2020 was, at best, a year of uncertainty, but for singer / songwriter / producer / multi-instrumentalist Lenii; it marked the culmination of years of creative development. The release of her debut EP ‘In All Fairness…’ navigates both the personal and political with acute pop sensibility and a maturity that underlies her years in the industry, honing her craft and lending her hypnotic vocals and lyricism to a wealth of collaborators.
The Kids Are All Rebels
Via Zoom, Cork-native Lenii sits down with us to map this impressive journey.
“I used to sing Danny Boy when I was 18 months old,” she recalls, before noting that “nobody was technically musical and yet it was really all that we did.” Music seemed the inevitable path, but as Lenii grew older she grew self-conscious of her voice and took disparaging comments to heart, searching for alternate ways to introduce herself to the industry.
“I knew I wanted to do something in music, so I looked up other jobs in the industry and found that you could be a producer. When I was fifteen I went to New York, and found a school that would take a 15-year-old”.
In a genuine testament of young ambition Lenii temporarily relocated to New Jersey to learn all that she could about electronic music production and Djing, and being eager to prove her worth soon started making music of her own, “I was the only girl in the whole school so I felt like I had to prove myself.”
Having grown into a shy and reserved teenager, the relocation provided Lenii with an opportunity to reinvent herself and her image, the individualist nature of the city helping her grow more comfortable with expressing her authentic self.
“I was very alone – I had to completely break out of myself. I had the space to experiment without feeling like I was going to be judged for it; New York is such a free-spirited place and there’s all kinds of people there so I feel lucky that I was able to do that.”
“It’s scary to call people out, but it’s important to.”
After finishing secondary school Lenii returned to New York to hone her craft, finding herself inundated with requests from male colleagues who wanted female vocalists to feature on their tracks. During this time Lenii grew more accustomed to her unique vocal, and reframed this insecurity as a strength.
“My voice is quirky and a bit weird – it’s not the classically trained Adele way (of singing) I’d always heard – I had to grow into it and learn to love it.”
Now 23-years-old, Lenii’s distinct airy vocal and uncompromisingly candid lyricism are the heart of ‘In All Fairness…’. There’s a disarming tenderness to breakup ballad I (Don’t) Miss You, while SLIP details with wit and candor the minefield of misogyny experienced by women in the industry.
“SLIP is the most blunt (song) that I’ve ever put out. It was actually just really therapeutic to write because every girl in the industry – not just the industry, in life – experiences misogyny, and there’s things that we put up with that, even when I was younger, I probably didn’t realize … I think people talk about it, but they don’t talk about it explicitly.”
This direct and unambiguous storytelling has been central to Lenni’s songwriting this year, and will take precedence in her releases going forward. Lenii cites artists like Eminem who draw deeply from their own lived experience, rather than relying on shrouding their realities in metaphor.
While acknowledging there is risk inherent to this openness, ultimately, it is worthwhile. “It’s scary to call people out, but it’s important to.”
Like many of us this year, Lenii’s social media engagement increased as the pandemic prolonged. Here she unexpectedly found a massive audience championing the very thoughtful directness she has come to value so highly.
One day while watching the US presidential debate, Lenii (who has dual citizenship) jotted down some of her frustrations and sang the impromptu verse over a snippet of an EP instrumental. The TikTok was uploaded for her 100 followers, but within a matter of days it had amassed over one million views.
Having been affectionately dubbed “the gen z anthem”, Lenii’s new fans pleaded with her to finish the track, and so within the space of 48 hours she wrote, recorded, mixed, and produced the full song.
“I think it got 100,000 streams in the first week which is faster than any song I’ve put out, and as an independent artist that is mind-blowing.”
Lyrically Lenii touches on mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, and police brutality, which inevitability attracted some push-back. Ironically due to the nature of TikTok’s algorithm this only contributed to the viral reach of Lenii’s content, but nevertheless it proved a sobering experience.
“I didn’t hold back and I said all these things that I was feeling – it was blunt, and TikTok isn’t like Instagram where you’re shown to your own bubble and you see like-minded things, it shows you to anyone so there were thousands of people who commented, pretty nasty things, and it was a real lesson in not letting that kind of stuff get to you.
It’s not the first time; the music I put out is a little controversial and the videos and stuff are not for everyone, so I’m used to getting the odd mean comment, but this was such an influx.”
“I was the only girl in the whole school so I felt like I had to prove myself.”
The toxicity of social media is itself a prominent theme in Lenii’s debut EP. Lead single Regular 10 is an ode to keeping up appearances, questioning the false narratives we all cultivate online and the reality of falling short. While Lenii acknowledges the power in harnessing social media as an artist, it’s become important not to let this external validation be the driving force behind her activity online.
“It’s a double edged sword, because it’s fantastic when it’s going well and you get a viral video or a post that’s doing well and you get this rush of serotonin that all these people loving what you’re doing – but it’s not necessarily always for the right reasons.
I know that any time I post a pretty picture I’ll get ten times the engagement than if I post album art or something a little more artistic, and it’s hard to balance that need for approval with the need to stick to your artistry.”
While thematically the topics explored across ‘In All Fairness…’ are far from light-hearted, there is – as the title suggests – a distinctly Irish humour across the work that elevates their brand of dark-pop. Spending time in the US only deepened Lenii’s appreciation for this Irish playfulness which will undoubtedly carry through to her future work.
“We have a very distinct kind of humour and way of talking about things that I think is cool and unique in the world, so I do like to keep that in my music. There’s something charming in it, and for me it’s easier to talk about things when I’m kind of taking the piss out of them.”
2020 also provided Lenii the opportunity to embed herself within the Irish music scene in ways she hadn’t before. Traveling, training, and writing meant that despite championing her Irishness in a personal capacity (an Irish flag drapes her window in New York) she felt disconnected in a professional capacity.
This year, all that changed. “Because I moved away so young, I didn’t know much about what was going on or know many people. That completely changed this year and I’m very lucky because we really support each other, and we really lift each other up.”
Nowhere is that sense of community more apparent than on Irish Women in Harmony, where Lenii joined a host of talented female artists to release a Christmas single in aid of Childline.
After such a productive year, what does 2021 hold for Lenii? The pandemic didn’t give reason to pause as writing sessions went ahead online, meaning Lenii is now sitting on a catalogue of work that builds upon the danceable alt-pop that charmed with her debut.
“I have a whole album’s worth of music for next year that feels even more Lenii than anything I’ve done so far.” While Lenii shot, edited, and released a number of music videos by herself in 2020, the goal is ultimately (funding and pandemic permitting) to develop a rich and immersive visual world to accompany her music. “I want to put people in a place when they’re hearing a song they’re not just hearing it; they’re really in that world”.
Stay tuned if you want to be part of it.