In her own words, the “sad girl” who nailed Spotify success, singer-songwriter Fenne Lily is far from a lonely online sensation. As we settle into a cosy café to discuss her upcoming release, the community around it and how her sound is changing, the self-deprecating, ironic sense of humour we know on-track is still her defining feature.
Having written ‘Top to Toe’ when she was 15, Fenne hit 30 million Spotify plays after it saw release in 2016. Lily is, at best, indifferent to the speed of this success: “It started getting playlisted after a couple of months, and then people were texting me saying they’d just heard me on Radio 1. I wasn’t really following it because it doesn’t really bother me, that kind of stuff, until it got to the point where I was like, ‘this is abnormally getting played a lot’. In some ways I wish it didn’t happen so quickly because then people were like ‘ooh, how many plays is the next song going to get’ and it shouldn’t be about that.”
Championed by Bristol label, Chiverin, owner Aled Chivers was booking for Lily at The Louisiana from day one. “I only had two songs at this point, so I quickly wrote two more and started coming up to play every couple of weeks from Dorset with my Dad. Aled started booking me really good support slots and, after about a year, on the way back from supporting Marika Hackman, he said ‘I really want to be your manager’ and I said ‘I don’t know what that means, but sure.’ He didn’t just pop up when I was doing well and say ‘let me have a slice’, ‘cause a lot of people are like that… Especially if you’re a girl on your own.”
“People were texting me saying they’d just heard me on Radio 1… It doesn’t really bother me, that kind of stuff.”
The Chiverin community has been a big contributor to Lily’s success. I ask her about the importance of collaboration, particularly her recent collaborative tour with Paul Thomas Saunders, Siv Jakobsen and Sivu. “It’s really nice to tour and perform my material with different people. Especially for singer-songwriters, it’s quite easy to get pigeonholed. If you want to keep everything to yourself all the time, be a girl with a guitar and look cute on stage, that doesn’t really have a lot of longevity. This tour was great because we helped each other out, but we were still doing our thing. It makes me think about different ways of doing stuff whilst still keeping my integrity. It’s pretty easy to get trodden on if you’re with, like, a big writer or you’re put with a popular producer. So yeah, there’s definitely a community I benefit from, but I don’t think I’m ready yet to do straight collaborations, because it’s mine, and I’m still honing it.” Aside from work with close friends, she jokes, “I was the kid at school who cloaked their spelling tests. I’m a natural secret worker.”
With Lily having developed so much as an artist in a few young years, I ask if it’s weird playing her original songs from such a different time in her life. “It’s actually quite frightening how much my life problems haven’t changed. I listen back and I realise I still pick the wrong people. I still feel lonely a lot of the time. The core of most of the songs is sentimentally the same because I’m just kind of… Sad, as a person.” None of this is without a laugh, and I’d say the drive of her latest single ‘Three Oh Nine’ begs to differ. “I realised that everyone was responding to the first three singles like ‘oh another sad song from Fenne Lily, Fenne Lily’s so sad, blah blah’. I sort of got to the, like… ‘Fuck you’ stage. I’m more angry than sad. I needed sonically to say that.”
“If you want to keep everything to yourself all the time, be a girl with a guitar and look cute on stage, that doesn’t really have a lot of longevity.”
Recruiting a band in time for The Louisiana’s Independent Venue Week mini-fest, Lily is ready to deliver a grittier performance. Although tempted to have a polished sound reliant on backing tracks, she prefers to “trigger things with my feet and be really self-sufficient,” she explains. “To move the new songs away from being a singer-songwriter, they needed a bit of crunch. I want to be able to interact with the band onstage and not feel like I’m pinned to a click or a track. I want it to be a band thing, not like ‘oh, sad girl plus friends’.” The friends in question are drummer Maya Indelicato [prev. Scarlet Rascal] and bassist Joe Sherrin [aka SLONK], while her album sees Tamu Massif continue on production, as well as James Thorpe and John Parish [PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding].
“I want it to be a band thing, not like ‘oh, sad girl plus friends’.”
With such great people behind her, a debut album lined-up and a brand new live band, it seems Fenne Lily is anything but just a sad girl.
The as-yet-untitled debut is due in April, with her appearance at The Louisiana for Independent Venue Week set for 3rd February.