Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Madeline Kenney Crafts a ‘Perfect’ Follow-Up LP

Indie rock artist Madeline Kenney talks about her latest record, Perfect Shapes, produced by Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner.

Perfect Shapes
Madeline Kenney
5 October 2018

It wouldn’t be a too much of a stretch to say that musician Madeline Kenney’s excellent new album, Perfect Shapes, was born from a happy accident while on the road. Last September, the Bay Area musician performed a gig in Durham, North Carolina in support of her full-length debut album Night Night at First Landing. After the show, Kenney was looking for a place to stay overnight, so she sought the advice of a friend. “He [said], ‘Oh, my friends live in Durham,'” she recalls now. “‘You should go stay with them.’ It turned out to be Jenn and her partner, but I didn’t really know that.”

‘Jenn’ was musician Jenn Wasner of the indie rock duo Wye Oak, whose residence Kenney stayed at; the two had not yet met because Wasner was away at the time. “I realized later only after we’d stayed there, that all these cool bands lived there,” says Kenney. “I was talking to Martin [Anderson], who manages Wye Oak. He was like, ‘Yeah, you should come back. You should make a record here.’ And I [said], ‘ Yes I should.'”

Kenney stayed true to her word. This past January, she returned to Durham (which is now her current home) to record Perfect Shapes, with Wasner as her producer. Somewhat of a departure from Night Night at the First Landing‘s guitar-driven, dreamy atmospherics, Perfect Shapes expands on Kenney’s sonic palette through the use of synthesizers, drum samples, and horns. The result is a work that sound pop-friendly and accessible at times – especially on tracks like “Cut Me Off” and “The Flavor of the Fruit Tree” – but still retains Kenney’s experimental indie rock sensibilities.

“It’s funny,” she says. “I consider Night Night to be more accessible in that it’s pretty traditional song forms, pretty recognizable verse-chorus-bridge-type stuff going on. But there’s more poppy stuff on Perfect Shapes. You get into your own head, and you make these things, and some of the songs, I was like, ‘Well, I like listening to this. I know it’s not terrible, but I don’t know if it’s like a real song’ (laughs). I kept thinking, ‘Are these real songs?'”

Before recording in Durham, Kenney finished writing the new songs and sent them to Wasner, who served as Kenney’s producer on the project following the singer’s previous collaborations with Chaz Bear (Toro y Moi). Both Kenney and Wasner played various instruments on the new record accompanied by drummer Camille Lewis. “It was interesting to work with someone with a different workflow,” Kenney says of Wasner, “a totally different ear. Jenn picked up on that. I’m sure it would have been awesome with Chaz, too. It would have been awesome if I did it myself, but I didn’t want to (laughs). I wanted help.”

One example of Kenney’s new approach is the rhythmic “Cut Me Off”, which was the first track off of Perfect Shapes to be released. Accompanied by a stylish video that showed Kenney’s nimble dance moves inside a corporate office, the song is quite infectious. “I started writing it like a loop on my loop pedal,” she says. “The words “don’t cut me off” started floating into my head and I made that into a loop, and I saved that loop to my computer. I think that song wrote the way like you would build a brick wall: I had all these pieces and I started building it together. We used the demo track and just re-recorded some of the parts. It’s pretty much exactly how it was when I wrote it.”

The gentle and haunting “Overhead”, which opens the record, is a meditation on motherhood and society’s expectations surrounding it, according to Kenney. “Being born into a female body, you’re sort of overtly and subvertly pressured to have children, or at least made to believe that you are selfish or not making good use of your time if you don’t have children. I was trying to think about that a lot because I teach kids piano lessons and I nanny them. I really enjoy it. But despite all that, I don’t think I want kids. I feel like I’m doing okay and I’m making things that I care about. I don’t have to do anything to prove that I’m worthy.”

Another album track that was recently released as a single, the electronic-driven “Bad Idea”, could be traced to an old demo that Kenney previously dug up earlier. “I was in a relationship that I knew was going to end, but I don’t think that I was admitting it to myself,” she explains. “I wrote that song far before that relationship ended. And then going back and listening to that – ‘That’s what I was trying to say to myself.”” The song’s message resonated with her producer Wasner and the folks at her label Carpark Records. “Especially with women, there was an immediate, ‘Oh my God, I know what this song’s about. I’ve been through this.’ Just like being in control, but not in control at the same time. I was pretty scared to make that track. And Jenn was like, ‘No, we have to!'”

Kenney acknowledges that she didn’t realize what the theme of the record was at first. “I realized I’m dealing with a lot of stuff in regards to my relationship, certainly dealing a lot of stuff with expectations of myself as a woman in the music industry and expected to be cool, young, beautiful and accessible, and not too challenging. I think all of those things kind of run through a lot of the songs. So there’s a loose theme, but I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m just working through my own psychological shit.”

Perfect Shapes marks the latest chapter in the creative life of an artist who has always followed her own instincts. Hailing from Seattle, Kenney has played music since kindergarten and taught herself guitar at 16 years old. Yet she had pursued other diverse interests along the way: from a neuroscience degree to modern dance and painting. “Not blaming anyone, but I never felt like I was told that it was okay to pursue music as a career,” Kenney says. “I thought that was above me or I wasn’t anything special. And then it weirdly worked out. Not that I didn’t work hard, because I feel I do work hard.”

She then moved to the Bay Area to become a baker, but later decided to plunge into music seriously following a conversation she had with her best friend who encouraged her. “Then I put out a video, and I sent it to the Bay Bridged [a nonprofit arts organization in the San Francisco Bay Area], and they liked it. And then I played a show, and Chaz came up to me and said, “Hey, I want a record your EP. And I was like, ‘Who are you?'”

Following the release of the Chaz Bear-produced EP Signals and album Night Night, Kenney and her music have gotten praise and attention in various media outlets; she has also shared stages with Soccer Mommy and most recently Wye Oak. Now with Perfect Shapes out, she is headlining her own tour that runs through November. Despite having already built up experience as a seasoned touring musician (she says she knows how to pack good snacks for those days on the road), Kenney is pragmatic about the music business. “I don’t think that anyone can really feel comfortable being a musician these days,” she says. “The reality of it is, I just don’t make any money. I think everybody has to hustle and work really hard to keep afloat. That’s what I’m feeling lately.”

But if her previous creative endeavors are indicators, Kenney will keep on pursuing something that she finds meaningful and rewarding. “I’ve always made music,” she says. “I know that this is a temporary career. I know it can’t last forever, so I’m going to enjoy it while I can. When people stop listening, I’m still going to keep making music. I have to.”