Who’s topping the charts, going viral, and ruling our earbuds? With Breaking Big, EW introduces the freshest music talent you have to hear now. Below, get to know neuroscientist-turned-baker-turned-rocker Madeline Kenney, whose excellent debut album drops today.
Listen If You Like: Toro y Moi at their rockiest, Waxahatchee, the idea of Beach House’s Victoria Legrand fronting a shoegaze band
The Backstory: Oakland singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney makes blissed-out indie-rock that envelops listeners whole — but her music career began in a far less chill way. “I started playing piano when I was like 5,” she tells EW when recalling growing up in Seattle. “I had some really intense piano teachers growing up. But now, looking back, I appreciate that my mom definitely was like, ‘You are playing piano, you have no choice.'” With a laugh, Kenney explains that her “intense” piano regimen entailed performance tests before “these scary British judges” — but concludes that she’s thankful for the experience because of the solid musical foundation it gave her.
While learning piano gave Kenney the skills to make music, coming of age in the Pacific Northwest shaped her aesthetic. “It’s gray eight months out of the year and you kind of have to make do with that,” she says. “But at the same time, I was never more than 10 minutes from virgin, old-growth forests and lakes. It’s so majestically beautiful.” The region where she grew up also impacted her musically: Kenney played in multiple bands in Seattle’s local scene and frequented the Old Fire House Teen Center in neighboring Richmond, which fostered artists like Elliott Smith and Modest Mouse early in their careers.
A trained neuroscientist with a passion for baking, Kenney bumped around for years pursuing the latter craft — it’s what brought her to the Bay Area in 2014 — but continued playing music after moving to Oakland. Her boyfriend played in Astronauts, Etc., the side project of Toro y Moi keyboardist Anthony Ferraro; Ferraro began playing with Kenney, and then Toro y Moi mastermind Chaz Bear (formerly Bundick) showed up to one of her gigs. Bear asked if he could produce her new music and, though Kenney says she wasn’t tremendously familiar with Bear’s body of work, she agreed.
Why She Rules: Sure, Kenney’s debut album, Night Night At The First Landing, benefits from Bear’s creative influence — “He’s great and he has all these ideas that I wouldn’t normally have, as far as sounds go,” Kenney explains —but while Bear produced the album and is releasing it on his own Company Records, it’s far from his musical style. Kenney devised and recorded most of Landing‘s songs on her own at her home, using loop pedals to layer guitar parts and achieve the album’s atmospheric assault of sounds. (Her Bandcamp page describes her sound as “twang-haze,” a descriptor that’s as accurate as it is unique.)
She also cites Shel Silverstein and Bill Hicks — the latter of whom is sampled on Landing‘s “John in Irish” — as major influences, and they shine through in her lyrics. “My favorite thing, lyrically, to deal with is the line between funny and serious,” Kenney says, “because most of the time I’m talking about something serious, but I want to find a way to crack a joke about it. When it comes down to it, that’s all we have.”
What’s Next: Kenney just got into grad school — but she deferred her admission because she’s hitting the road this fall in support of Landing. And because she had written many of Landing‘s songs before releasing her 2016 debut EP, Signals, Kenney notes that she’s eager to get back into the studio: “I could not be more antsy. I want to make my third album already! I’m so impatient.”
Hear Night Night At The First Landing highlight “Always” above.