A Chat With: Madeline Kenney
Nowadays, with all of the behind the scenes work and promotion leading up to an album release, it’s become more and more rare for an artist to release a record two years in a row. But for singer songwriter Madeline Kenney, the feat of releasing her sophomore album just one year after her debut falls into place among an array of creative interests and achievements. Besides touring her first record, Night Night at the First Landing, and sharing stages with the likes of Wye Oak, Soccer Mommy, and Jay Som, Kenney also managed to run her own record label while writing Perfect Shapes and recording it with a new collaborator and producer, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak.
Full of complexity on both a lyrical and sonic level, Perfect Shapes takes listeners on a comprehensive journey while weaving together layered and experimental sounds. It’s an album that showcases the creative triumph that can stem from stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging boundaries. When you hear more about Kenney’s background, like the fact that she studied dance and choreography for years before moving on to study Neuroscience in college, it’s no surprise that her songwriting and composition remain so intricate and thoughtful. Kenney’s unique range of passions blend together to form a multifaceted and diverse outcome on this record.
Shortly after the release of Perfect Shapes, Kenney took some time to speak with me on the phone as she prepared for her current headlining tour. “I’m in Austin and I just got real danky dank tacos,” she tells me at the start of our conversation. Although we joked about keeping the interview solely about tacos (“Talking Tacos with Madeline Kenney” does have a nice ring to it…), we spent the next half hour discussing her background, her different creative endeavors, how she manages her time, and what we can all do to make concerts a more diverse and safe space for everyone. Turn on Perfect Shapes, tune into the full conversation with Madeline Kenney below, and then come see her perform the new songs at Schubas Tavern this Friday, November 9th.
Your sophomore album Perfect Shapes just came out last Friday, so it’s been about a week now. How are you feeling at this point and what have been some of your favorite responses?
Oh boy, you know it feels good to have it out. It feels good that the wait is over. There’s a lot of fear and anticipation associated with an album rollout...Singles start to come out and you’re like oh god, is everyone gonna hate this? But yeah it’s been good. Favorite response is a strange question maybe because press responses are just so nerve-wracking. Pitchfork reviewed it. That’s fine, that’s cool. As any sort of fearful musician I sort of hate them a little bit. They’ve reviewed my friends’ records badly. Like leave my friends alone!
Yeah it’s like hey, if you don’t like it, just leave it alone!
If you don’t have anything nice to say...But no, I think my favorite response is it’s really nice to get texts from musicians and friends of mine, who I really respect their opinions. For somebody to just be like I listened to your record and the sounds are great, or the drums sound great…
Totally, a fellow musician telling you means the most?
Yeah, people who have done work that I really admire...I’m just like oh man. That’s been nice. Mostly I’m just like ok what’s next?
So for the album you worked with Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak. How was that experience working with Jenn and how did that feel to work with someone new as a producer, compared to your last record?
It was great! She’s an angel upon this earth. Just a boundlessly creative person. We were both trying a lot of new things. She’d never produced someone’s album that wasn’t her own and that she wasn’t a part of, like Flock of Dimes or Wye Oak. So there was a lot of experimentation, there was a lot of mistakes. Not a lot, but some. But we were all learning together and I think it was a really forgiving environment. It was-- we were very free to experiment and try new things. Just working with somebody different you know? I didn’t stop working with Chaz [Bundick] because I hate Chaz it’s just--
Yeah, new ears! Exactly. We made this thing that was great, and what would happen if I made a thing with someone else, what would it sound like? And it sounds like Perfect Shapes.
Do you think you’ll continue then in the future to try other producers and partner with other musicians to keep the sound fresh and in a new perspective for each album?
I think that I’m ready now to produce my own. I think I needed to work with a woman and I needed to work in the space that we worked in to realize hey, maybe I can do this! I mean, I would work with Jenn any day again, of course. But I think it’s important for whatever I do next to maybe trust myself a little more. I just learned from this experience that I think I do know what I like. Yeah again, some really sweet people reached out after hearing the record and just made me feel like maybe my intuition can be trusted. I think that’s a skill to learn that about yourself.
Yeah sounds like this was overall a positive learning experience! Which is awesome, not everyone can say that! So you actually recorded in Durham, North Carolina right? Were you writing in North Carolina as well?
No, all of the songs, I wrote in Oakland. I wrote most of them like right after or during the roll out of Night, Night. The record came out in September of last year and then I was on tour in that month and I ended up sending demos to Jenn in December. Then I recorded them in January.
Nice, so no time off?
No time off! Why have time off when you could be making things? No, time off is actually important. Don’t learn from my workaholic tendencies please.
Do you think that the vibe of recording those songs in the new surroundings of Durham affected you when you were making the album?
Yeah for sure! We were out in the woods in this house that was converted into a studio by Sylvan Esso. I was like recording guitar tracks and looking outside at cardinals, which I’d never seen before. I’m a west coast girl so I was like wow cardinals! Oh my god! And yeah I think that the space that we were recording in made it into a little softer feeling, even though there’s some like distorted guitar, louder drums, I think the general vibe is you can kind of feel that it’s not made in a regular studio or my apartment in Oakland.
Yeah, it’s very layered and you can feel the thought and intention behind it, like it wasn’t recorded in someone’s bedroom.
Yeah and it also doesn’t sound like a studio which is strange. Which is another thing I’m interested in. I made a record in my bedroom. I made a record in a house studio, and now I’m kind of interested what would it sound like in a real studio.
Yeah to just keep experimenting?
Yeah I think that’s so important. It’s important to grow and learn.
So as far as taking this into the live show, has it been difficult to translate what you recorded on the album? Have you had to get creative with certain arrangements?
Heck yeah! It’s been super hard! I was like what did I do to myself? All these new sounds! I’m used to just having a regular band with two guitars, bass and drums. So we had to get kind of creative, but I’m excited. It’s really fun you know translating things onto different instruments. We’re using a lot of samples. Camille plays drums and does the samples, she’s just a multitalented force of mature. Her bandmate--they have a band in Austin called Dead Recipe which is incredible and you should listen to their music--
Oh I haven’t heard of them, but I will check them out!
Yeah, I run a very tiny label and we put out their EP. I say we, but I don’t have a staff, it’s just me.
That’s how I am with ANCHR so I can relate!
But yeah, Kyle and Camille are my rhythm section but they also multitask and do a lot more. There’s a guitar part on one of the songs that Kyle has translated onto bass and he does it with an effect that sounds cool and wacky. Mostly it’s just gonna be really fun. I’m very well aware that the record doesn’t have like one cohesive style. There’s a couple songs that are out there and different and that’s fine. It makes for a really fun set to play!
Totally, if you wanted to just hear the record, you wouldn’t go to the show. It’ll be fun to see how you come up with it and how it comes out on stage. So kind of switching gears, I read that you grew up dancing and you thought you were more geared towards doing choreography in your future. When did you decide to focus more on music? Was there a certain moment that it clicked?
Not really. You know, the dance world is kind of messed up. I was gonna go to college for choreography. I had applied to Columbia College-
In Chicago? That’s where I went!
I went for music business though.
I remember seeing one of their performances and I was like man, I would really like to do that. I applied and everything and I just realized I love eating a lot...And I don’t think all dance culture is that toxic, but a lot of it is. A lot of academic dance when you have to do crazy amounts of ballet, that’s a body negative environment. So I just realized that world wasn’t for me. It’s still something I’m interested in. When I decided not to go to college for it, and I went to college for neuroscience, I was teaching classes at the college. Teaching modern dance. I’m still really interested in choreography and I try to incorporate it into music videos, but yeah it just wasn’t for me.
Yeah I was going to ask then when you’re songwriting, do you think you pull in your dancing-- like picturing yourself dancing to the melody you come up with?
Probably not. I think with anything, like when you’re writing if I can use you as an example. Like whatever your experiences and education or whatever you’re interested in in the moment or even what you’re reading or listening to, it’s such a subconscious amount of influence.
Yeah, like you don’t even realize it.
Yeah, so I think that--I get questions sometimes about neuroscience and I’m a baker too, so people are like do you think about bread when you’re writing? And I’m like well no, unless I’m hungry. But maybe in a way! I spend a lot of time doing really repetitive motions to make this one thing, so subconsciously I think that definitely contributes to how I think about music.
Like all of your different creative passions fuel into it?
Yeah if you can allow me to be a nerd for a second...I did study neuroscience. Neuroplasticity is like the most amazing concept; it’s the concept that thoughts physically change the layout of your brain, they really do. They can strengthen some connections and weaken others, so just the science behind Neuroplasticity that whatever you’re interested in or doing at the current moment is kind of changing your brain, so it’s changing you. So in that way, in that molecular way, it affects how I write!
Oh wow this is the most informational interview I’ve ever had. I didn’t even know about the label that you run when you’re not busy with your music and I didn’t know you studied neuroscience, so I’m just learning all kinds of things.
You know, I’ve got problems. I think I’m diagnosed ADD. It’s fine though!
So with the label then, what kind of artists are you looking for to help do a release?
I just helped this band--they’re kind of out of The Bay, kind of out of Japan. One of them lives in Japan and one of them lives in The Bay. They’re called Curling. My record label’s called Copper Mouth Records, you can go look it up if you want to. That record that they made is really good. Really amazing sounds, they are very dedicated to this idea of recording and mixing in mono to tape. It’s a very Beatles kind of thing in a way. So we just put out their record in August and what else? What’s next for Copper Mouth Records, I don’t know, but I kind of have a side project that I have yet to unveil at all. I might do something with Copper Mouth with that. I’m trying to get more production work. I’m producing this woman’s record in December and I think I might help her put out just the tape release. I want to work with more just not white dudes. I think I gotta take a little break from that demographic.
Totally! Kind of on that subject, I was going to ask you about, when I was researching you, I read that Billboard feature and one part that really stuck out to me was when you were talking about Perfect Shapes addressing certain expectations that are placed on women. You said that you’re placed on bills with other women who also have bangs and play guitar...simply for that reason that they have bangs and play guitar. I think you totally hit the nail on the head, so what would you like to see from venues and promoters and other music fans in the industry that can help stop those kind of patterns and the promoting mostly white dudes in bands?
Yeah, white dudes or white women... Like I’m part of the problem and I realize that. I think that everyone’s awareness helps and I don’t pretend to have the answer because I have one aspect of oppression, being a woman, but that stops there. So I think that what I would love to see is people getting creative with their bills. Like not being afraid to mix genres. Not being afraid to mix comedy and music. That’s a show that I would love to see. I did that when I played in Durham last year and I met the whole crew that I would be working with. It was a college and they were down to do something kind of weird, so I was like can you book a comedy act, preferably a woman? So they booked this female comedy duo that was totally goofy. It was such a fun night. I think it starts really small, and DIY venues are the answer a lot of the time cause they’re doing things that I think are really meaningful and maybe less commercially accessible but emotionally--
Like they’re able to be more creative, it’s not like a set venue. DIY venues can make their own rules.
Yeah, and I get it, a venue is a business and they need to make a profit. This is my first headlining tour and I’m terrified to play to empty rooms, not really for myself, but to let the promoter down or to let the opening band down. Like there’s so much pressure. But that pressure is absent in DIY venues because the point of those venues is not to make a profit, it’s to create a safe space to consume something important. I really think that thinking small is the key.
I really like your suggestion to either have comedy on the bill, or like you said, don’t be afraid to mix genres because yeah, some people might not or might not think they’re into comedy and they just want to go for music, but that kind of broadens the audience and they have draw from all sides.
Yeah, I would love to see a show that’s like a lady MC and a dude rock band. I listen to so much dude rock, I love it. I’m obsessed with that shit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like other genres or I think that they don’t influence each other in ways.
It’s cool to collaborate with different genres and have them learn from each other.
Yeah, just like you said, you might not know that you like it a lot. I went to a show in New York, it was Palm’s album release and they had, I wish I could remember her name, I feel kind of like a piece of shit for forgetting it, but she was like this sci-fi rapper. She wore a fake bionic arm and rapped about saving the planet. She was talking about onstage how you don’t often see women of color loving sci-fi, like it’s a very niche interest. She was just breaking all that down and that was before Palm! Which I would not associate with that genre at all, and it was so good. I was really taken aback by that combination.
I think everyone, like audiences too, can play a part in that. Being willing to check somebody out that you might not have gone to their show. Don’t miss the opener. Openers are people too!
Exactly! I love being an opener because there’s no pressure to sell tickets, but I know the pain of people being like, hey, missed your set but I’ll check you on Spotify! Like, sick, dude, that did nothing for me.
Yeah, I promote shows too through ANCHR and I’m actually doing the second anniversary show at Schubas where you’re playing. I totally can relate to the anxiety of selling tickets, like thinking no one will show up because there will be 5 tickets sold in advance. Everyone just wants to buy at the door.
Yeah with clubs this size, that’s what I’m hoping for that people will buy at door. I’m scared!
Yeah don’t worry, Schubas will have a lot of door sales.
I think that’s kind of the MO of clubs that size. So I’m taking a deep breath that people will show up.
I have faith! People will be there. So wrapping up, what are some of your self care tips, which I’m sure you don’t have too much time for with everything you have going on….But how do you stay sane when you’re traveling and now trying to do production for other artists and running a label while promoting your own record? Any tips for time management and not going completely insane with your to do list?
Oh man, yeah…First of all on tour, I have a couple key secrets. Witch Hazel and blotting sheets will save your face. We keep blotting sheets and witch hazel spray in the van so like halfway through a drive we’re like “ok we’re all gross we just have to clean up a little bit.” Baby wipes, you know you gotta keep laying around to keep yourself clean. But also, it’s easy to eat really poorly. So just being aware of that, and drinking water...As far as in general, I have a crazy amount of things that I’m doing, but I think for my personality that helps me stay sane. If I don’t do a bunch of things I start to lose myself a little bit. I have to find a balance cause I have workaholic tendencies and will overwork myself easily. But I think that if you’re balancing a whole bunch of things—Oh there’s this great book called You Are a Circle. It’s about being a creative person and making art. It’s a minimalist book where each page just has one or two sentences. Like little quips, little bits of advice and inspiration. I wish I had it on me and could read it, but if I can recall it, there was this one bit of advice that was like “have three things going for you. One to pay the bills, one that doesn’t pay the bills right now but could in the future, and one that is completely passion based.” And if can balance these three things you can have a fulfilling life. Like you’re not needing money but you’re also creating and making things that matter to you.
Oh wow that’s great advice!
I hope I got that right! It’s You Are a Circle and then the follow up to that is called You Are a Message, which is about making your creative endeavors a business. It’s not like concrete advice like first make a spreadsheet. It’s like think of your audience and who are you trying to reach. It’s really good!