Madeline Kenney: The Best of What's Next

Fuzzy guitars and a glossy veneer make for a delicious debut LP.

Music Features Madeline Kenney
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Madeline Kenney: The Best of What's Next

Fourteen months isn’t all that long for most people, but for Madeline Kenney it’s an eternity. That’s how much time will have elapsed between the release of Kenney’s first EP, Signals, and her first full-length album, Night Night at the First Landing, which is scheduled for a Sept. 1 release on Company Records.

“I’m extremely impatient,” Kenney admits. “Pretty much the day that [I was] done recording the EP, I was like, ‘OK, what’s next?” As it turned out, the answer was an updated sound. Since testing the waters with three singles in 2015, she’s gone from sparse, wistful, electric guitar tunes to a more polished, glimmering style thanks in part to producer Chaz Bundick of Toro y Moi.

Kenney is plenty familiar with making transitions. Baking, dancing, science—a large part of her story is the laundry list of interests and careers she has pursued to this point. She earned her degree in neuroscience; she’s been dancing since she was young; and she once drove almost 1,000 miles to ask for a job at her favorite bakery. She even spent some time making…erotic cakes?

“I kind of am in this mindset where I just want it to be my third record already,” she says. “Like, I want my first shitty record to be done, my second kinda shitty one…and then my third great record.”

“It was the most miserable job,” she says, a dramatic flourish in her voice. In her early 20s, Kenney was certain her career was in baking. She took a job as a house baker at a restaurant in her native Seattle. They also did bachelorette parties. “I had this German boss who was really harsh about what the penises had to look like,” she says. “I can laugh about it now, but oh my god. [It was like] living in a cartoon.”

Music is the thing she’s lingered on the longest, but even it has an air of digression for Kenney. “I just kind of fell into it,” she says of her arrival on the indie-music scene. “It was just like… an accident.” She chalks her success up to a twist of fate, but her credentials are strong. The Signals EP was also produced by Bundick, who sought her out after seeing her play live.

“I think we struck a really good balance. He’s able to make things sound big, and I don’t have all those plugins,” she laughs. “He’s able to pick out the things that need to be emphasized, which I really appreciate.”

Read Paste’s review of Madeline Kenney’s Night Night at the First Landing here.

Kenney was raised on classic rock in Seattle. “I pretty much only listened to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, The Who,” she says. “Like…I still can’t tell the difference between NSYNC and Backstreet Boys.” Her immersion in guitar music informed early tracks that were melodic, invigorating and a little bit aggressive, but with a slow-moving, immersive appeal. That could make for an odd pairing with Bundick’s electronic tendencies, but the tandem wound up creating more ethereal, envelope-pushing sounds and techniques. Night Night creates a punchy, more powerful palette; her guitar and vocals remain front and center, but Bundick’s signature dreaminess forms a glossy veneer.

“He has a certain sound,” she says. “During the EP, I was a lot more like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever you think sounds good.’ [But] when it came time to work on the record…I was like, ‘It is so important that this sounds like me.’”

Night Night features plenty of Kenney’s fuzzy guitar, but it’s brimming with Bundick-borne surprises, too—tempo changes, electronic yelps, haunting reverb. “Always” opens with otherworldly noises before sliding into Kenney’s crunchy riffs; “Rita” is a down-to-the-last-detail recreation of ‘90s college-radio classics.

Though Night Night is unequivocally Kenney’s work, her partnership with Bundick has the potential to vault her into rarified indie air. At the moment, all she wants is to “play a gig with Cass McCombs and tour as much as I humanly can.” That, and get to work on her second full-length, pronto.

“I kind of am in this mindset where I just want it to be my third record already,” she says. “Like, I want my first shitty record to be done, my second kinda shitty one…and then my third great record.”

Her tongue-in-cheek modesty notwithstanding, there’s still an energy about Kenney that seems to have one foot out the door at all times, even if some influential musicians care about her music and want to help her make it. For now, she seems settled in Oakland, at Company Records, and in this partnership with Bundick. Even the new record references a little comfort—the title is pulled from a bedtime ritual she shared with her parents, and she says she hopes the dissonant noises and distant vocals can relax listeners enough to lull them to sleep. Some of her favorites artists—Grouper, Angel Olsen, John Fahey—are ones she nods off to. “It would be a huge honor to me if anyone was listening to my record as they fell asleep, cause I feel like that is high praise for a record.”

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