Madeline Kenney discusses her debut album and creative process while also demonstrating important lessons about having the right outlook on life.
The setting sun was casting golden light on the Los Angeles skyline. A few hours later, Madeline Kenney was set to play in front of a sold-out crowd at The Echo, as part of her tour supporting Soccer Mommy. When I arrived after soundcheck, Kenney opted to do the interview outside, a decision that led to a lovely stroll around Echo Park Lake and conversations about favorite foods, how our paths magically aligned at a Cameron Avery concert, and, of course, her incredible debut album.
While talking with Kenney, everything is naturally comfortable. She speaks with such openness that a formal interview feels like a conversation between old friends. But what is especially remarkable about spending time with Kenney is watching her take in and appreciate the world around her. We paused our conversation on several occasions to take pictures of funny looking ducks, smile at the people passing by, and appreciate the abundance of adorable dogs on our path. With Kenney, the idea that one should stop and smell the roses no longer feels cliché, but becomes a legitimate, wonderful way to approach the world.
A few minutes with Kenney will help you see the world the way she does. Listening to her debut album Night Night at the First Landing (released 9/1/2017 via Company Records) will do the same. The album is structured around three transitional tracks that offer positive affirmations, but throughout the album Kenney is reminding us to open our eyes, look around, and appreciate what we find. The track “Waitless” opens with the line: “There’s something so good about coming home late and finding you waiting for me.” The sentiment of this simple statement — one that finds value in a small act of thoughtfulness — demonstrates Kenney’s ability to find joy in the little things and is reinforced throughout the rest of the record.
And although our interaction was naturally very positive, Kenney’s optimism is far from being blind. She also talked about how she deals with rude concert-goers, having to face crossroads in her career path, and her journey toward becoming okay with change in her art as well as the art of others. The track “Waitless” repeats its opening line as it comes to a close, this time with a difference: “There’s something so good about coming home late and finding you waiting for me, you’ve fallen asleep.” There’s balance here; Kenney sees and expresses both.
To fully grasp the wonderful worldview and artistry of Madeline Kenney, check out Night Night at the First Landing and read our full conversation below.
A CONVERSATION MADELINE KENNEY
The last time I saw you, you had long hair. I saw you play in Chicago in September!
Madeline Kenney: With Cameron Avery?
Yeah! At Schuba’s. I live here in LA, but I was visiting my aunt in Chicago randomly and I had just seen Cameron Avery a few days before at a festival in California. I was wondering when he was touring again because he was so cool, and it was a few days later in Chicago when I was going to be there. But the point is, I loved your set!
Madeline Kenney: Wow! Well thank you! That is so cool. Wow. Worlds collide. The circle is completed. That is so great.
Do you want to talk about tour a little bit? So you’re with Soccer Mommy right now. How long have you been on this tour?
Madeline Kenney: Well, I think we’ve been on tour for two weeks. It’s not that long of a tour. In total, it’s like three weeks and change.
And how has that been?
Madeline Kenney: It’s been really great! Some really good crowds, lots of people coming out. She’s like — as the biz people say — having a moment. So it’s cool to see that happen and kind of like, ride the wave and be there for those crowds and try to find some crossover audiences that are cool with our weirdness. But yeah, it’s been fun!
Do you have a favorite stop so far?
Madeline Kenney: Doug Fir in Portland was super fun. Really great sound, really great crowd. I had some friends there and family there so that was cool. I’m from east of Seattle so the Pacific Northwest is always fun because I have people out there and that feels good. Spokane, Washington showed up. Spokane was awesome, that was really fun. We had some snow storm action that was not so fun but we made it through!
Do you have a favorite food that you’ve had on tour?
Madeline Kenney: Well actually just today, I ate at Amara Kitchen in Highland Park. Oh my god yeah, it was this cooked corn thing with chickpeas and kale. Basically, I try so hard to eat as many vegetables as I can on tour but it can be really hard to find good healthy food that doesn’t make you want to vom. So yeah, I just felt very LA today. (laughs) I’m taking care of my body!
Yeah, anything with kale, right?
Madeline Kenney: Exactly. We were joking about how–I live in Oakland and my band lives in Austin but they lived in California for a little bit–we were all joking about how we just need to bring kale with us everywhere. (laughs) Where else did I have good food? Anywhere we stayed with somebody’s parents. It was like, “yes! Surrogate mom made us food!”
Okay, let’s talk album. It’s been out for a few months now, right?
Madeline Kenney: Yeah, I think just over six months.
How does that feel? It’s your debut!
Madeline Kenney: It feels good to have it out. You know, to be honest, I’ve already finished recording another one.
Wow, that’s so exciting!
Madeline Kenney: I just like to work quickly. I like to move on from things. I feel like it keeps me sane to keep working on things. So pretty much before that was out, I started writing new songs. And as it came out and between tours, I was writing a lot. But anyway, talking about that album, it feels good to have it out. I’m waiting for the year mark to kind of see how people really feel. Sometimes people need to sit on it. But also, like, who cares? You know? I don’t know, you can’t rest your sanity or your value of yourself based on how other people perceive your art. I think that’s such a recipe for disaster. I’m glad for the people that like it and connect with it and I’m also excited to do new things.
Listen: “Waitless” – Madeline Kenney
That’s awesome. I’m excited that there’s more coming. I do have a few more questions about this one, though. I read that you write and arrange and, for the most part, record all the instruments on your album. Can you tell me about that process?
Madeline Kenney: Yeah, I had some help in some ways that I’m unable to do myself. So like, my friend Carlos Arredondo did the drums and bass. He works at a college in Emeryville, right next to Oakland. And so, I went in and got the drums and bass done. Basically, I was too impatient to wait for Chaz [Bear] to not be busy, which he’s always busy.
And Chaz is?
Madeline Kenney: Chaz is in Toro y Moi and he produced the record.
Madeline Kenney: So, yeah, I was too impatient so I got the drums and bass done and took those stems back home and recorded everything else pretty much. And then when Chaz was ready and had a little time, we recorded a little bit of vocals and piano and a little of his vocals and kind of just some over-dubs there. I definitely did a lot of it myself, but can’t take all the credit. I had helping hands all over the place.
And that was recorded in Oakland?
Madeline Kenney: Yeah.
But you’re not originally from Oakland.What was the inspiration to move there?
Madeline Kenney: I moved to the Bay Area to work at a bakery that mills their own flour. So that was my impetus to move there. I worked there for two and a half years but then music became — that schedule of staying up really late to play a show and then getting up really early to bake bread was like, kind of not good for my brain.
Sounds like burnout waiting to happen.
Madeline Kenney: Yeah, and that industry in general, is amazing and I love that kind of work and I respect the hell out of anyone that works in the kitchen, but it really will wear you down. I think it’s one of those things that you have to, like, go all in. That has to be your life. If you try to do other things, you’ll just get so exhausted.
Tell me a little about the transitional tracks on the record -- like, the first one, the middle one, and the last one. What’s the inspiration behind those?
Madeline Kenney: Well, I write a lot of songs using a loop pedal and I think that those songs–a lot of times I’ll use them to introduce or close my set and they aren’t necessarily “songs” but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile. And I think that it was almost kind of an experiment for me honestly to put it on the album. I personally love repetitive things that change over time, that repeat but also have some newness to them. I think it’s kind of a meditative thing almost. I said when I put it on the album: “How many people are gonna skip these? How many people are gonna get a minute in and get too annoyed to wait for the treat at the end?” So, yeah, it was kind of like part of my process, so I wanted it to be on there.
I personally think the album is very cohesive and those really bring it together. I was wondering though because I felt like it might be a hard thing to include. Especially since now we can stream so easily and hand-pick what we want to listen to and you don’t necessarily approach albums as a whole anymore.
Madeline Kenney: Yeah, right.
Do you have a favorite track on the album, or is that a hard or dumb question?
Madeline Kenney: I don’t think that that’s a dumb question at all! I think that, you know, it’s really interesting with the process of making a record and how it takes so much time to like, just write the songs and track them and then wait for them to come out and then they live in the ether and you’re touring these songs that you wrote a long time ago, so the meaning and the joy behind them change over time.
So for me, I really like “Uncommon.” That was a really interesting song to work through writing and this one writer said it was “too obscure for its own good” and that just made me like it even more. And so now it’s like way more fun for me to play. Also, there’s a line in it that says: “So what’s his problem? / What is your problem?” And I tend to use that — I just used it last night in San Diego. There was this dude and he would not shut up; he was standing right in front just yelling at his friend, really blatantly disrespectful. Everybody else was really quiet. I don’t know, I don’t mind chatter but if you’re gonna yell like that — so I just tend to use that song to look right in their eyes and be like, “what is your problem?” Not gonna lie, it’s pretty cathartic. (laughs) Anyway, what else do I like of my own music? I think “Waitless” is really fun to play, too. I think that’s a decent song. It’s hard. I wouldn’t say it’s a dumb question at all. But it is a hard question because I think that over time, all you start to do is critique yourself. And I’ll hear it come on in the record store and be like, ahhh. But anyway.
I think that over time, all you start to do is critique yourself.
When you’re looking at putting an album out, when do you know that a song is ready? You’re saying that the meaning of something will change for you after you put it out or while you’re writing it or whatever. So when do you know that it’s the moment to send it off into the world? Or do you ever know?
Madeline Kenney: Well I think it changes depending on the song. Sometimes you write a song in like five minutes and you’re like, “okay, that’s basically the song.” And then, for me, sometimes it takes a really long to finish certain aspects of a song. Somebody asked me this before and I kind of realized that the moment I feel like the song is done and does not need to be messed with anymore is the moment it becomes — how do I describe this? — it feels like somebody else’s song. It feels like, this is just a song that exists and I’m just playing it. You just play it enough times and you think, “yeah that’s actually it.”
What are you listening to right now? What should I be listening to right now?
Madeline Kenney: Okay! I really like the new Porches album. Very fun to listen to. We have been listening to so much music on tour so it’s hard for me to think of anything. Okay, do you know the band The Clean? They’re a late ’80s, early ’90s band from New Zealand and their lead guitarist/singer is named David Kilgour had an album come out in ‘93 or something that I just discovered for myself and it is so good. Really really have been enjoying that. I’m trying to think of the albums that I have saved on my Spotify. Oh my god, Amadou & Mariam, they’re this blind couple from Mali that have been putting out records for a long time. They put out a record last year called La Confusion and that record is incredible. Also there’s this woman named Oumou Sangaré who is also from Mali and has been putting out amazing records for a long time and also put out a record last year–I forget what it’s called — but it is so good, holy crap. The production is crazy. Oh, Princess Nokia’s album 1992 Deluxe. Holy shit I love that record. Also, our friends in Wye Oak just put out a record a couple days ago that’s unbelievably good.
The moment I feel like the song is done and does not need to be messed with anymore is the moment… it feels like somebody else’s song.
Wow okay, I’m excited. I feel like I have some listening homework to do now.
Madeline Kenney: Oh, Francis Bebey too.
Okay, well my last question was going to be when can we expect new music but you already kind of hinted at that.
Madeline Kenney: I’m not sure if I can say exact dates but yeah, I have made another record because I am insane and I don’t know why, I can’t stop. But I’m excited about it, it’s like, I think it’s going to be a little bit different for people and that’s fine. I remember having artists I liked when I was younger and then they put out a record and I was like, “I don’t like this new direction.” I’m really trying to be open minded about that stuff now because as a person, you wouldn’t expect somebody to be like, “Hey, can you go back to being that person you were when you were 16? I really liked that person better.” I want to put that out there for other people and be open to their new music so that hopefully, karmically, they will be open to my new music. I don’t think it’s crazy different but everybody changes a little over time.
Well, that is so exciting! Thank you for chatting with me, what a lovely walk!
Madeline Kenney: Thank you! And I know, super romantic! (laughs)
It was super nice meeting you.
Madeline Kenney: You too! I’ll see you inside soon!
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📸 © Nicole Nygaard art by Wayne Shellabarger