Fenne Lily Outlines the Personal Reflections and Social Underpinnings Behind ‘Breach’
Six months into the pandemic, feeling lonely goes without saying — or does it? After all, some space from the suffocating bustle of everyday life allows time for rumination, and can fuel creativity, even lead to bouts of enlightenment. The distinction between being alone and being lonely is one that UK singer-songwriter Fenne Lily anticipated before isolation became the norm. Having written music largely as a therapeutic exercise since her debut album, “On Hold,” Lily continued her soul searching in a deliberate period of solicitude. Eventually, a stay alone in Berlin triggered a bit of a revelation, and spurred a surge of creativity that gave rise to her sophomore album, “Breach.”
Upon releasing her debut, Lily toured with the likes of Lucy Ducas and Andy Schauff, and made a quick impact. Such disparate influences as T. Rex, PJ Harvey, Nick Drake, and Feist meshed elegantly into a striking sound, while Lily’s diaristic candor and angsty authenticity struck a resonant chord. On her latest record, Lily grows more personal yet, shifting her focus inward in a search for emotional stability. Reaching as far back as the circumstances of her own birth, and taking inspiration from the full trajectory of life experiences, Lily ventured into meditations that not only chronicle an individual’s attainment of confidence, but bleed into a wealth of social insight. The new songs touch upon such topics as the futility of quick fixes and the toxic culture of social media, in a tone that is at once innocuous and caustic. Lily spoke with Entertainment Voice about all of this and more.
You wrote your new album, “Breach,” during a period of self-imposed isolation, before it became the norm. Do you think your new music anticipated feelings that are particularly relatable now?
The theme of it isn’t really isolation. It was just a tool I used. I think maybe these things are relatable now that people have gone through a similar situation where they’re in their heads a lot more. I was writing it by myself in Berlin. I was struggling to switch up the monotony of regular life, and obviously, that’s something that everyone has to deal with right now. It was written in a period of trying to escape my head while also trying to make friends with what’s in my head, so I guess in that way, now I understand that situation a bit more.
A major theme of the album involves learning how to be alone without feeling lonely. “Berlin” is the most direct exploration of this theme. Expand on this idea, your experience in Berlin, and how your perception of the subject evolved during the course of writing and recording.
When I finished touring and when I started writing, in 2018, I wanted to figure out the difference between being alone and being lonely, and I think I did that, in a way, because I came to the conclusion that being alone is a decision and being lonely is a symptom of a situation that might not be your own, so I felt like I was taking control of something that ultimately is considered to be a passive reaction to a bad situation. Before I went to Berlin, I hadn’t spent much time alone at all. This was full immersion in a different life, and I had no comfort people, and I didn’t have my stuff around me. I didn’t have many clothes. So it was like taking my life back to the bare minimum and finding comfort in music. I was a grouch. I listened to Harrison Whitford’s album “Afraid of Everything” like every day, and I read Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” like four times. So I learned to be my own soother, which was healthy, but I wouldn’t recommend going clubbing on your own. It’s not fun. I felt a little bit like I was doing a research trip.
You stand out for your breathy voice which gives your singing a distinctive, haunting quality. Is this a sound that you cultivated, or has it always been your natural singing voice?
It’s the only way I can sing, genuinely. If I could sing in a way that better reflected the strength of the opinions that I have, I would definitely choose my voice. I never decided to be a singer. I didn’t decide what I wanted to sound like or what I wanted to look like. I kind of started the process being like, “Okay, this feels comfortable. This works. I’ll stick with this because it feels most natural.” There’s never been a point in making music where I’ve been forcing myself around any way, and I hope I don’t feel like I have to. So it’s not a decision. It’s just happening to me. (Laughs) But also, there’s almost like a cool juxtaposition to sound sweet, like you wouldn’t hurt anyone, and then say the words, “I used to hate my body, but now I just hate you.” It’s almost funny in a way, if I can laugh at myself at a distance, so it’s a juxtaposition that I’m okay with.
Your voice seems especially expressive on “Elliot,” with string arrangements further enhancing the effect, making the song strike like something of an emotional peak. Tell us about the inspiration and meaning behind the track.
That was the last one to be written for the record. I wasn’t intending to write any more songs, and I was on a recording break. I came back from Chicago, and this song just popped up. I realized after the fact that it’s about my dad’s experience with abandonment from his dad when he was a kid, and it felt like because I was tapping into someone else’s emotional experiences, I needed to be careful with it, and I think that that came across in the way that I delivered it. The string arrangements, I knew I wanted strings on this album from day one, and this felt like the perfect song to bring it out, to make it very cinematic, bring kind of an ethereal quality to it, but natural.
The title of your lead single, “Alapathy,” is a portmanteau of “allopathy,” or western medicine, and “apathy,” and explores the idea of seeking escape through hasty fixes instead of preventing problems in the first place. Tell us about the backstory behind this idea, and about whether it led you to any specific conclusions.
I was thinking a lot about how I struggle with thought patterns, and my mind races at night, and I feel low a lot of the time and then manic quite a lot of the time. Manic depression runs in my family, so I started getting worried that maybe I should be addressing this with some kind of chemical balance and pills. And I spoke to a lot of friends whom depression medication works really well for and then a few the opposite, and I came to the decision that as much as I don’t enjoy every mood swing, I feel like for me, personally, it’s important for me to write those highs and lows, because I didn’t want to flatline my emotional backdrop. And I recognize that depression meds are brilliant for a lot of people, so I’m not criticizing it, but I genuinely feel that the way that I now cope with the mood swings and those periods of depression are healthier than I previously did. I tried to squash the feelings before, and now I accept them as part of my regular range of emotions, so a lot of it is me kind of musing on how it feels normal to have a hateful voice in my head telling me that I’m doing badly, and without that voice, maybe I would feel less myself.
In the chorus of “I, Nietzsche,” you make a pun on “I need you.” Is this because you consider Nietszche particularly needy? German scientist Joscha Bach describes him as “the classical equivalent of a shitposter.” What are your thoughts on Nietzsche?
(Laughs). Wow. I’m less attacking Nietzsche, more attacking the type of guy who reads Nietzsche and thinks that that’s a badge of honor. I was seeing someone at the time who genuinely would prefer to read a book than fuck me, which I found promlematic, and I often realized that he would be reading a book only if someone was witnessing him read. I hate that pseudointellectual bullshit that comes with someone who’s got an inflected sense of importance based on what they consume literature-wise. Actually, that pun, “I Need you / I Nietzsche,” was all I had. I was like, “That’s funny,” and I told my friend like, “That’s as funny as you think it is,” but I wrote the song anyway. I didn’t know that about him, the “poster philosophy.” That’s brilliant. I love that.
On “Solipsism,” you sing a striking refrain of “Run on empty at one and twenty.” Do you think being that age at this specific time particularly lends itself to a solipsistic outlook, and if so, why?
For sure. I haven’t been twenty-one in any other age, so I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m struggling at that time with the feeling that my life didn’t live up to the quality of life that I was seeing shared by people, on social media mainly, and feeling less important than people who were doing better than me. I think social media is absolutely a tool that you can use smartly, but I think also it has the potential to make people feel shit about themselves and make them feel like they’re not valid because they’re not showing a brilliant life. So yeah, I was feeling apathetic and lost, and I was having a lot of conversations with friends that felt the same, and actually, that is just a part of getting older and getting comfortable in your skin, and addressing your flaws, and navigating them rather than feeling like you are less of a person because of them.
Your music has a unique stylistic mix, with echoes of punk rock grit alongside English folk spirit. How would you describe the sound you’ve centered on, especially on the new record?
I have no idea at all, and I really struggle to even put into a genre the music that I listen to. If I’m giving a recommendation, “Listen to this album,” I really just want them to listen to it because I’m bad at explaining stuff like that, but the main things I’ve gravitated towards in the music that has inspired this record is snare sounds — I’m obsessed with snare sounds — I really love the kind of post punk, Pavement guitar tone. I really like that garage-ey, raw, almost spontaneous, underprocessed guitar sound, and vocal delivery and vocal production that sounds really close and in your ear, like Jacques Brel. I love the way that his voice is recorded. I listen to a lot of different stuff, but generally I gravitate towards vocals, melodies like pop hooks and etc. so a lot of different things from a load of different places became the outcome for this album.
You were born “breech,” which has informed the album title, “Breach.” Do you feel like you’ve generally gone through life upside down, and has your new album generally turned you right side up?
(Laughs). Oh, that’s such a sweet question. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the way that you come into the world influencing the way that you exist in the world. Because I was born upside down — I was a cesarean child, I had to be cut out — I didn’t have intake of breath. Until the first year of my life, I was crying because I had lung problems, and I found it difficult to breathe, and I would never have myself being held. And I think that that has not changed, really. I crave, but also get stressed out, by people. I need contact, but I feel like I need space. So in a way, yeah, I feel similarly wrong (laughs) with my place in the world. I hadn’t really thought about that.
On this record, especially, I think I wanted to address where I’ve come from, as a person, as a baby, and also musically, but also give a sense of where I’m going. So it’s a combination of reflection, but also looking forward, and knowing what I need to change about myself, and knowing what I need to change about the way I reflect with that in music, and it feels like a step in the right direction, in terms of becoming a stronger person, and letting that be more part of the sonic quality of what I’m making. It feels less shy and confused. It feels clearer.
Having gained confidence in solitude, as you make clear on the new album, how do you proceed forward in these times of isolation?
I think I’m trying to give myself more of a break, and not put pressure on myself to create just because I have the time to, letting myself sleep when I need to, letting myself eat what I want, and not allowing the state of the world to emotionally fuck with me. I think there’s so much negativity and so many problems right now, and it has the power to completely crush somebody. I’m really trying to avoid the news as much as possible, but still stay aware of what’s happening in the world. I’m trying to be empathetic and compassionate, but also give my brain a break and stop stressing myself out so much.
What does the future hold, in terms of promoting the album, and releasing new music?
I haven’t even thought about music. I’m mainly excited to eventually tour. I think we’ve got some stuff coming up in Spring next year. I’m probably going to be doing some more online shows, although I kind of dread them because it feels less personal than a real show. We’re doing some film sessions that will be arriving at some point. I’m just trying not to think too much about the future and focus on what I’ve made, because it took a long time to make this album. It feels sometimes like I’m throwing a lifetime of work into the world, and then suddenly people are like, “What’s next?” so I’d like to just kind of chill for a second, and be like, “I did it. I made something. I’ll think about the next thing very far in the future” (laughs.)
“Breach” releases Sept. 18 on Apple Music.