When I call Madeline Kenney, she’s almost home – driving back to Durham from a brief West Coast tour after a stop in Austin to drop off her band. On this return trip, she’ll cross the Continental Divide for the ninth time this year. Her first crossing, in January, was part of a move from the Bay Area to North Carolina to record her sophomore album, Perfect Shapes. It had scarcely been six months since Carpark Records put out her Toro Y Moi-produced Night, Night At First Landing, but Kenney was compelled by opportunity – she’d been offered free recording time in Sylvan Esso’s home studio, with none other than Wye Oak/Flock of Dimes mastermind Jenn Wasner as producer.
At the time, Kenney and Wasner had not yet met face-to-face – the match-up came at the recommendation of folks adjacent to the Durham music scene, whom Kenney met while touring behind Night, Night and would later move in with. But it couldn’t have been more appropriate; though Night, Night is a distinctly dream-pop affair, its hazy guitars nearly obscuring Kenney’s presence, Perfect Shapes brings out all of Kenney’s quirkiest ideas, equal parts art rock and indie pop. “It’s not that I don’t like [Night, Night] or am not proud of it,” Kenney cautiously explains. “I think I was pretty naïve when I made Night, Night, pretty eager to please. I think I said yes to a couple of things production-wise that, looking back, maybe I didn’t really mean to say yes to.”
That idea crops up on Perfect Shapes over and over again – that Kenney, at 26, is still learning about and setting her own boundaries, and her songs are a fantastic reminder to anyone listening not to back down from their own. “I can’t go out… I’m in the hustle to my elbows,” she sings on “No Weekend,” describing all too relatably the plight of so many millennials. But over a fluttering sax interlude (courtesy Wasner’s Wye Oak cohort Andy Stack), she concedes, “I’m so good at giving in.” Even before we get there, we have album opener “Overhead,” in which Kenney complains of others “calling me empty / just because I know my own limits.” The following track, “Bad Idea,” dissolves an “In The Air Tonight”-reminiscent intro into a pulsating synth line, its lyrics ambiguous until Kenney cries, “So I showed up, just like they told me to / Drilling it all in my head / So, that’s what the girls do – Showin’ up for you, for you.”
Her interrogation of emotional labor and unapologetic tenacity belies the record’s soothing composition – vocal layers lap softly over one another; relatively sparse braids of springy bass, warbling synths, sped-up samples, and twangy guitar lines give the entire record a swirling, almost aquatic feel, and make it an exceedingly pleasing listen on a visceral level. Lead single “Cut Me Off,” is a perfect example; Kenney sternly advocates for doing things on her “own time” over a nimble, Dirty Projectors-esque riff, kitschy but subtle slurping sounds augment the words “drink it up,” and just as she proclaims she’s “got a good thing going,” the song ends abruptly, as though someone, somewhere, just hit a mute button. It’s equal parts wit, social commentary, and unexpected earworm.
And while Wasner’s sonic thumbprint is certainly visible, Kenney emphasizes the collaborative nature of their working together. Kenney had demoed the songs but most of them were recorded from scratch over a two-week session, with drummer Camille Lewis joining them halfway though the process (Lewis, along with her Dead Recipe bandmate Kyle Albrecht, comprise Kenney’s live backup). “We recorded some things on top of my demos because both of us had this feeling about a couple of them that there was a mood that we couldn’t recreate if we started fresh,” Kenney says. But for the most part, “it was Jenn and Camille and I in a room getting to know each other as musicians, as people, and learning and making mistakes and really exploring a lot of different things and allowing ourselves to just be free in the space and make something that was interesting to us and not affected by anything from the outside world.”
It’s the kind of creation myth told over and over again, from Big Pink to Bon Iver – but rarely are the protagonists women, and Kenney says the experience was eye-opening. “Oftentimes in studios with men… it’s this internalized misogyny where you’re constantly second guessing yourself – like I don’t wanna speak up or I don’t wanna ask this question cause I don’t wanna look like I don’t know what I’m doing. I think we had to learn, literally together, to feel comfortable with that because of how long we’ve been trained by the world to second-guess ourselves.”
Kenney also recognizes that women have been socialized to nurture, particularly in their relationships to men – at one point, she studied neurobiology while simultaneously supporting herself as a baker and pastry chef. “I think the neurobiological predisposition to be a caretaker is a beautiful thing, and I personally get a lot of satisfaction and deep emotional reward from taking care of people,” she admits. “That’s why I loved being a baker – I like making things for people and making them happy. But I just get totally depleted by it, because of how people are socialized to take from women.” It’s a personal sentiment that’s easily applicable in a wider setting, as women all too often bear the brunt of emotional labor professionally, personally, and even politically. Album standout “The Flavor of the Fruit Tree” is both a prod at a relationship that Kenney ended after feeling like she had to be a mother to someone six years older than herself, but she says it’s also “a commentary on how society allows men to act like children.”
It’s here the album takes a turn – on the following track, Kenney announces “I went home, I got tired / of standing up, of giving up my time / Of getting offers, Of being mother,” and its last three songs (including the stellar title track) are concerned mainly with aesthetic appreciation – the shapes, colors, sunlight, art and music that propel Kenney forward. No longer relegated to caretaker, Kenney can become the creator, the observer, the appreciator. While it’s clear that she’s taken efforts to carve out her own space as a musician, Perfect Shapes finds Kenney simultaneously prepared to hold fast to the new boundaries she’s set for herself, but also to share her talent with others. “I think once you make a song and put it out, it really isn’t yours anymore. It’s going to be consumed by another brain who’s been though a different set of experiences and understands things differently,” she says. Through her kaleidoscopic sonic palette, she’s invented a new way of interacting with an otherwise demanding world, and says that working with Wasner left her with the confidence to keep pushing. “I was interested in doing something different and exploring some new sounds,” she says. “I guess I’ll always have a million interests. I’m sure the next one will be different too.”
Madeline Kenney plays Baby’s All Right on November 1. For a full list of tour dates, click here.