A muse of motion

Mira Nguyen screen shot
Mira Nguyen/Senior Staff

The music room where Madeline Kenney sings is cramped. Guitars hang on one wall, two keyboards sit stacked in a corner, and a scribbled-in notebook lies open on a small table. The packed room traps the day’s heat long after the sun has set. Warm air and ambient lighting create a simultaneously whimsical and stifling shoe box for Kenney, a 23-year-old Oakland-based musician, to rehearse in.

Christmas lights illuminate illustrated posters and records, among them Pat Benatar and Beirut albums, a book of New Orleans jazz music and a blue tank top bedazzled with beads — a gem found at a shop in Bolinas, California. Despite the space’s busy energy, Kenney is relaxed.

She adjusts her amp and tenses her bare feet, tucking her wet hair behind her ear. Zoning in, she lays down a beat, hitting her guitar to create a percussion line that she records and plays back. Then she eases into the melody. She looks down as she plucks her guitar and starts to sing, whispering one verse and crooning the next. The sound is completely controlled — just Kenney, a guitar and a loop pedal.

Recordings of her own voice repeat and amplify until Kenney’s one-woman show has become a full band. She harmonizes with herself. The guitar’s noise morphs and grows as she manipulates the pedal. She hits it again, and the music stops entirely. She returns to singularity. The song ends.

A baker by profession and a singer-songwriter by night, Kenney is one of many in the Bay Area pursuing her art while simultaneously making a living. Virtually unknown, with just seven songs and 31 followers on SoundCloud, Kenney uses her free time to rehearse in her West Oakland three-bedroom apartment —  a cozy home that sits squarely in a neighborhood the locals have dubbed “Ghost Town” because of its many abandoned buildings. She moved there with her boyfriend (also a musician) and a friend a couple of months ago. They had no need for a third bedroom but had an abundance of guitars and other instruments. The music room was born.

Kenney welcomed me into this new space soon after I first saw her perform in San Francisco in August. She was an opener at Brick & Mortar in the Mission for a small crowd that had gathered to see Waterstrider, a band conceived in the UC Berkeley co-ops. Kenney stood on the large, dark stage, hair tangled and head trained on her pedal and guitar. Her voice rang out. I was immersed. The experience was as much about observing her building her songs layer by layer as it was about the songs themselves.

Off the stage, Kenney is sweet. There’s almost something Midwestern about her, even though she’s spent nearly her entire life on the West Coast. This took me by surprise when we first sat down to talk in a cafe at Telegraph Avenue and 30th Street. Her music contains an intensity virtually unrecognizable when talking with her one on one — behind the mic, her easy demeanor fades. Her new song, “Thursdaze,” demands,

I take my summer seriously.

I’m not about to be the one to be alone

at the start of a song”

This excerpt comes from just one of the songs Kenney has written since moving to Oakland a little more than a year ago. She was out of college and working at a pastry shop in Seattle when she quit her job, packed up her car and drove down to Oakland, where she didn’t know a soul.

She didn’t have a job, but she was set on working at the Mill, a bakery in San Francisco. So she moved into a studio apartment in Fruitvale and worked part time for the bakery until it brought her on full time. Kenney’s introduction to the East Bay mainly involved watching “Downton Abbey” and knitting. The loneliness spurred a time of musical growth.

But the loneliness didn’t last. Kenney soon began meeting new people, those of a lively artistic community that has her regularly playing shows around the Bay and writing new songs. She thinks of lyrics while riding her bike. She goes out to hear other artists perform every week. She just made her first music video — a glitter-filled visual filmed at the Albany Bowl to accompany her song “Lion Heart.” With the help of the loop pedal, a gift from her father last Christmas, her sound has evolved into something she reluctantly coined as “folk-gaze” or “twang-haze.”

“This art and music community, especially in Oakland, is the most supportive community I’ve ever seen. It’s crazy — everybody goes to everybody’s shows and wants you to make more art,” Kenney told me. “It kind of made me realize I can actually do something with music. It’s an option for me. I will probably always need a day job, but just the fact that people wanted to listen is humbling. I just have to break out of the thinking that music is just for fun.”

In her almost 24 years, Oakland is the sixth city Kenney has called home. She wasn’t a kid who moved around a lot: She spent her adolescence in Redmond, Washington — a city just east of Seattle. Instead, once she was old enough to leave places on her own, she developed “itchy feet” — a desire to seek greener pastures, which led her to four colleges (including a stint in British Columbia) before she eventually received a degree from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Itchy feet didn’t keep Kenney from playing music, but she isn’t technically trained. She taught herself guitar growing up — a natural progression that followed years of intense piano practice, and also a necessity for a summer gig as a camp counselor. Inspired by the likes of Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie, she started playing folk music — an influence you can still hear behind Kenney’s layered, ethereal tones and occasional electronic embellishments. As a young adult, singing and playing guitar have been her constants despite her ever-changing scenery.

“It’s always going to be there no matter where I move or how many times I totally ruin my life and have to patch it back up again,” she said. “I’m still going to probably sit down and play music.”

Kenney may have found in Oakland what she was only grasping at elsewhere: a voice. She’s looking for people to join her band. She wants to improve her skills on the electric guitar. She’s even planning to soundproof the makeshift music room’s ceiling — an investment in the future hinting that her wandering feet may have finally found a more permanent resting place.