For the UK singer-songwriter Fenne Lily, cannabis and music are utterly inseparable. To craft her dazzling second full-length record, BREACH (out 9/18 on the acclaimed indie label Dead Oceans) Lily used cannabis to dig deep into her own psyche, past traumas and the pitfalls of love; the result is a record that is as emotionally profound as it is sonically rich.
“At 15 I started smoking and playing guitar within a couple months of each other, for the same reason — to relax into being someone else for a while, to become comfortably introverted…As much as weed became part of my life unconsciously, part of being a teenager in the countryside with not a lot to do, it grew into a tool I use to access the calmer parts of my mind,” she explains.
“Smoking allows [songwriting] to be both directionless and cathartic as I’m able to access a way of thinking and linking that I can’t otherwise. It’s funny to me that something I initially did to not seem like a nark at parties has become something totally essential to the way I process pain and actually basically everything,” she adds.
In advance of her riveting new single “Solipsism,” we caught up with Lily for a delightful and wide-ranging conversation touching on her most intense cannabis experiences, the unexpected musical reference points that informed BREACH, a mini-lesson in the murder of a grim Polish painter and even how Tinder aided her songwriting strategy.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about the beginnings of your relationship with pot?
I came to it early-ish. I was in school with people whose brothers grew it; it felt like this insane secret. Then I moved to Bristol, which is pretty much the Portland of the UK. It’s very laid back. The main street, Stokes Croft, some dude when I moved here was like ‘We call it Smokes Croft’ (laughs). Weed is still fully illegal here; you can’t buy it in a special Apple Store like you can in LA.
I worry about everything. When my parents found out I was smoking, when I was 16, my dad sat me down and told me he had [mental health issues]…He said, ‘I’ll be upfront and say my mind has not always been my best friend. It’s something that could be in your genes. If ever you feel like you’re going down the wrong path, have a chat with me.’ He wasn’t putting the fear of god in me (laughs). It’s something I was thankful for.
That’s awesome you guys were able to have that chat. Are there products or strains that work best for you?
When I discovered hash I was excited; it allowed me to get the body high instead of mental.
When I went to California I got some [indica-heavy] mints. I was flying back a few days later and hadn’t finished them. I ate, like, ten. I didn’t want to waste them.
Halfway through the flight my phone died and wouldn’t turn on again; that had happened once before and I lost everything. I started panicking, and then all these fucking mints kicked in. I instantly started crying and couldn’t stop for the rest of the seven hour flight. I was in tears the whole time (laughs).
That’s totally bonkers. How does it feel to put out a record in this time of Peak Weird?
Oh, man. I definitely wrote the album as an opportunity to enjoy and expand on the live side of stuff in the first place. That’s what’s been taken away.
I’ve definitely been absorbing new music more readily because I haven’t had enough actual life to absorb. I wouldn’t normally listen to Taylor Swift. But I listened to [Swift’s new album Folklore], had a strongly negative opinion, then had conversations with friends who listened because they’ve also had nothing to do. Then I went back and listened to it during a chill day with my best friend and I liked it.
If people have more time and are open to giving things space that can only be a good thing for artists.
Amen to that. Besides listening to music, what have you been doing to get through quarantine?
I spent the morning priming a canvas. I was looking for inspiration and found an artist named [Zdzisław] Beksiński. [His paintings] are utterly horrendous nightmares but beautiful in the way they’re done.
He was stabbed to death in 2005…when he died, Burning Man erected this red cross in his honor and all his work was put in a gallery in an old castle in Poland. You can still go see his work for free. I really want to go!
Wow, his stuff is terrifying! On an unrelated note, why did you name the record BREACH?
I find it really hard to name stuff. It’s one thing to make something, and another to put a name to it. I don’t know how parents do it, to be honest. It was getting down to the line, and I was going home from a basketball game. My teammate had dropped me near my home. It was raining, the pitch-black middle of winter and I was in such a bad mood. I started weirdly thinking about my mom, how much I wish she would pick me up in her car and take me back to her house where I wouldn’t be on my own and that got me thinking about being born…I’d had to be cut out of my mom; I grew upside down. It’s called a footling breech when that happens, which I think is a really cute and creepy name.
I had to name the record that week. BREACH is good because it means both breaking through a barrier, but also has this connection to my footling breech.
A lot of what I was doing while writing it was cutting out bad parts of my life…bad people and bad things. There was a lot of breaking through barriers there.
Were there specific touchstones you had in mind while writing the songs?
There are definitely things I come back to constantly; having a record player and records has helped me be that person. I have to listen to records [a lot] because I paid 25 quid for them. There was a period when I was just painting and spending time alone and listening to Jacques Brel. I love that close-mic vocal vibe and I love the softness of the production on records of that era. I think because it’s in French I can see that production style better. I wanted the record to be soft but more than my first record, to introduce elements of music I’m currently obsessed with.
I was listening to tons of Modest Mouse, which is why I chose [producer Brian Deck, who has worked with Modest Mouse]. My bassist introduced me way too late to Pavement and post-punk.
Now that you mention, the solo in “Berlin” sounds a lot like Pavement!
I love you for saying that. I know that my bass player who played that guitar solo will love you for saying that too.
‘Berlin’ kind of feels like the album’s mission statement to me. Do you feel that way?
It’s a weird one, that song. I wrote it in Berlin, came back and my phone died like it did from LA. I lost all of the stuff from that trip, a month’s worth of work. Piecing my brain back together was a long process. ‘Berlin’ was one of the first things that came back to me. When it came time to record that line ‘it’s not hard to be alone alone anymore,’ I realized I’d been writing in that vein throughout the writing process, mainly [in regards to] moving into a house of my own.
People that read a weed blog may appreciate that there’s a terrifying option anxiety when your brain is left to its own devices: what do I do? Do I do nothing? It’s an immobilizing freedom that I was comfortable with but also struggling with.
I hear you. Did weed factor into your new single ‘Solipsism,’ at all?
I’d just moved in with my best friend. He is always stoned; we [would talk] for an hour straight without breathing and then take a nap on the floor in the middle of the day. I went to pick up some furniture and was walking behind this woman who seemed to be walking so fast and then so slowly and it was really getting on my nerves. Then I was like ‘wait, I’m probably just stoned and am the one that’s walking in a weird way.’ I had band practice that night and my drummer played the beat in that song. The only thing I could think about was that woman walking so slowly, and the first line is ‘all these people walk so slow.’ I forgot about her until now. I think she was probably being normal and I wasn’t.
Nice. One more lyric question for you: in ‘Alapathy,’ what does “All the dogs are down” mean?
You’ve picked up on the one part of the record I can’t explain in a pretentious way. I was just mumbling stuff that was coming to mind. I do remember going on a Tinder date in Chicago when I was making the album. I asked him, what do you think [that line] means, and he was like, ‘I dunno, all the homies are down?’ I was like, ‘shit maybe it does mean that.’
Way to go, Tinder!
Tinder became a big part of the album. I [wasn’t in] a relationship but I was definitely big into meeting people and taking a little of what they’re doing and putting it into what I’m doing. I thank Tinder for a lot of this album.
Amazing. OK, Fenne, last question for you. Do you consider yourself an optimist?
That should be so simple to answer but it’s so hard. It depends on what I’ve smoked or how I’ve dreamed. Every day I wonder whether I’m a nightmare or the most overtly blind optimist in the world (laughs). The worse shit gets in the world, the more I see the benefits of compartmentalizing and seeing light in a pitch-dark room. I appreciate people I can call up who can give me a positive perspective when I can’t see one. If I was boiled down to my essential parts, I’m generally a negative person. I panic, I get bummed out by small things. I’m an optimist today, but tomorrow I probably won’t be.