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Madison Cunningham On Revealer, Toast, And Feigning Adulthood

We met Madison in Revealer; a place where wounds are left open to air and the most daunting character we’ll face is ourselves. And this is what she had to say about her most ambitious endeavour yet.



Rolling Stone calls her music a new spin on West Coast folk-rock with classical tendencies and alt-rock strut coexisting, perfect for fans of Jeff Buckley or Joni Mitchell played on a Jazzmaster guitar, and strongly recommends “Beauty into Cliches” as a phenomenal takedown of anyone whose art serves to soften the rough edges of this world.


The Recording Academy has honoured her sophomore album Who Are You Know with a 62nd Annual Grammy nomination and the expanded edition of her EP Wednesday was subsequently nominated for Best Folk Album in 2022.


She has opened for Harry Styles’ Harryween Party at Madison Square Garden and publicly proclaimed her love for toast — the bread kind — since it’s full of contradictions that ultimately work together, something she appreciates in art that you’ll see in her third full studio album Revealer.


Madison Cunningham, however, still considers herself a work in progress as she believes is evident in her latest album which is described to be “...full of confessions, intimations, and hard truths the Los Angeles singer-songwriter-guitarist might rather have kept to herself. It’s also a rumination on music as a vehicle for such revelations, what’s gained and what’s lost when you put words to your innermost feelings.”


We met Madison in Revealer; a place where wounds are left open to air and the most daunting character we’ll face is ourselves. And this is what she had to say about her most ambitious endeavour yet.



Revealer is described as a flaws-and-all self-portrait. How does it feel to have all these aspects of yourself out there, and now even more so since you will be on tour sharing them in person?


It feels funny to let these things about yourself hang out for everybody to see. But what’s surprising and cool about it is how much people have been able to relate to those sorts of conversations and in that way, it doesn’t seem lonely. A lot of people have met me there, and connected to my experiences. And I suppose it’s always a gamble when you put out music or art that is personal and true to you and have to wait to find out if others find it true to themselves too.


So far, there’s been an overwhelming reaction to it which is so cool to see.



Artists are often inspired by lived experiences or by other people and sources. Leading to Revealer, do you think you leaned towards one of these for inspiration?


I kept trying to write outside of my own experiences while also remaining true to myself since that’s the most honest way, for me, to write. And it has to come from somewhere — the urgency does.

But if I had written about exactly what my life looked like at that time, I think the record would have been boring and nobody would’ve cared enough to listen to it.

It was a lot of me having to think about myself in broader terms while also thinking of people’s advice and words of encouragement and writing in a way that left room for other’s experiences to fit into the narrative.

So I would say it was based on experience while simultaneously drawing on metaphors and themes that generally inspired me.



Can you talk about the reasoning behind why you chose to name your album Revealer?


I didn’t think that there was a single phrase or song title that embodied the entire album because there’s so many different twists and turns and takes it’s trying to divulge.

It was interesting that Revealer came to me at the beginning of the album. I had a running list of titles but Revealer felt like what the music was trying to get at, and I pictured the Revealer to be this character that’s not positive or negative but actively shedding light on who you are as a person and what’s happening inside.

I think Revealer is just another name for grief or any other emotion that turns you in front of yourself and forces you to look and work at difficult things about yourself.



The album is filled with contradictions that ultimately work together; “The world’s greatest song is one no mortal’s ever heard,” “Spending more to not feel broke,” “You might have to lose your mind to wrap your head around it.” Did the writing process of revealer bring forth contradictions in yourself as an artist or a person?

Definitely.

The whole process was me trying to revert to my love for music. I think that I also realised that making music while also trying to make money off of it are processes that are always at odds with one another. It was me trying to ditch the fears of what it would mean to not be able to sell and just write from a pure place. These contradictions were present the entire time and I had to wrestle with such things as an artist and as a person.

This record is constantly showing what it wants to hide and that’s an irony I like in music. It immediately takes the edge off the seriousness and reminds us that we can’t always take ourselves too seriously.



Life According To Raechel is a song about grief. And just as grief is a process that is never truly over, it must have been hard to decide when the track was finished. Relative to the song and your album in general, do you agree that art is never really finished?


I had so many issues with my vocal take in the making of the song where I felt that it wasn’t perfect. That was just the perfectionist mentality of mine, which can be especially dangerous for a song like that.

If I had gone in there and tried to autotune anything, it would’ve taken away from the imperfect feeling that grief is. It would have been completely unbelievable, so I let that song go to be something bigger than me and my ‘abilities’.

I had to realise that this song isn’t about me. It’s about her. And I obviously wanted to pay tribute to her in the most respectful way.

There was a particular time frame where it was right for me to record this song, and to tamper with it in any way would have taken the pain out of it — the imperfection of losing someone and how clumsy everybody becomes around such feelings.

I had to acknowledge that this song would never feel done to me because this feeling will never be resolved.

Sometimes, the song felt perfect to me, but at other times, I was irked by my voice. This might be a shallow comparison, but that’s what grief is like as well. You think you’ve overcome those feelings and suddenly, you’re met with an overwhelming wave of sadness and you have to sit with it.

Grief is never done and neither is art. It should be a living, breathing thing like us. We’re never going to be perfect, totally accomplished or satisfied. We just have to keep moving and growing.

The most special thing about this song is that I’ve learnt more than I thought was possible in seeing and hearing everyone’s experiences in the way that they’ve attached it to the song.



What has been one of the most rewarding experiences in your career as a musician so far?


Opening for Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden was one of the most rewarding moments because it felt like such a random combination that worked really well together.

My parents used to tease me about playing at Madison Square Garden one day because of my name, and I was always too embarrassed to admit that I wanted that as it felt too big and I didn’t want to jinx it.

It was one of the moments where we stood on that stage as a band and kept looking at each other and trying to breathe. His audience was so sweet to us, we’d definitely set our expectations way too low. We’d initially thought that they would want to get to the main event and hear Harry. Who could blame them? But it seemed like they’d done their homework and came knowing our songs. So I look at that as one of the best moments of my life musically.



You’ve mentioned that writing Revealer didn’t come easily. When did things start to click for you and lead you to realise you truly had a great album in hand?


In retrospect, I realise it was hard to make it because the breakthrough moments were followed by immediate hurdles and there was a constant stop-and-go progression. It’s like when you’re buried in something and it becomes of utmost importance to overcome those hurdles and finish it. This also often leads to us wondering whether all the work we’ve put in — the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed over it — has been worth it.

Is this good? Is this worthy?

Towards the end of last year when all the songs were complete and I put them in sequence for the album, I felt that this was a full thought and statement that I was actually proud of, and I think that was more evident given how it was for me to make it and to know what it took to make it and emerge proud at the other end.



In your song Who Are You Now, you touch upon the concept of people pretending to be adults, expected to accept things the way they are. You write about challenging feelings and emotions in this album and produce songs that capture how so many people feel while also chasing after your dreams and not working a nine-to-five. What made you want to write an album that’s deeply personal and tackles the complicated and messy parts of life?


You’re, quite suddenly, expected to be this working person functioning at a hundred-percent at all times. It’s so weird to think about how young my parents were when I started asking them existential questions. My mom was 26 when I started asking her questions like, “What’s the purpose of life?” “What happens when we die?” She had to give me an answer regardless of whether it was an answer or not.

Being the age I am at right now, I’m still figuring out the world, or rather, realising that I don't know how to figure it out. It’s an interesting balance.

I have so much sympathy for my parents, and all of us, now. The more you know, the less you know.

That’s what I wanted this record to be. To embrace all these questions and say that I don’t intend to give an answer because I fear there isn’t one. All we have is dialogue, all we have is conversation. And that’s what this record could be.

I desire conversations like that with all age groups because we’re all pretending to be adults entering a world we’re told we just have to accept. While I don’t think that we necessarily have to accept it, we do have to inevitably accept certain things such as death, ageing, loss, anxiety, depression, and all these human things we go through.

I also think that pretending to be adults is all we’re going to really know about adulthood — how to learn on the fly, that’s it.

I’m 25 and I feel the youngest I ever have in my life. I think that’s what happens; the more you age, the younger you feel. Maybe not physically, but mentally, because I have no idea where to begin sometimes.

This question is exactly what the record tries to grasp at, a conversation about this simulation we’re in.



What do you hope people take away from Revealer?


I hope that Revealer makes people excited about the possibilities of music and sheds a different light on what can be done sonically. I hope that people find it relatable on a personal level. And I hope that it’s a conversation starter. That’s my biggest hope.




 

Ayesha H. is Healthline Zine's Blog Director and Instagram Manager who was too preoccupied wrestling her menace of a pet rabbit away from her socks to write this bio. She lurks on Instagram as @its.just.ayesha.








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