One morning last year singer-songwriter Madeline Kenney sat outside of her apartment, sipping a cup of coffee, and saw something she never quite noticed before. There was a tessellation of triangles lining the rickety fence outside of her door and just beyond it was a roof in the distance with a design echoing that same pattern; they were perfect shapes.
“There are tons of what you would call ‘perfect shapes’ like Fibonacci sequences and hexagons that serve a purpose through their existence,” says Kenney, who was inspired by the serendipity of this geometry to think about ideals in her own life and write her forthcoming sophomore album Perfect Shapes, out Oct. 5 via Carpark Records. Listen to the title track below.
“[The way shapes work] is kind of the same with women. We’re expected to be a perfect shape in the media, there’s the idea of perfection or beauty, but inherently the ability to have children, that objectively I would consider is perfect,” she says. “[It’s] like expectation to be something perfect when we already are.”
As shapes in nature led to considering the female form, Kenney crafted a stellar indie rock record that feels like an ode to the beautiful imperfections of womanhood. Reflecting on her own experience drawn from relationships and the challenges of working in the male-dominated music industry, Kenney highlights what is seamlessly flawless in her life and the lives of many women: their resilience and powerful vulnerability.
The album comes nearly a year after her debut, the pristine ballad-heavy Night, Night at the First Landing. Several months after its release, an opportunity arose to uproot from Oakland to Durham, North Carolina to begin work on a set of new songs out of electronic duo Sylvan Esso’s studio. “I honestly think it was one of the most rewarding, forgiving experiences of my life,” says Kenney of recording Perfect Shapes, which she worked on primarily with two other women, percussionist Camille Lewis and producer Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak. “We were learning a lot and trying new things and doing things for the first time on our own – things that we had done before in a studio with other people around maybe telling us that we don’t know what we’re talking about – but this time around it was just us relying on our instincts, realizing that we totally got this. It was so nice to sink into that confidence and make something really special.”
Perfect Shapes is a special product – one with soundscapes that feel cosmic as Kenney’s guitar tones lean into other worldly synthesizers and a unique combination of vintage drum samples mixed artfully with live percussion. It may diverge from Kenny’s debut album, but it’s the mystical sound that she felt compelled to explore in the studio.
“I can’t help but have it be like a natural progression because I’m interested in a whole bunch of things and I want to keep learning and trying new things,” she says. “I think we as listeners expect things to be the same [from artists] because they’re presented to us in one form in one album and then we’re like, ‘Oh, the next thing will be the same,’ but the way that I view it, it’s like asking your friend to go back to being the same person they were two years ago. It’s just impossible.”
But even with its experimentation, a through-line remains in Kenney’s music: her poetic lyrics that wrap you in warmth and understanding, sung in her gentle voice that feels like the personification of a comforting, sunny morning. She is soft and feminine, and as she explores adversity on Perfect Shapes, she proves the power of this tenderness like an old friend reaffirming their belief in you.
“I think often strength is associated with a masculine undertone: to be strong is to be visibly displaying strength. But I think a whole other kind of strength is a quiet acceptance, which I feel like women do constantly,” says Kenney. This sentiment floods Perfect Shapes as the singer addresses expectations placed upon herself and others: the expectation to have children, to feel a certain way about herself, and to exist in the music industry where she is “put on bills with other girls that play guitar and have bangs simply for those reasons.”
Though they are challenges she wrestles with, Kenney’s endearing strength is what turned these experiences into the genuine tracks she arrived at, be they utilizing the entirety of her coyly confident, affirmative nature in “Cut Me Off” or her romantic way of coming into her own on the title track. She says, “I think that vulnerability is beautiful and strong and I can think that objectively now. I think that often when we are feeling vulnerable, we don’t feel strong or like we’re doing something wrong and that everybody else has their shit figured out and we don’t, but that’s just not true.”
Upon Kenney’s debut, she first garnered attention for her meandering path, as she pursued careers as a neuroscientist and baker before working on music fulltime. And though Kenney’s journey to get to the brink of the release of her sophomore album may be unconventional, she is ready to settle into her musicianship, as she’s learned to be less afraid and to fit into the perfect shape of the music she wants to make, whatever that may be. “I’m always going to make music no matter if anyone’s listening or not. It doesn’t matter,” she says. “Playing music live is what I feel like I exist for sometimes.”