November 23, 2016
Balancing space and chaos – Fenne Lily in interview
Text Nadja Röggla
Photography Mirja Kofler
It took us some time – Kaltern Pop Festival and with it the concert of Fenne Lily at the 15th of October has already passed by. But we didn’t miss the chance to interview the Bristol based Singer-Songwriter, who is wearing her heart on her sleeve… So here we go: join into the touching music of Fenne Lily.
You are just 19 years old and have over 8 million hits on Spotify. Did you plan to have such great success with your music or was it a coincidence? How did it happen, how does it feel?
There was certainly never a point when I sat down and decided to be a musician, and I don’t even think I would consider myself one now. I was just very lucky to find an outlet for the things I struggle with quite early on in my life. Although the fact that people are listening to my music hasn’t been a coincidence, as such, it has certainly been a bit of a surprise – I write primarily for myself, as a way to work through difficult things, so if the definition of success is people connecting with and appreciating what you’re articulating creatively, I guess I am succeeding, but that was never my reason for doing what I do. I see it as a bonus. I think going into anything with the sole intention of being recognised for it is quite an empty path to set yourself on. If people keep listening and coming to shows that’s obviously amazing and I’m very thankful for that, but ‘success’ in a typical sense isn’t what I’m doing this for.
You wrote ‘Top to Toe‘ at the age of 15. What’s the story behind?
I wrote Top to Toe at a point in my life when I was struggling with the transition from child to adult, which is a tumultuous time for everyone, I think; I didn’t really know what was expected of me as I was changing and I could see everyone around me changing, too. I guess I was scared of being left behind, in a sense, and I didn’t know how I felt about the people and things I thought I loved anymore. It’s not a song about heartbreak in the usual sense of the word; it’s more a sense of losing what I held close and not understanding how I felt about people moving on and changing, especially myself.
Do you think a song is better if it is about something that really happened to you?
No, I don’t necessarily think a song is better if it’s about something that actually happened to you, but I do think that if it’s based on feelings or events that you haven’t experienced, a certain level of empathy and understanding is key, as a writer. Personally I connect with songs that are sensitive and insightful to situations and feelings, but those don’t necessarily have to be connected to the writer in a first-person sense. I have a couple of songs based on a character from a book who I empathise with, and I don’t think they’re any less valuable than the songs based on my own experiences. It’s just a different means to the same end, which inevitably is an expression of emotion.
What kind of issues influence your songwriting?
From listening to my music, I think most people would assume the songs are about heartbreak, and I guess they are to an extent, but most of them were written before I’d ever had my heart broken, so perhaps pre-empted heartbreak is more accurate! A lot of the songs I play in my live set are ones I wrote when I was 15 or 16, and I felt quite alienated for a lot of that time – from my family and from my peers – so I guess those songs are about dealing with that . But I think my recent stuff is more relationship orientated.
Your voice reminds me of Daughter’s front lady Elena Tonra. Do you have any musical idols?
Growing up, I was big into The Velvet Underground and Nico – my parents had very different and varied record collections, so I was exposed to a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have found through friends my age. There was a period of a few months when I first started writing where I listened purely to Kurt Vile and Laura Marling, and I guess singer-songwriters have always resonated with me more than other types of music, mainly because of the personal narratives that they present and the poetic quality behind a lot of the work. I remember getting Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ in my stocking one year and listening to it on my portable CD player in the airing cupboard of our house. For hours on end. Her voice is so pure and effortless; there’s nothing forced or pretentious about anything she does and that’s absolutely something I aspire to.
During your concert at the Kaltern Pop Festival you told us about the amazing and calming mountain view of your hotel room. From your window at home in Bristol, by contrast, you can see the train station. What is more inspiring for you, the silence of nature or the chaotic impulses of an urban sound carpet?
I definitely appreciate the peace of a rural environment when I’m writing – it just lends itself to concentration and absolute immersion in whatever you’ve set yourself, so I find it’s good to polish off songs or work through difficult ones back at my parents’ home in the countryside. But I’m inspired by people and relationships and the complexities of living with and amongst them, so it’s great for initial creativity to be in a more urban setting, I’ve found. A balance of space and chaos is essential for my writing process – I need to feel that there’s enough going on to inspire and influence my songs, but I also need time to process this and make it into something tangible and coherent.
Besides the view… How did you experience the Kaltern Pop Festival?
Kaltern Pop is the most beautiful festival I’ve been to – obviously the views are awe-inspiring but also the lineup was very special and really suited the setting. I watched Bear’s Den’s set after mine, and they played one song standing unplugged in the audience, which is something I’ve never experienced before. I think, as a performer, you’ve got to feel incredibly comfortable with an audience to do something like that, and everyone there was very accepting and switched on which bettered the performances. I feel very honored to have been part of it all.
What are your plans for the next months?
In terms of a plan, I think my main concern at the moment is writing and getting the album together. It’s a very daunting thought, putting so many years of work into one entity for people to listen to and, in a way, judge, so I want to do justice to myself and to everyone who’s helped me so far. I had a pretty busy summer of festivals this year so I hope that happens again next year, and I’ve been blessed with some amazing support slots so I want to keep playing as many gigs as possible and gather together a body of work that I’ll be proud to show to whoever wants to hear it.
Photo: Mirja Kofler for franzmagazine