Fenne Lily & Christian Lee Hutson
From the venue:
Fenne Lily - Big Picture
Out April 14, 2023 on Dead Oceans
"I never asked you to change and you're treating me like I did
the more I'm thinking about it, maybe I should've started"
Fenne Lily opens her third album with a confrontation. At odds with the UK-born, New York-based artist's dulcet delivery, this acerbic assessment of an intimate situation sets the tone for her new album perfectly. From the first line to the last, Big Picture finds Fenne seeking clarity in the uncertain; comfort in the uncomfortable.
A gorgeous and gripping portrait of Fenne's last two years, Big Picture was rarely easy for its author to produce but its contents offer a brilliant catharsis. Started haltingly after a period of writer's block, the songs that would make up her latest work were pieced together over the course of the pandemic, in an effort to self-soothe. "Writing this album was my attempt at bringing some kind of order to the disaster that was 2020," Fenne states. "By documenting the most vulnerable parts of that time, I felt like I reclaimed some kind of autonomy."
Though its creation took place amid personal and global turmoil, the ruminative yet candid Big Picture is Fenne's most cohesive, resolute work to date, both lyrically and sonically. "This isn't a sad album - it's about as uplifting as my way of doing things will allow," she says. "These songs explore worry and doubt and letting go, but those themes are framed brightly. There's a sadness to the temporary nature of things, but that can be soothing, too." Like whispered assurances that seemingly unanswerable questions will someday resolve themselves, each track provides an insight into Fenne's ever-changing view of love and, ultimately, its redefinition - love as a process, not something to be lost and found.
Notably, these 10 songs are Fenne's first and only to have been written over the course of a relationship; 2018's On Hold and 2020's BREACH both confront the pain of retrospection, saying goodbye to a love that's gone. Big Picture does the exact opposite - rooted firmly in the present, it traces the narrative of two people trying their hardest not to implode, together. With confidence and quiet strength, the album delineates the phases of love and becomes a map of comfort vs claustrophobia.
This sentiment is mirrored by the album's cover art; constructed on a miniature scale by the artist Thomas Doyle, the scene shows the collapse of a home confined within a bell jar and features several inch-high models of Fenne in various places throughout. This physical representation of a self-contained disaster encapsulates the feeling of walls closing in around you, while simultaneously acting as a reminder that we are small in the grand scheme of things which, for Fenne, is a relief: "We only really know the one world we find ourselves in at any given time" Fenne expands. "It's only when that world changes or collapses that we realize there are other narratives available - that we've known only one of many possible ways to exist."
After writing Big Picture in the solitude of her Bristol flat, Fenne consciously aimed to make the recording process her most collaborative thus far. Together with her touring band, the group set about playing each song through "every possible way" before teaming up with Brad Cook (Waxahatchee, Kevin Morby, Snail Mail) at his Durham studio. Co-producing alongside Brad, Fenne's core intention was to make something that sonically reflected the kind of compact space the songs were written in; something warm, honest and comforting. With the bulk of the album tracked live in just a few days (with the exception of its penultimate track "Red Deer Day," produced by Fenne and Christian Lee Hutson) and the final product mixed by Melina Duterte of Jay Som, Big Picture was transformed from a solitary venture into a unifying collaboration, something that "celebrates the quiet, sweet parts of the last couple of years while recognising the weight of it all."
This collision of repose and harsh reality is laid bare in the album's first single "Lights Light Up," an insightful account of love at its temporary best. Written partially as a conversation, it tracks the tender details of a burgeoning relationship while at the same time recognising the transitory nature of any shared thing; the bittersweet truth that you can only walk hand in hand with someone as long as you're going in the same direction. With delicately interwoven guitar lines, propulsive rhythm and a chorus that offers the feeling of a voicemail left by someone from your past, it feels at once deeply personal and universal.
"and you said so do you ever wanna leave here / and I said well that depends on the day
and you said oh do you even wanna be here / and I said well that depends on the way"
Elsewhere, "Dawncolored Horse" provides an uplifting meditation on the freedom that comes with closeness. Taking its title from a poem by Richard Brautigan, Fenne comments that she interprets the poem (and the song it inspired) to be a reflection of the idea that another person can become almost a sentient space in which to exist: "(Brautigan) talks about the woman he loves as being a 'breathing castle'. I truly don't know what that means but for me he's distilled a feeling of absolute closeness. When you know someone so well it feels like you're almost living inside them. That can be claustrophobic," she adds, "but before it's too much, it's incredible."
In one of the album's more delicate moments, the achingly introspective "In My Own Time" paints a scene of insulated intimacy tinged with a fear that life is passing by all too quickly. With lines like "sometimes I feel like I'm just killing time here / or maybe it's killing me," Fenne moves through the myriad frames of mind associated with a fading or changing identity. As tender harmonies accompany lush guitar lines, she reflects on a period of being "simultaneously sheltered from and crushed by a fear of the future," examining her conflicted feelings about a smaller, slower life. Every song on Big Picture feels like an ode to two people helping each other survive, but none more than this.
"This album is an observation of the way I think about love, the self-examination that comes with closeness and the responsibilities involved in being a big part of someone else's small(er) world," summarizes Fenne. "It was written in a place of relative emotional stability - stability that felt unstable because of its newness, but also because of the global context. 2020 was the year of letting go, but we'd all already let go of so much and nothing felt like mine anymore. Writing always did, though, so that's what I chose to do."
Christian Lee Hutson starts his new album Quitters with a laugh. In this follow up to his ANTI records debut, Beginners, Hutson moves away from the focus on growing up to the dread and complications of growing older. The laugh that announces Quitters is the kind you'll find at the end of John Huston films, one of resignation and release, and somehow a cosmic laugh that says "California," a place where lonely people gather together like birds.
Across Quitters' 13 tracks, Hutson crafts this portrait of the place he's from. In these short story-like songs, Hutson presents characters who carry this golden light and sinister geography inside them. It's a place where everything in the end gets blown away and paved over with something new, where even the ocean and fires are always whispering, "One day we'll take it all back." This is a Los Angeles in constant transition, where childhood is lost, where home is gone and can never be visited again. Yet Hutson's world is also one of happy accidents, where doors are left open on purpose, hoping that someone new will walk through. In the end, what's left are these songs created by some future spirit, written to comfort the person we are now.
Produced by Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, Quitters is also a departure from the digital recording of his debut. Hutson stated, "When we made Beginners the aim was to make simple digital recordings of how I would play the songs in the room. With this record, Phoebe and Conor had an idea that it would be fun to make it to tape. Phoebe is my best friend and making Beginners with her was so comfortable and easy. So I wanted to work with her again." "I took a long time with Beginners," Hutson added. "I had those songs for 10 years, but these songs came out a lot faster." Because the songs from Quitters were written in a shorter time, "there was a little bit of insecurity with the lyrics. Having Conor there served the purpose of someone who I really respect as a lyricist and could soothe my anxiety."
With Quitters, Hutson pulled from a wide range of influences for his second record: the tight rhymes of John Prine, Bob Mehr's book about the Replacements Trouble Boys, and Scott McClanahan's auto-fiction The Sarah Book. It's a recording that also feels like a sonic expansion from Hutson's debut.
"We made Quitters all at once. We hadn't seen each other for sixth months and this was the first time being in the room together again. It was a real familial feeling, working with the same people, playing with the same people where everyone gets so good at knowing one another's tricks and are complimenting one another's weird mistakes. My favorite records are when the guitar gets fucked up and then that becomes the recorded version. And it's those accidents that make them special."
The song "Rubberneckers" announces Huston's two great themes: memory and pain. Written along with his friend and artist Alex Lahey, "Rubberneckers" was the last song written for the album. Huston said, "After I made the record, I was thinking about marriage, about codependency and lying to yourself. You like to think this is my life and these are the parameters. You can't even see you're on this path until you wind up in the darkest wood, but you keep walking because the road is comfortable." The song charts a relationship's demise, through a proposal, a rupture, and then ultimately a breakup. Hutson pointed out," It's about the way that when your life is falling apart, friends fixate on the falling apart rather than just providing support." The song also contains some of the album's many perfect rhymes: Self-esteem vending machine/a doctor's office magazine.
Yet, the song "Cherry" returns Hutson to some of the high school themes from his first album. Hutson states, "I wrote that when we were mixing Beginners and is the first song that I wrote for this record."
The song charts the ridiculous "cringey" lies we tell in our adolescence. Hutson also pulled from memories of older friends from high school. Hutson said, "I wanted to describe that part of growing up in Los Angeles, having a cool older friend who will drive you speeding and have you jump out on the roof of the car. These people who do these flawed things and tell this type of lie." However, Hutson's gift is describing these characters and the world they inhabit without moralizing about it. He is less interested in the "why," but in the simple mystery of describing these remembered moments from a place.
Likewise, the song "Age Difference" allows Hutson to expand on the Los Angeles character song tradition of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. The track concerns a character who is finding that they are on the dark side of my thirties. Hutson said, "There's a specific type of an older man that I have encountered a lot in LA. The aging rocker who hasn't had a long relationship and they are the McConaughey-like character who is dating a much younger girl, and they have just stopped progressing." Yet Hutson refuses to pass judgment in a world filled with judgment. Hutson is interested in describing the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be.
So if every great record is a world, then this is Christian Lee Hutson's world. It's a California filled with the fuzzy haze of a dream, and the half-remembered moments of a forgotten life. Songs that say, "That was so long ago, but I still remember you." A world where the past is never past, and the old people we once were still live inside the new people we are. It's a record brave enough to say, "In the good old days, when times were bad." But beyond the songs, it is this voice. The voice of someone who was alive in 2021 and recorded a group of songs with his friends for us to hear. And one day these people who shared these sounds will look back and say, "We were all there for a moment? And we were young once, weren't we?" For there is a consolation prize. A breath on the window/A message that no one can see. While the whole world seemed to be ending, we still listened to one another. We tried to hear. And so we joined this sad laughter. Together.
- Bio by Scott McClanahan
At Terminal West