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Madison Cunningham’s Manic Elegance

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter on her new album, her family, and touring.


MAR 13, 2023 | ISSUE 10

Madison Cunningham by Claire Vogel
Madison Cunningham
Cover Art for "Revealer"

Following her debut album Who You Are Now  – which earned the singer-songwriter a Grammy nomination – Madison Cunningham paid homage to the artists that shaped her own music via the release of her cover EP Wednesday. For her latest studio album, Revealer, Cunningham returns to her own creative base, drawing  inspiration from intimate and familiar subjects, including conversations with friends and family. Working with producers Mike Elizondo, Tyler Chester, and Tucker Martine (the producer behind Alela Diane’s Looking Glass), this album features Cunningham’s signature staccato guitar playing, evocative and panoramic lyricisms, and a voice that soars to an altitude much higher than her years. Recorded after the unexpected death of her grandmother, Revealer is less a coming of age album and more of a recognition of sentiments that have always existed. Joining smART Magazine from Los Angeles, Cunningham brings us into the realm of her budding discography, her gratitude for family, growing up in a household of five sisters, and balancing that with a tour van filled to the brim with bandmates.

sM | So many of your fans first heard your voice on the album Wednesday. How have some of the artists you cover in this album helped craft your style, and the type of sound that you want to create?

MC ─ All of the songs on Wednesday were chosen carefully for a couple different reasons. It was such a weird time to release music because I was covering all these songs in the middle of a pandemic. It felt like it was so easy to release something that was not in tune with the times. What blew my mind about all these songs is that they were written 10 to 20 to 30 years ago, yet they were all saying what couldn't be said for the very specific moment we were in. It was a perfect example of a timeless batch of songs. From Jeff Buckley to John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, and The Beatles, all of those artists have shaped me consciously and subconsciously. It was like all of my favourite things in one package.

Some of it is a little bit more guitar-centric and some of it's more about the melody, but all of it is just the best that songwriting could possibly get. It translates into the way that I write myself because they are these living standards of what I would hope that my music would be. It’s what I'm always subconsciously measuring myself against.

sM | Let’s talk about the album cover: in it you’re sort of whirling through in a blur, in a box with these sort of winding lines. What’s the story behind this concept?

MC ─ With the album cover, I knew that I wanted the picture to speak for itself. I kept coming back to the throughline of the record and there's a lot of manic elegance in it. So much of this record feels like it's boiling underneath the surface and at some points, the water starts to spurt out. It feels like it's this person who is constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, trapped inside their own head, running in circles. This was us experimenting and throwing paint at the wall. We were trying everything and seeing what stuck.

sM | “Life According to Raechel” on Revealer is such an incredibly beautiful and tender ballad about your grandmother. How much of the album is inspired by family?

MC ─ Almost entirely. A lot of the record is about the dialogue that I'm having either with myself or with other people around me. There's one lyric in “In From Japan” that says “Some things are just too hard to say out loud.” I was talking to a friend and I was distraught about what I was supposed to do with making this record because it was really hard for me to see a throughline. He said that to me and that's what I did. There's also a song called “Sunshine Over The Counter,” which is directly about my sisters and I growing up. I'm the oldest of five girls – yeah, I know, I can't believe that I grew up in that household—but I don't know anything else. It might be crazy to others but normal to me.

sM | You brought a couple amazing producers along for the recording of this album, what was it like working with these producers and how did they help clear the creative space that you needed for this project?

MC ─ It was a beautiful experience. Those guys are my favourite producers, so to work with each one of them was insane. Mike works quite quickly and Tucker and Tyler each work at their own speed. They all had different modes of working and building songs and it was so healthy to have that sort of balance. Everything that they brought was exactly what the song needed. And that's why I worked with all three of them, though I've never done that before. In the future, I think I would work with just one person because it can be complicated to balance all those things, but I don't regret it for this record. It was the perfect challenge and the perfect mix of sounds and ideas. All of them are masters of their craft.

sM | You’re about halfway through a massive North American tour, how does it feel to be on stage again, sharing such a personal album with so many people?

MC ─ I love touring. I love playing for people. There's this beautiful connection that happens with an audience of people and I really missed that the last couple years. When you're on the road, there's only a couple things that matter. It's survival, getting there on time, and delivering the best show that you possibly can. It's exhausting. It doesn't just take a certain part of your brain. It takes all of it. Touring takes all of my energy and I absolutely love that kind of focus.

As the shows go on, it takes on its own routine and you can sink into that, which is a beautiful thing. Being at the top of this tour, we're learning new songs and putting ourselves as a band in the hot seat again. Getting these songs off of the ground in a live setting is such a beautiful puzzle to put together.