Fenne Lily: ‘I find it so frustrating to be angry about stuff. I’m trying to be more chill’

Everything isn’t amazing. Not for Lily, an indie songwriter whose melancholic new album, Big Picture, was forged amid upheaval

In New York, where Fenne Lily has lived since last year, friends worry about her cynicism. “I’ve been described as a hater. Because I’m not immediately, like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing,’ about everything.”

Everything isn’t amazing. At least not for Lily, an indie songwriter whose vividly melancholic new album, Big Picture, was forged amid darkness and upheaval. Written as a romantic relationship unravelled, it brims with heartache and emotional claustrophobia. “Sometimеs I feel like I’m just killing time here,” she coos in her Joni Mitchell-sings-Joy Division voice. “Or maybe it’s killing me.”

“It was the first time I’ve lived with someone I was in a relationship with,” the 26-year-old says. “It wasn’t the most fun year I’ve ever lived. But I’m sure everyone felt the same way about that time.”

“That time” was the pandemic. With society shutting down, Lily and her boyfriend made the snap decision to move in together. It was either that or not see each other for who knew how long. In different circumstances, she says, they may have proceeded more cautiously. With the world ending, they held hands and jumped. Marooned in a flat in Bristol, the English city she grew up in, their world quickly came apart.


“It wasn’t the most ideal setting for that life decision to take place,” she says. “The world had switched off. It was pretty heavy.”

There were other problems. Lily, who has been performing professionally since she was 18, was worried about whether she would have a career to go back to. It seems obvious now that live music would return, in some ways stronger than ever, after lockdown.

Three years ago, however, we were all scrabbling in the dark and, it felt, toward the void. The fear that her life as a musician was over kept Lily up at night.

I wanted to talk about the ‘underneath’ layers of love. Once you found it, and you have it, not everything is smooth

“I felt selfish worrying about it. A lot of my friends in Bristol – the vast majority of them – have regular, important jobs, like nursing or teaching or being a postman. Stuff that needs to be happening,” she says. “I’m not important, really, in the grand scheme of things. I wanted to feel important. But I didn’t know how. I guess I was important to the person I was living with. That almost felt like too much pressure. I was feeling a lot of pressure and not enough pressure. And, yeah, I didn’t know if anyone would have enough disposable income to be buying music.”

Lily’s music has a homespun quality that conjures images of acoustic guitars strummed around sputtering campfires and of secrets shared in the dark. Her music has been labelled, to her enduring frustration, as indie folk, which sounds like a grungier younger sibling of the “nu folk” scene that produced Laura Marling (good) and Mumford & Sons (the opposite of good).

However she is to be categorised – what about we don’t categorise her at all? – she is at the peak of her songwriting powers with Big Picture. It’s a subtle knife between the shoulders, a gentle breeze of a record that destroys everything in its path. It is also, if you wanted to stretch the definition, a concept album, its big idea being that true love is an illusion and that finding “the one” can be as much curse as blessing.

“I wanted to talk about the ‘underneath’ layers of love. Once you found it, and you have it, not everything is smooth. There’s an unhappiness to being, in quotation marks, happy.”

I’m seeing a lot of the world where artists are hiring female-identifying people, trans people and queer people and people of colour. That’s probably what I want to focus on

She struggles with the idea that two people are fated to be together. “It’s the idea that, if you didn’t meet that person, would you be happier than when you’re arguing?”

The question was answered when the relationship came to a crashing halt in 2021. Moving to New York was her way of coping. She needed to get away from her ex, out of Bristol, where she had moved from her native Dorset in her teens, and, above all, far, far away from Brexit Britain. In the United States, she believes, she has found a society open about its failings and prepared to confront its sins as a nation.

“Historically, it’s been quite a villainous place,” she says. “It has the deep-rooted societal issue of extreme warmongering and violence. That has instilled in Americans an apologetical feeling, a readiness to say, ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry’ – not in the governing sense but in the interpersonal one.”

Because she was in the US she has missed some of the brouhaha around the 2023 Glastonbury line-up, a testosterone-heavy affair dominated by heritage acts such as Arctic Monkeys and Guns N’ Roses – and with the superstar Lizzo relegated to “special guest” status.

As the backlash to Glastonbury rippled across social media, the singer Rebecca Taylor, aka Self Esteem, was one of many women artists expressing their frustration. “I have nothing to say about festival line-ups for the rest of my life. Or awards. You only get a finite amount of life in which to say the same thing over and over and I like to do that in the songs,” she tweeted.

“I don’t know how to talk about it, because I only know my perspective,” Lily says of the big commercial festivals’ perennial cold-shouldering of women artists. “Sometimes there will be the case that we won’t get an offer for this festival because they’ve already got enough female musicians on the bill. And you can’t play the biggest stage because there’s already women playing it. That, to me, is so archaic.”

She shrugs. For her it’s about picking your battles. And also about remembering her privilege as an artist. “They’ve passed a law now in some states to where it’s illegal to be trans,” Lily says, referring to parts of the US that have prohibited gender-affirming care for trans youth. “There’s so much stuff that’s falling apart. As long as I’m still doing this, or unless I’m really f**ked over by someone, or I’m told I can’t do a tour because I’m a woman and they’re gonna give it to a man … I think that’s something I’ll get angry about.”

It’s easy to be angry, Lily says. But that can be counterproductive. Better to acknowledge the wrongs in society while also celebrating the ways things are getting better.

“I’m also seeing a lot of the opposite world, where artists are hiring female-identifying people, trans people and queer people and people of colour. That’s probably what I want to focus on. I find it so frustrating to be angry about stuff. I’m trying to be more chill.”

Big Picture is released on Friday, April 14th, via Dead Oceans; Fenne Lily plays at the Workmans Club, Dublin 2, on Sunday, April 16th