Photos & interview by Sophie Minello
Madison Cunningham’s vocal style is sure to captivate a room, and that’s what she’s been doing on her tour recent with Punch Brothers. Along with the tour, she’s been releasing music for the first time in four years with her EP Love, Lose, Remember as well as her two singles Beauty Into Cliches and All At Once. Prior to her show at Cain Park, Sunlight Magazine was lucky enough to find the time to meet with her to discuss these releases, her tour with Punch Brothers, and her journey through the music world.
Your latest release was entitled Beauty into Cliches and it’s absolutely beautiful. Can you talk about what this song means to you and why you decided to release this song as a single?
In January we went and recorded six songs that I’ve been writing over the course of the year. I wrote them almost right around the time that we released my previous record so they just meandered for a long time. Beauty into Cliches was one that I wrote in a day, it just rolled itself out. To me it was an important song and I didn’t really know why. I think it started to unfold for me as the week went on, thinking maybe it means something deeper than I originally had intended it to mean, it was just a melody in my head and a fun idea. I try not to say too much about what [the song] means so that people can see themselves in it and see what they might interpret it to mean, and actually to be honest I didn’t really have an idea of what it meant it was just written. But it seemed important and felt like a good song to introduce the record that is going to be released in a year, or that we’re about to record. We’re going to record it in El Paso this summer. The tempo, energy, and content of the song was a good way to go out of the gate.
How have you seen yourself grow within the 4 years between your debut album and this upcoming one?
I think I’ve learned how to write songs faster. For a long time I would just give up on ideas and let them hang in the air for a long time and it would be a real chore to go back and try to finish them because it was a stale idea at that point. I think now I’ve realized that in my mode of writing, the second I get an idea I have to follow it as far as I can go, especially if it’s something that really feels good. There are certain songs that I start to write where I go ‘Oh this has potential’ and there are some songs that I write thinking ‘I really want to play this tomorrow.’ That will kind of kick my butt into gear and really unravel what that song is about. I think over the last four year I’ve realized I should not let ideas sit for years or months. It’ll take as much time as you let it sit to try and get it right. Playing it out has also helped. You get used to playing in front of people and realize what makes them react to your music. I love talking to people after shows because I ask them, or they’ll willingly give me their feedback on what was their favorite song and they’ll say why. I think that gives me a new wind to work on a song and know what areas I want to focus on.
That’s cool to get live feedback everyday.
It really helps. It’s exciting to play a song that I feel confident. For me what makes a good song is: melodically strong, something I feel confident playing on my guitar. Content wise I’m like ‘Can I sing this when I’m 70 or will this be too young for me?’ That’s the standard I try to live by, but as a songwriter you can write about whatever you want and that’s the beauty of it.
This tour with Punch Brothers began last month. How has it been to share the stage with them each night, especially in these beautiful venues?
Better than I thought. For being on the bus with them all the way down to sharing the same stage, it feels equal and really fun. They’re just really considerate guys that never made me feel left out. This is the most inspired I’ve ever been, it’s made we wanna write 20 new songs. They’re so dedicated to their craft; they’re just on a new level of musicianship. Chris [the lead singer/mandolin player of Punch Brothers] is an inspiring songwriter to me. I’ve been on this radio show that he hosts on NPR and he writes a new song every week. It blows my mind that he has these full blown amazing arrangements that he comes up with, but you can tell that at certain points of the songs he’s thinking ‘what am I doing?’ But he really pushes through it and finishes it. It’s really inspired me as a songwriter just to watch his songs live.
For an opener, a lot of people are unfamiliar with you music so this might be their first time experiencing your work. Because of this, how would you describe the energy at your shows?
It changes from venue to venue. At the performing art centers that we play at, it’s a lot more respectful than celebratory. It’s very subdued because there are a lot of subscribers to performing art centers so they come and might not know who the artists are. But I’ve been absolutely amazed about how kind everyone has been to me as an opener. Everyone says opening gig is kind of rough in the beginning and I haven’t felt that. It’s felt really responsive and people are excited and buying merch. I’m totally flattered by the reactions.
Tours often bring you to places you’ve never visited. When you have free time do you have a go-to activity?
Today we played basketball for a little bit. My go-to activity, if we’re in a new city, is I always try to look for a museum or coffee shop or aquarium. Or I just go running, I try to keep a habit of running. I tend to have a lot of free time in the morning so I try to use that up to the best of my ability.
Having started playing music in the church when you were a kid, do you think being introduced to music in a worship sense influenced the way you approached playing or writing songs?
Yeah. It shifted a lot because I didn’t really listen to that many songwriters, we just didn’t have much music that we listened to. It was all christian music, which was fine, but I didn’t know the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, etc. I would credit my songwriting knowledge to the greats. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it but when I listen to them I was awakened to what real and really good songwriting was. I would say playing in the church influenced my playing more than my songwriting. I was playing maybe three days out of the week at church and I always played with a guitar in my hand. I started on acoustic and out of a lot of boredom in my life I would just play guitar. I would hear melodies in my head and just try to capture them. I would say that that repetition of played in church really helped with guitar playing.
You just mentioned a lot of 70s music and I know that influences you a lot. What are some specific songs that have continuously inspired you as a musician?
Oh man there are so many good songs. There are so many good Joni ones. “Case of You” obviously is a really good Joni Mitchell song. “Help Me I Love” is one of her singles. The first song off Court And Spark, I remember the first time I listened to that song I was totally floored, I felt like it was talking about me. I think it’s so amazing when writers can do that, they can make you feel like they’re talking about 50 different people who have so many different backgrounds. I really loved “Come Together” when I heard it for the first time. “Just Like A Woman” by Bob Dylan. “Grace” by Jeff Buckley. The list goes on and on, but I won’t bore you.
Growing up in California, the area is a great place to pursue music. Do you think your location has helped you as a musician?
I think being in close proximity to LA actually did help a lot. There were so many great players that were just playing in surf shops and guitar shops and just starting this renaissance in the city. It was always an intimidating thought to go play in LA. I’m from Orange County, so I was an hour south of the city. It always felt crazy far away, like I was never going to be able to move or play there. And then I released an EP with my producer who lived out in Los Angeles. He would have me drive up there, I drove there like five days a week and I was spending so much gas money to be there. He sent [the EP] to an artist I really cared about and admired as a musician, her name is Sara Watkins, and they asked me to join their Watkins Family Hour in Los Angeles at a comedy club called Largo and that was the first time I ever played in LA. After that I was up in LA almost every weekend playing all the time and doors just kind of opened. I would say if I was from Michigan or Northern California it would have been a little bit harder. I would say I had an advantage of growing up outside of Los Angeles because there was a lot I had to earn, I didn’t just grow up into it, it still felt far enough where I had to really work towards it which I think is important to everyone to experience that little bit of hardship. It creates humility and puts you in perspective to realize there are so many talented people out there and there’s not only me. Growing up in California gave me an easier shot at it.