Introducing Madison Cunningham, a Young and Timeless Talent
On her debut album Who Are You Now, 22-year-old singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham sounds like she's been writing music for decades. In this extensive interview, the rising artist tells her story.
Who Are You Now
16 August 2019
When a songwriter finds their talent at a young age, there's a repository of adjectives and phrases that writers typically use in describing their work. Wunderkind. Prodigy. Wise beyond their years. The tone which accompanies these words carries with it a sense that youth is something to overcome, and that by exhibiting a high level of musicianship, a young musician has "transcended" their age. Perhaps there is truth to this line of thinking – as a writer, I think about what John Keats achieved with his brief 25 years on Earth, and I am loath to look at what little I've achieved with only a few years more to my name. But in truth, sometimes there are talents who are both young and great, and no reconciliation between age and skill is required. Such is the case with Madison Cunningham, a 22-year-old songwriter from Orange County, California, who with her debut album Who Are You Now sounds both very much of her time, and like she's been writing songs for the past 70 years.
I first encountered Cunningham's music when I saw her open for Punch Brothers last year. Standing alone on stage, wearing a stylish striped suit, Cunningham filled the echoey space of Austin's Bass Concert Hall with nimble guitar playing and insightful reflections on modern life. Her voice brings Feist to mind. Although she's comfortably in the singer-songwriter milieu, she knows how to impress with the guitar, alternating between groovy riffs and quick fingerpicking. With a short set and no accompaniment, Cunningham showed fine musical skill and foreshadowed what has now become Who Are You Now, an album which finds Cunningham collaborating with several players to bolster her obvious chops as a solo performer.
In the time since I saw Cunningham in Austin, she's kept a bustling schedule. She, on top of recording Who Are You Now, has toured the globe and shared stages with artists like Andrew Bird, Amos Lee, Iron & Wine, Calexico, and Nickel Creek. She's also been a frequent duet partner with Chris Thile on his radio variety show Live From Here (formerly A Prairie Home Companion), showcasing both her original tunes and her skill in adapting the work of others – she does a pretty convincing tUnE-yArDs. A long season on the road culminates in Who Are You Now.
Cunningham's debut seamlessly weaves together a range of musical expressions. On one track she'll sound like she's dug up a lost gem from the Great American Songbook – the lovelorn piano ballad "Something to Believe In" – and not but a few songs later she'll rip off a fiery guitar part that evokes Fiona Apple at her best – "Trouble Found Me", the catchiest moment on the record. Yes, it's easy to wonder at times how someone Cunningham's age seems to possess an understanding of music history "beyond her years", as the cliché goes. But a single spin of Who Are You Now will stop any such wondering, and instead leave the listener asking when they can push play all over again. I called Cunningham on a passing break between tours to find out the process behind her debut, and how in the short window between her high school years to the present she's built a strong musical community in the sunny environs of Southern California.
You've just come off a long stretch on the road touring with Andrew Bird, and it looks like in a few weeks you're going to be touring for several more months this fall. Have you found time in all this travel to get rest?
I'm doing the best that I can. Yesterday, I went back to my hometown in Orange County, to my grandparent's house, and I just hung out at the pool and just tried to not engage with the outside world at all [laughs]. That was really helpful.
But rest is sparse right now. Excitement, though, is definitely high. I'm grateful to be so busy, as it means that a lot of great things are happening for me.
I've read in interviews with longstanding touring musicians in recent years that it's becoming increasingly more and more arduous to tour. You have to tour a lot more frequently to make a career in music worth it. Has the amount of touring you've been doing been what you expected it'd be like?
What I'd always hoped for is that I could do what I'm doing for a living. I knew that if I wanted to do it right, it was going to be stretch after stretch of shows. Once you come face to face with that, the exhaustion can be deeper than you thought it would be. You're constantly amazed at how quickly you end up back on the road, and how little time you actually get at home.
Something I've learned is that if you say yes to something, and you're overwhelmed by the number of tour dates initially, it's going to be way more overwhelming when they actually come to pass. But while it's true that to make a living you really have to "road dog" it, I know some people who have healthy patterns of travel; they might be on the road for two weeks, and then come home for another two weeks. That's not really how things look for me this year, but in talking to my people, we have realized that it's good if you can manage with less – it's healthier for all parties involved.
Is there one thing about touring that's surprised you?
I mean, it's all pretty surprising. You don't get to sleep very much. But to think more positively, I'd say the repetition of performing every night. I didn't realize how much that repetition sets in at first, and then when I'd come off the road I'd realize how much more technical skill I had under my belt because of that repetition.
Playing music live is a wholly different thing than just playing songs in your room. It's a whole new skill set to learn. So when I'd be done with touring, I'd feel weary but also sharpened as a musician. The effects of that were surprising to me, more than I thought they'd be.
In addition to touring for your music, you've also been a frequent guest on the Live From Here variety show. With that being such a unique and increasingly niche format, have you learned things from playing on that show that you've been able to carry with you in your own touring?
Yeah! They're two totally different experiences. Live From Here is a "throw and go" kind of gig, in the most stressful and complicated way that you could imagine – but that stress results in even greater amounts of fun. It's such a live performance, especially with it being a live radio program. You're really forced to stretch yourself as a performer. For me especially, Live From Here has been great for my own vocals, and I've been able to take what I've learned there into my shows. It's a show that's pumped my confidence in many ways.
What is your first memory of music?
Most of my early memories are of my dad playing his Taylor acoustic guitar in our living room. My sisters and I would dance around the living room while he played. It was probably around age four or five that it started feeling connected with the music in such a way that I wanted to be involved with it, rather than simply being affected by it. I wanted to be the one affecting people with music.
I don't think my thoughts were that developed, of course. But I know that I wanted to sing and to get my hands on a guitar, from a very young age. I remember trying to get my dad to give me his guitar so I could figure out what he was doing. I always wanted to be like him in that way.
When did you know that you wanted to be a musician full-time?
For a long time, I really resisted it. I loved it, but I mostly loved it from behind closed doors. Playing music was always enjoyable to me, but I didn't want to move out of my own private space. I didn't want to be in front of people. I felt clunky and awkward and embarrassed all the time. There was a point where my dad would keep forcing me to play in front of people when I was around 10 or 11, but at that time, I hadn't developed a love for performing. It wasn't until I was 15 to 16 that I thought about being a musician professionally. When I saw other people take on music as a career in my personal life, that's when I began to wonder about it for myself.
I read that in your early years, you listened to and played music in the context of church worship. Was that your only source of musical input at the time?
Truly, [the church] was pretty much it. My parents didn't really play the classics in our home; I'm not totally sure why. My dad didn't love the Beatles, so we didn't have music like that around the house.
I was such a late bloomer when it came to listening to the greats. There's both a curse and an advantage to that. I still feel like I'm buried in listening assignments of things that I didn't grow up listening to, but at the same time, from my background, I developed a love for music that wasn't associated with fame. A lot of people might idolize the Beatles from the young age, and want to be like them because they're famous, they're successful. But I didn't have that picture of music in my head. That's the plus side to my growing up, I'd say.
I grew up in a similar music environment, and coming out of it as a teenager I felt like I needed to stake my own musical territory by looking for bands quite different from what I had been listening to as a kid. Was it a similar experience for you?
Yeah, I quickly grew out of what I'd been listening to. I just didn't really like the sound of it, plus it was largely what I knew. I was bored. I did have some outside influences musically; I had some friends who were listening to other music, and sometimes I'd catch something they were listening to and be taken by it. When I knew I'd be writing my own music, I wanted it to be detached from my background. I was excited to be playing just for myself.
Photo: Claire Marie Vogel / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.
When you first started finding music for yourself, which artists proved the most influential?
Brooke Fraser was one of the first artists I found. Then, of course, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Jeff Buckley, all of these legends who blew my mind. I remember the day I listened to the Beatles for the first time; I was 17, and it was the day I graduated high school. That fact is kind of embarrassing, but I'm proud of that story because it was the best moment when it finally happened. I realized that it was music I'd heard over store speakers all my life, but now I was hearing them as the incredible songs they are.
After that, there was Paul Simon, Bob Dylan… the list goes on.
Already on Who Are You Now, you exhibit a really strong grasp of these major figures in musical history. When making the album, did you have a whole vision for it in mind, or did it come to you song by song?
Usually, the songs inform everything else. I didn't have a seam to thread the songs together at first; I think vision comes after what the songs become. It was a long year of trying to figure all of it out; I would sometimes write a song and think, "I have a song, but it doesn't feel like it fits." Even though the record was titleless for a time, and there was a seamless idea to what I wanted the album to be, I still knew when I heard a song if I wanted it on the record or not. The songs made themselves clear as time went on.
Were you writing the songs primarily on the guitar?
Yeah. The record is driven by a lot of guitar hooks, which come naturally to me. I tried to make a melody or a theme on the guitar the starting point with each song. On one song, "Something to Believe In," I started on the piano and filled the rest in with the guitar.
What about the guitar appeals to you as a vehicle for music?
My favorite part of the instrument is that there are so many options. It's endless. Even with acoustic guitars, there's so much to be done sonically. And with the electric guitar, you can mask it with so many effects and pedals – there are so many types of guitars, amps, and tones. I find it enjoyable to go down the rabbit hole all those options provide.
The mobility of the guitar is also really good for me. You can travel with it easily, and you don't always necessarily need to bring a band along with you. I try to write songs where I can get the whole thing across with just myself and the guitar. Punch Brothers inspired me to do that; at first, I felt like needed to make my songs these band pieces, but I was encouraged to make the guitar cover all my bases for me.
Did you have a principle for when you needed to bring on additional collaborators, as opposed to recording a track with just you and your guitar?
We took it song by song throughout the making of the record. My producer [Tyler Chester] and I have worked together for six years, and he's so good about developing a vision for what a song needs. We're usually on the same page, and there's a trust that's been built there.
The musicians I've surrounded myself with have also been vital. You may think a song needs drums, but then you might end up with a bad drummer and think, "Well, now I can't hear the song anymore, I want these drums off the song!" When I was writing the album, my dear friend Abe Rounds would come over, and I'd explain to him when I felt like a song needed drums, and where they might need to be. We would play the songs together in the studio together just for fun, to see how they would turn out in a band environment. He created these drum hooks for the songs that would become just as essential as my guitar parts. He always figured out what the key to each song was rhythmically. He knew how not to take up all the space.
So figuring out when it needed to be just me was partially an instinctive judgment, but it also was informed by the players I brought onboard.
With this being your debut, did you ever feel any struggle with feelings of wanting to guard your songs against outside influence?
Working with people you trust is key. At some point, you realize it's best to have a team, rather than it be a one-man show. You have to let your songs go a certain amount, as someone once said to me, "Music can't be precious; it just needs to be free." I always try to keep that idea at the forefront of my mind when I'm creating.
At the end of the day, I don't if someone else came up with a key idea for one of my songs. As long as the song ends up being the thing it's supposed to be, I don't care who takes the credit.
With that said, I don't love co-writing with other songwriters. I prefer to write on my own or with my producer. That's not a knock against the other songwriter, or against collaboration in general. Co-writing is such an art, and I don't know if I've figured that out for myself, or if I even have that skill as of now.
Moving now to some of the individual moments on the record, I want to ask about "Something to Believe In". To me, it sounds like that song has been around for a long time already. Where did it come from?
Well, speaking of co-writes… I was testing out co-writes with a bunch of people, one time when I was going to meet someone for a writing session, just as I made a right turn into the driveway this phrase came to my mind, which is now the chorus of the song: "If you need something to believe in / You can believe my love." It's so simple and timeless; I Googled it to make sure it hadn't been written before. We didn't end up keeping much out of the co-write except for the chorus. After that, all the verses came really slowly and painfully. The verses took their time.
For me, sometimes songs start with just an idea, one where I don't know who or what I'm singing about, but I nonetheless feel instantly endeared to it. "Something to Believe In" felt like a really deep weed that I kept trying to pull out, only to realize it was further in the ground than I initially suspected.
When I was writing it, I was thinking of the kind of songs that have been around for decades, like an old Sinatra standard. I wanted my song to be that simple and ethereal. In the song, I end up taking the perspective of someone seeing a person who is skeptical about love, because all they can see is their version of the world and how broken it is, how messed up it is. The person who I'm singing for offers this other person a different perspective, one which has a different version of love, and what it means to put your trust in someone's love. That version of trust is, "Yes, I will keep failing you in some ways, but I will also fight for you and our love." That narrative came into view over time.
As I was writing this, I kept feeling like my ideas in the song weren't big enough. I would find myself using this wishy-washy language. At some point, I had to remind myself, "This is a love song; it needs a deeper sentiment!"
On "L.A. (Looking Alive)", you talk about life in your current home. There's a lot of wry observation – "men with jeans as tight as a bulldog's skin," for instance. What is the place of California in your music, and what are you communicating about the state in this song?
California's a part of me in every way. It's where I was born and raised. Particularly in "Looking Alive", I was trying to capture this thing that comes out in our demeanor, lifestyle, clothing, and diets where we're so extreme as a culture. If you go anywhere else in the country – I've had this slow realization – not everyone is like how people are in California, but Californians often have this belief that everywhere else should look and act like California. I say that with all the love in the world because I'm definitely part of the problem as well. So I wanted to paint the picture of a musician coming into that world.
At the end of the song, I sing, "Doesn't it feel good / To laugh at yourself? / Turn your back on the business / and leave it to sell its own worry?" I wanted to break the tone of the song and say, "We're all gonna get old and baggy one day, we're not gonna be in step anymore, and we have to prepare for that." We have to work on our healing now; otherwise we're going to be crushed by old age. At some point, you have to let things go on without yourself in the picture. It's a kind of dark sentiment, but it's also supposed to be funny and light.
On both "Looking Alive" and your newest song, "Trouble Found Me," you do a good job of balancing the slower, introspective material with upbeat numbers. Do you find that as a songwriter you have a particular natural "pace" when writing a song?
I think I kind of fall into the slow, folk singer stereotype at times. Since that's usually where I land, songs like "Trouble Found Me" and "Pin It Down" were purposefully written to be faster. I found that, although I could come up with a lot of songs, they were all in the same tempo range, which bothered me. But while "Trouble Found Me" might not be my ideal speed, I think I found a stride in it where I'm comfortable, and songs like that are my favorite to play live. There's adrenaline I can feel running throughout myself and the band when we play them.
I heard you perform an early version of "Looking Alive" when you opened for Punch Brothers last year. Hearing the differences between that solo performance and the full band version on Where Are You Now, I'm wondering if you've found ways to keep the energy level as identical as possible when you play a song like this without the natural energy that comes with having a drummer and other musicians backing you.
I think we often associate energy with volume, which can be dangerous musically. I've found that the best way to do this, with electric instruments specifically, is that it's more powerful if you play it faster, but you at the same time need to really focus on whether you need to be leaning into the tempo or pulling back from it, which depends on the kind of song it is. You should play it confidently; you don't necessarily need to play it louder. There are moments for that, but I think dynamics are super helpful so that you don't over-rely on one volume for the whole song.
I was quite taken by "Bound". The production on the song feels quite different than the rest of the record. It sounds like a recording from the far past, in some ways. How did you record that track?
"Bound" is a co-write, but one different from most other ones I've done. I wrote it with a guy named Joe Henry, who had similar feelings to me about co-writing. He said, "I don't really like co-writes either; I find it's most efficient for us to work in our own element." We passed emails back and forth, and that's where I discovered that in a co-write, you as a songwriter frequently have to justify your idea before you even know what it is.
We developed a system where he would send me things he'd written – he's a poet – which typically looked like a few fully formed poems. The verses would always come back to one refrain, which made them feel like songs to me. Then Tyler and I sat down in the recording studio one day and put a melody and a chorus to Joe's lyrics. We went back and forth over this a few times, and in the end, it got written pretty quickly. When it came to arranging and recording, we wanted to make "Bound" really live-sounding, so we recorded it outside of the studio in El Paso one day. Thankfully, it wasn't a very windy day, so we got away with recording outside. That became one of my favorite moments of the recording process; it was the very last day of recording, so I was feeling a little sentimental right before we were all about to go home.
In addition to putting out your first album-length collection of songs, you also have been consistently putting out cover versions of songs on your YouTube channel. Where did the idea to do that come from, and what have you taken from these cover versions that you can bring to your own songwriting?
The idea behind it was to stay active. Every New Year's Eve, I'd always say to myself, "I'm going to learn a cover a day for the whole year!", but I never got to it. So this became a way for me to pressure myself musically, and at the same time, it fulfilled the pressure we always have to put out more content, to always be putting new things online. Doing covers was a version of meeting that demand which I felt comfortable with. I'm also really enjoying the process of bringing in guests, lots of folks from the LA music community.
It's also been instrumental in helping me develop more tools: new chords, new melodies, new words, and so on. When I do these, my audience can hear me in different ways, with different filters. It's a pretty good way to engage people through an iPhone screen.