madeline kenney photo
Words by Annie Bacon

“I once dreamt my own death,” Madeline Kenney tells me over tea at Black Spring Coffee in Oakland. “I fell off a really tall ladder and was falling and falling and falling and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to die now.’ And then when I woke up I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just accepted my own death.’” Accepting her own death is just one of an impressively eclectic set of talents Kenney possesses, not least of which is the exciting new voice she brings to the Bay Area music scene.

At once evocative and innovative, Kenney creates dreamy, hazy pop songs with polyrhythms, distorted guitars, and a punk impulse underlying earnest melodies. Her Signals EP, produced by Toro y Moi’s Chaz Budnick and released on his Company Records label, was critically adored. We caught up in advance of her Phono del Sol appearance on June 17.

Kenney tells me that she grew up in an area around Snoqualmie Falls, Washington (made famous by David Lynch’s creepy-awesome Twin Peaks). There, she steeped in the sounds of the Pacific Northwest and started her musical life as a straight-edge kid in a punk band. She spent a lot of time at the Old Firehouse Teen Center in nearby Redmond, the “secret staple of Seattle” that has hosted a veritable who’s-who of indie rockers through the years including Elliott Smith, Modest Mouse, and Naomi Punk. She played in several bands, sharing the stage with Mount Eerie and Say Hi To Your Mom with her seven-piece band, People With Faces — experiences she didn’t immediately appreciate fully. “I was 16 and like, ‘OK, cool,’ but now I’m like, ‘Oh! I played a show with Mount Eerie. That’s pretty cool!”

Kenney had also been dancing since kindergarten and assumed she’d become a choreographer, a calling she followed through college. But while there – between three colleges and even more state lines – she turned instead to interpersonal neurobiology, of course. This interdisciplinary course of study on the chemical relationships between brains is essentially a study of the human experience. “I kinda always knew I wasn’t gonna be a neuroscientist and slice up rat brains all day in an underground lab,” she tells me. “But it’s just the most interesting thing I’ve ever learned, so I just kept learning about it.” She takes a moment to point out the gilded neurons adorning the front of my notebook and shows me her matching self-made tattoo. Serendipity, we agree.

Kenney has also been baking since she was 16. After baking all through college, she decided that was her calling. “I was obsessed with baking,” she says. “It’s a beautiful combination of art and science.” This obsession took her to Seattle for two years working in a pastry shop, before ultimately providing the impetus to head to the Bay Area three years ago. One day, Kenney packed everything she owned in her car and drove straight to the Mill, the San Francisco bakery famous for milling its own flour. “I literally drove to the door of the Mill and said, ‘Hey I want a job!’…and they were like, ‘OK, you’re crazy, but come in tomorrow.’ So I got a job!…That was really fortunate and could have gone so much worse, but it didn’t.” Last year, on the heels of Signals’ success, Kenney quit her job to focus on music full-time.

When she looks forward, Kenney says there are “a million things” she still wants to learn. Among them: the prospects of graduate school at Mills College’s Electronic Music and Recording Media (into which she’s already been accepted), deepening her knowledge of engineering/audio music at Women’s Audio Mission (where she is already an intern) and writing new material for what initially she thought would be a side project (but which she realizes is probably just her next album).

But it’s likely that her success in music will guide the next months and years. On the road recently opening for a mostly sold-out Chaz Bundick Meets the Mattson 2 tour, Kenney says “I never want(ed) this to end.” Three shows into the tour she emailed the folks at Company Records and said, “Just apply me for every tour. I don’t care what it is, I wanna go.”

Madeline Kenney plays Phono del Sol on June 17.

Phono del Sol: Madeline Kenney, Jay Som, the Coathangers, Bells Atlas, and more
Potrero del Sol Park
June 17, 2017
12pm, $30

Annie Bacon is a musician (her life) and writer (her obsession) in San Francisco. She loves shouting out amazing local bands and finding new music (of any genre) that is emotionally moving or has depth. She also writes for The SF Critic, has her own band, and is raising a little drummer kid.