Madeline Kenney Sets Down the Guitar to Rage on the Keys

The Oakland-based artist talks piano, her new album, and seen-ness ahead of Doug Fir show.

For Madeline Kenney, keys are the cozy zone. Despite the sexy guitar licks vibing albums like 2018′s Perfect Shapes and her 2020 release Sucker’s Lunch, Kenney confesses she’s never truly felt at home on the guitar.

“I wish I could just totally rage on guitar, but I can’t,” she tells WW, describing how much she has to practice for each song, each solo. And if she’s being honest? She really doesn’t want to play guitar anymore. “I’m much more comfy on the keyboard,” says the Oakland-based singer-songwriter, who will join co-headliners Sun June and Why Bonnie for the Pacific Northwest leg of their tour. “It’s where I feel good; I feel powerful when I play the piano.”

Channeling a power energy is particularly important for Kenney these days. In a lot of ways, she’s still mourning Sucker’s Lunch. Like many artists who released albums in 2020, Kenney couldn’t celebrate its release with a tour. That anticlimax felt extra tough for Kenney, who says it was an album she was really proud of and one she was almost uncharacteristically happy with.

Sucker’s Lunch was largely about letting go of the worries associated with starting a new relationship and letting yourself fall in love. But a couple of years after the album’s release, Kenney found herself at the end of the very relationship upon which Sucker’s Lunch was based.

It was a particularly vulnerable experience to go back and listen to some of those songs and to really understand what they were telling her. Even her 2022 single “I’ll Get Over It,” which was originally written about fans eventually forgetting artists they once loved, now takes on new meaning. As songwriting often does, at the time Kenney wrote the single, her subconscious took hold of the pen.

“Writing is one of the only ways I can access the honest, subconscious truth,” Kenney says. Writing has been an important way to process the difficult times she’s been going through. Whether it’s writing fiction or music, painting, “Whatever unlocks your flow state is a really great gateway to a lot of honesty. So, I’ve found some sadness in that, but I’ve also found a little bit of power in that, too.”

Kenney’s flow state began to unlock A New Reality Mind (Carpark Records), and the forthcoming album is like nothing she’s produced before. Songs are much heavier rhythmically, feature a lot less guitar and they have plenty of the bleeps and bloops, as she joking-ishly refers to her synth situation.

In some ways, Kenney is nervous to play material that’s different from what her fans are used to hearing. Likewise, playing songs about a breakup (and, as she further clarifies, songs about processing such a loss) can be a little scary at first, but over time performing difficult material “dulls the knife,” as she puts it.

“I feel like it’s very possible to write something that just tears you up when you get it out of your system, but then you tour it, and you play it over and over,” she explains. “And I think eventually you start to kind of just go through the motions…then you play it a million times and it’s like, cool, I’m just having fun with my friends up here and playing a song that happens to be about how I was totally destroyed.”

Kenney will play a lot of new material from her forthcoming album. And fear not, Madeline Kenney fan club, her new sound glows around the same fire you first fell in love with, just with more hot ’n’ glorious bleeping and blooping to accent that voice.

When I ask how it’s feasible to make a living as a touring musician right now, Kenney laughs that it’s really not. “The commodity that’s most important to me these days is no longer financial. It’s time. Both time in my schedule and in my brain,” Kenney says.

As for touring, she adds, “It’s so awesome to get to do this.” She recognizes everything (including being a touring musician) is temporary and that playing music is an incredibly special thing to get to do.

“I have to remember that it matters,” Kenney says of making emotional connections with even just one person in the crowd. “And to be seen is kind of all we want, right?”

SEE IT: Madeline Kenney plays with Sun June and Why Bonnie at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., dougfirlounge.com. 9 pm Monday, Jan. 23. $16.