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The Exchange: Fenne Lily and Mackenzie Day discuss sinkholes and songwriting in social isolation.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Fenne Lily and Dr. Mackenzie Day.

Fenne Lily is a British singer-songwriter based in Bristol.

Being discouraged from watching TV as a child was integral to the development of Fenne Lily’s musicality, as instead much of her time was spent writing songs and honing both instrumental and understatement in equal measures.

At the age of 17 she began travelling to Bristol from her home in Dorset, and within a year found herself suporting the likes of Marika Hackman, Marlon Williams, KT Tunstall, C Duncan, and Palace, among many more. Soon after she self-released her debut single ‘Top to Toe’ – a song she had written when she was only 15 – which aling with her next two singles amassed over 20 million streams in the next 18 months.

A prolific artist, she soon found herself collaborating with a number of other musicians, including Aldous Harding and fellow Bristolians Tamu Massif & Oliver Wilde.

Throughout this whole time however, she had been writing for her own songs. Enlisting some musical friends to join her and recording with one foot on the Isle of Wight and one in Bristol, Lily completed her debut album due in 2018.

Fenne Lily’s latest album, Breach, was released in September 2020. Written pre-COVID, it is a timely meditation on the effects of isolation.

Mackenzie Day is an Assistant Professor at UCLA focusing on sedimentary processes on Earth and other planets. Day manages the GALE lab at UCLA, a group that currently conducts field, experimental, and remote sensing research with the participation of ~10 undergraduate and 3 graduate students. Day specializes in aeolian processes and the formation and preservation of dunes.

Day has used orbital and ground-based remote sensing to study active dune fields in Gale crater, and other regions of Mars. On Earth, Day studies the preservation of aeolian dunes in rock, and has recently identified preserved dune-dune interactions in sandstones on the Colorado Plateau. She continues to draw parallels between modern and ancient aeolian systems, as well as between terrestrial and planetary systems, all of which are subject to the same underlying physics.

Last week, Dr. Day received an award from the National Science Foundation CAREER program to support her long-term research studies of dune field evolution. The award includes funding to develop an open source library of virtual field trips, which students and teachers can view using virtual reality headsets.

Fenne Lily. (CREDIT: Nicole Loucides)

Fenne Lily: How far can a sinkhole go (could the earth become a donut)?

Mackenzie Day: Sinkholes form when the underground rocks and dirt become unstable and are removed, allowing the ground we see at the surface to collapse and form a hole. In cities, this can happen when buried pipes, usually underneath roads, get damaged. Sand and dirt that get into broken pipes are flushed out by the water in the pipes, and eventually enough dirt is removed that a hole forms and the road above falls into the hole. In nature, sinkholes also form when rain and groundwater dissolve underground rock, usually limestone. The dissolved limestone, or karst, forms a cave and when the cave is large enough, the roof can collapse, forming a sinkhole.

Sinkholes come in a wide range of sizes. They can be just a few feet deep, or continue for many hundreds of vertical feet. The deepest sinkholes in the world are in China (on land) and the Bahamas (in the ocean). These sinkholes are ~2,000 feet and ~600 feet deep, respectively, and like all sinkholes they both formed from water erosion and ground collapse.

For comparison, the Earth is 42 million feet in diameter, or 20,000 times wider than the deepest sinkhole is deep. As you go deeper into the Earth, the pressure increases, everything gets hotter, and there is less room for water to flow and cause the erosion necessary for a sinkhole. The maximum depth that a sinkhole could reach may be more than 2,000 feet and will vary depending on where you are on the planet, but a sinkhole could never become deep enough to turn the Earth into a donut. The spherical shape of the Earth comes from the balance of gravity pressure within the Earth (this is called hydrostatic equilibrium). I have always found it difficult to wrap my mind around just how big the Earth is, but even the deepest sinkholes and the tallest mountains are just small variations on the Earth’s crust, and a small drop in the planetary bucket. 

Dr. Mackenzie Day (CREDIT: Eric Peterson)

Mackenzie Day: I imagine as a singer, you’re usually performing to crowds and working with many people, but I know you have been isolated during COVID. How has that affected your songwriting? 

Fenne Lily: When I was in secondary school I remember there being a geography field trip to collect data about cliff erosion or something like that. I couldn’t go but I obviously still had to write the paper, and as the paper was based around collecting this data (which I hadn’t done) I wrote it from the perspective of someone who had, referencing imaginary ‘in the field’ observations to back up the conclusions of an experience I hadn’t actually had.

For me, this whole year has felt like that; writing about things that happen to me is the only way I know how to write, and while nothing’s been happening to me, while I can’t go on the field trip, I’m still expecting myself to write songs, like I was expected to write that paper. I’m drawing conclusions about imaginary experiences from my weird little house-cave, wondering why nothing’s coming out. Especially recently, I feel I’ve been consuming more than I’ve been creating, which is frustrating and lonely, while everything I seem to read and hear about other people’s experiences of this same time have usually centred around their personal growth and accomplishments in isolation.

It’s not the isolation I’m struggling with; normally, I voluntarily spend a lot of time alone. It’s the immobility that’s hard for me, and the pressure to keep pace with the person I was when I was touring and going to shows and generally feeling like part of a moving world. So it’s affected songwriting massively!

Finishing songs is the hardest, without the incentive I’m used to (having new stuff to play at shows). And I’m only now coming to a place where I’m asking for help with it, something I’ve never done before.

I wrote two records by myself, because I could and I wanted to and music was a way of processing and reflecting everything that was changing around me, but now I feel I need someone to bounce off in order to make anything at all, someone to replace the world I used to bounce off.

Asking for help is hard in any situation, and I’ve known forever how bad I am at it, so a positive in this might be me becoming more able to let go of that stubborn pride and be honest with myself — I’m struggling and the methods I used to use don’t apply anymore, someone come sit in my garden and hear the one line I spent all day writing, then help me write ten more.

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