Meet Bristol songwriter Fenne Lily, the rising queen of relatable sad ballads.
It’s the evening of Friday the 13th when I talk to Fenne Lily. It’s also the day of the 2019 General Election results, and the Conservative party have won an overwhelming majority vote. “I was told at about six in the morning. I just wanted to go back to bed and not wake up.” Lily tells me. “I guess I was in an echo chamber of people who also voted Labour. I'm not sure where all of the Conservative excitement is. I can only see disappointment from where I'm sitting.”
It would be easy to spiral into a conversation about the state of the state here, but the Bristol-based songwriter is pretty upbeat, especially when asked about the reaction she received to her debut album, On Hold, which she released in 2018. “It gave me the same feeling I get when I read my eBay feedback. It's a 100% success rate.” It’s humorous, self-deprecating comparisons like this, and an ability to write songs about relatable concepts - like anxiety and relationships - that make Lily's music so captivating.
She dials back on the humour when she starts talking about the heartwarming reactions from her fans, as it clearly means a lot to her. “I get messages from people who say that the album's helped them through anxiety. Someone played one of my songs to walk down the aisle at their wedding. People have had my songs played at funerals, and that kind of thing astonishes me. That kind of personal, individual connection to it hasn't really waned since it came out. Even though it didn't get heard by the world, it got heard by enough people to make me feel like it was worthwhile, and that it gave me a warm enough feeling to make another one.”
This ability to connect with both herself, and with other people underscores Lily's poignant tracks. I ask if she has a favourite song from the record: “I think my favourite song is the last one, “Carpark (overflow)”. I wrote it the day after I went to a Festival with a guy, and it didn't go very well. I was suddenly in this spiral of hating myself and wondering if anyone was ever going like me ever again. My housemates were like ‘ugh, just go write a song about it’, so I did! That's a raw demo, and it's nice to be able to include that on a record I think.”
Speaking of raw, Lily recently posted on her social media stating she’d given up coffee and cigarettes. When asked how the detox is going, she coyly replies “I'm actually smoking as we speak.” She explains what initially made her stop: “I got laryngitis the day before I went on tour, so I wasn't smoking or drinking, or doing anything that I love for about six days. After that, I went to my parents and they were like, ‘if you've already gone this far, why not go for the rest of your life without smoking?’ and at the time I was like ‘that's a great idea!’ but it isn't as easy as it seems. I'm cutting back in a big way. I haven't had coffee, and I feel even more highly strung, so I'm not really sure what that's all about.”
What comes across as “highly strung” to Lily, actually translates into witty outbursts on her Twitter feed, which anyone can see if they have a quick scroll through her musings. I ask if she’s had any memorable interactions with fans through these posts, and she recalls one unusual story: “When I broke up with a boyfriend a year or so ago, there was a Twitter account that started tweeting me daily saying ‘someone you love is desperately trying to get in touch with you, you've made a terrible mistake’. There were some really to the point, spooky tweets. I was like ‘it's got to be him!’, so I traced it all the way back, and it turned out to be some doppelganger from Thailand who was really invested in my personal life. It seemed that the only things he tweeted about were football and me. Which is almost flattering.”
What’s more flattering is the effort Lily's Nanna went to recently to make sure she enjoyed her gig at Hackney’s Sebright Arms. Suffering with laryngitis and fearful she might have to cancel the gig because of it, Lily explains: “I think it was probably more mental, rather than anything physical, because when I saw my Nanna - she's shrinking daily, she's about 4"8 now - it was all fine. She brought me some fairy wings to wear on stage, and the show went really well. Maybe I'll take her to all my shows?” When I suggest she name her second album “Mandatory Nanna” in tribute, Lily doesn’t dismiss it: “I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel for names, so thank you very much for that.”
The conversation turns towards her upcoming sophomore record, which Lily recorded with her guitarist Joe in Chicago, between tour dates in 2019. “We played every instrument, apart from the drums. I really wanted to avoid an aimless kind of writing - not that my first record was aimless - but I didn’t want to just put out the first twelve songs that came along. We started with 20 songs, recorded them all as sketches, then went back to them, feeling out which ones worked in terms of a narrative, and which ones still felt exciting after we'd played them a few times.”
“The mixing situation took a really long time when I got back from Chicago. I realised there were loads of spaces that I wanted to fill in. We had such a short amount of time in Chicago, we went there and came straight back, so there was no possibility of just popping round the corner and sorting something out. So the last couple of months have been me working with my friend who mixed my first record, post-production, and getting other friends to come and do other little bits on it. I was really keen just to make a record, to just do it, essentially, in a couple of months. But, as I do, I flip-flopped around and had different opinions daily. But, I think it's finally in a position where I feel at home now.”
I ask if “flip-flopping” will be a theme on the new record, and if there are other themes that have emerged, either deliberately or subconsciously: “I'll probably come up with a better way of describing it nearer the time, but I was so conscious that I didn't want to make a record that could easily be described as a ‘breakup record’. It really bothered me. As much as my first record features heartbreak, it's essentially an open diary between 16-18. I wasn’t heartbroken in those years, retrospectively. Sure, I'm sad, but I think this record is a lot about learning to be comfortable with being alone, or the loneliness that comes with life in general, and not being a victim anymore.”
“I spent a lot of time during the writing, recording, and touring process of the first record feeling - not hard done by, because I'd kind of powered through turning bad experiences into something more beautiful - but I definitely came offstage every night feeling a bit drained, because I had to remind myself about all of this turmoil. So, for my own sanity, this record has had to be about being a little bit more together, and firm, and clear, and sane.”
Lily will be playing new material from her upcoming album next week as part of Best Fit's Five Day Forecast at London's Lexington venue. I ask her what her anticipations are for the gig: “It's a site I've followed for years, so it was an honour to be asked. It's also four days before my twenty-third birthday, so I'll either be in existential dread, Or really pissed and happy. It could go either way. Could be both. Crying and manic laughter.”
I encourage her to think positively, and ask what else she’s looking forward to: “It's great to be on a relatively small line-up for a smaller festival based in one venue. People at the show are there to listen to you, and not just get drunk, so that will be refreshing.The last time I went to The Lexington, the only real thing I remember is bumping into The Japanese House outside and we talked about hair. She's so cool. She can wear a suit like nobody else. I've bought about 25 suits and they're all just in my house waiting for me to look good in them.”
Suit envy is contagious, and so is Lily's enthusiasm when I ask her about the live EP she recorded at Festival No. 6 with an orchestra in 2019. “Festival No. 6 is the most incredible festival. It's basically held in a toy town this guy built for his wife. He obviously had way too much money, and way too much time on his hands, but he built this incredible town for her because she really connected with old fairytales, so he literally built her a fairytale town. The organisers asked me to play, and then Joe Duddell picked six artists to play with an orchestra, and I was one of them. He sent me his plans for the recording and all of the string arrangements he had in mind. I knew then that this was going to be so good, it would make me cry instantly, and make my Mum burn illegal copies for all of my extended family.”
“We didn't run through it with any of the players. We just had a quick rehearsal about an hour before we played. I kept fucking up because I was so distracted by how beautiful it was. It was astonishing. I felt like I was on acid the entire day. I wasn't actually told that it was going to be recorded either, my Manager didn't tell me on purpose because I would've said something weird on stage. It was a really nice surprise at the end. The room was like a chapel, but it had engravings on the walls and it was all wood panelled and beautiful. As I was playing, I was looking around, and I almost got the lyrics wrong because I noticed there was an engraving of what looked like a guy sucking a cows dick on the wall. I was so put off by it, but it turned out okay.”
She laughs at the candid memory, adding “You don't really need to put that in the interview, but you can if you wish.” At this point, I tell Lily that as she said the words "sucking a cow's dick", I'd opened the door of the meeting room in my office so the cleaner could quickly empty the bin. She definitely heard the words "cow's dick". It’s going in the interview. As is Lily's Mum’s newly coined term, “Femotion”. She explains further: “I'd always associated strings with ‘Femotion’ - which is basically fake emotion. I didn't want it to be like a Hollywood cue where it's like ‘and now, cry!’, so I've always been averse to having strings on a record. After Festival No. 6, I realised it would be dumb to ignore how well they work alongside my music. It's a storytelling element. It was a really formative experience that I'm incredibly lucky to have had.”
Speaking of “formative experiences”, I ask who originally inspired her to start making music. “My Mum reminded me the other day what I said to her after my first day at playgroup. I said ‘It was so good! We sang 'Wheels On The Bus' and I finished first!’, so there's always been this element of crippling competitive passion in me. Ironically, now that singing is my job, I don't feel so competitive, at least not like I did when I was 4 years old.”
“The first artist I fully fell in love with was Nick Drake. Someone gave me a 12" when I was at school, but I didn't have a record player. I could only play it when I got one a few years later. It was Bryter Layter. He tells stories that are so unbelievably sad, that if you listen to them without really listening, they can easily be a light, sweet thing. But I felt like I was being let in on a secret, because I was really listening to him. I was about 16. It felt like his music was speaking to me in ways that it wasn't speaking to anyone else. When I started writing music, I was trying to do the same thing, with myself as the listener. To some people this is going to be a pretty song, but to me this is an outpouring of something I couldn't speak about. It's never really changed. It's almost like the feeling you get before you catch a cold, and you need to fight it off. That's when I’ll write a song.” Much like her eBay analogy, this too seems fitting.
Conversation turns towards the music scene in Bristol, where Lily currently lives, and how it differs from other scenes, particularly London. “I've got a few mates that started off in London and moved to Bristol, and I think the really nice thing here is that it doesn't feel competitive, and it doesn't feel fake when there's collaboration.There’s no ‘you're gonna help me, and I'm gonna help you, and we're gonna pull each other up’. It's more ‘I genuinely like what you're doing, and I think that you will sound great with what I have.’ It's not like celebrity coupling. Everyone's working at their own pace. Since I've lived here, which is about 3-4 years now, friends that I made when I moved here are doing such incredible things of their own volition, without big label backings, all very independently. There are some great independent record labels here, like Breakfast Records, a lot of my friends are either on, or involved with them. (It turns out we have a mutual friend who is signed to Breakfast Records, Kate Stapely.)
“People do things when they want to here, without the stress of getting on an ‘End Of Year’ list or working with a big producer, and that's how it should be. It's easy to lose sight of that when you do become successful. Idles have blown up, but they're still really down to earth. Even if you don't like their music, that ethos is there and it's a really healthy, humble way of existing within an industry that's otherwise quite cut throat and can be exhausting emotionally.”
Her thoughtful recommendations about local acts extends further when asked about the artists she’s currently listening to.
“Katie J Pearson. She's playing at Best Fit’s Five Day Forecast too, and I'm obsessed with her. She's a friend of mine, but I do feel uncomfortable with how obsessed with her I am. To the point where I probably message her every other day, which I should stop doing. My bass player is just about to release another record, he's called SLONK. He’s self-produced, and the most prolific person I've ever encountered, maybe with the exception of Alex G. He's always writing, always releasing stuff. He's brilliant. I'm literally just naming Bristol people again…”
“Langkamer, who supported me at the Sebright Arms, they're really brilliant. I'll try and go out of Bristol now. Moona! Their music is really poppy, but kind of accessible because it's guitar driven. It's the kind of record you feel like you'd get fat on if you listened to it too much. Lucy Dacus, who I toured with, is also excellent. She coached me through a lot of stuff. She's so to the point. She’s like "What do you need? What are your problems? How can I help? I've got twenty minutes, I can fix it." I'm also always listening to Damien Jurado, he's an amazing songwriter.”
Lily clearly has a lot of pride in her talented musician friends, and when we circle back to talk about her first record, she easily identifies what she’s most proud of about the album: ”The fact that it was actually released. I wrote the songs not to ever have them heard, then it got to a point where I'd had enough, and I'd recorded enough, and I thought ‘what's the worst that can happen? Let's just put out a record’. The fact that it was even born is something that I didn't think I had the confidence, or the power to achieve. That's the most amazing thing. That it ever surfaced.”
It’s uplifting to hear Lily speak so humbly about a process that initially must’ve taken its toll on her nerves and anxieties about sharing her music. Whether she’s joking about eBay feedback, trying to avoid ‘Femotion’, or singing nursery rhymes obnoxiously loud, one thing is clear; she’s quietly ambitious and ready to show everyone what she’s got on her second record. Imagine how prolific she will be now that she has the backing of her fans, the critics, and most importantly; herself.