Born in Dorset and now based in New York, Fenne Lily began writing songs at an early age, playing gigs in Bristol as a teenager before moving to the city at the age of 18. She self-released her debut album, On Hold, in 2018, and signed to Dead Oceans for its follow-up, 2020’s BREACH, which was written while she was living alone in Berlin. Lily once again wrote her latest album, Big Picture (out today), in isolation, this time in her Bristol flat – though real quietude was disrupted by the chaos and claustrophobia of the pandemic – but she set out to make the recording process her most collaborative yet, enlisting Brad Cook to co-produce the record at his Durham studio. Her first collection to be written over the course of a relationship, its ten songs reflect the transience of love, both basking in its delicate glow and acknowledging a growing disconnect. There’s frustration and uncertainty in that space, but Lily and her band have a beautifully subtle way of funneling some of it into tenderness and light. Even as she leaves things open-ended, the music somehow eases the weight of letting go. “Picture me whatever way you can,” she sings on ‘Red Deer Day’, “Remember me as a place.”
We caught up with Fenne Lily for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about love as a temporary thing, the idea of home, the lonely and collaborative parts of making Big Picture, and more.
How do you feel about the release of the album coming up?
This is a body of work I’m really proud of, and I’m satisfied to have made something I love out of the period of time that I didn’t love. I liked a lot of parts of 2020-2021, but the vast majority of the time I felt frustrated that I couldn’t tour the last album that I released. I was frustrated that I couldn’t leave the house. I was frustrated that I felt frustrated, because on paper, I had everything ready. I had a house, and I had someone that I could rely on through that time. I wasn’t lonely, but I still felt wrong and angry. I don’t feel like that anymore. When I’m in a good place, it’s quite nice to remind myself that I wasn’t always in a good place. It took work to get to the place I am now, and this record will just be a reminder of that.
It sounds like making the record was part of the work.
Yeah. It was harder to make than I thought it would be, in some ways, and in some ways it was very easy. The writing portion was hard. It’s really hard to write personal stuff when you don’t have personal space. I was living with somebody that I was dating, and I’d never done that before. But then the recording process was easier than I thought it would be. Part of that reason is that I have my band with me who I trust, and they wrote all of the parts that they play, and it felt collaborative. I was leaning on people for support, which had never really felt like the case before. I felt stressed and too in control for the last album. But for this album, I felt like I was doing something that mattered to me with people that mattered to me. And the thing I was making mattered to them as well, so it was a team effort.
I was struck by what you said in a press release about ‘Lights Light Up’ being a song about the process of moving on that was happening on a more subconscious level as you were writing it. Do you see it as a kind of capsule of the whole record?
Definitely. It encapsulates the record, and it also informed the record in a lot of ways. It was the first song that I took to the band, even before I’d finished writing the record we did. When I wrote it by myself it was very slow and quiet and delicate, and then as soon as the boys started playing, it took on a new energy. And that made me want to write more songs that lent themselves to that duality. It can be soft thematically and vocally and instrumentally, but I wanted propulsive drums and the bass to be moving constantly. I wanted us all to be meshed together in motion. But also, lyrically, it walks through the beginning, the middle, and the potential end of a relationship. And that’s kind of what the whole album is doing. I like to think that the end of the record is leaves you wondering whether there was a breakup. I wanted it to be slightly veiled. But ultimately, I want it to feel like you’ve walked through someone else’s house and come out on the other side remembering details of the life that wasn’t attached to you but in some capacity have been involved in.
I was trying to think of a way to describe this dynamic between the sound and the lyrics. I just read Daisy Jones & the Six, and there’s this quote by one of the characters who says this kind of cliché that, like, “Passion is fire, and fire is great, but we’re made of water. Water is how we keep living.” I made the connection to ‘Lights Light Up’ and the line about how “everything burned up ‘round us and inside of me too, that’s called love.” But sonically, Big Picture is kind of a watery record, especially compared to BREACH, which has more fire and angst in it. Does that comparison resonate with you at all?
I don’t know if you were seeing my face, but I was like, “Damn!” Yeah, absolutely. I think about this record as part of a trilogy of the records that I’ve made. In the first record, I was addressing love as something that had disappeared. In the second record, I was addressing the idea of love as something I didn’t need and I could provide myself. I don’t know if that was entirely true, but that’s what I was trying to say to myself. And in this record, I’m allowing the idea of love to be a transient thing that isn’t attainable, and isn’t able to be lost. It just exists, and sometimes we’re touching, and sometimes we’re not. There is a fluidity to that, like a watery, going-with-the-flow, kind of drifting along. When in actuality, my life at that point felt very much like someone had put a dam in a river, and I was stuck and I couldn’t get out. So, to think about it as a watery record is satisfying to me. I can’t stop talking in river terms, like the a way that a river will go around a rock, but it’s still going to reach wherever it’s going.
I’m fascinated by how artists engage with the same ideas differently over time. The theme of home was something that ran through your last album, but I feel like Big Picture is less about wrestling with what it means – the concept seems to start out well-defined and solid, but then it maybe begins to fall apart and feel out of reach.
There’s an idea of falling in love that I have a real problem with, and there’s an idea of making a home for yourself that I feel uncomfortable with. Because it feels like that’s an end goal, and then when you get there, you can stop changing and trying. I think there must be something broken in me because I don’t really miss people. I just moved to America – I don’t miss people at home, because I know they’re still there. I didn’t miss my parents when I left home because I knew that they would be there. And I found myself missing the person that I met a year into the relationship. I found myself missing the process of falling in love with them because it felt like it had stopped. I was in love, and that kind of flatlined to a degree, which was a feeling that I never really had before.
That stasis was strange. I spent a lot of time reorganizing my house and painting all the walls different colors. I talk about this in ‘In My Own Time’: “Fix up the paint and straighten all the pictures that hang around like me.” I just felt like I was part of the furniture in an emotional way. I didn’t like being a constant in someone’s life and it not being surprising anymore. The idea of home and place is definitely there, and more specifically feeling like there’s a better place, or a more comfortable place, or a less comfortable place, that I would be feeling more alive in.
Are you unsettled by the idea of a person as a home? Is it more or less uncomfortable than that of a place as a home?
Yeah. I think that this comes from extreme stability and also instability. There’s two types of people: people that are always looking for a physical place that will make them feel complete, and people that are looking for a person that will make them feel complete as a person. Luckily, I’ve always felt like I’m in the right family – I think a lot of people feel like they were born into the wrong family. So I don’t think I have that need to find my missing piece in a person sense. But I do think I have a missing piece in the sense that I need my surroundings to be changing, because otherwise I don’t feel myself changing. I don’t think I’m looking for a home in a person, but I am looking for a space to exist in that changes enough for me to feel like I am not static. I also think it’s a lot of responsibility to put on a person to be someone’s home. But maybe that’s kind of beautiful, maybe I just haven’t found it yet.
Maybe it’s the idea of one person that makes it tricky rather than people in general – it could come from a community or a sense of belonging, which also doesn’t have to be static.
I think I kind of found that with music. I found early on a vocation that made me feel like I was in my body in a good way. And the people that I met through music, we all have a common thing that binds us, so that’s kind of a home, maybe, that I needed and found. This is a nice idea; I like this idea.
Is there a moment where you can trace back this experience of belonging in a way that felt like it could be permanent?
When I met my guitarist – I think that was a real moment. I was vehemently into the idea that I was an independent musician, that I didn’t need anyone else to help me out. I self-released my first album and I used to tour by myself, and I still write all my own stuff by myself. But when I met Joe, the feeling of sharing the experience of performing and building songs around the small thing that I had initially created alongside someone was different and right. I didn’t want to go back after that. I didn’t want to tour by myself, I definitely didn’t want to record a record by myself again. It can retain its closeness to me, the song can still be min., but I also can’t do everything myself, and the music itself benefits from having other people involved. That changed my perspective, definitely.
How do you feel like this record specifically benefited from the collaborative nature of the recording?
It’s just exponentially better than it could have been if I made it by myself. I think I’m in a good position where I’m self-sufficient in the writing process, so I feel like that is non-negotiable, but I have no idea how my drummer or my bassist play their instruments. I’m always surprised at how good they are. To be able to have a completed body of work that’s as far as I can take it, and then give it to people who are incredibly strong at what they do, took some pressure of. We tracked it live together in a room, so we just sat in a circle and played through all the songs. That’s something that I thought I couldn’t do, because I don’t consider myself to be a particularly strong musician. But they have such an intense bond musically, they’ve all been playing in bands together for a long time, so the way that they play around each other’s parts is really beautiful. They have a good idea of how much space to leave for my lyrics. I can now look at this record and feel like i’m part of a team that made something rather than a person that isolated themselves to make something that feels lonely, still.
Part of the story behind BREACH was that it was about navigating the difference between being alone and being lonely. Did the gap between the two become wider, or your awareness of it more acute, while making Big Picture?
On BREACH, I was coming to the realization that being alone didn’t mean being lonely. I think that’s pretty clear. And then on Big Picture, I’m coming to the realization that not being alone doesn’t mean you won’t be lonely. Being with someone can feel as lonely, if not more lonely, than being alone. There’s a quietness to being by yourself that I found unattainable in those COVID years with somebody in the other room. I felt like we were orbiting each other in some way, but then in another way, we were never apart from each other, and that felt, I don’t know, claustrophobic. There’s closeness, and there’s closeness – there’s closeness in a physical capacity, and you can love someone and want the best for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you feel like you’re speaking the same language. There was a disconnect that made me feel really lonely and isolated. If I’d been by myself, I probably would have had a much harder time in some ways, but in other ways maybe I would have really been able to just feel what I was feeling and not have to explain it. I have a hard time explaining how I’m feeling generally, but especially when a lot of the things I was feeling were related to how my partner was feeling, and I didn’t know how to separate my feelings from their feelings. It just felt jumbled up.
Also, there’s something lonely about the way that I write music where it kind of benefits me to feel like I’m not being watched, or like I’m having a conversation with myself, because I’m having to dig deep to know how I feel. That’s a lonely process, and it should be. It felt like I wasn’t really being given the opportunity to be as lonely as it would help me to be. So on one side I felt very lonely, and on the other side I didn’t feel lonely enough.
There’s a line in ‘Map of Japan’ that’s about how not being alone has a way of distorting our perception of time, but it feels like real aloneness, in whatever form, can have that effect too.
This idea of being tied to a person, I think some people find it really comforting, knowing that you have somebody to do everything with. I’m not that kind of person, but I also don’t ever know how to take space to be by myself. Periodically, I would find that I didn’t know what day it was, and I didn’t care. But I kind of felt like I should be knowing what day it was because I needed to keep on track with my partner’s schedule – that made me feel kind of angry. I was like, “If I was left to my own devices, I would be floating between Christmas and summer, not knowing what was going on, and maybe I would enjoy that.” But on the other side of that, it was nice to feel like I was sharing changes of season and the mornings into the evenings with somebody.
I know what line you’re talking about: “Feeling like I’m never alone long enough to notice the seasons.” If I was to draw lockdown, it would be me standing with my nose touching my partner’s nose, and both of us have our eyes open – it was so intense. I didn’t have any peripheral vision when it came to having my own separate life, my own separate thoughts. It was all very mind meld, in a way that I didn’t feel like I could breathe normally or something.
Do you feel like this record has given you the space to learn truths about yourself that didn’t feel possible before and that you now find yourself wanting to explore further?
I definitely want to involve people more in stuff that feels private to me. That wasn’t really possible through COVID – I couldn’t be writing with people or anything, and I’d never really done that before. But now, I think that’s really cool. I guess cathartic is the word to describe this feeling of having something that feels highly personal, and allowing someone to help you translate that into words and music. I’d like to explore that more, and I think I didn’t really know that I needed that until I made this record.
Theme-wise, the writing of this record taught me a lot of stuff about myself. It taught me that I’m not scared of commitment, but I need to be decisive about what I’m committing to. I need to be making decisions that entirely I can sit behind and know that I did the right thing for myself. There’s obviously compromise in relationships and in living your life alongside somebody, but I truly think if you find the right person, you don’t feel like you’re compromising the way you want to exist in the world so that someone else can be happy. And I’m happy that I know that now. I’m not that old; I think that this is a good time to know my boundaries when it comes to that.
Since I was a kid, I wanted to be in love. Love was something I thought about all the time. And then I had a love that on paper was perfect, but it wasn’t because I wanted the love so bad that I was willing to change the course of my life to fit the love into it – my life. And now, I don’t want to do that. I tried it, it didn’t work for me. That’s something that I’m grateful to COVID for giving me the space to realize because I don’t think I would have had a two-year relationship in one apartment, in one place, without that. I need to be moving and changing, and I would like to do that alongside somebody. But if that can’t happen, I think the most important thing is to be changing by myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Fenne Lily’s Big Picture is out now via Dead Oceans.