Photo courtesy of Madeline Kenney
Madeline Kenney Probes Foolish Love On 'Sucker's Lunch'
"Honestly, it's pretty f**king heartbreaking," explains Madeline Kenney. This blunt assessment from the Oakland singer-songwriter is almost cruelly ironic when one considers the subject matter of her upcoming third album. Out from Carpark Records on July 31, Sucker’s Lunch finds Kenney grappling with the privileges and perils of love, often approaching bliss from a perspective of perceived unworthiness.
Inspired in part by what Kenney terms "the healthiest relationship I've been in," the album takes her brand of poignantly crafted art-rock to some dazzling new places. Synths serve as confections on opener "Sugar Sweat," while lead single "Sucker" pairs Kenney with the vocals of Lamchop's Kurt Wagner as the two sing of the inevitable cons we fall for again and again.
On "Sweet Coffee," the discordant sounds of machinery accompany Kenney's haunting vocals as a sparse piano line flourishes into something ultimately far sweeter. The song, as with every track on the record, also benefits from the presence of bassist Jenn Wasner and drummer Andy Slack (who together form the duo Wye Oak). Sucker’s Lunch also returns Wasner as co-producer, a role she first inhabited on Kenney's last album, 2018’s Perfect Shapes.
In lieu of a scheduled tour with Alex G., Kenney has spent her months in quarantine baking bread, making kits for protesters and working on her piano exercises. For an album that's been over two years in the making—and positioned as Kenney’s strongest release to date—the landscape into which she’s sending her latest creation is one ripe for heartbreak indeed.
On a break from hand-building an outdoor pizza oven in her backyard, Kenney spoke with GRAMMY.com about why she needs a thesis for her records, her initial hesitance to pen "ooey-gooey" love songs and the importance of making space to grieve.
This album finds you partnering once again with Jenn Wasner. After working together on Perfect Shapes, was that a forgone conclusion for you? When did [Wye Oak drummer] Andy Slack get involved?
Well, I lived with them in North Carolina, so we were all just like one big crazy family. We would go on tour together and then all come back home. They were touring so much in 2018. I was on some of those tours and some of the time I was just home alone, so I would work on songs by myself. Andy's room was above mine, so I would just knock on his door and say, "Hey, I have this demo. Would you track drums to it?" He was nice that he'd do it. Then, when it came time to get ready to make the record, I was so used to all of Andy's drum parts that I told him he should just fly out to San Francisco and record them with Jenn and I. They're like psychically linked as far as the rhythm section goes, so it just seemed logical. With Andy, this sounds so nerdy, but he has like this light touch that's very refined and tasteful.
Thematically, Sucker's Lunch addresses love from a lot of angles. Is it true that you met someone, who was in turn perhaps an inspiration on that front?
I'm walking away from him so I don't embarrass him! Right before Perfect Shapes came out, I'd just gone through a terrible breakup and it sucked. I was never really interested in writing love songs before. I guess it was just a topic where I felt like I didn't know if I had much to say, as far as like "ooey-gooey" love songs go but I started seeing this person and all of a sudden, I found myself... like it felt good enough to want to write about, which is new for me, to be honest. I can safely say it's the healthiest relationship I've been in. It's awesome but I just don't if I was used to that. It almost made me feel like I was crazy, which comes through in some of the songs.
There’s also this thematic element of "the idiot" that you’ve mentioned relates to this album as well.
The thematic element of the fool and the sucker and the idiot is that I'm the first person to friggin' logic my way out of anything good. Like all of these good things are happening to me, so here are all of the reasons why I don't deserve it and why it could fail and why it's a bad idea. I think it took a lot of mental work for me to get past that and say, "It might be a bad idea but it feels really good to go for it." I had that revelation while Andy and Jenn were on tour. I remember them coming back and I started shouting about how I understood everything. My need to have a thesis is so dorky and academic of me but I struck on this idea that you have to enjoy the good things in life. It might be foolish and it might not be safe but you have to do it. It applies both to relationships and also to having a career in music, as has been clearly proven by this whole quarantine COVID craziness. I couldn't have chosen a more volatile, stupid career.
Before Sucker's Lunch was announced, you've posted on Twitter about struggling with how, when, or if to release an album as the reality of the pandemic was settling in. What went into that decision for you?
I still have a lot of guilt about it because there are way bigger, more important things happening. I'm really trying to hold space for the grief I have for our idiotic country and its growing pains, but I also need to hold space for the grief that I have for this work that I put my life and my being into. Honestly, it's pretty f**king heartbreaking, to be blunt about it. I mean, I wrote these songs when I was crazy, goo-goo in love. We’re still together and I'm happy and it's all wonderful but it's going on like two years later now. For one, it’s like "sorry that I'm putting out all of these embarrassing love songs out right now." Second of all, I held onto these songs for a while. I wasn't sure how I was going to record them. I was scared to approach Carpark [Records] with it for some reason.
What was your hesitation?
Even though I'm on the label, I was just really sensitive about all of it. I showed it to some people—not friends, but people in the industry who I no longer trust. They were like, "I don't even know what this is. There's no single here. What is this?" I was really hurt by that and I just pressed pause on everything.
I held off on recording it and then I was like, "You know what? F**k it. I'm going to do it. I'm going to pay for it." I booked the studio time but I didn't tell Carpark. I just kind of started it. Finally, I worked up the nerve to send them some rough mixes and everyone was so receptive and nice. It was just all such a weird experience and also very drawn out. I mixed the record twice. I shot the cover twice. Everything was pretty meticulous and done over and over again to get it right.
That whole process delayed everything and then I was supposed to go on tour with Alex G. I had this vision of going on tour with him and having these great shows. Now, I kind of just have to watch all that die. Maybe not die but have it all happen so unceremoniously. I think it's okay for me to feel sad about that. I really want to experience these songs in a room with people and it just breaks my heart that I have no idea when that's going to be. Millions and millions and millions of people, including many musicians, are dealing with this uncertainty, which is so painful, but what a drag for that to be the end of a two-and-a-half-year process.
And what has your quarantine been like so far? Are you able to be creative or do you feel disengaged from that process right now?
I'm doing a lot of domestic shit. I'm baking and trying to build this pizza oven and stuff. I started nannying for this family. I’m helping to take care of a little two-year-old and four-month-old. That's been surprisingly nice, in the midst of the insanity of the world, to hold a chunky little cuddly baby. Plus, I don't know when I'll have music work again, so I need work.
I've been trying to record and stuff but I can't f**king write right now. I've never been more devoid of creative energy or inspiration, so it's really, really hard to get myself motivated. It sucks because we built a studio in our basement. Our basement was unfinished and we spent the last couple of months before quarantine building walls. I did drywall. Turns out I'm pretty good at doing drywall. It was very D.I.Y. It looks really sick and it's awesome and I can't write anything. It's really horrible, so I'm just trying to be forgiving of myself for that. I'm getting into the habit now of playing more piano and doing more exercise-type stuff—music exercises—instead of trying to force myself to write.
Have you been approached about doing any livestreams?
I have so many gripes with the whole livestream thing. I don't want people seeing inside of my house, man. Also, I don't want to play to my phone and not hear applause. As selfish as that sounds, it's just so empty. Then there’s the technology. That's the other thing: now we have to also be premium online content creators? It's just a ridiculous request. I feel like up until now, I felt accomplished just barely knowing how to edit and direct my own videos but I still have to hire people to work the camera because I didn't go to film school.
Some people are really good at it. I'm just not. I want my music to sound a certain way when people hear it. Nobody asks DJs to do acoustic sets but I've been asked to do acoustic sets on Instagram and stuff. Man, I like playing my electric guitar. I like my toys. I like my reverb and my vocal pedal and I use them to make people hear the music in a certain way. I don't want to be forced back into what's effectively an open mic circuit in my own home. No thank you.
It's just surreal that one of your next live dates is currently a slot at the Outside Lands Music & Art Festival next summer.
I really miss the live element for a million different reasons. I feel like it’s such a big part of what I do on this planet, so it feels really painful—especially in this moment of protests and all of the other work people are doing—to wonder when I’ll be able work. Like, in addition to everything else that I'm trying to do, that just feels like a huge part of my own career puzzle that's missing. To me, it is a positive contribution to the world and hopefully it helps makes people feel okay.