Analogue Music | Madison Cunningham

Madison Cunningham

By Matt Conner

Andrew Bird and Chris Thile have come calling.

If it sounds like we're dropping names, it's because we are. The easiest way to get you, dear reader, on board with Madison Cunningham in case you aren't already is likely just to reference all of those who are already convinced. And the list is a lot longer than the aforementioned; this fall alone, she's stepping out with Calexico, Iron & Wine, Amos Lee, Lake Street Dive, and the Milk Carton Kids. Those are in addition to her continued residency with Bird's band.

Enough with the names. The reason everyone is lavishing such praise and presenting such opportunities on Cunningham is because her debut full-length, Who Are You Now, is such a seasoned, intimate affair. The comps to Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell are apt in their feel, but Cunningham's conjures a musical magic all her own. The blues grooves, the jazzy feel, the shifting rhythms, the pop sensibilities—the instincts present on Cunningham's recordings are so rare for any artist.

In the midst of such acclaim and opportunity, we recently sat down with Cunningham to hear more about this frenzied season and what she's learning from the artists around her.

Analogue: This looks like a magical season from the outside for you. Does it feel that way when you're so close to it all?

Madison Cunningham: It's all been very surreal, yet there are also things that feel too real. I'm learning a lot about myself and the process of the grind and what it really looks like. I would describe it as so much better and so much harder than what I could have ever imagined. Which I think those two things go hand in hand: hardship and reward and more hardship and a lot more hardship and reward. I'm sure you know what I mean.

Madison Cunningham Cover
Madison Cunningham Cover

Analogue: Well, let's go into that. What's harder than you thought it would be?

Madison: I'd say traveling. It's funny because I love it and I grew up doing it and when you sign up for dates and tours, it's all so exciting. I still find it exciting in the thick of it. But the reality also sinks in that you're not sleeping as much as you thought you would. It's harder to set rhythms. With the record and seeing how the response has been good, there's also responsibility with that as well, which I'm learning a lot about. Thankfully I have such incredible examples around me who have done it for 25 years longer than I have. [Laughs] They've been helpful, so that makes it easier when you feel you're not alone.

That's all just the honest side of it. All of it has been very positive and truly, like you said, it is exciting in this surreal coming together in a way that I would not have been able to orchestrate. That's a special thing to take in, to feel there's an element that you're not in control of it and that can be a good thing. You just watch it unfold.

Analogue: Is it hard to stay present when there's so much planning for the future?

Madison: Thankfully my management is so good. They really encourage me to sit back and enjoy everything. A lot of people that I know have told me that I'll feel overwhelmed. I'm sure there will be a point of feeling that, but all the people around me have truly given me the permission to just relax and enjoy. I wasn't expecting that advice. I mean, there's a medium there to not grow complacent and lazy, but certainly celebration is to be had and to take in the previous year of hard work.

Analogue: The most surreal moment for you so far?

Madison: Oh... [Pause] Getting to tour with Andrew [Bird] and open for him has been surreal and amazing. There have been a handful of things. The response to the record has been very surreal—the sort of people who have reached out that I didn't expect to like it or to be moved by it. That's touching to me, because there were a lot of moments when you're digging into your past and your future, it can be joyful and painful. To see that the payoff is at least moving people or making people excited, that makes the happiest person alive, I think.

Like I said, hard work met with reward feels like it's worth it. [Laughs] I mean, it's worth it even if there isn't a reward, but that's a whole other story.

Analogue: What did you think the response would be?

Madison: I have a lot of realists in my life and I tend to be a little bit of a realist myself. I felt proud of the songs and the way they turned out with the production, but I was prepared for a more underwhelming response than what I wanted. That hasn't happened yet. I'm truly amazed. I just think, as the artist, you always see how you could have done it better or how you could have improved. I already have things that I would change, my own personal critiques, but I also have to let go of the perfection aspect of it.

No record is ever going to be perfect and that's freeing when you understand that. No, the record went exactly how it should have gone. We recorded a lot of it live, so a lot of it very truthful in the performance. There are flat notes in there and we kept them, which is okay. It's true.

Analogue: You've been touring with some incredible performers or artists who've been at this for a long time. Do you find yourself taking some notes on the road?

Madison: Yes. The only way to not fear being in the presence of such incredible musicians is to just be the student and to learn from them. For me, whether it's peers or people who have done things a lot longer than me, to remain the student in the room just wipes away those fears for me. With each of these artists, I ask as many questions as I can think of about touring and lifestyle and what to say no to or what to say yes to. It turns out a lot of them are figuring it out still. It's a true pleasure to be with people like this.

Analogue: You came up playing in church, correct?

Madison: I did, yes.

Analogue: There are so few cultural places that allow for such encouragement in the arts and provide real practice. Do you view that as a vital place to have nurtured you to where you are now?

Madison: It was. I think in more ways than one, because there's the practical element of being used to being in front of people and not caring of what people think. It's not only learning to play your instrument or your vocal instrument but also the instrument of your nerves. My dad was the one who pushed me to play guitar in front of people and sing at the same time. That was a huge learning curve for me that was so vital.

The other side to it is that in church you're serving something greater. I've taken that away in a professional sense as well. I'm always looking to serve something greater than myself musically. It's more satisfying. That's what you learn is to give out everything that's inside of you. To get behind a song, that's the greater thing than any one player or artist. So I think those two elements of growing up playing in church were really useful in how I view it now.

Analogue: By the way, what does your dad think now?

Madison: [Laughs] What does my dad think? He loves it. He really does. He's a huge supporter. He'd be at every show if he could be, so I think he gives it a thumbs up.

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