Artist to Watch: Madeline Kenney

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Oakland-based singer-songwriter/guitarist Madeline Kenney is a master of several trades.  The accomplished musician is impossible to confine to one modifier.  In addition to her budding music career, she is also a baker and a visual artist, holds a degree in neuroscience, and is currently furthering her education in sound engineering.  To top it off, Kenney has just dropped her debut full-length album, Night Night At the First Landing.

I hopped on the phone with Kenney to discuss her debut, the joy of learning, and sexism in the music industry.  We also dove pretty deep into a discussion of a shared love for obscure British comedy shows, most of which I’ve spared you from, dear reader.  Check out our interview below, and be sure to grab a listen to . Night Night while you’re at it.

VM: You were born in Seattle…I’m wondering how that shaped you? [This is paraphrased, because this question was asked in a very rambling, roundabout way that would not be interesting or efficient to read]

MK: I’m from east of Seattle. I always locate it with—if you’ve seen Twin Peaks, then you know the falls in Twin Peaks—my house is a 10-15 minute drive from the falls. So very woodsy, beautiful, quiet, dark and rainy area…Seattle is famous for having amazing but depressing music come out of it, because it’s really sad inside, and it’s grey all year round…when it’s grey outside it’s easier for me to write, because I grew up in the grey.  And living in Oakland—it’s not that often—but when it is kinda cooler and darker and greyer I’m like, “Ooo yay!” I feel cozy, and I feel good. and I want to be inside and writing music. And yeah, when I go back to visit home there’s, an odd bittersweetness to all of it, because it’s this place you grew up in and loved so much, but it’s so different, and it’s really conflicting feeling. I’m sure that has also seeped into my songs, but somehow it’s hard for me to look back and be like, “yeah, this inspired this lyric.” To me, it feels like a little bit stream-of-consciousness-y, and then I go back and I’m like, “oh, maybe that is about where I grew up.”

VM: So Oakland—you moved there for baking, right?

MK: Yeah, I moved to the Bay Area to work at a specific bakery in San Francisco.

VM: How did you go from thinking you were going to be in neuroscience to then baking to then music?

MK: I was baking since I was 16.  It was my first job, and I just kind of moved around to different bakeries. All through college I worked at bakeries, and I was really obsessed with it, and I thought I was going to open a bakery, but I continued to study neuroscience, not because I thought I was going to be a neuroscientist.  It was just very interesting to me.  It was the most interesting thing I’d ever learned, so I just kept wanting to learn more about it. I graduated and continued to bake, and as far as when music came in, I’ve played music since I was in kindergarten. It’s always been a part of my life.  It just started to be when I started to get better shows—and more shows, at least—that it was really incompatible with a baking shift. To stay up really late and then get up a couple hours later and bake was not ideal. Although on paper the timeline looks very, “oh I did this, then I decided to do this,” it all kind of flowed together. I’ve always been interested in multiple things.

VM: I do think that’s kind of cool though, because–I mean obviously in this industry, but even in life–everybody sort of projects a brand onto you, you know? So you’re a musician or a writer or whatever, and it’s cool that you’re able to pursue multiple interests and keep them active at the same time…I completely assumed that, because you studied neuroscience, that you had these goals to be a neuroscientist.  But of course, sometimes people just want to learn for the sake of learning.

MK: Yeah, I mean, I’m really glad I found that. I think it’s definitely shaped the way that I look at the world and humans and everything, but I don’t know. I feel like people don’t really tell you when you’re younger like in high school that you can study something just for the joy of learning and then work in a trade. That’s kind of seen as a lesser-than thing to do or whatever, and I was very anti that idea…at the same time, I kind of wish that someone would’ve told me that it was okay to study art in school. My parents definitely support me now, but I feel like nobody told me I could do that, and now my whole band–my live band–have degrees in jazz, and part of me is really jealous. I wish I got to study jazz! I didn’t know or take the time to know.

VM: I don’t think there’s ever a cap to learning everything you want to learn.  What about neuroscience though? What attracted you to it? And you’ve said it’s formed the way you see people?

MK: I remember my neuroscience teacher on the first day saying, “you are your brain, and your brain is you.” You can be—although you are a complex, beautiful wonderful human being—you can also be reduced to these very physical things, these cells…to me that was mind-blowing and comforting at the same time. Some people were like, “oh, I’m more than the sum of my parts. My essence, my being comes from somewhere else.” But I was like, HELL YEAH. You mean my whole personality could be explained by the way my brain is uniquely wired? I’m not crazy.”  I would like to think that it made me a little more understanding and sympathetic towards people…Obviously I’m not the most patient—I’m not a saint—but to me it really resonated. The fact that other people had a problem with that made me more excited. Like this was the “bad kids” science.

VM: That’s pretty awesome. Because you do so much stuff, you bake you paint you knit and obviously music, so I’m just wondering when you want to completely turn off and do nothing, what do you do? Or maybe you don’t ever have those times?

MK: You know, I’ve been trying to do that more although I will say that when I’m watching a movie or watching TV it’s usually…I just got a frame loom, so I’ve been weaving, it’s repetitive and it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something but while I’m relaxing–I just have problems I guess. But when I do want to chill out I watch a lot of British comedy. A lot. It’s my favorite form of television. British comedy or British crime-drama. Those are my two favorite go-to’s…I just got this old tape recorder, and it’s a tape player and recorder and vinyl player–except the record player doesn’t work. I’ve figured out a way to hook my computer up to it so I can make mixtapes straight to tape, and so I’ve been doing sound collage mixtapes, and that, to me, is relaxing.

VM: That’s super awesome.

MK: What were you going to ask about? I would love to talk to you about British TV.

VM: Oh no, I was just wondering what comedies you like!

MK: I’d say my favorite–well maybe I can’t say my favorite–but I’ll give you a list. I love That Mitchell and Webb Look, they’re the guys that did Peep Show, which is great sketch comedy. I love this show called Snuff Box which has the American guy from The Mighty Boosh and another guy that’s in a bunch of weird British comedy stuff. The show Snuff Box is probably the strangest.

VM: Wait, that has Matt Berry in it, right?

MK: Yes! You know it? I love it! But it’s so dark and weird, and you have no idea what’s going on, and I love it so much. I also love a bit of Fry and Laurie, the late ’80s show with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Stephen Fry is like my idol. Somebody recently in an interview asked if I could have anybody remix one of my songs, and I said Stephen Fry. Wouldn’t it be great? I also–okay, this is one of my nerdy guilty pleasures right now—a show called Father Brown.  It’s a British crime-drama, but it’s about a priest who solves murders. It’s great. And so silly. It’s serious, but it’s also a pretty silly murder, so it’s silly.

VM: I tend to go Poirot for crime drama…do you watch The IT Crowd?

MK: I love that show! I was just watching it the other day! I love Matt Berry.

[This went on for too long to transcribe.  Thank you, Madeline, for all of the great recommendations that I’ve since blown through.]

VM: Yeah, I could just go on all day…to talk about your album, how did the Chaz Bear [Toro y Moi] collaboration happen?

MK: It happened really randomly. Anthony Ferraro is the keys player in Toro’s live band. And his project is called Astronauts, Etc. My boyfriend plays guitar in Astronauts, so that’s how I met Anthony. And then, when I started playing with a backing band, I asked Anthony to play keys for me and sing backup stuff. And he did that for a little while…while we were still playing live performances together, Chaz came to one of our shows, because he is Anthony’s friend.  I didn’t really know Chaz’s music before I met him, because I’m square, but he came up to me after a show and said he really liked it and wanted to record an EP…later I figured out that he had a big following. I think we work really well together, because that relationship was so organic and random. I mean I love the guy, and I was not like a super fan before I met him, which helps me to say no to ideas, which I think is important in a producer-artist relationship. You have to take their advice, and I want to be able to use his expertise to form my sound, but I also want it to sound like me.  You have to set boundaries.

VM: So you recorded and arranged—how do you step back when you’re that deeply involved?  How do you see the forest for the trees?

MK: I found myself asking advice from a lot of friends, like the drummer, Aaron [Gold], who played on the record when I was starting to mix the tracks.  I brought them over to listen so he could do all the drum sounds and tell me what he thought.  Same with the bassist…I’m not the kind of person who can do everything from start to finish on my own.  I mean, I can’t play drums for shit. I like to have that balance.  I know I can do most everything in my music room, but there are some things that I just can’t do alone.  I think it’s really important to know when to reach out to people.  Some of my favorite musicians are also really good at collaborating and choosing the right people to work with that augment and amplify their art.

VM: Tell me about your production/engineering education

MK: I taught myself a lot of it while I was making this record and learning to use Ableton, and it’s almost kind of…I can mark off the things that I bought that made my art better. When I got a loop pedal, I could write better. When I got Ableton, I could record better. When I got my monitors, I could mix better. It takes a lot of time to have enough money to buy those expensive things. After the record was recorded, I started interning at Women’s Audio Mission, which is the only women built and run studio in the world…so I’ve been learning to do engineering in a studio on a console and everything…that has really helped me understand things.

VM: You told NPR that the song “Always” was sort of a temper tantrum about frustrations with music and certain people in art. Can you expand? What specifically are you seeing that is frustrating?

MK: I think that there are a lot of different frustrations.  A lot of it was coming from experiencing so much sexism…why am I dealing with this again?  Every single show, a dude telling me how to use my own gear, a dude telling me I’m too weak to carry my own amp, a dude telling me how to sing into my microphone…I’ve gotten this far. I don’t need your help. So that’s part of it. I feel like so much of the “Industry” is dependent on approval from people that haven’t necessarily earned my respect. Like what has such-and-such big name indie publication done to make me respect them?  But I just hope and pray that they like what I make. That shouldn’t matter. I should be able to make what I make. If people like it, great, but if they don’t, it’s not going to stop me from making my art…I think it’s just crazy to me…it really affects me…or if you get billed with somebody just because they’re another girl with bangs that plays guitar…I have a lot of things that grind my gears, but it’s not going to stop me from playing music.  I still love getting up on stage and playing music in front of people.  It’s my favorite thing in the world.

VM: What’s next after the album drop?

MK:  Keep doing stuff. I have a lot of songs ready.  I just almost finished an EP and have a bunch of demos for a full length. I just want to tour and play as many shows as I can, and if making more records helps me play more shows, that’s what I’ll do.  Hopefully people want to continue to help me do that. I love playing in front of people, so any opportunity that I have to do that brings me a lot of joy so I’m just seeking that out right now.

Madeline Kenney on Tour:

OCT 10 TUE — Rickshaw Stop — San Francisco, CA
MAY 16 WED — The Haunt — Brighton, United Kingdom
MAY 18 FRI — Tivoli — Dublin, Ireland
MAY 20 SUN — Empire — Belfast, United Kingdom
MAY 21 MON — The Plug — Sheffield, United Kingdom
MAY 22 TUE — The Caves — Edinburgh, United Kingdom
MAY 23 WED — Hare & Hounds — Birmingham, United Kingdom
MAY 25 FRI — Koko — London, United Kingdom

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