Baker, Neuroscientist, Painter, Musician: Meet Madeline Kenney

Cara Robbins
Madeline Kenney

Kenney's debut album 'Night Night at the First Landing' is out Sept. 1.

Madeline Kenney wears many hats -- baker, neuroscientist, painter, and nanny -- all of which speak to dreams she aspired to at one time or another. But before Kenney majored in neuroscience or intended to open a bakery, she sat behind the piano, performed in dance recitals, and sang at open mic nights.

Though Kenney has paved a meandering path for herself, music has always been the one constant leading her home.

“I joke that I have undiagnosed ADD or something. I’ve always been interested in a bunch of things and doing a bunch of things,” Kenney tells Billboard over the phone. “I guess I’ve stayed with music because it’s never not been a part of my life." But this time around the singer is making music her full-time gig as she nears the release of her debut full-length Night Night at the First Landing, out Sept. 1 via Company Records.

After recently moving to the Bay Area, in a way most fitting to Kenney, a career in music entered her life in a nonlinear way. She says, “I remember saying to my best friend, ‘I think I’m actually going to try to do music,’ eventually thrusting herself into the San-Fran scene and finding herself connected with indie recording artist Chaz Bear of Toro y Moi.

“Chaz came to one of our shows and afterwards he came up to me and was like, ‘That was really great. I want to record you,’ and I was like, ‘Okay!’ [laughs] I was kind of like, ‘Oh, whatever!’” she says. “I didn’t know his music before I met him because I’m pretty square.”

What came from their chance encounter happened to be something special -- an organic studio relationship that fostered the delicate 2016 EP Signals and Kenney’s beautifully soothing new album.

Night Night is a record meant to comfort. It's twinkling and gossamer in its introspection, and radiates warmth tucked delicately into shoegaze guitar intricacies. Like your childhood home, it welcomes you and offers solace.

“One time after a show in Philly, someone came up to me and said, ‘Your music gives me a safe place to be,” she says. “If I can make people feel like that, then maybe that’s what I have to offer.”

Through repetitive loops and thoughtful lyrics that explore Kenney’s relationships -- mixed gently with a taste of humor that oozes slow and sweet like honey -- the singer lays the groundwork for a musical safe haven.

“I really like striking the balance of humor and seriousness,” she says. “I’m definitely tackling some issues that are important to me about personal relationships and family members, but I like to make them a little more ambiguous and interlaced with humor, [so] in that way I’m trying to comfort people, because in the end, all you really have is to laugh about everything that’s really f--ked up.”

These witty sentiments come to Kenney randomly like an unexpected gift, be it an impulsive compulsion reacting to a traffic jam like the introduction to “Big One” (“My other car is your face / it drives me wild”) or a striking profile on NPR, which brought about the subject matter for “Rita.” She says, “A lot of times it’s one lyric or a line or melody that in the shower or I’m riding my bike and it comes to me and I’m like, ‘Oh, s--t. I have to put this to chords before I forget it,'" only realizing later who or what the song might be about in reflection. Nevertheless, Night Night is a collection of words crafted to take you in an embrace.

Kenney also intends to soothe sonically with three album tracks that follow one continuous, fuzzy loop and the repetition of simplistic verses. She says, “I’m really fascinated by repetition and at what point it’s soothing and at what point it’s annoying. I want to meet the people who skip those tracks and I want to meet the people that don’t skip them. What I tried to do was make them repetitive, but also evolve over the short length of the track, so there is almost a little reward at the end of the track if you just stick with it.”

It’s unlikely the record garners any skips, though, as it’s laced with fleeting, special moments crafted with wonder by Kenney, deserving to be heard. The album opener “Don’t Forget // There’s Room,” for example, kicks off the record with a touching sample of a child Kenney teaches piano to (another one of her gigs) describing her dream. She says, “It’s cliche I think to sample kids, but it’s cliche for a reason because they say things that we filter out as adults.” While Kenney calls it “cliche,” it’s through instances like these that her repose as an artist shows.

This full-time endeavor as a musician may be a new goal for the baker/neuroscientist/artist/nanny/teacher and she’s still in the midst of learning how to engineer and produce at Women’s Audio Mission, the only recording studio in the world run entirely by women. At the end of the final track, “I Won’t Give Up On Anything Now,” Kenney lulls the title of the song again and again -- a message that music is not another stint, but a long-term venture.

She says, “I look at [music] the same way I look at neuroscience: it’s so fascinating to me and I just want to soak up as much information as I can.”

Listen to a playlist curated by Madeline Kenney for Billboard below featuring songs that inspired her new album Night Night at the First Landing.