Originally from Seattle and now based in Oakland, California, Madeline Kenney started taking piano lessons at the age of five before she began writing her own songs. With a background in neuroscience, she moved to the Bay Area in 2014 and released her first EP, Signals, two years later. It was produced by Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bear, who signed Kenney to his Company Records and returned to produce her debut full-length, Night Night at the First Landing. For her next two records, 2018’s Perfect Shapes and 2020’s Sucker’s Lunch, she collaborated with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, pushing her sound in vibrant new directions while exploring, on the latter, the terrifying complexities of falling in love. Kenney’s next project, Summer Quarter, was the first she recorded entirely by herself, an opportunity to experiment with the dreamy, spacious palette that also permeates her latest LP, A New Reality Mind. But as she grapples with heartbreak, her lyrical approach becomes both lucid and poetic, searching and reshaping her sense of self in that constant stream of chaos and mundanity. The warmth that ultimately seeps out of these songs may call back to Sucker’s Lunch, but in carving a path forward, A New Reality Mind feels newly bold and vivid in its beauty.
We caught up with Madeline Kenney for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about self-producing her music, the process behind A New Reality Mind, teaching during the pandemic, and more.
During the pandemic, you were experimenting with new sounds and making sketches of songs, some of which appeared on the Summer Quarter EP. How did the way you saw Sucker’s Lunch, and the relationship between that record and the newer songs, change throughout the process of making them?
I think there was a natural trajectory psychologically. It’s what I was experiencing and what I was going through. I don’t think it was like, “I’m going to make a follow-up record about how I got in this relationship and got broken up with.” But I do think that musically, with Summer Quarter, I was just having fun making weird stuff. And there was nobody around to really bounce ideas off of, so it was to make an insular thing. That was the first thing I put out that was totally produced by myself – I put out some singles here and there. But I put out Summer Quarter, and then I put out this song, ‘I’ll Get Over It’, and everything was self-produced. I feel like people liked it, and I was like, maybe I don’t need to be paying a producer, maybe I actually am capable. Process-wise, that just meant coming up with ideas and really digging into the weirdness of them and not feeling like I had to self-edit to then show to a producer. I could just make weird things. And if I like sat with those songs, or half-songs, whatever they were at the time, for a while, and they didn’t bother me, I would move ahead and keep finishing them. It’s a very self-reflective process.
Jen, who I worked with on the last two records, Sucker’s Lunch and Perfect Shapes, and Chaz from the first record – it’s not like I felt held back by them. I just think that anybody you work with has their own musical mind and opinion of what a song should be. I love Jen’s brain, I love everything that she did with my music, but it was interesting to see what the songs became without going through someone else’s mental filter.
What’s something that surprised you about working on your own in those early stages?
I have hard time sitting down and writing, like, verse, chorus, bridge, and I tend to write in little chunks. I think I sometimes get really in my head and I’m worried that it doesn’t sound like a song, like the structure is weird. Working on my own, I was able to listen to other people that I really admire – like Jenny Hval or Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, always listening to Lambchop – and I feel like they have songs that are singalong-able, but they have a lot of songs that are not regular song structures at all. Starting to write a song and being like, “Oh god, is this even a thing?” and then staying in the studio and listening to those artists just over my monitor, I was like, “I can actually keep doing that.” [laughs]
Did it ever feel like crafting and poring over these songs took you out of the headspace in which they were written?
Definitely. Honestly, I was working on some of these songs in the later part of last year, and they were just little bits and pieces, they weren’t finished. And then I went through the breakup, and I was just devastated and felt so shitty. I just went down to my studio and started going through all these bits of songs, and I was like, “I think I’m at a place mentally where I can finish these now.” And I finished them all super quick, like, in a matter of a couple of weeks. It was really crazy because I was really sad and devastated, and didn’t have anybody to talk to. I was alone in my house, just trying to survive and process.
I used to put out a record or an EP or something like every year. I was just making a lot of stuff, it made sense to me. And it had been a minute since I had like made a record, and I was like, “What about this part of me that I used to really prioritize? What happened to it? In this relationship, or in this city – why did it get pushed away?” And I think sitting in my basement and playing synths that sound cool and getting inspired instead of just wallowing and feeling shit was really helpful. Maybe you feel horrible and then you play something you go, “Oh, I just did something that sounds good.” It’s like this tiny little shot of self-confidence.
Do you remember if there was a clear turning point?
I think halfway through finishing the record is when I realized I had kind of like lost the plot a little bit. I finished ‘Superficial Conversation’ and then immediately came up with an idea for the video and immediately started contacting all the people, just kicked into high gear. And I was like, “Oh my god, I used to do this all the time”. And it’s been a process – even though I made this record called A New Reality Mind, I’m still halfway tethered to the reality that I built with my ex. That’s what I mean about losing the plot, where I was like, “Actually, it’s very possible for me to change where I am.” And it’s so weird that this is the week that my record is coming out, and still I’m coming to realizations that I think are in that record. [laughs] My subconscious really talks to me through music, because I can’t often realize what’s going on until later. And then I listen to the music that I made at the time, and I’m like, What? The song I put out last before this record, ‘I’ll Get Over. It’, is literally just me telling me, “You’re probably going to get broken up with, and it’s going to be okay.”
I believe this is the first time one of your records opens with the piano, which is your first instrument. Was that a significant decision?
That’s so poetic, I wish I had thought of it that way. I did intentionally write this record mostly on piano, because I wanted to tour playing piano and synth. I like it better than guitar, and I feel comfy on it. I feel like a few of the past records have really pigeonholed me as a guitar girl and a rocker chick – I use the instrument as an instrument, as a way to tell a story and write a song, but I don’t really consider myself any sort of great guitarist at all. In fact, it’s pretty hard for me. I liked the idea of being able to tour a record and just play piano, the instrument that I grew up learning, the instrument that I teach on. I can sit down, and if I mess up I can recover, and that’s the most important thing to me. [laughs] Because I’m gonna mess up on tour, and I want to be able to recover, and on guitar it’s really hard for me.
You mentioned teaching piano, and I also read that you were a kindergarten teacher during the pandemic. Can you talk about that?
In the Bay Area, there were some parents with little kids that were concerned about not having playmates for their little kids. During the first part of the pandemic, people formed pods, so I taught kindergarten to like five kids. I had nannied, and I am also a certified postpartum doula, so I take care of babies, too. I’ve taught piano and voice and worked with kids a ton, but I’d never taught kindergarten. I’m not a certified teacher, but strange times call for strange measures. Basically, I would get their curriculum from the school, and then I would teach them in the basement of this one parent’s house. (There were windows.) It was the hardest but also the most rewarding job I’ve ever had, teaching children how to read in this crazy pandemic.
Back in it October of 2020, we had really, really really bad fires in California, and there was a day when all the smoke came down and cloaked the Bay area, and it was literally dark orange outside. When I woke up I was like, “Why is it not light out?” It was so crazy, and here I am with these kids, and they’re so adaptable. They’re just like, “Can we go outside?” [laughs] I got really attached to them.
What inspired you most about them?
When I put out Summer Quarter, I had the kids in one of my music videos, for the song ‘Truth’. I’m gonna cry, I love them so much. It was so cool to be around that level of playfulness and creativity and curiosity. I wasn’t working in a regular school system, obviously, it was our little world of our own creation. I taught them their curriculum, but honestly, the school didn’t provide that much, so I had to come up with a lot of stuff. We did painting, we did clay, I taught them how to knit, I taught them how to weave. I had so much fun getting back in touch with my inner child. I could be goofy with them. That’s why I brought up that music video, because I feel like I just let them be goofy and be themselves, and it was just a really good reminder of like how actually enjoyable and fun life can be when you still have that amount of curiosity and aren’t totally deadened to how horrible the world on fire is.
I feel like there’s a connection to the music on this album, too, because you’re often reflecting on your inner child and the sort of patterns we adopt early on and then have to reevaluate as adults.
I think we approach very adult situations, like a breakup, with the tools in the toolbox that we have and that we put together in our families of origin – how we learned to communicate, or how we learn to express ourselves, or be honest, or hide honesty. I think that, as an adult, you can do a lot of work to refine those things and improve them and get better tools, but you do start off with a set that you have to navigate the world with. And yeah, I was thinking about that a lot. Like, what in me was not prepared for this situation? What in me drove me to this situation that I knew was not going to work out? In that song ‘The Same Again’, “Only a child believes everything stays the same” – I actually reworked that lyric a bunch of times. I got rid of it because I thought it was too corny, and then I brought it back because I was like, actually, sonically, it fits really well. And also, it’s true. When I was at the end of the year with my little kids, they were like, “You’re gonna teach us first grade, right?” Kind of that idea of: I’m always going to be this person, I’m always going to love dinosaurs, I’m always going to wear these shorts every single day like a kid. But it’s either very sad that it’s not the truth, or it can be actually quite freeing.
I hear a range of emotions associated with heartbreak throughout the record– a dull, sharp pain, the confusion of trying to make sense of it, anger, and finally, a sense of self-compassion. Was it difficult to arrange these songs into any sort of emotional trajectory?
Sequencing is always weird, because I feel like, especially with something like a breakup album, people are kind of expecting a story. I think there are little moments of story arc, but mostly, for me, it was about carrying a feeling through the record. I wanted to bring people into the world of feeling, like, ugh all the time, and I wanted the middle tracks to be more reflective. There’s an angry song in there, there’s always gotta be. And I wanted to put ‘Expectations’ as the last one, because first of all it’s a little bit funny, like a little elbow jab: “Let’s start over again.” I didn’t want to leave the album being like, “And that’s how I figured it out, folks.” [laughs] I wanted it to be more like, “I’m still working on it.” A new reality mind, to me, is not like, “I’ve figured it out, I have my new reality and I’m good.” There will be so many new realities and so many new reality minds in one’s life.
We talked about how Sucker’s Lunch took on a new resonance over time. Do you think the person or the story you see in A New Reality Mind will change, too?
I hope so. I hope it will be different. I hope I can continue to grow and change and improve – not that I am a self-improvement project, but I hope that I just get more comfortable with change. Like we were just saying, constantly forming and adapting to new realities, I feel like that really important. I always look back on records and I’m like, “What the hell was I thinking?” I have things I love and hate about every single record I’ve made, I’m sure this the same will go for this one. And I feel like that’s healthy. If I was like, everything I’ve made is amazing, then I would be making really shitty music. I think it’s really important to be like, these are the areas where I was not brave enough, or this is an area where I was making something to please somebody else. I feel like I’m improving on all of those fronts with every release, but there’s always more room to grow. That’s when I do look at other artists that I really love and see their body of work, and I’m inspired to continue trying to be brave.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.