“Playing music and touring makes me happier than anything,” the singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney says on a call from the home she shares with her boyfriend in Oakland, holding her phone to her ear with one hand and cooking an egg with the other. “But career-wise, it's a horrible choice to make. It's so temperamental, so fleeting. People can decide they hate you and that you suck, and then your career is over.”
Kenney’s new album, Sucker’s Lunch, out now via Carpark Records, is in many ways an attempt to ignore this irrefutable truth. She started writing the record while living in Durham, North Carolina, with her friends Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak, both of whom would go on to co-produce the record. Kenney had just returned from an exhausting but fulfilling tour in support of her second album, 2018’s Perfect Shapes, and she’d just started seeing her now-boyfriend. Her life seemed full of opportunity, which, she says, made her anxious. She could come up with an endless list of reasons why things wouldn’t work out, both in her career and her personal relationships, and she realized she couldn’t enjoy any of the things that were supposed to make her happy.
So, rather than continuing to overanalyze every hypothetical problem that the future could throw up, Kenney pushed back. She started to think about the tradition, particularly in literature, of the idiot. “I was thinking about that character. The fool can truly be wise, because they're free of logic, and wise in that they can experience things in a pure, untainted, unfettered sort of way,” she says.
Sucker’s Lunch is by no means a brazen record, despite Kenney’s concerted effort to throw herself more fully into possibility. It moves slowly, little ripples of liquid guitar and undulating bass guitar pooling up as Kenney focuses intently on life in microcosm: a found photograph, sun through her window, a cup or more of coffee. What’s clear by the end of the record, though, is that Kenney is pushing herself into a new mindset. On the beautifully discreet “White Window Light,” she sings through a conversation with herself and settles on recklessness: “I guess you're right / But that really shouldn't stop us / From jumping in the water without plans.” The album ends with Kenney repeating a thrilling mantra over a one-line piano melody: “If ‘if’ starts winning / I'll just stop my breathing.” Much of what makes Kenney such an enthralling singer and songwriter lies in her uncanny ability to articulate the personal absurdities that lead to a moment of clarity like that. Never on Sucker’s Lunch does it seem like she’s found an easy answer; when she’s finally ready to distill her feelings into one line, she still seems to be singing to the more anxious part of her that remains.
The FADER: You were still touring on Perfect Shapes early last year. Did you find yourself able to write while on the road?
Madeline Kenney: No. I always see Adrienne Lenker from Big Thief posting videos of her writing in hotel rooms and stuff. How do you do that? Part of it too is that I'm also my own tour manager and merch seller. It's just me and my two bandmates, so it's a 24-hour day job — you're driving, you're finding a place to stay, you're loading in, you're playing, you're loading out, you're loading into the hotel. By the end of it, I just want to watch Discovery Channel at the motel and go to bed.
Are you much of a note taker while you're on the road?
I do buy fancy notebooks with the intention of journaling, and it ends up being a to-do list. It's completely useless as a journal. I do voice memos, so if I come up with an idea often I have to go somewhere alone. It's just embarrassing when you're singing to your stupid app. I have so many embarrassing voice memos from when I'm trying to emulate what the drums will sound like and what the bass line will be. It's so stupid.
When you did get back and start writing, you were living with Jenn and Andy, which is quite a rare thing for a songwriter and their production team. Some musicians don’t want to share the emotional core of a song with whoever’s behind the desk, but in this case they could hear the songs coming together. They must’ve understood the lyrical content inside-out.
I agree. Thematically, I wanted these songs to be about what I was experiencing, obviously, but I’m also interested in songs that leave some room for the listener. I think the theme of being an idiot for someone or something… they were each going through things in their lives and careers, we just understood the same ideas. When I talked to them about the whole thesis, the idea of the fool, they were like, "Yeah, we're idiots too."
What does the the idiot mean to you in the context of this record, and when did you first start honing in on it?
I was just experiencing not only falling in love with somebody — bleh — but also my career. I realized that, these things that I was pursuing, I couldn't find any logical reason why they wouldn't work out. I had to make the conscious decision to not apply logic to them, not try and make sense of them. If I did, it [would] suck the joy out of living. I got interested in this idea in literature, history, and poetry. Some people were referencing the tarot card fool — I'm not really into that stuff, but if that helps you understand it, that's cool. But I was thinking that the fool can truly be wise, because they're free of logic. Wise in that they can experience things in a pure, untainted, unfettered sort of way.
And you were applying this to everything in your life: romantic relationships, a career in music...
Right. And I've been proven right that it's a stupid idea ever since COVID started, because that whole line of work is just [dead] right now. Still, I wouldn't trade it for anything, I love singing and I love playing. I'll do it until I'm dead. It doesn't matter if anybody is listening.
So you’re taking this idea of diving headfirst into something — or maybe not stopping to think about what could go wrong — and using that as a positive.
Yeah. I think that in my past I could convince myself not to do something, because I will spiral out into all of the reasons why it's stupid, including just being alive. I'm stupid, nobody likes me. I think it's work to push past those thoughts and just choose to enjoy something. It can be harder than it seems.
How much was this idea of being an idiot, willfully suspending very un-fun logic, based on the intentional recklessness of diving into a romantic relationship with someone new?
It was real-time. It wasn't something I experienced and then wrote about. I was finishing a song, then being like, "Come and meet me in Spain." He'd be like, "Okay." What the hell was I doing? Crazy. I'm crazy.
It all sounds quite frightening,
Oh, it's terrifying. I think vulnerability is extremely terrifying. The other part of being the fool is the knowledge that you very well could get hurt. That's really scary. Approaching anything knowing how you've been hurt in the past, I was like, Why the fuck would I do this again to myself? You have to decide that, despite the potential pain, it's worth it. It's almost like a mathematical equation, a probability game.
So there are these competing elements of fear and adrenaline and logic...
I don't even know if I was experiencing it that way. I was just honestly feeling really fucking crazy. I felt like I lost my mind for a little bit. I'm really, really skilled at self-doubt and self-hatred. I've perfected those skills. I can think of every possible reason in the world why someone would think that I'm a total piece of shit, even if I've never been anything but nice to them. It's a special ability of mine. I think it was a conscious decision, and a daily struggle to be like, Okay, somebody actually cares about me, now what does that mean about how I value myself? That can be a really weird thing to contend with.
It must be weird to put those quite pointed doubts on an album that you know is going to be heard by lots of people.
I tried to be as honest as possible on this record, and I am a little bit fearful that some of these inner thoughts are now not only public, but a way for me to make money. How pathetic is that? I also try to make those things so that anybody who hears the song [doesn’t hear], “Last Tuesday I got a sandwich with you and that was awesome.” I want people to say, “I know this feeling. I have also felt like I'm not worthy of being loved, and yet still gone for it.” It's really nice to hear other people go through the same thing, so that's what I tried to do. I will say though it's hilarious that I'm putting out these hella embarrassing love songs about this dude, and he's sitting upstairs right now. “I wrote all these about you, but no big deal.” So embarrassing.
When did you play them for him?
He heard them as I was writing them, I would just send them. These songs are two years old now, so I played them live before I had recorded them. It's interesting how, no matter how emotionally tied you are to songs that you write, eventually they become their own entity and separate from your original intention. I have songs that are old that I wrote when I was really mad and now I sing them... I'm not mad about that thing anymore. I still sing the song. I'm not saying that that relationship is over, so these songs don't apply at all. I just think that they sort of have a life of their own now, and I have an easier time being a bit less embarrassed.
Do you find that releasing songs puts certain emotions or situations to rest?
Most of the time, yes. I'm just reminiscing about live music right now, but you're on a stage, it's dark, you can only see your guitar pedals and your band mates. For me, it's easy to let the emotions take over sometimes. I can think of moments, maybe once in [each] tour, when what you were feeling when you were writing it comes back, and it hurts. Sometimes those moments come back. And sometimes when I'm writing a song I think I mean one thing, and then there’s this weird, psychological, introspective examination process. You listen to the song 40 times, 50 times, 100 times, and then later you're like, “Oh shit. I think I am actually talking about this.” I think it's kind of cool how meaning can shift over time.
You said you wanted to keep these songs open enough for other people to relate to them, which is increasingly rare, particularly in indie rock — it’s fashionable to say that the music is entirely personal and that, if anyone else gets it, that’s a bonus. Have you always thought about your audience when writing?
I think it's been a way of protecting myself emotionally, so that I could write about things that are emotionally difficult but not make sense of specifics that it hurt to sing about. That's the kind of music that I enjoy, where you can take a specific thing that happened to you and then phrase it in a way that it could have happened to anyone. I'm a big Lambchop fan — I’m still in this frozen moment of awe that Kurt [Wagner sang on the record [on “Sucker”]. On that album Oh, Ohio, there’s a song called “I'm Thinking Of a Number,” and my favorite lyric from it goes: "But I won't tell you that love is a variable thing, like this stain on your ass that I noticed when you walked away from me." That is genius. Obviously, it’s this moment where somebody had a stain on their ass is a specific moment, but he makes the moment bigger. I love that writing so much.
Are there other writers who you think are particularly good at that?
David Berman in Silver Jews, and also his poetry. Actual Air and other poems that he's written — that's my goal. I have Actual Air on my bedside table. Bill Callahan, David Berman, Yo La Tengo. Those are, writing wise, my lyrical heroes.
Kurt Wagner sings on Sucker’s Lunch, and Justin Vernon said that the album “slays” him. Is it strange, particularly as someone so adept at self-doubt, to have people you admire dish out praise like that?
My first instinct is always that they're just being nice and lying to me to make me feel better. I'm trying to go to therapy to get rid of that first instinct, but that's really a crazy thing to think about. I played a show with Lampchop at The Independent in San Francisco, it was probably my favorite show that I've ever played. We played a lot of these new songs when they were still freshly recorded, and Jenn and Andy were my backing band. It was so wholesome and fun. After my set, I was getting offstage and Kurt just goes, "Rock on, MK." I wish I could press that to vinyl and just listen to it forever. That was awesome, that felt really good. Those are the moments where I'm really glad I'm doing this stupid music thing.