Fenne Lily And The Joy of Moving

On her new album "Big Picture," the singer examines the confines of a relationship.

Fenne Lily and I were supposed to go bowling. But schedules changed, things got rescheduled, and on St. Patrick’s Day we instead find ourselves drinking iced coffee in the heart of Soho. It’s probably for the best. “This is much safer,” Lily says after we’ve established that both of us are bowling rookies and prone to accidents. “I've also hurt myself so much recently. Check this out. This is a knife wound,” she says, gesturing towards a bandage on her hand. “It's healing, it's disgusting.”

A few weeks after we meet, Lily will release her new album Big Picture, a followup to 2020’s critically acclaimed BREACH, which dropped mid-pandemic. It will take over 14 minutes of our planned “quick coffee” before we actually talk about it. “I broke my little toe standing up,” she continues. “Apparently we break our toes three times a year. The little toe has 18 tiny bones or something.” Later, an ambulance will go by, sirens blaring. “Whenever there's an ambulance, my mom's always like, ‘I hope it's a baby!’ She means the baby's being born, but it sounds really bad.” This leads to us fantasizing about the ultimate Final Destination-style death. (I don't want to have a boring, slow, predictable death. Find me with a nail in my eye or I don't find me at all,” she eventually concludes.)

A good portion of that time is spent talking about Lily’s recent move to New York. In September, she officially made the decision to relocate to Brooklyn. For the past two years, she’d been living in lockdown with her partner and dog. The relationship did not survive the pandemic; but the album she wrote during that time did. Unlike her previous work, Big Picture is not a breakup album. Instead, it’s an introspective look at the highs and lows and nothing moments of a relationship, written at a time when she needed something that felt personal and only hers. “I would just be privately processing how confused I was, about how I felt about this person, while they were in the other room. So I finally had something that was mine to write about, rather than just this global problem I was just a very small part of.”

Next week, on the heels of a European tour, Lily continues the run in the States, where she’ll co-headline across the country with Christian Lee Hutson. But before that, a free-flowing conversation about everything from deep recurring nightmares to Rock of Love.

How’s the new apartment?

I was near the Myrtle-Broadway stop, in the middle of everything. But I didn't really sleep the whole time. And now I'm sleeping great, and I have this huge fire escape that makes me feel like I'm in Sex and the City. If I could sleep out there, I would. I will be outside. It's so good, and there's a squirrel that's made a nest in the next door neighbor's flower pot.

Have you recovered from the move?

It was great. I love moving.

You love moving?

I will wake up so early, so excited. It's a new opportunity to have everything that I already love, in a different way. The process of moving is even more brilliant. [Right now], I feel settled and relaxed now. For the first time in a few years.

A series of tangents follows, including the topic of celebrity veneers (“I was wondering recently... When do famous people get their teeth straightened? Because you see actors that are 17, 18. Did they get their braces when they were 10?”).

Do you often have dreams about your teeth falling out? I have them all the time.

That's sexual frustration. Either that, or money. I have one recurring nightmare that I've been having over the last four months. So potentially it's album-release based. It's a recurring dream where I'm in my old kitchen where I grew up, and there's a kitten on the counter at the top. It's tiny, a finger-length kitten, and it's just about to fall. I'm trying to run across the kitchen to catch it, but I'm too slow, and then I wake up.

What does that one mean?

Fear of failure? I'm not sure. I haven't Googled it.

You diagnosed mine pretty quickly.

This is why I'd be a really good therapist. I'd be horrible to my partner and children, but I'd be so good to strangers, so helpful. But I'd have a really messy life. I'm smiling at the thought.

Michael Tyrone Delaney

Well, nightmare aside, how are you feeling about the album coming out?

It's such a weird thing. I was talking to Ellen [Kempner] from Palehound about this the other day, they were saying in a way that I've not really thought about it before. We are the product that we are selling, and it's so tied up in how we see ourselves, that the idea of how we'll feel when it's out, is unfathomable. I almost need an unrealistic level of appreciation from literally everyone on the planet to feel like I've done a good job. But I know that's not going to happen. So I'm trying to be like, "Whatever happens, it doesn't reflect badly on me as a person." But what I make and who I am, is so intertwined there.

This promo cycle must be bizarre since BREACH was released mid-pandemic and you weren’t really out and about.

I did a lot of Zooms, which was fine. It just felt very alien and isolated.

But then to not be able to tour and interact with people, it must feel like you’re releasing it into a void.

It was like throwing a ball to someone and hoping that they catch it, and not seeing if they did. I was thinking about this earlier while I was doing my shelving: I don't know how to put up a shelf. I didn't go to music college or have musical parents, but I did have parents that were like, "You're amazing." To a point where it's given me an unrealistic, almost unhelpful feeling of, if it needs to be done, I will do it. It will probably not be right, but it will be done. I feel that applies to music in a cool way sometimes, where I'm like, "I made a record." I don't know how to promote it. I don't know how to make myself into a product, but I have made something that I think is real and honest to my experience and that's done. And my mom will be like, "That's amazing."

I just made myself sound like such a dick. I have super supportive parents. The person that this record was written about had the opposite parents, and as a result, they were paralyzed by the idea that something would go wrong so much that they didn't do it.

What prompted your move from the U.K. to New York?

I was here over the summer, because I was recording in May in North Carolina. And then I came here because I didn't want to go home yet. I'd just separated from the person I wrote the record about. And the more I was here, the less I wanted to go home. I had to go home to play a show in August, I was just... I cried when I landed in London. I phoned my mom and I was like, "I don't want to be here anymore." She was like, "You don't have to be here."

Do you still feel a different kind of energy now that you officially live here?

Yes. I used to feel when I was in Bristol, way more neurotic and stressed out. I feel here, there are at any time a 100 people within a 100 feet of you, that are more stressed out than you.

It’s like the saying that people move to New York to make their lives more difficult.

And I needed that. I really... I guess this makes me sound very spoiled, but through lockdown I had a partner, a house with outside space, WiFi. It was on that surface, pretty comfortable. But every time I would shop for groceries or go to bed early, which sounds like nice calm things, I'd just be so stressed by the idea that my life was moving away from me faster than I could deal with it.

Things that were comfortable became really uncomfortable, because I felt like I was just going to get stuck in that forever. So moving here, I could have really moved anywhere, and the process of moving and the feeling that I had done something that I'd been thinking about doing for so long, would've been maybe enough. But here it's so easy to be alone amongst people, which is what I needed, and I didn't know what I needed.

This record is essentially a chronicle of the machinations of a relationship, which you wrote while living with your then-partner. How did you start writing it?

Yes, in deep lockdown. We had three different lockdowns, it was like different models of iPhone. But I just couldn't write for so long because nothing was happening. I didn't feel any thoughts or feelings I was having, are mine. I felt they were shared by everybody, it didn't feel private. I felt lethargic and emotionally dead and sad. But then what happened to make me want to write? Oh, I started arguing a lot with the person that I was with.

The last two records were both about the end of a relationship, which is when you have all the feelings. This one is right in the middle, so I imagine it’s hard to know how to start.

Exactly. There was no jumping off point. There were nights where I would sleep on the sofa and they would sleep in the bed, and then the next day we would just see each other in the kitchen. And it was this weird feeling of we need each other, because we don't have anything else. Which I never thought I would have in a relationship, and I really resented them for that. But I also just resented the situation, and then we would've inevitably come back together and it was just this tumultuous on and off, but never able to be off, because we were always together. So I started writing about that. And finally I had something private to talk about, because I didn't want them to know exactly how I was feeling about it.

At what point did you realize you had a full album?

I guess by the time we did our first tour, in February 2022. I went on tour thinking I had a full record, came back from the tour, and had five days between that tour ending and another tour beginning. I decided that that was the time that I would separate from my person. I felt the world suddenly opened, and I felt I had a lot of changing to do in a very small amount of time. I had a lot of catching up to do. And we broke up.

But then in the five days between tours, I had this breakup, went to stay with my parents, started writing another song and sent it to my friend. And they were like, "This is worth finishing, I think." And then we did the tour and I didn't have time to finish it. And then I got home and I had two days before we started pre-production, and I finished this song, and then the album was finished.

At what point did he realize the album is about him?

I don't even know if he knows. There’s been no communication since. Though, my mom is so hilariously bad when it comes to her children's breakups. She invited my brother's ex-girlfriend for Christmas without telling him. And she texted my ex on their birthday, which is fine.

Do you feel any anxiety at the thought that they’ll be hearing it soon?

No, because it's not a cruel record. In fact, I feel maybe the saddest part for anyone listening to a record about a time with someone that they're not with anymore, would just be remembering the nice things. Because that's often the part that makes you sad, right? So me describing our first kiss on a street corner and finding out that my mom had cancer, and him holding my hand. Those are the bits that I think are the focal points. There's only one breakup song.

The record is also more so about you and your feelings in the relationship, not so much the relationship itself.

Yeah. I try and keep it not coded. And I know where this trend came from. It came from Phoebe Bridgers, who I think is a genius. There's this new way of writing lyrics that is very detailed accounts of experiences that the writer has had. And she does it in such a brilliant way that makes it feel universally applicable to your own situation. But there's now this slew of copycat writers who just list exclusive to them, details that are somehow completely disconnected, but also feel that very boring. And I'm sick of it. I didn't want to make a record that was so personal that it was like, "What am I going to do with that? I don't know who David is. Who is that? How do I apply this to myself?" It's just overkill if everything is micro specific and zoomed in. There needs to be some step back, and see the perspective of a situation.

We segue into the obsession of musician’s personal lives these days and TikTok deep dives. “There's a theory or a rumor or fake fact, about Nick Drake dying a virgin,” she says. “I love that no one knows, and I especially love that no one cares enough to find out.”

Are you excited to do a full tour for the album?

Yes. The touring element is the only part that makes me feel I've done something that matters to me or something. I'm stoked because this is the first record that I wrote all the parts with my band. The last record I wrote alone. We know what we're doing, because we did it together. It feels like a team effort at this point. Touring makes it feel real, I think. I mean, provided people turn up.

They will.

You never know. We were just saying it's very expensive to be alive [ed. note: since we live in New York, the conversation predictably turned to the price of groceries at one point], and it's probably expensive to be alive everywhere, not just here. I just know that it's expensive here. But the fact that people bother to save a date and buy a ticket, literally go to a room to watch you. It's a big deal.

And it’s a co-headlining show with Christian Lee Hutson, so people are getting bang for their buck.

It's great, because you get three bands a night for the same prices, three for two. Honestly, it's like a deal. And we're sharing band members and a band and everything. It's going to be like Almost Famous.

I was asked yesterday, "Touring sounds so tiring, is it hard?" It's not. It's mainly just sitting down and sleeping and snacking. Literally, it's honestly like being a baby, you get rocked to sleep by the tour bus, you get gently woken up by the tour manager asking if you need a bottle of water. You get to feel like fucking Brett Michaels for an hour and then you can go to bed. It's so great. I have Brett Michaels on my mind, because I've been watching Rock of Love.

A perfect show. And of course, Daisy of Love.

She's so good at football. I just watched that episode.

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.