Madeline Kenney Hits Her Indie Rock Stride

Madeline Kenney

Photo by Cara Robbins.

Oakland-based singer-songwriter/guitarist Madeline Kenney’s music was once described by The Classical’s Juliet E. Gordon as the sound Loretta Lynn might make if Lynn had a secret shoegaze project. That’s certainly intriguing to imagine—even Kenney herself gives Gordon’s description an enthusiastic thumbs up—but it doesn’t actually capture the span of Kenney’s vibrant new full-length, Night Night at the First Landing.

Produced by Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, Night Night marries swirly dream-pop with alt-rock guitar muscle and the lyrical power we often see from folk artists once they master the art of poise. Like some of her ‘90s influences did before her, Kenney—who recorded the bulk of the album on her own—maintains a sense of indie-minded expressionism while also keeping a keen focus on production values. Where Kenney’s debut, the Signals EP from last year, contained traces of the soft rock/AM Gold-style Bundick has been exploring since being hailed as a chillwave pioneer, Night Night puts Kenney’s vision front and center. Overall, Night Night is about as creatively assured as debut albums get.

And though the album title and artwork hints at some childlike themes—a set of twins Kenney nannies for appear via vocal samples, too—Night Night also delves into thorny adult territory. Fittingly enough, she spoke to us while on her nannying gig, stopping at points to handle minor childcare emergencies.

You started learning piano when you were five, but your first official release was last year’s EP Signals. In all the time in-between, how much had you wanted to make an album and how much material did you have?

I’ve always played music and had bands in high school that would put out music, but—and maybe I’m just blaming my parents [laughs]—I was never really told to pursue the arts. My mom was very adamant that I take piano, and I also took dance for a long time. She valued that really highly but it was always assumed that I was going to go to school for science—which I did—and go into a profession, like go take over my dad’s masonry business or something.

You got a degree in neuroscience, which means if you’d taken over your dad’s business you would have had to get a whole different kind of training, right?

Yeah, I would’ve had to go to business school or something. I don’t know what they wanted me to do [laughs]. They’re definitely more supportive of music now that it’s becoming a little more real for me. But I don’t know, I just didn’t think I was at that level that I could put out music and anyone would care—or even that I would care enough to put it out. And then when I moved to the Bay I remember saying to my friend, ‘I think I’m really gonna try now.’ So I started to try, but also I just got really lucky with meeting some great people and musicians.

So what was it that sparked that sense of resolve?

It was a very stereotypical case of [mocks a determined tone for comic effect], ‘I’m gonna move to San Francisco and start my life over, yeah!’ But I’d been through a terrible breakup back in Seattle and was just very confused about what I was going to do. I thought I was going to be a baker, and I did, but I don’t know, I just thought it was important to start trying harder. I started dating someone—I’m still dating him—who’s very heavily involved in all the music here and so I started meeting people. But it also comes down to the gear that I started buying. I got a loop pedal, and that helped me write way more.

You had a heavy hand in the sonic shaping of both the EP and the new album—how much would you say your sound has developed between the EP and now?

I like the EP, but it definitely sounds like Chaz [Bundick] made it. That’s fine, but this time I told Chaz from the beginning, ‘I really need this to sound like me.’ That was really important to me. You can’t make a second first impression. So I spent a lot of time doing the recording on my own and then took the stems to Chaz. He’s so busy, so I had to wait a while, but we did the overdubs and did some mixing. And I had help, like from my friend Carlos [Arredondo], who’s an amazing engineer, a sweet dude, and has worked with tUnE-yArDs. And Pat Jones, who does live sound for Toro and is also an amazing nerdy dude, also helped out. So I definitely had a lot of help, because I’m still learning so much about recording and engineering and how to get sweet tones, maaaan. I won’t use any swear words, because I’m around the kids, but I was… a stickler about getting it to sound more like it came straight from me.

How does the album sound compared to how you envisioned it when you started writing those songs?

There are some sounds on there that I didn’t know that I would like or want, where I either happened upon them accidentally or one of the people that helped me suggested them. But I would say that most of the guitar tones are pretty much exactly what I was hoping for. I had a list of inspirations that I gave to Chaz when we were mixing like, ‘Make me sound like early Sun Kil Moon—you can do that, right?‘ [Laughs] I’d never heard Chaz’s music before meeting him, to be honest. I think that’s why we work well together, because [to me] he’s just a homie.

You’ve also studied at the Women’s Audio Mission. How did you get involved there?

I have a friend who’s an engineer there, [Program Director] Kelley Coyne, who’d had me at one of their Local Sirens shows. We became friends and she had me apply for an internship. It’s a really amazing place. I could launch into the spiel about how fewer than five percent of the recorded sounds that you hear are [recorded/mixed/etc.] by women, but Terri Winston, the woman who founded the organization, is an electrical engineer, so they’re not only teaching you audio engineering. You learn how to solder, how to fix the equipment, learn exactly how a mic works, and the science of sound. I’m a huge nerd, so I love being around that stuff. It’s hard because I work a lot and then I do shows, so I wish I could be more involved, but I go there once a week right now.

After spending time at WAM, why do you think audio engineering is still seen as a predominantly male domain?

I think that women are not encouraged to explore that stuff from a very, very young age—[to explore] anything having to do with, I don’t know, electricity? [Laughs] People, if they learn that you’re involved in music, they’re like, ‘Oh, do you sing?’ And I’m like, ‘I do, but I also play an instrument and I’m also interested in the actual recording of it.’ I just think it’s systematic. It starts so much further outside the realm of the music industry and just infiltrates inward.

Well, in the realm of music, that thinking applies in the way people see arranging as well.

Oh, god [yeah]. And performing [too]. The amount of sexist stuff when I went on tour recently, like people telling me how to use my own gear or how to sing into a microphone—I can’t tell you how many times I get that. It’s like, ‘I know what I’m doing!’ [Laughs] And I can verify that it was aimed at me as a woman because I was on tour with men. They didn’t get treated or talked to like that at all until it was my turn to soundcheck. I will say that it’s not everyone. There are great, wonderful men engineers out there, and I’m not going to perpetuate a stereotype that’s not totally true, but it’s fairly common.

This past April, you talked at a Noise Pop event about losing your close friend Edmund in December’s Ghost Ship fire tragedy. You said that venues in the East Bay and throughout the country were now ‘endangered’ because of strict enforcement of code, but also that venues have been ‘stepping it up’ to make sure their events are safe. What have you observed since you said that?

I’m buddies with my labelmate Lionel Williams, and he had a venue that got shut down. That sucks. They were so great about their coding. Same with Oakland Secret, who tried everything they could and still got shut down. I would love to be able to say that there’s an improvement, and that things are looking up, but to be honest it’s kind of scary still to be an artist at all—I would say ‘in the Bay Area,’ but it’s happening all over. I do think people are being more conscious now. There’s a really great venue in Sacramento, and they’re so amazing. They clean the place from top to bottom every time I go there and it’s beautiful and the sound is great. Even they are getting attention from the cops. Fingers crossed that stuff doesn’t get too crazy, because it would just be sad to see these things taken away from people when we really need those spaces to create. It could be the conspiracy theorist in me, but [I feel like the crackdown response] is about way more than just [ensuring] safety. It’s about control.

You studied interpersonal neurobiology. How much, if any, does what you were studying reflect in your lyrics?

I don’t really know if it comes up. Maybe it does, but I might be a little unconscious of it. There’s a lot of mental illness that runs through my family on both sides—very intensely—so I think that once I started learning about the molecular level of mental illness it made everything okay. Our society can blame people so much for being depressed. I know that certainly happened with the people in my family who were really ill. Once I was like, ‘Oh geez, this is just an imbalance of salt ions; this isn’t their fault’—I mean, I knew it wasn’t their fault, but—it made everybody equal, if that makes sense. It put everybody on a level playing field [with regard to] how we’re all just pretty messed up in our brains. I’ve definitely had a lot of dark stuff with mental health in my family, and having a deeper understanding of all that helped me cope. So it definitely comes up in my songwriting in that respect, even if I don’t start singing about, I don’t know [laughs], molecules and neurons and things. Don’t get me rambling about brains, because I will.

So how much are you referring to real-life people in your songs?  

I definitely have somebody in mind with each song, but I try not to be obvious about it [laughs] so as to spare people’s feelings if there’s anything mean in there. Actually, there’s not much that’s mean in there, but if a song is about a specific person, I try and make it a little more ambiguous. Also, I think it’s just nicer to listen to a song that isn’t so completely explicit because it’s nice to be able to relate to lyrics if they’re a little more broad.

Your songs also have a way of delivering pointed sentiments in a way where they don’t cut quite as much, but they’re still pointed.

Well, thank you! [Laughs] I don’t think there’s any real breakup material on the new album, but it definitely came up on the EP, where I was still dealing with whatever I had left from [a] bad breakup in Seattle. But this is why Stephen Malkmus, Pavement, the Silver Jews, and Yo La Tengo are my favorite bands. Because they do this thing where they combine really serious emotions, feelings, and topics with humor, both lyrically and melodically. They’re either laughing at themselves or the situation, and it can be really obvious or really subtle. That’s my favorite thing. In my videos and my songs, I like to combine really serious stuff that’s happening with an element of, ‘Well, what else can we do but laugh?’

—Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

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