Madeline Kenney has a degree in neuroscience. She’s an avid painter and dancer. She aspent a few years working as a professional baker. She’s in her mid-twenties. While Kenney has taken the long and winding road to her present day career as a touring musician, it’s clear that the diverse range of experiences and characters she has come across over the last few years have only served as the palette for her acclaimed debut full-length release, Night Night at the First Landing.
“Being on the road is my jam. I love travel and I love playing shows, and the fact that I can do both at the same time is amazing to me.” It’s early on a Monday morning when I reach Kenney over the phone. She’s at her parents’ home in her native Washington state, having played a hometown show in Seattle on Sunday night, and she’s in a particularly reflexive mood.
“It’s why I want to make more records, and I love being on stage in front of people,” Kenney says, pausing for a beat. “Self-obsessed as that sounds, it makes me feel free in a way. To pack in the shows and do it every night can get exhausting for sure, but it goes away when I’m on stage.” She stops for a drink of coffee, taking a deep gulp.
“It’s a lot of driving but we’ll be alright.”
Madeline Kenney plays Brooklyn’s Trans-Pecos on September 19 and Washington DC’s DC9 on September 20. Night Night at the First Landing is out now on Company Records.
Brightest Young Things: Is this still a good time to speak? I know it’s pretty early on the West Coast.
Madeline Kenney: Yes! Totally. Nothing’s going on – I’m just my having coffee. This is a great time to chat. I’m at my parents’ place in Washington state and taking in this great view – they live up in the North Puget Sound, and I can see the San Juan Islands out of the window. It’s gorgeous – I’ll text you a picture afterwards.
BYT: Funnily enough I’m having another cup of coffee right now even though it’s almost midday in D.C. I went to see It last night with my sister and I had to take half a Xanax to sleep afterwards. I don’t like scary movies and I fucking hate clowns.
M.K.: Right. Of course, as any sane person would be. I don’t think I can go see that – first of all, I hate clowns, and I hate scary movies. But also: why would you remake a movie that used to have Tim Curry and now doesn’t?
BYT: To their credit, it was really good, and Bill Skarsgard did a great job. I just had a hard time unwinding afterwards. Are you a big movie buff?
M.K.: I definitely am a media buff, and I consume a lot of movies and weird TV shows, but I would have to say that my boyfriend is way more of a movie freak. He’s seen all these terrible, awful 90s movies; he’s seen all of them. It’s creepy, I don’t understand.
BYT: So what’s your go-to? What weird TV shows are you into?
M.K.: I watch a lot of British comedy; an unhealthy amount of British comedies and British crime dramas. And Jane Austen adaptations. [Laughs] I have a list! A classic would be A Bit of Fry & Laurie – it’s a wonderful, wonderful beautiful thing, and I love Stephen Fry. I love That Mitchell and Webb Look, Peep Show, and one that a few of the people from The Mighty Boosh made afterwards. It’s called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – it’s incredible and totally weird, like this cheesy fake horror movie-comedy-soap opera? I don’t know. There’s this really, really weird one called Snuffbox, which is probably the strangest show I’ve ever watched. It’s the most out there thing, and I love it.
BYT: I don’t think I’ve heard of most of these – I know of Fry and Laurie and the Mighty Boosh, but I’ll have to check them out. I was a big fan of Little Britain though, and that was super out there.
M.K.: Oh I LOVE Little Britain. That’s a great show.
BYT: I know you grew up in the Seattle area, but you’ve been living in Oakland the last few years. How’s it like being home?
M.K.: Well, my parents left the Seattle-Edmonds area when they were empty nesters and moved up here. It’s pretty far north – you can actually see Canada. I love coming to visit my parents because well, you know – they’re biologically mine – but I’m still unfamiliar with this area and I get lost pretty often. [Laughs] I definitely did not grow up here; it feels like seeing my parents in another place.
BYT: It sounds like you guys are meeting up for a cool retreat of sorts.
M.K.: Yeah! It’s funny you say that specific word. My dad just built a glorified tent – it has a wooden platform, and is basically a big square canvas tent – for my mom to hang out outside and knit, and sleep outside if she feels like it. He calls it the “Sheshurt”. [Laughs] It kills me! It’s so funny. It’s very much in a retreat style. They’re doing their thing and they figured out what works for them, so they just do that now. My mom loves animals so she fosters a lot of dogs, and she has chickens, and makes soap – it’s very Little House On the Prairie and it’s adorable. My dad runs his masonry business.
BYT: To go onto the main topic of today’s conversation, it seems like you grew up around that DIY-spirit and ethos. From what I understand, you wrote, arranged and recorded Night Night at the First Landing, correct?
M.K.: Yeah – I recorded almost everything at home. Drums and bass were recorded at Ex’pression College [for Digital Arts] because one of my friends works there, and is one of the people that checks equipment. So we just got free studio space there and did those parts. I wanted that groove, and I’m not a percussionist. You have to know your limits, you know what I mean? [Laughs wryly]
Then I took those stems and went back home and recorded everything as far as vocals, keys, random stuff. But I sat on those tracks until Chaz [Bear, of Toro y Moi and Les Sins] was available for production. I was really impatient and I wanted the record to be done, so I convinced Chaz to let me go down to LA and work with the sound guy that goes on tour with him, Pat Johns. Pat’s an amazing guy and he helped me clean up the tracks and make them sound a little better. I don’t have a lot of plugins; I have Ableton and needed more than that, so he helped me make stuff sound better. Once that was done, I sent the tracks to Chaz and he did some overdubs and sang on the tracks, and that was that.
BYT: How did you and Chaz connect? I know you sang on his last record, but how did you meet? Was it just through living in the East Bay?
M.K.: Yeah, pretty much. My boyfriend plays in Astronauts, Etc. which is Anthony Ferraro’s project – Anthony plays keys in Toro y Moi on tour. Anthony played in my live band for a little bit, and Chaz came to one of my shows. I didn’t actually know who he was; I didn’t know his music because I am not cool. [Laughs] So, yeah. He came up and said he wanted to work together, and I said “ok!” [Laughs] He produced my EP, and I wasn’t totally sure I was going to work with him on this next album just because he’s so busy, but he reached out about it. It was all very organic, and to me it feels like it happened randomly.
BYT: As I was walking into this phone booth to call you I was thinking to myself what an exciting time it is for rock and roll – and particularly for female-led bands. This past weekend alone I saw Japanese Breakfast, Tei Shi, and Big Thief on three consecutive nights. And I read this article last week –
M.K.: Oh yeah, the New York Times article.
BYT: What’s your take on it? Do you feel a part of something, or are you doing your own thing? Is it just a happy coincidence?
M.K.: Well. [Pauses] That’s a little bit of a loaded question, I think. [Laughs] Hmm. I don’t know if I feel a part of anything; I’m just trying to do my thing, and I think that’s what everyone feels like. Men, women, everyone in between. I agree with you – I think it’s a great time for female artists in a culture that’s been dominated by men forever, and I think that it’s so easy to look at things like a dichotomy. I often get asked the, “What’s it like to be a girl playing music?” question and it’s like a boy playing music. It’s just playing music! [Laughs]
And you know, no hate – no bad feels – but I think that it can be a little exhausting when the first thing something points out about you is that you happen to be a girl and you hold a guitar, too. It’s just funny. We played this gig last night in Seattle that had some bro-ey vibes going on. Camille, my drummer for the tour, is a girl. It’s me and Camille and my bassist Scott, and he has been really vocal about how he’s noticed that we are treated differently. I mean, we know that, and we’re so aware of it, and it’s exhausting. People are always surprised that she and I can play at the level we can, and they’re so complimentary to us, while all he gets is maybe a, “Hey, good job, man.”
Anyway, anyway – this is a long-winded way of saying that sexism is so rampant that even in complimenting female musicians it can come across as sexist. Not to get hella political on your ass. [Laughs] I think it is an awesome time to be making music for anybody: for women, for queer people, for people of color. But those people have always been making music.
BYT: Oh, no offense taken, and I totally get it. I mentioned the article because I first came across it through your publicist, as she’s been working with a few of the artists featured. For me it was more of seeing three bands that I love on successive nights and not necessarily thinking about gender, and the confluence of all of those things happening in a short frame of time.
M.K.: Yeah, totally. It’s funny that everybody is sort of coming up at the same time. A lot of us are from the same fam, you know? There’s a bunch of great female-led, or all female, or all queer, or non-binary artists coming out of the Bay Area. Jay Som, Soar. It’s cool to see, but I think people do need to be careful about lumping people together just because their one thing in common is that they’re girls. [Polite laughter]
BYT: I spoke to Sadie [Dupuis] from Speedy Ortiz a few months ago, and her comments were similar to yours – people are always surprised she can shred. And she was like “no shit dude, I’m a guitarist.”
M.K.: Yeah, I took music theory for ten years. [Laughs] I’m trying!
BYT: What guides and frames your songwriting process? Is there anything that you feel is “off-limits” about yourself that you’d rather keep out of your music, or are you continuing to explore these things as you mature as a songwriter?
M.K.: What a well-crafted question, I’m liking this. [Laughs] That’s a good question. It’s funny the way stuff works: writing the songs, recording the songs and releasing the songs is such a spaced-out process. That’s why I am so impatient; I want to just do this. It’s almost like holding on to water falling through your hands.
I feel like those songs are so specific to a certain time in my life – most of them were written over a year ago and it feels like forever away. I’m inspired by such different things now. While the record was being mastered and going into pressing, I’ve been writing these new songs that feel so different from the record – and that’s good, to me. I want to grow as a person and as a songwriter. But then you have all these songs in your hand that become your reality, but you have to tour playing your old reality. It’s kind of odd. I don’t know. I don’t want to kill my album sales by disparaging my own music. [Laughs] But I’m kind of not super crazy about these songs right now – I’ll play them and I still get something out of them when I do, but I find myself driving to the next venue and fantasizing about recording the next album and how different it’s gonna be, and how many instruments I’ll use, and what I’ll do differently.
For me, songwriting is about turning inward a little bit. This past album was about people – specific people – in each song. The stuff that I’m writing is focusing a bit more inward, lyrically, and I’m becoming more fascinated with arrangements and instrumentation. Anyways, sorry that was so long-winded. I’m telling you, I’m drinking coffee and just running my mouth. [Laughs]
BYT: There’s usually that lag between writing music, recording, producing, releasing and touring. Life has oftentimes moved on by the time you’re actually playing in public. It must be interesting to perform songs that are snapshot of a time you’ve moved past.
M.K.: Yeah! I think what’s interesting about music – especially live music – is that it’s a living and breathing thing. The songs take on new meanings as we play them, and the attitudes might change and shift depending on how we’re feeling that day. The song “Uncommon” on the record was with grappling with what people think is cool and unique; to me these things were homogenous, really. And I felt like “OK, they want you to be different but really they want you to be the same.” That’s what the song was about, but I feel if I’ve had a bad day on tour, that song becomes about whatever person really pissed me off that day and the attitude changes a little bit. [Laughs] I don’t know if that makes sense or sounds bratty, but that’s what it is.
BYT: This thought floated into my head the other day: how does Billy Joel feel when he plays “Piano Man” for the millionth fucking time?
M.K.: DUDE. I don’t know! First of all – I love Billy Joel, so let’s get that out on the table, right now. I love him so much and covered some of his music in high school.
Second of all, I think at that point what you’re getting out of that performance is totally just soaking up what that crowd is giving you. They want to hear it so bad and they’re sending out those vibes, and you’re just taking it all in. Obviously, it’s no freaking “Piano Man” and I’m not Billy Joel, but there’s a song “Signals” off of my EP that people really liked and like to hear when I play live – and even my band encourages me to – but I just don’t always want to, you know? But it feels good and you can feel that coming from the audience. That must be what it is.
I saw Paul McCartney when I was 12 and he played all the hits man. It was cool. And he was already like 70.
BYT: Then you have someone like Bob Dylan who just won’t do it.
M.K.: Dude, he hasn’t even tried since he was 40. [Laughs] He’s 800 years old now. I think it’s on the Bootleg Series – but it’s Blood on the Tracks era: these live versions of songs, but literally every song sounds. the. same. It’s crazy! The same intonation! It’s insane. You’re just like, “Wow, you obviously don’t give a shit. You’ve got sunscreen all over your face and you don’t even care.” [Laughs heartily]