Fenne Lily’s debut album is a collection of tracks that mostly seem to have been around for some time now. Two of them have been reviewed here in Tracks of the Week recently, while her debut single, ‘Top to Toe,’ written as a 15-year old (as many were) – and her Spotify route to success – seems to have been accessible for years. It’s hard to believe she’s still only 20.
She was brought up in a selectively conservative Dorset household where watching the telly was discouraged. But not listening (courtesy of her parent’s record collection) to music from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling. A move to Bristol at 17, where she mixed with many of the local movers and shakers in the business, was the catalyst for someone who hadn’t thought of becoming a professional musician to hone her embryonic skills, notably the intimacy she brings to all her songs. Also to develop a vocal delivery that embraces both Daughter’s Elena Tonra and a breathy choirboy Aled Jones, and a stage persona of her own, one that caught the attention of no less than Tony Visconti at last year’s Reeperbahn Festival.
Fenne Lily has said that she writes for herself, as a way to work through difficult things in her life, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, the theme of ‘Top to Toe’, possibly the best track on the album. Possessing a sharp sense of humour that doesn’t come across on the album, she recites a funny story in her live performances about that song’s first review, in which the critic suggested she was a “recovering lesbian” or words to that effect and in which the words “Stake away” became “steak away” like some fast food drive-thru selling 18-ouncers to go.
She denies that her hushed, almost reverential songs are all about relationship breakdowns and heartache. Some of them, she says, were written before she’d even experienced heartbreak, and are more to do with alienation from family and friends. Indeed, half the fun of listening to the album is trying to sort out which is which.
The opener, ‘Car Park’, falls into the failed relationship category as she recounts a lost weekend spent sleeping in one with “a dick” as she colourfully described him at a live show last year. Should Peter Kay seek a Car Share spin-off he’s already got a theme song; and one ready-made for Forever FM. The track is an early indication, too, of her lyrical prowess:
“I have done a lot, to prove to those I love that they are good enough…I don’t believe in luck, so I am giving up…”
Her first relationship and the inevitability of its ending appears to come under scrutiny in ‘Three-oh-Nine’ (“It’s a first for me; it’s a pain I need; it’s too good to be; please don’t leave”); a track in which she experiments with a band (here piano, bass and drums), a direction she has been taking in live performances as well. They collectively produce a bigger sound, but one that does not detract from the lyrical content, indeed in a similar way to the recently reviewed Queen of Minimal, Elle Mary and her band.
Having the words taken out of your mouth and/or changed is a fate to have befallen Meatloaf, St Vincent and numerous others, and Fenne Lily suffers much the same in ‘What’s Good’, a song that lacks a tune to latch on to but which subtly illustrates the uncertainty of single-dom loneliness: “‘Cause I need this more than I knew; More than I’d like, more than you do; ‘Cause I need this more than I knew; More than I’d like to.”
‘The hand you deal’ and ‘More than you know’ are newer songs without much previous exposure. The former is notable for the unusual degree of vocal backing and instrumentation – Heaven knows, there may even be a synthesiser in there – and the latter for the most upbeat delivery so far, which makes for a pleasant respite, even if it isn’t quite ‘Agadoo’.
The title track, ‘On Hold’, is, in her own words “a thank you for the warmth of the world when I was at my lowest”, and epitomises the love-life-growing up conundrum that characterises the whole album. The most melodic one to date, and the first to have an instrumental bridge of any substance, it suggests a mature coming-to-terms with the reality of post-pubescence, in the repeated line “All this pain is gold”.
‘Bud,’ another early song and one which she was asked to perform at the top of the tallest tower in Bristol for an acoustic session despite suffering from vertigo, marks a return to dodgy relationship territory, this time with a more convincing melody line.
‘Brother’ is another new track, dedicated to one, while ‘For a While’ puts Fenne Lily’s voice back in the driving seat to a simple guitar accompaniment in the opening verse, though there is a rapid sea change as instrumentation is added, becoming almost anthemic towards the end, an unusual outcome for her.
The album wraps up with ‘Car Park (Overflow)’ which is a verbatim reprise of the opening track. The tune and lyrics are identical but she plays it almost debilitatingly with a simple acoustic guitar backing in what sounds like a backyard or school playground. Presumably, there is a reason. In an interview earlier this year she said, “’Car Park’ chronicles yet another period of false hope and turmoil, it was written following the realisation that damaging patterns are enabled and suffered by the passive. I cannot and will not blame my heartache on anyone but myself, so this isn’t a song about pain, it’s a song about power; about putting the ball in your own court; about knowing when to wave goodbye to the things that make you ache in order to make space for those that help you grow”.
And yet both songs end with the line “Leave it all to trust or start to give it up” – an acknowledgement, perhaps, that for all the girl power in the world she’s as likely as not to end up with another “dick”. Or, that she’d be better off without a relationship altogether.
There will be a phalanx of rugby-playing, raw steak-eating, fast car-driving beer-swillers, most of them (but not all) male, for whom this album will be meaningless. But equally, there are many (mostly younger women) who will be attracted to this work and who will find it to be replete with meaning for them. Just as they do with Adele, and Fiona.
If the album has a weakness it is that so far, at least, Fenne Lily hasn’t really come close to nailing the killer riff, or the strong melody, even on just one song, that will project her into the mainstream consciousness; if that is something she cares about anyway. ‘For a While’ comes closest to it. But she has the rest of the package – the subtler melodies, the well-chosen words, her empathy and credibility all being well to the fore. If that’s the toe, the top will come, in time.
She isn’t going to be “the other Dorset girl” for long.
‘On Hold’ will be self-released on 6th April. Fenne Lily will embark on a UK tour on the same day, beginning in Cardiff and ending in Bristol on 17th April.