Through the Looking Glass of Fenne Lily’s Bell Jar

The UK singer/songwriter talks about how her new LP, Big Picture, arrived after a bout of writer’s block and became a grounded portrait of looming heartbreak during lockdown

Music Features Fenne Lily
Through the Looking Glass of Fenne Lily’s Bell Jar

Last week, to celebrate the five-year anniversary of her debut album On Hold, UK singer/songwriter Fenne Lily fielded questions from her followers on Instagram about the project. Someone anonymously asked: “How does it feel to know that people cry listening to your voice regularly?” “Awesome,” Lily replied, with a picture of her posing in front of a wings sculpture. The correlation between ugly tears and Lily’s music is immense; half-a-decade on and three LPs later, her storytelling is still making us feel big, big emotions, wiggling its way into the vulnerable crevices of our hearts. Her new album, Big Picture, is a triumphant mirror shrunken down into a diary of someone nearing the end of a failing relationship while also coming-of-age during a global pandemic.

When Big Picture hit my inbox earlier this year, the first thing I saw was the cover, which struck a chord someplace deep within me: A miniature house falling into a mossy earth—and a pocket-sized Lily surveying the sinking—enclosed in a bell jar. The image came to her while walking through Los Angeles’ botanical garden, and she aimed to make a cover that wasn’t simply a photograph of her, but something that was evocative of the feeling she worked through while writing the songs—which was, effectively, the idea of smallness. “There’s a bonsai tree part of this garden and I was just like, ‘Oh, tiny, perfect things are so much better than the thing itself,” Lily says. “That idea was reflected through COVID, because I had, suddenly, gotten a much smaller frame of reference for everything that I was feeling.”

Having a miniature version of a disaster felt like a perfect representation of the year Lily spent in quarantine, when she and her ex-partner lived in a tiny Bristol flat together. “We were trying to make smaller things mean more, because we needed to find meaning,” she adds. “Every day was just eating and cooking and talking about what was in our brains, which was mainly just panic and stress.” Big Picture is not a breakup record so much as it’s a snapshot of a relationship nearing its end. Depending on where you’re at in your life at this very moment, that idea might sound devastating, familiar or both.

Many post-pandemic records aim to rediscover joy or make amends with the catastrophe, either emotionally or physically. On Big Picture, Lily avoids both, opting to not backtrack through her past or daydream about the future. Instead, she set her sights on chronicling the present as it unfolded, as a means of vaulting herself out of a writer’s block that plagued her 2020—despite her sophomore LP BREACH having come out in September of that year. She’d shut her door, lock it and work on the songs in secret, processing each day in whatever way she could with whatever alone time she could make for herself. “Because I was living with somebody, I never felt like I was truly alone. In order to feel like I was alone and working through stuff, I had to be writing. And I tried really hard to not write about things that might happen or might not happen,” she says. “I think this is the most conscious I’ve ever been about songwriting. I’ve never written a single song while I’ve been in a relationship before Big Picture. I was really trying to document exactly what was happening with that, internally.”

Lily recorded Big Picture in Durham, N.C., Los Angeles and Brooklyn with her beloved band: Sherrin, Kane Eagle, James Luxton and Phil and Brad Cook. Other musicians, like Katy Kirby, Christian Lee Hutson and Remy Morritt have guest spots, too, and Hutson co-produced the record with Lily and Brad. Jay Som’s Melina Duterte mixed the whole thing, making Big Picture a towering assembly of some of the most talented musicians and engineers in the business. “I can’t stress enough how good it feels to play music in a room with people that are on the exact same page with one another,” Lily says. “It’s an unparalleled feeling.” The bones of the album were tracked live, with everyone cohesive and attached, sitting in a circle in a living room of a house that was converted into a studio—which transported Lily back to the confined space where she wrote many of the songs.

Lily didn’t go out of her way to search for catharsis at the completion of Big Picture. That emotional release came to her during the writing sessions. “Right at the end, when we mastered [the record], I was like, ‘I did something with a hard time,’” she says. “I would hazard to say it’s not my intention to try and get something out of making something. I think making something in itself, even if it doesn’t get anywhere, even if it’s bad, it’s something to do.”

Songwriting being a transactional endeavor isn’t something Lily is all that interested in, either. Her motivations are strictly passion- and enrichment-based. She’s a completionist at heart. Lily has a joke with her roommate about how much she loves washing the dishes, even going as far as calling the chore a “treat.” “The act of starting something and finishing something makes me feel good, even if it’s a tiny thing,” she adds. “Even if I don’t write the most emotionally intelligent song that gets me to a more clear place of feeling and thinking by the end of it, just by doing it, I feel like I’m listening to myself in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise.”

I keep returning to the bell jar on the album’s cover, which then vaults me into thinking about Sylvia Plath, whose writing is often marked by self-revelation and self-evaluation. Conversely, Big Picture doesn’t tap into that methodology. Instead, Lily is moved more so by the work of Richard Brautigan and his whimsical, fantastical approach to the mundanity of an Average Joe lifestyle. She was introduced to him by a different ex-boyfriend, who gave her Sombrero Fallout, and the song “Dawncolored Horse” even gets its title from a line in Brautigan’s poem “The Horse That Had a Flat Tire.” “I love you / You’re my breathing castle / Gentle so gentle / We’ll live forever / The prince enchanted / the maiden / and they rode off / on a dawncolored horse / named Lordsburg / toward the goldenblue mountains,” he wrote.

Before Big Picture, Lily had been reading a lot of Raymond Carver and engulfing herself within his portraits of misery. But, as COVID began unraveling, she found herself uninterested in his one-foot-in-disaster, misanthropic tales. “I was really trying to get out of the habit of reading about people who were having a hard time, because I was having a hard time,” she says. That’s where Brautigan’s work came back into her orbit, as she has always been able to mine comfort out of his syntax. “His brain works in a way that I don’t understand, and that’s refreshing,” she adds. “You can write about fish for five pages and be completely happy, even if no one else gets it. It seems like you’re safe in that world, and that’s sweet.”

As a contrast, the centerpiece of Big Picture is “Lights Light Up,” a perfect, gorgeous act of storytelling—splayed atop Joe Sherrin’s incomparable lead guitar—where the safety net of the narrator’s romance starts to go threadbare. The track came from a realization that the relationship Lily was in was not going to last much longer, because she was going to move to New York and had been planning to for a long time. Thus, the chorus (“And he said, ‘Do you ever wanna leave here’ / And she said ,‘Well, that depends on the day’ / And he said, ‘Oh, do you even wanna be here?’ / And she said, ‘Well, that depends on the way.’”) came from their conversations together. Though “Lights Light Up” began as a step-by-step walkthrough of her and her ex’s relationship, it quickly morphed into a brief articulation of looming loss, once somebody in Lily’s family was diagnosed with cancer—an event that plays a pivotal role in the version of the song that made it onto the album.

John Cale once talked about how, when he asked Leonard Cohen for the lyrics to “Hallelujah” so he could put together his own rendition, the late singer/songwriter faxed him 15 pages worth of verses. Cohen was always writing “Hallelujah,” adding more details as the years piled up. The way Lily approached “Lights Light Up” was a similar venture. “I never normally do this, but I wrote the whole thing and then swapped out verses as more important stuff started happening,” she says. “I have a running note of stuff that I see that might be interesting at some point. I think, if I had recorded [Big Picture] a year after I did, the verses would be different. That melody, as soon as I wrote it, lent itself to any words, which isn’t a given. The recording [of ‘Hallelujah’] that we know is just the first iteration of it, but I like the idea of having a song that you can, as the writer, put your new stuff into.”

Though “Lights Light Up” comes from a very specific and important moment in Lily’s life during an upended time, the lyrics can be plugged into any place by anyone. When I spent all of February and March listening to the track on repeat, I imagined a world where the narrator is who just received a cancer diagnosis, not a loved one. It takes a precise and thoughtful type of songwriter to be able to inject personal stories into an album without crossing a line that takes interpretation off of the table. Lily is wholly a master at that exercise in world-building, and it’s something she’s keen about implementing in her work ad infinitum.

“There’s nothing worse than being told what to feel, like being treated like an idiot,” she says. “With Brautigan and that Beatnik author vibe, they’re never really hammering a point home. You’re not sure what the point is, but you have a feeling that is completely independent of the piece itself. I feel like treating an audience like they’re stupid is really unattractive, and I gravitate towards writers and musicians that do leave space for interpretation. Even if that interpretation is wrong, it’s a practice in feeling something new, not being told “This is, blow-for-blow, what happened and this is the result I want, emotionally, from you, as the person who’s receiving this.”

In the past, one of the biggest critiques of Lily’s work has been her employment of vagueness. Withholding detail is a tactic often weaponized in mainstream pop music, making for better accessibility, more streams and higher chart peaks. However, Lily’s restraint on Big Picture comes from a place of wanting to explore feelings more than vividness in the wake of, as she puts it, “a boring COVID.” Songs like “Map of Japan” and “Henry” are all a part of the same looking glass, as she documents her life without feeling the pressure of reaching a finish line like she did five years ago. It’s a natural parallel to reality; none of us have any idea what we’re really doing or how we’ll actually end up. “I’m less concerned [now] than I was at the start of writing songs with coming to a conclusion by the end of a song,” she says. “I was really young. I wrote the first song for [On Hold] when I was 15. That period of time, I was only writing when something felt important to talk about, like a breakup or finding something and losing it. It was very means-based. I was trying not to explore too far out of the edges.”

Big Picture is fixed aplenty with verses that really emphasize the claustrophobia of the pandemic and falling out of love with someone during it. “For the longest time, I’ve imagined I am alone and now it’s real / Didn’t know how it’d feel / Now I picture us as we once were / Lying side by side and breathless / Thinking all this time was endless,” Lily sings on “Red Deer Day”; “Now you live here and so do I / Not together, though / You’re asking me all the time to reconsider / I don’t think I can / Though I’ve been trying,” she explains on “Superglued.”

When I return to Big Picture again and again, I imagine Lily sitting in the corner of the home she shared with her ex, playing each tune as dawn crackles upwards and dusk falls into the horizon. The album is like a composite of lullabies. “In My Own Time” is a dainty, generous sketch of two people just trying to make it a few more days with each other. “Write me a love song, make it all rhyme / Hold me up sometimes, we’ll be just fine,” Lily sings in a softened hush of falsetto. On “Pick,” the damage appears to be irreparable when she sings, “That love is a delicate string / That you lend and carry around / When is it unraveling / When it’s just rewound / Call me if you need me, I’ll be around / Nothing is the one thing that goes on forever.”

Big Picture plays like an album version of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, where each chapter—or song—doesn’t end wrapped neatly in a bow, because a resolution for each song couldn’t be reached in only three minutes, nor should it have been. There’s a familiar reality in how uncinematic each song is. There are no big climaxes; no Hollywood finales; just two people drifting apart, unable to fix the road as it crumbles beneath them. “I didn’t have any foresight,” Lily says. “I didn’t have any idea what the future was going to look like. I think I was less concerned with building a full, for lack of a better word, picture, and more interested in smaller details and a running commentary way of writing. As I’ve gotten older, I maybe am less unconcerned with making a point clear. I’m happier just being vaguer but also digging into things that I feel should be dug into.”

That feeling, this time around, was, initially, about being in love, living in a flat and having something as material as wifi during a global epidemic. But, with the inevitable end to her relationship and what her life would become in the wake of that change looming, Lily instead zeroed in on the worry that preceded all of it. And with worry comes hope, even at its most naive core. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to Big Picture more than any other project from 2023 so far. I’ve been the person trying to save a romance from falling apart just as often as I’ve been the one unable to keep it going for someone else. I think about the final line of the record, on “Half Finished,” when Lily sings: “I made no promises that I would stay, but I’ll try.”

By the end of the album, we don’t know if the two lovers at its center did give it another go, nor are we owed that information. At 26 years old, Fenne Lily understands how the two years of life she’s condensed into a 42-minute runtime are not a one-off event, that the heartbreak and labor of closure will meet up with her again down the road. There’s enough space before “Half Finished” for us to place ourselves in front of album’s looking glass. That’s what makes songs like “Lights Light Up” or “In My Own Time” or “2+2” such wondrous things to comb through again and again. Each time, the smallness we feel is no longer trapped inside a bell jar. As we find ourselves growing more and more parallel with the stories that Lily tells, we, too, can take a step back and begin gazing further upwards at the big picture waiting for us just beyond them.

Watch Fenne Lily perform at Daytrotter Studios in 2018:

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