Fenne Lily on “Big Picture” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, June 23rd, 2024  

Fenne Lily on “Big Picture”

Rediscovering the Spark

Apr 14, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Michael Tyrone Delaney Bookmark and Share

The last time Under the Radar chatted to UK artist Fenne Lily, she was changing her hair color. This time around, she’s changed her city and her country and is currently residing in New York. “Gradually, making bigger changes,” she laughs, “but the truth is, I had the visa, and I had been thinking about moving from Bristol for a while. So I spent the summer in the U.S. and decided to make the move.”

However, Lily’s third album, Big Picture, was written back in the UK, and it wasn’t all plain sailing as initially she found her creative process stymied due to a number of factors. After working so hard for two and a half years on her previous album, 2020’s BREACH, only for it to be released at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lily felt the wind had been somewhat taken out of her sails. “That was a real bummer. I felt a bit crushed by it,” she reflects. “It felt like running a marathon and then suddenly being told the finishing line was an extra few miles down the road.”

As a result, she experienced writer’s block when she began to attempt to create new music again. “The pandemic and the monotony, and not wanting to do anything all contributed—I’m sure a lot of people felt like that too,” Lily reasons.

Reading books initially helped, but surprisingly, it was a YouTuber who eventually snapped her out of her lethargy. “This is going to sound really lame,” Lily laughs, “but I found a woman on YouTube who talked about all the different types of pens she loves. I mean, she really loves stationery, and seeing someone that passionate about something made me want to be passionate about something again.”

Lily tried to reignite her creative spark by adopting Thom Yorke’s tried and tested four-hour-a-day write-anything method. “But literally nothing good was forthcoming,” she muses. “I think it was somebody like Charlie Puth who once said writing is like running a tap—you have to run all the dirty water out first before anything good comes out. I mean, I don’t know where he’s living because my taps always run clean from the get-go, but it is a bit like that—months of writing absolute shit and then suddenly something feels like it’s starting to click.”

Lily’s first experience of living with someone influenced the themes of her album’s lyrics, capturing the essence of a developing relationship and providing a snapshot of the highs and lows, moments of tension and insecurity, and the joy that it can bring. “I always write from my own life. I hope it’s more than a snapshot, more of a coffee table book of the best and worst parts,” she says. “Comfort and discomfort are two words that are linguistically opposite, but there’s this huge crossover for me wherein everything that felt safe was too safe, or there was the feeling that it would fall apart at any moment, and then, by definition, it wasn’t safe anymore. And the scary stuff became the exciting stuff. The first song I wrote for the album was written a week before I met the person I was with throughout the album, and the last one was written a week after we had separated. So it bookends the relationship.”

As Lily launches her third album, I wonder if she felt the pressure of increased expectations and how she balances staying true to her artistic vision while meeting those expectations. “Funnily enough, I was just talking about this to a friend,” she says. “I mean when I’m writing an album, I’m not thinking about how well it will do. It’s only when I come to the release that I start worrying, thinking about what I could have done differently. I didn’t think about the audience when writing it because I didn’t think I’d have one,” she laughs. “I mean, Brexit happened, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m never going to tour again.’ COVID happened, and I thought, ‘Okay, so I’m non-essential and always will be.’ So all of these things were happening, which made me think this might be the last hurrah. The fear only comes on release day and I generally get a bit wobbly before I release anything. Part of you thinks if this record isn’t better or doesn’t stream as well as the last record, then I’m not as good as I was three years ago. For the first album, on release day we had a gig in Cardiff, I think. The second album was…COVID, so I cried all day. This year, it’s the day before we tour, so I might just stay offline and hang out with the band and play pool.”

Big Picture is a beautiful, evocative, often tender album imbued with both fragility and strength. But Lily is adamant that it’s not a sad album, stating that although the songs explore worry and doubt and letting go, these themes are framed brightly. “It’s about as uplifting as my way of doing things will allow,” she says. “Labeling music that is ‘soft’ as ‘sad’ instead of ‘thoughtful’ is the difference between someone who is crying all the time and someone who makes you think, ‘Ah, I didn’t think of it like that.’ It’s also really easy to write about things in retrospect, but I wanted to capture things as they were happening, rather than critiquing the past. The ‘sad’ label is tricky because the whole ‘sad girl’ thing is quite popular now, even though it’s a bit of an oversimplification. So part of me is like, ‘Well, yeah, I’m a sad girl,’ but this isn’t a sad record. It’s dealing with heavy stuff, but in a way that we all deal with it, trying to find solutions and see it from every side, while not seeing myself as a victim or a bad guy.”

Almost as if to prove that very point, the videos that have accompanied the singles ahead of the album have been full of fun. “In My Own Time,” for example, features a ventriloquist dummy that resembles a certain singer/songwriter whose surreptitious behavior could give the cast of Succession pause for thought. “I could not believe that we found a ventriloquist dummy that looked like me,” she laughs. “Originally I was going to dress as the male dummy, and wear a black wig but then we found a little ginger one. I also wanted a bar brawl—I’d just watched Terminator 2—you know the scene where he goes into the bar naked and fights for clothes and rides off on a motorbike? I was getting fed up with suggestions for the video to be about malaise and introspection, stuff like, ‘Okay so you’re lying on a bed, and the letters from dead lovers are flying all around you,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ It’s such a sweet song about holding someone so close that they don’t fall apart, and I thought, ‘What’s the antithesis of that?’ So, I just got drunk with my roommate, who’s a documentary film producer, and I said, ‘I just want people to smash each other up.’ So, we drunk-wrote the script, sent it to my manager, and she was like, ‘This has to be made.’ Although we only had a week to make it, so we were running out of options anyway at that point.”

After COVID, Lily also wanted to make this album a more collaborative affair, as she explains: “I wrote everything and demoed it myself and then took it to the band, who I really trust, and they know me well. I gave it to them to work on, which I didn’t do with the last album, as I kind of wanted to do everything myself. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s made me realize that there are people who know more than I do and could have added more. I mean, I’ve never been the sort of person to say, ‘Hey guys! Let’s jam!’ But after the lockdown, I did feel I wanted to feel part of something that was bigger than myself. And then working with Brad Cook in his studio was just great, he’s got such an ear for rhythm and polyrhythm and peripheral sounds like synths. He’d say things like, ‘Fenne, this needs to be slower, and you’ll thank me for it later.’”

The album artwork is also a thing of bittersweet beauty. It’s the first not to feature a photo of Lily. Instead, it shows a miniature scene detailing the collapse of a home confined within a bell jar, with several inch-high models of Lily in various places throughout. She admits it’s the first one she’s really given a lot of thought to. “Well, it’s quite nice not to be on the cover too,” she laughs. “I wanted to thematically represent the record, and I had the idea when I was in Duke Gardens in LA, and I was going through an emotionally vulnerable time. There was a bonsai tree exhibit that made me think about tiny versions of regular things. Then I realized that’s how I felt the whole time I was making the record, like a tiny version of myself. It was constructed by the amazing Thomas Doyle who I found on Instagram.”

Although asking an artist if there is one particular song that holds special significance is rather like asking Imelda Marcos to pick her favorite shoes, Lily highlights the penultimate song, “Red Deer Day,” which was actually written after the album was finished. “I had been on tour from February to May, and during that time, I had gone through a breakup. When I returned to the flat I shared with my ex, he had taken all his stuff, and it was weird. Actually, I’m realizing a lot of the process involved in this record has me saying, ‘And then I got drunk,’” she laughs. “But I did, it was probably a COVID thing, anyway I wrote half of the song the night before pre-production. I showed it to the band, and they were like, ‘This is sick, you really should finish this.’”

“We recorded it with Brad three different times, but we couldn’t quite get it to work, and I almost ditched it,” Lily continues. It was another producer, musician and frequent Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Christian Lee Hutson, who got the song over the finish line. “Then I was speaking to Christian, who said we could get this recorded in a day, and so I flew to LA, tracked it and now it’s become a really integral part of the album. It provided a conclusion, albeit a sad one, that the relationship was over and we couldn’t be together anymore. But it felt like a proper ending to the story, and as such, it’s a really important song for me.”


Read our interview with Lily on BREACH.

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