Fat Tony and Madeline Kenney are Chasing Beauty

The friends (and labelmates) talk LA-vs-the Bay, the natural splendor of California, their new records, and more.

Fat Tony is a Houston-born, LA-based rapper; Madeline Kenney is musician and artist based in Oakland. Both artists have new records — Madeline’s A New Reality Mind is out tomorrow on Carpark, and Tony’s I Will Make a Baby in this Damn Economy will be out August 25, also on Carpark. To celebrate, the friends got on a call to catch up about it all. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Fat Tony: Here we go. We’re live in the mix. Doing this shit for Talkhouse. 

Madeline Kenney: Yay!

Tony: It’s Fat Tony and Madeline Kenney.

Madeline: [Laughs.] You are running this like a radio show.

Tony: Yeah. I’m talking to you live right now from Los Angeles, California. I know you’re in Oakland, California. Wish I was up there.

Madeline: It’s beautiful. Foggy Oakland, California. 

Tony: I love the Bay.

Madeline: I’m glad you do. I feel neutral about it right at this moment.

Tony: Talk to me about it. What are your thoughts?

Madeline: You know, I’ve been living here coming up on 10 years. I guess a year of that I was out in Durham, so it’s cumulative eight years. But I feel like for a while there before the pandemic, the music scene was great, and I knew so many people from the music scene and from working in restaurants and I just had a huge community. I still have a community, but I feel like since the pandemic, it’s really splintered in a lot of ways. There’s times when you’re driving across the Bay Bridge and you’re like, I live in the most beautiful place in the country! It’s amazing! And then there’s times where you’re like, Oh, my god, the ghosts of every part of my past are just haunting me in this town and I need to get out. So I think it sways back and forth.

Tony: Do you mean it in a sense of, a lot of people left the Bay during the pandemic?

Madeline: Yeah, so many people left. So many people moved either to somewhere easier and cheaper to live or to LA — which I don’t think that’s cheaper, but I think it’s more conducive to being in music, obviously.

Tony: I mean, it might be a little bit cheaper than living in the Bay Area, to be honest with you.

Madeline: Oh, god. I’m afraid of that being the truth.

Tony: When we were hanging out a lot and making music in the summer of 2021, me and my partner were living in San Francisco for the summer. We had a nice place in Hayes Valley, but it was enormously expensive. It was as expensive as my rent was when we lived in Brooklyn in 2019, and it was way less space. Still a very nice apartment and a nice location, but I was getting much less space than I got in Crown Heights — because at least in Crown Heights, I had a backyard, I had a basement. You know what I mean? 

Madeline: Yeah, and that’s what I mean. I feel like we’ve collectively in the Bay kind of lost the plot. We’re like, “This is fine! Paying this much is normal and fine!” And then you go somewhere else and you’re like, Oh, my god. I mean, when I lived in Durham, my rent was like $300. But I was touring all the time so that made the most sense. I think it’s about balance. I think it’s like, OK, what kind of life do I want to live? Do I want to be chasing music all the time? I think we can really fool ourselves. We’re like, “It’s beautiful, it’s worth the price!” But I don’t know.

Tony: It is so beautiful. I mean, what I love about the Bay, at least compared to living in LA, is it’s such a smaller area that it’s easier to go places. Like when I lived in San Francisco for that summer, we went to the beach almost every single weekend. Whereas living in LA, in the Northeast side of town, going to the beach is a much longer trip — especially going to Malibu, which is where I like to go to the beach. That always takes like an hour-and-a-half to get there, and then an-hour-and-a-half back. And it’s beautiful and it’s worth it, but compared to when I lived in San Francisco and I could get to a city beach in, like, 15, 20 minutes or drive 30, 45 minutes and be at a really nice beach… I don’t know. I mean, we all chasing beauty. [Laughs.] 

Madeline: I know, in some form or another. Now, in LA, do you feel like — here’s the thing that prevents me think from moving there: I have a fear of the music business taking over so much of my human life. I like to do different things. I like to cook and bake and do ceramics. And I feel when I’m down there, I talk to people about music, I talk to people about gigs, I talk to people about recording, and it’s, like, all we talk about. That’s my fear — if that’s all that consumes my life, I’m scared that I would just want to quit.

Tony: Well, I think if you want to talk about baking and ceramics and music, you’d fit right in in LA.

Madeline: [Laughs.]

Tony: I think it really is what you make it. And I think it makes sense to talk about those things — in my mind, Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the United States. Maybe not for creativity, but at least for business. Whether you work in music, TV, film, podcasting, et cetera, chances are you are working for or with a media company that has a headquarters here. It’s kind of like if you’re from where I’m from, Houston, and say you work in oil and gas — which Houston is a prime location for that industry — it would be easy to find yourself mostly knowing people that work in that field and that be the bulk of what you talk about. So I think it’s kind of upon the person…

Madeline: Well, like what you said though, about it being maybe not creatively but for the business side — that’s the exact side I’m just not in love with. So I’m like, Do I really wanna steep myself in that? Or am I happy kind of being with my one foot in the water, so to speak, of the music industry world, and I can just make my weird stuff and hang out with my cats in my yard?

Tony: I think for you it could work because you’re not green. You’ve been doing this for a long time. But I do feel like for a much younger artist, if they’re going from their hometown straight to LA, you can find yourself caught up in a lot of the hype. You can get caught up in your own hype, you can get caught up in a lot of BS that keeps you from your craft. But I think when you’re older and you move to a place like this to focus on your business, you probably have a better head on your shoulders. I would guess that you’d be less likely to fall into some of the typical traps. 

But even on a creative level, I don’t think it’s the best idea for a young artist to immediately move to LA or New York or wherever for the sole purpose of advancing their music career, because I think that it can make you make a lot of mediocre music. I see a lot of young people that come to LA and want to get into the songwriting game or in the production game, and they just start taking dozens of sessions that go nowhere, that don’t produce anything meaningful, and often don’t produce any music that actually comes out to the public, and they end up kind of just spinning their wheels. 

I feel like it’s better to land somewhere where you have a real community. And that could be LA, that could be Chicago, that could be a major city, but it could also be your hometown. It could also be some random college town. It could be anywhere. I think it’s much more important as a young artist — and by young, I mean someone who maybe they only have one or two tours under their belt, if that, or they’ve made one album, if that. I feel like it’s better for you to find a place where you can have a real scene that you belong to so that you can have some actual development in your music.

Madeline: No, I totally agree. I think that’s the thing that puts a sour taste in my mouth about LA — there’s this dangling carrot of success, and like you said, it can lead you to a lot of situations that you think, Oh, this is the thing that’s gonna get me a really big sync.

Tony: You start phoning it in.

Madeline: Yeah, I think you either phone it in or you make something that’s not authentic to who you are and what you actually want to say because of that false promise. It’s almost like gambling or something, you know?

Tony: It is like gambling.

Madeline: Yeah. It kind of reminds me of when sync teams ask you for a song with a quick turnaround. They’re like, “Hey, this show needs a ‘90s style cover of a ‘20s soda pop song and we need it in 24 hours. The fee is $50,000.” And you’re like, “Oh, my god, yes!” And that’s where it feels like gambling. You make this thing that you normally would never make, because maybe you’ll win that 50 grand. But then you submit it and some other flavor of the moment thing is chosen and you don’t get a demo fee and you’re like, Oh, well, that was 12 hours of my life. And I just feel like LA is full of those opportunities. 

I am grateful to the Bay, because I feel like the music community here, there’s just less big time opportunity. Which sounds off-putting, but I do think what that means is that you’re actually stumbling into way more authentic experiences and you’re getting into sessions with people that are making interesting things. I’m thinking of places like Tiny Telephone, where there’s excellent engineers who are so passionate, and you end up meeting really talented session musicians, and you find they work with tons of really cool musicians that have placed themselves in the Bay because of the sort of seclusion from the industry. Seclusion, but also relative proximity — you know, it’s a drive away.

Tony: Yeah, I think that’s the gift and curse of places like the Bay, Houston, New Orleans — all these places that throughout the generations have added to the musical ecosystem with new ideas, new sounds, new genres, new lingo. They get that because they’re kind of tucked away from the old world music business and are just doing their own thing with their own community, their own friends. That’s why you have artists that come from those areas that are so creative and different. And they often do the labor of coming up with really original stuff that major artists and major music companies suck up and try to make more easily accessible for a mainstream audience. [They] kind of end up just being like a muse to the pop star. That is something you see time and time again with the Bay, especially in rap music. So much stuff that has become mainstream in hip hop has its origins in Bay Area music. 

Madeline: Yeah. And I think that portion of it gets to the whole idea of like, what are you looking to do? What is your definition of success? Is success being on a major label and touring all the time? Is success making all your money from music, or is success making something that you can look back on and be really proud of? The more I make, the more I realize I really have to define what success is not only for myself, but almost for each release. Like, what will this version of success for this project look like? I think you can really beat yourself up if it’s not getting Best New Music or selling out a certain sized rooms, and that is just a creativity killer.

Tony: Totally. I love to dream big. I always want to go as far as possible with my artistry. But something that keeps me grounded is: as I’m going down the field, I stay mindful of every goalpost. For everything I do every year, I set goals for myself that I think I can reach that are a step up from what I’ve done previously. And as I’m hitting those goals. I just feel good and I feel totally encouraged to keep going, rather than only shooting for the height of heights without being mindful of all the steps along the way. 

Another thing I want to say before this just ends up with us complaining a lot — even though I love complaining — there’s this Maze song called “Look at California” that I first heard earlier this year and it really shook me, because the song is all about how the beauty of California is really in the nature. It is in the mountains, the beaches, the lakes. Throughout Northern and Southern California, we are surrounded by beauty. And so many of us that are transplants, like me and you who moved to California to pursue goals, dreams, et cetera, we can sometimes get sidetracked from the beauty around us because we’re so concerned about the people and the industries, and who is nice to us and who’s not nice to us, and who is on our side and who is against us. I think that if we step back and just go to a really pretty park, we can remind ourselves what we should be thankful for, which is this land that is so vast and always gives us more to discover, more to explore, and more to appreciate.

Madeline: Well, hopefully if we do it right as a species, that’s going to last. And I think that all of these things, when we talk about goals and success and everything, it’s so important to remember the temporary nature of it all. I can always drive to Bolinas and see gorgeous beaches and a sleepy little town and beautiful eucalyptus trees, and I can’t always put out a song that’s going to make a bunch of money, you know? 

Tony: Every time I get in my head about music or business or something, I love to go to Debs Park, which is near Highland Park, and go up to this little lake they have on top of a hill that’s full of ducks and little fish. I just like to sit and just look at them as the sun pierces through all the trees and get out of my head and think about what I have to be grateful for — the fact that I’m living at the same time as we have this beautiful land that is still here and hasn’t been fully ruined by civilization yet.

Madeline: That’s a good perspective. Lately with the little bouts of warm weather that we’re getting, I like to go up into Joaquin Miller Park. It’s pretty close to my house. I love the smell of hot dirt in the sun. 

Tony: Oh, nice. 

Madeline: That just really resets me.

Tony: Yeah, that’s a quote. “I love the smell of hot dirt.”

Madeline: [Laughs.] You can put that on my headstone if you want.

Tony: Should we talk about our new albums, too?

Madeline: I want to hear about yours. I want to hear about what you’re excited about, I want to hear the goalposts for that album. What was the most challenging part, and what are you excited to share? 

Tony: Well, first of all, you and I are both on Carpark Records. I’m so happy that we’re labelmates and get to hang out, and we have a couple of shows coming up together. You’re going on tour soon and you’re having me play the LA show and the San Francisco show, which I’m very excited about. 

Madeline: I’m so excited. I absolutely love watching you play. This was a selfish move on my part. 

Tony: Same. I’m at a point where I just want to do things with my friends. I want to play shows with my friends when they have records coming out and just make it an organic, fun thing.

Madeline: Yes, very much same for me.

Tony: My goal for my new album, which is called I Will Make a Baby In This Damn Economy

Madeline: Just the best album name ever.

Tony: Thank you. It’s the second album that I’ve done with the producer Taydex, who’s born and raised in Southern California. The whole title is about how no matter what obstacles we have in our way, whether it’s economical or our health or whatever circumstance we happen to be in, there is always hope to be found. There’s always some form of optimism to be used to keep pushing forward. 

I thought of that title because it’s a lyric in the song “Make a Baby,” which is my favorite song on the new album. In the song itself, I kind of use the lyric in a really cheeky way, but I really do mean it. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of people were worried that everything was falling apart. A lot of people were like, “Will I ever start a family? Will I ever get another job? Will I keep the house that I’m in?” The album title was like a mantra for me to live by. Because I’m a pretty DIY artist; everything that I’ve done in my life has been made from scraps, really. I never really did anything ‘til I did music. I was never on an airplane until I made music, I never left Texas ‘til I made music. Almost all of my worldly experiences and all the friends I’ve made in my life have come through traveling or through music or through some kind of work in entertainment. And anything that I ever do in entertainment, music is the foundation of it and I wouldn’t get there without being an artist, first and foremost. So I always like to keep that at the front of my mind and the back of my mind. 

But the whole goal for this album was to make an album where I can still have fun and say things that are silly and youthful and talk about partying and hanging out and all that good shit. But also, as I’m getting older, I want to make sure that I put a lot of game, a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge in my music. Right now, I’m a 35 year old man, and one of the things I hate to see is an aging artist, especially a rapper, who is still talking about the same things that they talked about in their music when they were 20. So on this album, I made a point to have several songs, and many lyrics sprinkled throughout all the songs, where I can offer some form of advice — things that I would tell myself if I was 21 years old again. Things about how to get your money straight, things about how you should treat people, things about how you should be a better partner to the people you’re dating, things about how you should have some sense of focus and not just make the same old mistakes over and over again. And as I continue to make music, I want to do that. I want to challenge myself to really grow up in my music and give back to younger listeners in my music.

Madeline: I’m so excited to hear the whole thing. I’m imagining that you’re going to get this question a lot, so I’m sorry, but does the meaning of the word “baby” change depending on the song or your mood or where your headspace is? Are you thinking about kids or are you thinking about your baby being music? Or does it transmute depending on where you’re at?

Tony: Well, nobody’s asked me that yet. So you’re the first. In a literal sense, yes, it means a baby — I do want to start a family. I’m looking forward to starting a family soon, I hope. But it does change throughout the album and throughout my mindset of my goals. That baby could be a new business, that baby could be buying a home, that baby could be setting a health goal, a fitness goal. That baby can be anything that you want to create or accomplish that is precious and meaningful to you in a way that’s bigger than something that’s kind of… you know, flat. It’s not baby in the sense of buying new jewelry or just getting something that is temporary. You know what I mean? 

Madeline: Yeah. I’m so excited to listen to the whole thing because, you know, I’m 31, and I think for a long time, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want kids. And then just like my mom predicted, my hormones are like, “Are you sure about that?” [Laughs.] It’s not an easy topic. It’s so fraught. It’s laden with a lot of different decisions. So I can’t wait to hear all your thoughts.

Tony: Tell me about your album.

Madeline: It’s called A New Reality Mind. I wrote a lot of the songs halfway — like I didn’t finish them, but just kind of was futzing around with these ideas for a while during the pandemic, and didn’t know where to put them, really. I was feeling pretty unmotivated. Production times were so long and the label was like, “Oh, maybe if you get things to us in December, we can get it out in 2024,” and I was just like, Oh man. And then kind of all of a sudden, production times really drastically lowered and they were like, “Hey, maybe you can put something out sooner!” Then I got broken up with and it was super shitty. Tying back to being in the Bay, it’s another thing where I’m like, God, I’m haunted here and I just feel like I need a refresh

But it was weird. Going through that really painful, horrible thing, at some point after the time where I couldn’t get out of bed I was like, I used to put out a record a year. I used to be super prolific, and I don’t know when that stopped. I don’t know if it was the pandemic, if it was the relationship. I don’t know what was going on. And I just kicked into high gear and I took all these half songs and finished them, added choruses, and wrote some new songs. It really came together fast, like in a month. All of a sudden I had this record.

I wrote the song “Reality Mind,” which is on the record, and that gave me the title. It was just like… I’m trying to be forgiving to myself for entering something that I think I knew from the start was not going to work out.

Tony: Your love life, you mean, right?

Madeline: Yeah. And I think it reaches beyond that as well. I can dive kind of headfirst into things. I’m a pretty hopeless romantic.

Tony: Who ain’t?

Madeline: [Laughs.] Yeah. I feel like I was like, OK, I know I’m getting into this thing… and honestly, that’s what Sucker’s Lunch was all about, You know, I’m a sucker, I know I’m playing a bit of the fool. It’s weird, I can go back and listen to songs on Sucker’s Lunch and be like, You fucking knew it, girl. Why didn’t you listen to yourself? But at the same time, I’m trying not to look back on myself and be like, you stupid idiot. I’m trying to be forgiving of the person that was hopeful. Being hopeful is a gift and don’t want to lose that in this process of grieving and breaking up. That’s a good part of me, and I want to look back on myself and be like, I see what you were going for. I understand. It didn’t work out; it’s OK. And now you have a new story. Now you have to adjust to the new reality and move forward. There’s no choice. You have to move forward.

Tony: It’s all part of it. I think that throughout our lives we’re going to be faced with sudden changes in some aspect, whether it’s personal or professional or financial or whatever the case may be. I think all of us will always suffer some form of loss constantly through our lives. Some of us will always have to hit a point where we’re feeling like we need to change everything and start over, whether it’s our choice or not. And I think it’s just about how you roll with the punches. 

I think it’s really beautiful how you took something that was painful and it inspired you to dive deeper into your craft and into yourself. I’m sure that the motivation of those serious life changes and the record label giving you the green light to finish an album that they can put out sooner than you ever expected — I mean, those are things that money can’t buy, that time can’t buy, that you cannot even fathom happening ‘til it happens. I mean, in some ways, are you grateful for all those changes that you went through that led you to this new album?

Madeline: I think I don’t have enough distance yet to feel grateful for it. I know that the relationship was not meant to be so I am glad I’m not in it anymore. I can see what was wrong now, and I’m grateful I’m not going through the same painful things. But it’s going to take a little bit more healing to be like, “Yes, I’ve grown!” I think it’s still in the processing phase.

I just appreciate talking to somebody like you about this, because I remember making music with you back in 2021, and it just being so joyous. You’re so fun to make music with because you have this really infectious confidence. You trust your own process and you trust your own writing and you trust your own brain. And I am not used to that with myself. I can really judge myself harshly. It was so fun to watch you come up with lines and then say out loud to yourself, “That’s good.” [Laughs.] I’ve never said that to myself. But I’ve started to! I wrote a song the other day and I was like, You know what? That’s good.So I really do mean it. I’m inspired by the way that you make music. It makes me want to change my methodology a little.

Tony: Well, I feel the same way. I can only do that because I’m in your presence, I have somebody to work with, I have a sound board, I have a partner, I have an audience. That automatically makes my brain become a better editor and I can tell when I’m saying something that is good for the song, and saying something that’s kind of mid or not that memorable. 

Madeline: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Tony: Like you said earlier, these things take time. And I’m sure as time goes on, you’re going to look at this moment in your life as a great lesson, hopefully something that you felt like you needed to go through. I think that you’re smart, you’re talented, you’re wonderful, you’re beautiful. I know great things are going to keep coming to you. 

Madeline: Dude, likewise. I am so excited for all of your music and I’m so excited to play together. We’re going to have the best time!

Hailing from Houston’s Third Ward, Fat Tony (born Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu) is a Nigerian-American rapper who has played an integral role in shaping the Houston rap scene. In 2010, Fat Tony released his innovative debut full-length project RABDARGAB, produced by Tom Cruz. His second studio album Smart Ass Black Boy, released in 2013 on Young One Records, was well-received by critics for its warm, laid-back vibe. Fat Tony won awards in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 for Best Underground Hip Hop at the Houston Press Music Awards, and has worked on groundbreaking collaborations with the likes of Das Racist and A$AP Rocky.