Photography by Cara Robbins
Madeline Kenney loves to move. In the most literal sense, she’s talking about her Oakland home: “I don’t know if I can pay expensive rent just to be touring all the time,” she tells AdHoc over email, ahead of her headlining set at Trans-Pecos. But getting to this point in her life–California, touring musician–took a lot of moving, both physically and figuratively. Tracing the winding path of Kenney’s life reveals frequent and seemingly random detours: she’s studied neurobiology and has had a nearly decade-long career as a baker before focusing her energy as a musician.
Kenney’s endless curiosity and wandering spirit, though, shows itself in full force through her music. Her debut album, Night Night at the First Landing, is full of musical and lyrical detours–the cascading melody of “Always” seems to be searching for answers; the twinkling piano provides a guide. On several songs, Kenney loops her voice into a round, with each part singing the same mantra: “Don’t you worry about a thing.” With each piece of her musical puzzle, Kenney contends with her place in the universe, and the simultaneous excitement and uncertainty of innumerable possibilities.
Madeline Kenney's debut album, Night Night at the First Landing, is out now on Company Records. Catch her 9/19 at Trans-Pecos with Tall Friend and Trees Take Ease.
AdHoc: I wanted to talk about your approach to composition. Your music, to me, is kaleidoscopic, meandering, searching; you layer sounds–fingerpicked guitar, harmonized vocals, steady drums–that create an almost ethereal space. You wrote, arranged, and tracked every song on the album–what’s your thought process when you begin to write a song, and when arranging it?
Madeline Kenney: Wow, thanks for such a thoughtful and kind description of my sound! Sometimes songs come together from a melodic idea on guitar or on my loop pedal, but more often than not I come up with melodies when I'm nowhere near an instrument. Then I have to do the work to put music to the lyrics or melody I've come up with. As far as arranging and layering sounds, I think that comes from hearing many melodies at once and wanting to squeeze everything in.
In addition to being a touring musician, you wear many other hats: you have a degree in neuroscience, you’re an artist, dancer, baker, piano teacher–the list goes on. How do you think all these interests and talents inform your music?
I think I’m easily distracted and maybe that helps inform my writing and arranging, and definitely my lyrics. Sometimes I think all my interests are more of a hindrance though… I wish I was more disciplined at perfecting one skill. I need to practice guitar more.
Say we stepped into an alternate reality and came across a version of you that wasn’t a musician. What do you think she would be doing?
I'd like to think my alternate self would be a textile designer or an architect. Who knows, maybe there's still time to do it all!
You’ve moved to Oakland in the past few years. Can you talk more about the city and your connection to it, both musically and not?
Oakland is an incredible place to create music and art. There's a lot of support from other musicians and many avenues through which to explore your interests. I also love the nature around the bay; I try to escape to Marin and the north bay when I need to reset. I don't know if I'll last [in Oakland] forever. But I love moving, so we'll have to see where I end up next.
You’re involved with the Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco. Can you talk more about how you got involved with the program & what it’s all about?
My friend Kelley Coyne is the program director there and also is an amazing engineer. She helped me apply for the internship, and is super patient with my weird schedule. They're doing such an incredible thing there–educating women and girls in engineering, production, live sound. Only 5% of the recorded sounds you hear every day were produced by women. Ladies and nonbinary folk are pretty familiar with that dynamic, but it feels great to be a part of such an important instrument of change. With all due respect to my dude friends, we need more feminine energy in the music world.