Madeline Kenney Enters an Electronic, Poppier Realm

The dream pop singer with Oakland ties exhales after new album, Perfect Shapes.


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Photo by Cara Robbins

Madeline Kenney’s music career is flourishing. The dream pop singer-songwriter dropped her debut album produced by Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bear (Chaz Bundick) in 2017, released her sophomore album produced by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner last October, and spent the past year touring domestically and internationally, both solo and with the likes of Soccer Mommy and Wye Oak. She’s originally from the Seattle area and launched her music career when she moved to Oakland — but that’s not why she moved here. Before music, she was a baker, and originally packed her up things and drove down the coast for a job at San Francisco bakery The Mill.

Having just returned from a European tour, Kenney was baking cookies at her Durham, N.C., home as she spoke over the phone about new album Perfect Shapes. Currently, she’s living in Durham for a few months to save money on Bay Area rent before returning to Oakland in February. Durham is also where she recorded Perfect Shapes.

“There are some aspects of Durham that are kind of similar to the West Coast, like all the nature,” she said. “But it’s still definitely the East Coast, and definitely the South, too. You go 15 minutes outside of the city and you’re seeing Confederate flags.”

So how does a born-and-bred West Coaster end up in North Carolina? Just five months after the release of her debut, Night Night at the First Landing, Wasner invited Kenney to her studio in the woods just outside of Durham.

“It’s calm and beautiful and the studio space was already set up and full of gear, plus Jenn was available, and I really wanted to work with her,” Kenney explained.

Working with a woman producer on this album was important to her, even though she loved working with Bear. After completing an internship at the Women’s Audio Mission, where Kenney learned sound engineering and production, she came to appreciate the environment created by a studio full of women and nonbinary people.

“It was just so supportive, creative, and forgiving,” she said of recording the album with Wasner and her drummer Camille Lewis. “One of the greatest musical experiences of my life was making music with those two women for two weeks. It felt really natural and zero pressure.”

With Wasner’s touch, Perfect Shapes took a total sonic shift from Kenney’s previous album. Her vocals, formerly somewhat overshadowed by fuzzy guitars, now are at center stage, and she’s delved into a more electronic, poppier realm.

“I’m a little envious of people who can retain a recognizable sound throughout their career, but for me, I get interested in things, and then I go down a rabbit hole,” she said. While writing Night Night, she was deeply invested in Sun Kil Moon and “sad boy music.” For Perfect Shapes, she was obsessed with electronic drums, synthesizers, and “weird pedals.”

The turnaround between Kenney’s first and second albums was impressively quick, so now she’s planning on slowing down for a minute. She’s diving more into the production world, and even making music videos for some other artists. And for the next album, she’s going to take her time. She says she’s always figured that she would hate her first few albums before finally making one she loved.

“I don’t hate Perfect Shapes — in fact, I really like it, and I’m proud of it,” said Kenney. “But my thinking is that it’s going to be one crappy record, one OK record, and then a really good one.”

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