Writing songs since she was 15, the young Bristolian Fenne Lily already sounds familiar, such is her deep, mature yet fragile and quavering timbre that could be the voice of someone much older. Sharon Van Etten, Laura Marling, and Lana Del Rey are obvious touchstones, as are the melancholy tones of old school folkies such as Vashti Bunyan.
After a few years performing here and in Europe, developing a following for her raw, minimalist, heart-on-sleeve songs, Lily decamped to the Isle of Wight to record a number of tracks, with producer James Thorpe and a band. She then returned to Bristol to finish off the album with collaborator Dave Dixon and Ali Chant (Lily sang backing vocals on Aldous Harding’s Party album of last year, which Chant worked on).
The result is a confident and impressive debut, with a tight leash employed on the temptation to mess around with what she has been doing for a while now (that is, being solo), foregoing unnecessary production and superfluous band instrumentation. The simplicity of backing allows for her ethereal, soft and haunting voice to cut through. The drums and bass are unfussy, and the judicious use of keys, and extra guitar touches don’t clutter, nor smother her raw and natural artistry. The songs feel untouched, unhindered by the minimalist backing, allowing her voice and the melodies to become the focal point. It is, however, like many a good record, sprinkled with reverb, that musical moisturiser and cure-all for dryness.
Whether with or without reverb, her ability with words and an ear for a melody are apparent throughout. Such as on ‘Three Oh Nine’, about – as are many of the songs – her first true relationship and its subsequent breaking apart, with Lily displaying an uncommon touch in summing up the angst and anger, within a few succinct sentences, the emotional turmoil of love, as something truly captivating and heartbreaking, : “So I let go, moments at a time / ‘Cause I know soon, I am losing what is mine / But I say too much, to justify your touch.” Similarly, ‘What’s Good’ is a love letter to breaking up, Lily’s voice reaching the far end of quiet loneliness (with an accompanying video that shows her smoking endless fags, and what has been narratively devised to depict thee bringing to life of this song, with the aid of a guitar, in her bedroom). ‘For A While’, ‘The Hand You Deal’, and ‘Top to Toe’ are also about love, and the pain that it invariably involves.
For sure, her vocal range is limited on this showing, not helped by the restrictive, melancholic subject matter that heavily concentrates on love, breaking up, heartbreak and its concurrent stoicism. In her defence, Lily has said there was, “No fannying about”, no pretending otherwise that these are the things that mattered to her at this moment in time, and how she decided to present them. Yet, the talent is there, the songcraft quietly confident and engaging, and On Hold will surely be a springboard to a much bigger world of possibilities.