Analogue Music | Madison Cunningham

Madison Cunningham

By Matt Conner

The demands were incessant until, all of a sudden, they weren't.

The last time we spoke to Madison Cunningham, the story was the momentum—a brilliant young songwriter and performer turning heads of critics, fans, and her peers who was responding to an ever-increasing set of industry demands. It meant more shows, more special requests, more interviews, more photo sessions, more coverage, more of her time and energy.

Those are the sorts of things every young artist typically desires, and Cunningham is certainly thankful for where he career has taken her; however, she also felt even then that some adjustments needed to be made. And then came a global pandemic, one with all the space she'd desired and even some she perhaps did not.

The thing is, for someone so talented as Cunningham, the momentum can only slow for so long. Her new record, Revealer, is a true stunner and should only elevate a platform that has her back to playing late night TV, opening for Harry Styles at MSG, and headlining her own fall tour. We recently threw our hat into the ring of those asking for her time, and with those minutes, we wanted to reflect on it all—the whole journey from before the pandemic to the vulnerability of her new album.

Analogue: You and I haven’t talked since 2019, and back at that point, the conversation was really about trying to stay grounded. You had people helping you stay grounded when it really seemed like things were taking off so well for you— opening for Andrew Bird, a lot of acclaim, etc. And at the time, you said the hard part was the demands of the machine.

Now that we're through a pandemic, I’d love to start there with this obviously unexpected space. I wonder how that all was for you, how the pandemic came to you at that time in your career, and kind of who are you on the other side—as if that’s not a loaded question.

Madison Cunningham: No, I mean that’s a perfect question. In 2019, I was definitely overworked but in a way was kind of happy to be, because everything was kind of surreal. It didn’t feel like a job yet. It was just kind of like, what, I didn’t plan for this. This is all coming to me? It was this very fairy tale way of viewing it.

I think the pandemic was good for me, because when it did hit, my first thought was, oh cool, I get vacation for a little bit. Just get to be at home. And again, what a fairy tale way to view that at the time. As the months went on, panic started to set in. And I started to just think, god, everything we’ve been building, is it unraveling? What is it going to be on the other side of this? I think that’s when it really became a job. It was like, oh, things don’t just get handed to you. You work for them to maintain them.

"It was the hardest writing cycle I have ever had, because it was isolated and uncomfortable and tense, and there was so much pressure coming from every angle..."

I do feel like I grew up the most that I ever had, in the shortest amount of time, in those two years. Because again, nothing is certain. I think the idea of just mortality kept coming into play, whether it was in the form of actually losing a loved one, or it was just like, oh yeah, things fade. Even the music industry is destructible. So that was really important, I think, to discover that in light of trying to find my voice in another record.

It was the hardest writing cycle I have ever had, because it was isolated and uncomfortable and tense, and there was so much pressure coming from every angle—from my label, from my internal team, to just everything that was going on in my head. It felt like I had to produce the best thing I’d ever produced, but just had absolutely no stamina, no desire, all those things that I think we all struggle with. We just lost a bit of taste and vigor for life, to be honest.

So I think in short, on the other side of everything, I feel a lot more, I guess, eyes wide open. Kind of taking every moment with gratitude and also with a grain of salt. Just understanding that there’s a massive arc to the way that things can go. Music industry aside, there’s so many curve balls that are thrown that you just can’t—I feel like the whole pandemic was this awakening that we have all just been pretending that we’re in control. Now, suddenly none of this is relevant. I guess that was a really long-winded answer to your question, but it was a really long-winded couple of years, to be fair.

Analogue: Let me ask you this. First of all, so much of this album is steeped in exactly what you just said, right? That tension of the difficulty to write, or figuring out, I feel like that tension is found almost in every song, these couplets that describe the tension that you apparently identify with. Does that sound true?

Madison: That is exactly what I was hoping was true about the record. Again, it’s like I made it, and kind of once it was done, was like, I don’t know anymore. I hope this is good and it’s an honest reflection. Because I think when you stand so close to something, and you allow it to be as honest as possible, you feel this like, whoa I’ve got to kind of distance myself from it for awhile, because it’s a lot of baring what it is that is the most ugly about yourself on paper, or your past or whatever it is.

I think I just let myself kind of word vomit all over the songs, because that’s what I needed. I needed a platform to sort all this stuff out for myself. But I’m saying it as though it was this romantic thing. It really wasn’t. It was kind of fighting tooth and nail to get any of it out. Yeah, I hope that’s true.

Analogue: When you are able to convey that in a song, is it catharsis, in a way? Is it healthy for you to say, here’s my expression of how I have felt, and it’s loaded with tension. Does that actually release the tension for you, in a way, personally, to have this thing that is you but is separated from you, out there?

Madison: It actually does. It’s like, sitting with someone and actually feeling like you’ve expressed yourself well for the first time, or you’ve expressed what you’re going through well. That’s so much of what I fear the most about myself, is that I’m not good at communication, or I’m not good at expressing what it is that’s happening in the inner world of my mind. That can feel so lonely and isolating if you can’t actually communicate that to someone, or if you can’t communicate honesty through your work, and I think once I finally felt like, “Ugh, okay. I’m actually saying what is so conflicted inside of me,” that completely relieved me as a songwriter. So I think it does release tension in that way. Whether that concludes immediate resolve or not, I don’t know. I still feel all those things. But at least I’ve done my part of communicating.

Analogue: I want to ask about the song craft, and maybe some things that you’ve learned there. So much of what you’re describing, lyrically, is steeped in these wonderful metaphors. I laughed out loud several times, reading through some of the lyrics, because I just thought, “That’s so fucking clever.” Or “that’s so good.” I would never have thought to express this in this way. What I also wonder, though, is as a lyricist, how do you know where to go for cute or clever verses, like really truly conveying what you want to say? Like how much do you wrap something up in a mystery, how much do you work or overwork something? How much did you wrestle with that as you tried to describe the ways that you’re feeling on this?

Madison: I mean, this is the stuff that I think about every day of my life. How much do I reveal? How much do I leave opaque? It’s this constant dance of exactly what you just asked. I think the most dangerous thing is to not speak plainly, it’s speaking in a way that’s so veiled that it literally means nothing to nobody, or even myself. I think sometimes it's an easy solution for us to feel like we’ve said something to hide it and douse it in imagery and whatever it is, which I think imagery is so important, especially if it tells what you’re trying to say. But if it’s just like buying time, people can feel that.

So my solution to that has been to just say it plainly first, and try to convey exactly what I’m saying, almost in child speak, and then from there going, okay I’ve tapped into the honesty. How can I then veil this so it’s not just like, “I feel sad!” [laughs] I feel things! So that’s been more of my process recently. Sometimes you have the lucky day where oh, this all just kind of fell out metaphorically, and I feel it! I don’t totally know what it means yet, but I trust that in time I will. There’s totally space for that, as well. To be able to kind of throw up the curtain, and be like, I trust that one day I’ll be able to see what’s behind it, but for now, this is speaking to something.

"Grief is such an imperfect thing, and there’s no way to escape it but just to sit in it and to be whoever you are in that..."

Analogue: How comfortable do you feel bragging for a second about the album? I guess I wonder, is there a song, like given what we’re talking about lyrically, is there a moment on the album that you’re most proud of? And maybe you’d say, “I don’t know where that came from, but I loved this part.” Or is there something you really worked hard on? “Like yeah, I busted my ass to get this right.”

Madison: It’s funny, the song that maybe came the easiest was the song that I do feel most proud of and felt like it was a little bit more of a holy experience. And I say that, it sounds very lofty, but I say that because I think I was in the days of actual grief, which was losing my grandmother, and it just happened so unexpectedly.

I remember I was in Montana with some friends and she was back in California, and I had gotten a message that she had taken a really sharp turn, and things didn’t look good. Basically it was like, I got this call from my dad that I’ll never forget, which was just like, “Grandma is having a really hard time dying. Like she can’t go. It’s been a really hard process for her. Doctors are concluding that she needs closure. I know you can’t get home in time, but can you just send a voice memo with some last things you’d like to say to her?” I have chills thinking about it, because I literally had no idea what to say. So the minute I recorded it, I deleted it. I was like, I don’t want to judge what this was. I just have to, these are my last words. So after I sent that off, I felt like, it just kind of opened up this portal that felt really dormant and scared and confused by the pandemic times.

When I got home from Montana, this melody kind of came to me while I was there, and I couldn’t sleep at night, and this one melody kept coming up and I recorded it in my voice memos. When I got home, the lyrics just kind of like poured out and just, I don’t know. They just appeared. Again, I can’t credit that to anything. But I guess just the right time and place. And the other strange thing about it is when I experience something that life-altering, or when I have in the past, I have no words for a long time, because I’m just so immersed in actually experiencing it. I don’t know how to express it. But this was different.

So that song ended up becoming "Life According to Rachel". And that song on the record, I don’t know. It’s one of those things. It exists almost imperfectly, but it kind of had to. That’s what it’s about. Grief is such an imperfect thing, and there’s no way to escape it just to sit in it and to be whoever you are in that, and be as klutzy as you need to be, or as unavailable, or whatever it is. It’s just something that completely sweeps you away, and you have to let it. Otherwise, you shut something off to what joy could be later.

Analogue: I was just going to ask, what was your family’s response to that song in particular?

Madison: It was really special. It was one of those things that I wouldn’t ever have been able to play for them or in front of them. But it was one of those tunes that I think brought us together in terms of it just brought up a lot of special memories. I think my dad had a hard time listening to it at first and just had to kind of come to it in his own time. But yeah, again. Grief songs are incredibly hard to write, but I think I’m really proud of the way this one turned out and the overall response that I’ve gotten to it. I think people are able to relate to the concept of losing someone.

Analogue: Just given what we’re talking about: writing songs with the tension, writing songs sort of in all the klutzy grief, as you said. Do you find that those are actually the very places where the connection is the strongest, where the connective tissue is there with the audience?

Madison: I totally do. I totally do. I mean, the audience is only going to feel as brave as they see you being. Or they’re only going to let their guard down as much as you let yours down. And I think those songs are the perfect entry point into real human connection. I don’t know. I always look for those songs and desire to be just told something true. I think we all just want something that is, even if it’s hard, or even if it’s corny, or whatever it is, all we really want is just the truth. We’re inundated with so much information, and really just like, pretentious, I don’t know, social media. We’re all convinced that we want someone else’s life. But when we actually speak to what our lives really look like, the response is not jealousy. It’s like, “Oh. I’m that person, too.”

VISIT: Madison Cunningham

*Photo: Claire Mariei Vogel