It seems like everywhere you turn in today’s musical world, artists are opening up about mental health. Of course, this comes in a wide variety of forms — some folks are attempting to normalize their struggles with depression or anxiety, others are encouraging listeners to pay attention to their needs and take care of themselves, some are even partnering with organizations to try to bridge their creative work into genuine lobbying. Yet, some artists kind of inevitably end up in the “normalizing mental health” bin without even trying — one such artist is the British singer-songwriter, Fenne Lily, who released her second album, BREACH, on September 18 via Dead Oceans.
In the period of time when Lily was writing BREACH, she was living alone in Berlin, attempting to break out of a few of the psychological cycles that she had fallen into. As a result, the record has impactful themes of mental wellness, stemming from the personal discovery that Lily was grappling with. Yet, at the same time, the record deals with these themes in an indirect and impressionistic way, standing in stark contrast with other records that can be placed in that same “normalizing mental health” bin. Lily first came to songwriting not as a form of art, but as a therapeutic exercise, which likely explains how her music manages to feel so intimate and organic. But, for her part, she seems a bit surprised that folks have grabbed onto the mental health aspect of the record, considering that she wrote it with the intention of breaking out of those cycles.
Yet, in that regard, BREACH is indicative of Lily’s greatest strength: providing a subjective vocabulary for objective experiences. That is to say, just as with her 2018 debut, On Hold, this record convey’s Lily’s day-to-day life experiences in a way that feels globally relevant, whether you’re hanging out on the streets of Berlin or in a Midwest bedroom.
A few weeks ago, American Songwriter caught up with Lily to discuss this record and her approach to crafting it. Throughout our conversation, Lily demonstrated a hyper-awareness of her own state of mind and a candidness about her relationship with music. Discussing everything from her time alone in Berlin to the time she didn’t recognize who Steve Albini was at a recording session in Chicago, the way Lily spoke really illustrates how she is able to be so effortless in her songcraft.
When did you start working on BREACH? What inspired it?
I started writing it immediately after releasing the first album, so I guess there was some crossover there. Despite the fact that I’d like to think that the first album encompassed moving away from being reliant on relationships to define me, I definitely hadn’t gotten to that point yet even though I assumed I had. So, when I finished touring the first album, we were in Europe and I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go back to the first of my two lives — sometimes, I feel like two different people when I’m on tour and when I’m home. So, I got back to the U.K. and immediately got a ticket to Berlin. It was like when people have a gap year to try to elongate their childhood — I was trying to do that, trying not to go back to my real life for a bit.
I went by myself, which was a new thing for me. I didn’t really like being by myself before I went to Berlin, so I took it as an opportunity to show myself that I’m my own company. I was really feeling like shit, so I went and pretended to be a Berlin cool kid for a bit. I honestly wasn’t very good at it, though. It turns out that the person I am doesn’t do well with being expected to dance and wear leather. It’s daunting, it’s weird. There’s a temptation to blend in, but it’s a hard thing to blend into because it seems like everyone there has achieved their “premium identity.”
I was in this stage where I was like “Who the fuck am I? I don’t want to be sad anymore and I don’t want people to assume I’m sad. I’m going to break out of this mold.” But, ultimately, I’m an over-thinker and I feel everything too much. So, I guess that’s where I was; in flux between feeling really crap but also trying to force myself out of that.
This record deals with themes of isolation and solitude — especially in the context of your trip to Berlin, what did those themes mean to you?
I wanted to see whether there was a difference between being lonely and being alone. When I moved away from home, I was having a difficult time with my parents. When I left college, I was bored of being told to go in all the time. I escape things when I get bored with them or feel friction with them. Then, I was having a crisis in myself and I realized “Well, this is one thing I can’t avoid because I have to live with me forever.” That’s terrifying. It’s a weird thought that you have to live with and inside someone that you sometimes hate. So, I was like “Okay, I need to address that.”
So, it wasn’t so much isolation — I wanted to live in parallel with other stuff without feeling like I was in competition with it or feeling like it had to validate me. Instead of jumping between short, shit relationships, I — in a pretentious way — was like “I should work on this long-term relationship with myself.” That sounds like something that someone from Sex and the City would say.
The more I was on tour and the more connected I felt to lots of different lives, the less I felt like I knew what I was doing with my own life. That’s a difficult thing to feel. I was getting messages like “Your music helped me with my depression” or “Your music gave me the courage to talk to this guy I like” and I was like “Okay, that’s great, but I can’t seem to do that for myself.” I needed to find a way to do that because I can’t just project this soft-strength without feeling it. I also think that the more I got involved with how people saw me and my music, the more I started criticizing myself and getting in my own head. So, being alone is a good way to shut all those voices out and make you speak kindly to yourself.
How did those themes influence your workflow?
There are two sides to it. The first is what I was absorbing. I have a tendency to do that thing on Spotify where you like a song and your music taste just becomes the best part of artists’ output. I stopped listening to whole records, really. But then, I lived without wifi for two years with just a record player in my house. That was really healthy. I would go through whole records and realize that it was a journey, not just a platform for a few quick radio songs. So, when I went to Berlin, I basically found comfort in listening to one album over and over again. It was this record called Afraid of Everything by Harrison Whitford. I listened to it every day, just walking around. From that album, I realized that I needed to improve the way I played guitar — up until then I kinda just used it as something to hide behind on stage, rather than seeing it as another voice in my songs. So, that gave me more time to sit with the instrument and work on that. I have a very short attention span and never tried to do that particularly hard before.
I also found myself writing prose, which is something I had never really done too much before. I never felt the need to write something down if I could just put it straight into a song. So, that really changed the way that I approached lyricism. I love songs that tell stories and I fucking love country music, but I also love punk and pop-punk. So, I tried to get the energy and the anger that the pop-punk has while still being able to tell a story. There’s a temptation to be stuck in a comfortable pattern of how you write and how you live. I thought “Well, if I’m going to drag myself out of my house and away from my friends, I’ll at least drag myself out of the way that I construct music too.”
I was also reading a lot of Patti Smith. I read Just Kids three times when I was in Berlin. I love how she focuses on mundane things and makes it completely poetic, but without any pretension. I think that’s really amazing. So, I tried to emulate that a little bit without forcing it.
So, you actually started writing songs as a method of therapy when you were a child — how do you feel that that origin story influences your writing now?
I feel like I’m the type of person who desperately needs therapy and would really benefit from it, but I always kinda stupidly assumed that it was self-indulgent. I thought that I didn’t have any real problems and it would be a waste of someone’s time to have to listen to them. I also find it really hard to talk about things that upset me. I’m not passive-aggressive, I’m just aggressive — so, I try to avoid that by not talking about anything because it’ll either make me angry or it’ll make me cry.
When I started writing songs, it was basically an opportunity for me to work out problems without having to let anyone know what those problems were. I just didn’t think that they were particularly important. So, the first album almost feels like an open diary. It is literally just me working stuff out, thinking that nobody would ever hear it.
But, that’s definitely changed. For starters, when I wrote the second record, I knew that it would be heard by people, which is not something I knew when writing the first one. So, I altered what I was working through because I knew that I couldn’t keep hammering on about the same stuff. It would just get boring. Plus, I’ve never had therapy before but as I understand it, what you talk about with your therapist develops as you deal with the problems that you initially brought in. So, I kinda moved away from feeling like I was a victim and started working with the idea that I was a stronger person, but while still addressing that I do get angry and I shouldn’t be hiding that. I also have tried really hard not to write about relationships. Partly for myself. Everyone has those friends that are always talking about that guy who never texted back — I don’t want my music to become that friend. I don’t want it to be like “And then this shitty thing happened, and then this other shitty thing happened.” It became a mission to see the polar ends of my emotional spectrum, which are saddness and elation. I want to accept the stuff I can’t change, that’s cool.
It’s funny that people have been picking up on the “mental health” elements of the record. I wrote one song about how I think that medication isn’t necessarily appropriate for everybody. It seemed really brilliant to all of my friends, but it never really occurred to me that people could react well to it. I reacted terribly to it — squashing a feeling doesn’t address the feeling. So, as much as music has been a form of therapy for me, I’ve realized that there are probably better ways to deal with my feelings than be relying on my output to make me feel like I am growing.
Your writing style is so concise and thematic — how do you approach writing in order to incorporate all of these themes while still making it sound organic?
I think I struggle to see myself as a musician, period. It’s a strange thing that I never assumed would be my job. I always used it as a means to an end — like, “I have a feeling, I’m going to put it into a song to put it away.” For the first record, I was definitely scared — production-wise — to build on the songs that I had written. I became attached to them, having written them on my acoustic guitar and recorded them on my phone. I took that to my friend to add a few bits, but I was really trying not to ruin the purity of the song. I was a little bit scared of getting lost in adding stuff for that entire record-making process.
For this album, I wanted to make something that was more far-reaching and sounded a little bit bigger, sonically. So, I taught myself how to record at home. I used GarageBand — which people seem to think is pretty funny, but I genuinely can’t figure out Logic. I started building songs with more intention to make them complicated. Having it on the screen and being able to move it around — and being able to program certain things that maybe I couldn’t play just right — allowed for the process to be more like collaging, rather than directly drawing out what I wanted.
As far as exploring goes, the furthest I went was making an effort to not play everything by myself. If I wanted to make a more exciting record, I knew that I had to let go of that “control freak streak” that I had. As much as I planned everything out to a T prior to recording it, I knew that I had to get musicians who could do a better job than I could. I kinda felt like a conductor! I was like “I know what I want, but what I want might not be the best thing for this song. So, I’m just gonna stand there and shout about what I don’t like about it and make everyone adjust to what I want.” I wanted to make something that felt completely honest in terms of the writing, but also felt different and encompassed the styles that I like to listen to.
Steve Albini helped make this record? How so?
Oh, this is actually so annoying. He didn’t produce anything, but we did go to Electrical Audio with the intention of using their amps and stuff. I wanted to find a better guitar sound because I brought a really shitty guitar with me to Chicago. My guitarist is a massive Steve Albini fan and obviously knows what he looks like and what he’s worked on and I… don’t. So, I walked in and this guy in a jumpsuit came up and was like “Hey, I’m Steve, I’ll be helping out if you need anything. Can I get you a tea?” If I had known it was Steve Albini, I probably wouldn’t have responded by just saying “Yeah, I’d fucking love a tea, thanks. I’ll call you if I need anything.” He was really sweet. He kinda just wandered around and if we needed anything, he’d get it. He also helped me choose some pedals. My guitarist was standing quiet because he was starstruck. But, I was just kinda ignorantly saying stuff like “Hey, Steve, do you have any longer cables?” and he’d be like “Yeah, sure thing!” I mean, it was brilliant working with him because I was working with the understanding that he was more of a mechanic, as opposed to the fucking genius that he is. We got back to the Airbnb and my guitarist was like “You’re an idiot, I’m going to educate you on who Steve Albini is.” So, yeah. They had jumpsuits in the studio that you could wear, which was really cool.
Watch the music video for “Solipsism” by Fenne Lily below: