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Interview: Fenne Lily

Not many young artists can count up a massive 20 million+ Spotify streams off the back of the first song they’ve ever written, but then again, not many young artists are Fenne Lily. Raised in the wilds of rural Dorset to punk and Queen-loving parents, the 20-year old talent first picked up the guitar aged 15 and quickly found she was a natural.

Just one year later and she’d written the delicate but powerful ‘Top To Toe’, which deftly tackled social anxiety over softly picked guitar; a song about bleak adolescence that almost everyone could relate to. Self-released, it saw the young unknown attract global attention for her sublime songwriting ability and sharp emotional intelligence, as well as her gifted way with melody.

Now, though, she’s gearing up to release her debut album later this week and proving she’s much more than your typical acoustic songwriter. I have been fortunate enough to spend some time chatting with Fenne about her influences growing up, her nerves about the album’s imminent release and her UK tour.

Could you tell me about how you initially got involved with music and who influenced you most? 
I started having piano lessons with a family friend when I was about 7. He’s an incredible musician and composer and would write me pieces to play based on the music we’d listen to together – he taught me how to read sheet music but mainly how to improvise and play by ear, which sparked a desire to create the music I wanted to perform. The lessons were weekly and I remember stopping at a newsagents on the way there to buy NME – I ripped out pages to decorate my bedroom walls with and, living in the countryside without much access to live music, I saw a kind of unattainable romanticism in gigging and touring. I played instruments to feel a little bit of the freedom I saw depicted in those pages.

Fenne Lily. Taken by Hollie Fernando-2018

For those who are new to your music which three tracks would you encourage them to check out first and why?
Car Park‘ is the track I feel most connected to at the moment. I wrote it in a pretty dark place, after coming to realise that patterns of false hope and heartache are suffered by the passive. I made a conscious decision to say goodbye to the people and choices that made me doubt myself and start making space for the ones that gave me strength and helped me grow. In a similar vein, ‘The Hand You Deal’ is an ode to accepting what you can’t change and maintaining a firm grasp on reality when it feels like the easiest thing to is to cry and complain and blame. Feeling thrown away is painful, but anger doesn’t soothe that pain, and the strongest thing to do in that situation is to take care of your sadness and not waste energy on hating someone you care(d) about.

I guess the last track I’m especially fond of is ‘More Than You Know’ which is the second song I ever wrote, after ‘Top to Toe.’ The way we recorded it was particularly lo-fi and I almost whispered the vocals – it’s sometimes hard to inject feeling into lyrics that were written so long ago, but this song always feels very immediate and applicable to my situation, even 6 years down the line.

In the video for ‘What’s Good’ you are wearing a selection of different football shirts belonging to teams over the world. How did you go about choosing which shirts to wear? Being from Dorset and the most local shirt being the Southampton FC shirt, does this mean that they are your team? 
Haha oh man I knew someone was going to ask about the football tops. Honestly I just asked my mates for any kind of sportswear. I have no idea about football and just wore what I was given. No team allegiance. Just aesthetic, sorry.

I’m pretty frightened! As soon as a body of work is released into the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s anyone’s to interpret and judge, so in that respect it’s a scary time.

I’ve been listening to your debut album ‘On Hold’ and I have been loving it. Could you tell me a little bit about the process of writing and recording the album?
The album was written over the course of 6 years, starting with ‘Top to Toe’. I never planned to write and release a record – I kind of started writing as a way to sort through the complexities of feeling too much and talking about it too little. So this album is a kind of open diary, chronicling the myriad phases of self-hatred and ensuing acceptance that arise from falling in and out of love, both with others and myself. The album was recorded in stages, first with my friend and producer Tamu Massif. I then took some bare guitar and vocal tracks to the Isle of Wight to record with the band Champs – I knew those tracks needed to be rich with live instrumentation. One track, Brother, was recorded with John Parish – it’s a pick and mix of different production styles but my approach to the album as a whole was always clear to me – I wanted to make something honest and unaffected, something that won’t feel obsolete in 5 years.

How are you feeling about its impending release?
I’m pretty frightened! As soon as a body of work is released into the world, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s anyone’s to interpret and judge, so in that respect it’s a scary time. But I’ve also poured a lot of love and time and energy into this record – it documents the highs and lows of my teenage years, a particularly tumultuous time, so it’ll be a relief to finally hand over that part of myself and start working on the next chapter. I never thought I’d have the people and experiences and strength to make a piece of work like this, so I’m having to remind myself that whatever the reception, I’ve made a record that I’m proud of, without a label, without a massive budget – that’s something in itself.

What bands and artists are you currently listening to and how are they inspiring you to explore and implement new ideas with your music?
I recently discovered Anna Tivel – she has an album called Small Believer that I listen to in its entirety at least weekly, and her songwriting is so multi-faceted and pure and honest. I aspire to be the kind of writer who’s able to create the lyrical equivalent of a cryptic crossword the way she does. Her voice is entirely unaffected, too, which I find hard to come by. I’m also massively into Big Thief and Alex G, the kind of ‘almost-Americana’ vibe that’s really all about intricate instrumentation and lyrics you really have to dig into to even remotely understand. Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, also – I’m in love with the darkness they dance around, not emo and not folk but some (un)happy medium.

While on tour do you get very much time to explore the towns and cities that you are playing?
On tour I mostly see the venue and the hotel, but I’ve set myself the task of buying a book in every city (so far it’s going pretty well) and making an effort to at least have a wander around. Otherwise it’s easy to let all the shows blend into one and allow yourself to spend way too much time indoors. S’bad for the skin.

On tour I mostly see the venue and the hotel, but I’ve set myself the task of buying a book in every city.

What can those fortunate enough to have tickets expect from your live show?
I mean, I have a band now, that’s something. They’re very sexy. There’s also a kazoo involved, and some unexpected walk-on music. My live set has a lot more energy now that I have other people up on stage with me, so I guess think sad but BIG sad.

Other than Victorious Festival what does the rest of 2018 have in store for you?
2018 will be gig-heavy – Ill be playing Festival Number 6, Green Man etc, but I’m going to record another load of tracks to keep up my own momentum as a writer, otherwise I’ll panic when it comes to album two. So lots of gigging and writing! That’s the plan.

Fenne is going to be playing at Heartbreakers in Southampton this Saturday evening. General admission is free with an eTicket which can be secured from the venue or online at fennelily.com/events. If you are unable to catch Fenne this weekend then she will be on Southsea Common as part of this summer’s Victorious Festival. You can also download and stream the new album ‘On Hold‘ from this Friday.

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