmony. Although coming along with mellow textures, her songs are anything but light-hearted, as they often try to tackle with love, belonging, identity and finding your own voice in the struggle we all call life.
“Two months after I met the person I went on to spend two years with, the pandemic hit. We decided to live together as opposed to risking not seeing each other over the course of UK lockdown and as a result I went from living alone, touring, travelling, generally living an independent life with a lot of movement, to cohabitating in a one bedroom flat in Bristol. I felt like I’d been shrunk down to a smaller version of myself.”
Big Picture, her third full-length following the acclaimed On Hold and 2020’s BREACH, is the preliminary peak of her creative endeavours, as it struggles to find clarity and peace, looking for hard truths in times of absolute uncertainty. In describing the different stages of love, the songs on this record turn Fenne Lily’s inner landscape inside out, shuffling from comfort towards claustrophobic fear, always re-evaluating her perspective on love and being loved. “Writing this album was my attempt at bringing some kind of order to the disaster that was 2020. By documenting the most vulnerable parts of that time, I felt like I reclaimed some kind of autonomy”, she states. Love, after all, is a process, that is the core essence of Big Picture. Or, in her own words: “These songs explore worry and doubt and letting go, but those themes are framed brightly.”
Map Of Japan
There is great frustration when watching someone “figuring out” life without managing to change anything … never being able to “make a good plan” … it comes from wanting to stay alongside that person and grow together; to be able to say you tried everything even if it doesn’t work out. That’s what this one is about — finding comfort in someone’s company while recognising how hard they’re finding the act of simply existing.
“My aim for this record in general was to make something lighter than my previous albums, sonically if not always lyrically, and choosing this song as the opener sets that tone of admitting despondency but not bending to it.”
I remember showing this in its earliest form to a friend of mine — I played it to him on guitar in his garden, and he’s my most enthusiastic friend so I was secretly expecting congratulations, but if words were a shrug that’s what I got. I was determined to make him like it … production-wise I was the least clear about where to go but during pre-production my guitarist, Joe, added overdriven power chords as a joke and the joke stuck. That friend likes it now.
I dedicate this song to a girl I met at Barcelona airport at the end of a trip where I was groped by my AirBnB host. there was a lot of bad on that trip but a lot more good, and I didn’t want to forget either. A lot of the music I was listening to while I was writing seemed to be old kind of country stuff; the album Anymore For Anymore by Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance was a big one (hear Roll On Babe from ’74) — anything that sounded warm and comfortable, just people in a room playing what came most naturally. when I brought this song to the band it easily fell into that sort of world — it felt stable, which is cool for a song that came from a place of total instability.
The title and some references in the bridge lyrics come from a Richard Brautigan poem. He talks about a ‘young prince’ riding a ‘dawncolored horse’ and describes someone he loves as being his “breathing castle” which I took to mean a sentient space to exist in. Both these phrases describe a feeling I understood at the time, when I really needed help to keep from falling apart.
Lights Light Up
Songs can be prophetic and this one definitely was. I’d never really written about love in the present tense before this, but even though I was still in love and not thinking about the end, there was something else going on subconsciously that led to a song about moving on before the moving on had begun. This one describes some of the more gentle, bittersweet moments of that relationship — our first kiss lit up by traffic lights, being comforted after learning about someone in my family having cancer — while also alluding to the fact that at some point we’ll be strangers again.
“I didn’t know that for sure at the time or maybe on some level I did, so initially I wrote both choruses in the third person.”
When we came to record, post-relationship, I changed the last chorus to ‘I’ and ‘you’, because it had all come true. The band and I had been playing this live for a while before we went into the studio and it’d become something joyful and positive. The parts each of them played straight off the bat when I brought it to them definitely informed the arrangements for the rest of the album.
This one was hard to write because I kept coming up against the urge to write an ending for the ‘story’ — it was always a song about love being difficult but it didn’t have a conclusion. up until the point where the relationship ended, the final line was different, an imaginary ending to the story, but by the time I recorded it, the story really did have an end and it went exactly like the song now says it did: “I guess I don’t really know what I’m looking for / you shut your eyes and I shut my door”.
“Loving someone + wanting to make them feel deservedly ‘enough’ + fervently disagreeing with the Valentine’s Day card philosophy of ‘you are my everything’ = a quandary.”
This is the only song on the record that I asked for help in writing and, as someone who doesn’t co-write (perhaps too adamantly believing that if I can’t do it myself I shouldn’t be doing it) this initially made me feel like I’d failed. writers block was still going strong and I didn’t like playing guitar anymore; I felt like I was stuck in a rut of playing the same three chords. my friend Willie J Healy came round and I showed him a tentative beginning, asked where he’d take it in terms of chord progression and structure, and we messed around until it felt safe to keep working on. I say safe … sometimes I can psych myself out on an idea and leave it behind prematurely, but this initial idea felt important and I didn’t want to get to the abandonment stage. He helped me avoid that.
While we were recording, our producer Brad [Cook] pointed out how long and stretched out the first line is and I decided then that it’s my favourite line on the record. “I was in the business of letting go then you came around and put me out of the job and my misery at the same time” … the saddest words of the line fall on the minor chords, the line ends on a major and that pattern repeats throughout the song. This positive/negative major/minor element is reflective of how I was feeling about love at the time — it wasn’t good or bad for long enough for me to have a chance to decide how I should feel, I couldn’t easily define it.
“I never imagined that this would have any other instruments on it. I wrote it alone at night (standard) and thought it should remain solo to stay true to how lonely I felt at that time, but it grew into this bigger, spookier thing … it feels like I become a different character by the end of this one.”
Superglued is two songs glued together — I wrote the first 2 minutes of it very quickly and tried to ‘finish’ it for months after. I couldn’t seem to find an end to the story, partly because it was very clearly about my fear of more deeply committing to my then-relationship and I was scared to write about how that would pan out before it had a chance to. songs tell the future sometimes and the second half of this one definitely did — “guess I won’t be coming home to you anymore” was a line before it was true, which became a pattern for this record as a whole.
Initially called Henry Miller, changed because I have a song called I, Nietzsche [on BREACH] and titles naming problematic male ideators suggest a depth of irony and knowledge I don’t possess. but I was reading The World of Sex when I wrote this song in 2019, making it the oldest song on the record while not being written intentionally for the record (it was meant to be on BREACH but I felt it didn’t fit). The ‘bruise’ referenced in the choruses is grossly metaphorical but also literal — I was cycling at night around a harbour and crashed into a railway track. I went over the handlebars and bruised my leg so bad it went black.
“Lyrically this one came together in pieces and moves between two places; of new independence and the ensuing fear of the pressure to be strong that that entails. I was feeling drained and useless but ultimately determined to be able to move these feelings into past tense. This never started as a piano song but right at the end of my time at the studio we muted my rhythm guitars by accident and realised they weren’t necessary anymore. a happy accident like the bike crash.”
It’s hard to love someone who doesn’t fully believe that they can be loved. This is me trying to figure that out; watching someone self-destruct while trying to let them know I’ll be there if they choose help. The hardest part about this song was figuring out the drums. The person I wrote this about hates train beats so I tried not to do that … we ended up riding the line. Instrumentally this turned into one of my favourites on the record — I love melodic bass and barely-present guitars in general and this really lent itself to that.
“Is there enough time for you to see that love is a delicate string that you lend and carry around / when is it unravelling / when’s it just rewound.”
Accepting or believing that things change is hard when you’re at your lowest; wanting time to stop altogether or skip forward to a point where you’re not hurting. that’s also true for love, when it’s hard. The bridge of this song felt corny when I wrote it but I’m glad I kept it for that reason.
In My Own Time
This one started as a guitar lick I couldn’t find a home for and became the song that took the longest to write — I picked away at it over the course of the summer, working from journal entries on the roof of my flat, singing whatever words felt the least embarrassing to verbalise. The feeling of time passing both too quickly and too slowly was prevalent in everything I was writing around that time — it felt like I was being left behind by people I didn’t even know, while I was (in retrospect) separating myself from the person I was sharing that period of my life with by wishing myself into the future. I felt rushed and slowed down at the same time, so ‘in my own time’ is an ironic title as I felt I was really living at the whim of anything but myself.
“Essentially this one’s about the weight of stasis and the attempt to help hold someone up through a time when nothing and everything is changing.”
The first demo of this (which I self-recorded at home with my band) is almost identical to the final album version in terms of arrangement. We didn’t have a drum kit so my drummer James built percussion from things in my kitchen — herb jar shakers, spatulas on a notebook, finger tapping on a pan that kind of thing, and we ended up adding that percussion track to the studio version alongside the ‘real’ drums.
Red Deer Day
This was the last song to be written for the album and the only one to be written post-relationship – it is the only break-up song. At the beginning of 2022, in the five days between one tour ending and another tour beginning, me and my ex decided to end things. While I was in our bedroom packing up some things to take to my parents’ house, I could hear them through the wall, picking up different instruments and playing them quietly before I took them away. I was humming to distract myself from what we were doing, a wall apart, and made a voice memo on my phone. I couldn’t listen to the voice memo for a couple of months, but the day before I was scheduled to start pre-production with the band, I finally did — this song was written that night, in the flat my ex and I had shared, drunk in my pyjamas.
We recorded this one a couple of different ways before it felt right. The final version is the result of a day in LA with Melina Dutere and Christian Lee Hutson. With the exception of my guitar and the drums, Christian played everything; we used Hovvdy’s True Love album as our reference point and by the end of the day we had it. Lyrically this one hasn’t changed at all from the initial, placeholder-words stage of writing. They’re not perfect but what I’m singing about wasn’t, either.
It’s hard to delineate the start of the writing process for any record but if this song doesn’t mark the beginning of what would become Big Picture, it definitely marked the end of a very long period of writers block. Half Finished came about in October of 2020 — I’d released BREACH in September, had a bunch of cancelled tours and was generally feeling aimless and apathetic, and having not written even a tiny bit of a song for close to a year, I also started getting scared that I’d lost the ability to.
I’ve always needed to be alone to write, to not be overheard, so I decided to convert a utility cupboard at the back of my flat into a writing room — I built a desk, moved my interface and guitars in, and started messing around on GarageBand. the first ideas didn’t stick, and then the first verse for Half Finished arrived. I wrote it chronologically, over the course of a few nights, and it remains the only song on the record that I built this way (on GarageBand as opposed to just on guitar). It stayed unheard for a long time and when I finally showed it to my then-partner they replied “and now I really believe that you love me”. I don’t know what that says about anything / that relationship … but I remember feeling like it had to be part of the next chapter, because it stands as proof of something to someone.
“I was very purposeful when it came to the tone of this album — steering myself away from writing about the past, and what I’ve lost, and what could’ve been better. generally avoiding despair, because I knew these songs would be heard post-pandemic and nobody wants to be reminded of the bleakness of that time. so this is the only song on the record that really details that aimlessness: lines like “she’s got my name on a shirt that she’s never worn and won’t” and “I told you I love you and mean it completely I just can’t say the same to myself” reflect the self-loathing that permeated every day of 2020 for me. I chose to put it at the end of the album for a kind of ‘end credits’ feeling — here are 10 songs about preemptively seeing light at the end of the tunnel, and here’s where it all started. In a utility cupboard, worrying about everything, in love but hurting, alone by design.”
When we came to record, this one didn’t feel right for a while and almost didn’t make the final cut, but a few days before I had to turn in the album, Christian Lee Hutson and I went into a studio in New York for a few hours and re-tracked all the guitar parts. he played about nine different parts, Melina Dutere layered them all the next day and finally, at the eleventh hour, it came together.
Fenne Lily’s Big Picture is out on April 14 via Dead Oceans and she’s also heading for an extensive tour.