Born in Greenwich, Connecticut and raised in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Madi Diaz grew up surrounded by music. She was homeschooled by her Peruvian mother and studied piano with her Danish father, who played in various prog bands, before switching to guitar and exploring songwriting during her teens. While a student at Berklee College of Music, she traveled to Hawaii to record her debut album, 2007’s self-released Skin and Bones, which was followed by her breakout 2012 record Plastic Moon and 2014’s synth-driven Phantom. After releasing the It’s Okay to Be Alone EP in 2018, she got signed to ANTI- and issued her latest LP, the gut-wrenching History of a Feeling, last Friday. Co-produced with Andrew Sarlo, the record grapples with the aftermath of a romantic breakup that coincided with her former partner transitioning, attempting to reconcile a “kind of tsunami clash of compassion” with a sense “raw heartache,” as she put it in press materials. From the strikingly intimate ‘Man in Me’ to the spare yet evocative ‘Resentment’ (which Kesha recorded for her 2020 album High Road) and the visceral, country-inflected ‘Woman in My Heart’, Diaz’s songwriting stays rooted in the kind of emotional honesty that feels as raw as it revealing and as brutal as it is painfully tender.
We caught up with Madi Diaz for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the process of making History of a Feeling, the different emotions that make up the record, and more.
You’ve said that ‘Man in Me’ was the first song that you recorded for yourself in about six years, which is the reason that you decided to release it as the first single from History of a Feeling. But why do you think it was the song that you felt the need to capture first?
‘Man in Me’ was really just the song that felt the most urgent. It felt like – not to sound super ethereal, hippie-dippie about it, but the song seemed to just be telling me that this was something that needs to be said now. Because it was such a visceral, personal story, it’s one that I’m kind of excited to move on from and not have to live in in such a present tense. So I think for me, getting that one done sooner rather than later just felt like it would serve the emotion of the song better than any of the other songs. And it really did require some solitude and some space, and I was really, really fortunate to have found that at Darkside Studios with Justin Tockett and Ben Alleman. They just created a space where I could be quiet and be reflective and very emotionally elastic, and they were really wonderful in kind of sitting in that with me.
I know that you wrote over 100 songs for this album – in terms of writing the song, do you remember if ‘Man in Me’ was also one of the first ones that came to you?
The chorus of that song was written very early on, I would say probably fall of 2017, which was shortly after I moved back to Nashville. But I didn’t finish the song until six or seven months later with my friend Steph Jones. I was kind of in a zone where I was tending to think that if I didn’t say it right that time, I could probably just say it better the next time, but this chorus was very persistent. It was always something that I felt like was just sitting in the corner, waiting for me to give it the attention that it needed. It was in a different time signature when we wrote it initially and it was a completely different feeling wrapped around it, and I think I needed the time and the space to reflect on what was happening and what I wanted to express at that moment. Sometimes when you’re inside of a transitional period, it’s hard for me to be reflective in the moment. It kind of takes me getting to where I’m going and then turning around and being like, “What? [laughs] What happened?”
How did you go about narrowing down the tracklist and deciding which songs to leave out? Was it purely based on the quality of a song, or did it have more to do with whether it was representative of the feeling you wanted to ultimately convey?
There’s a difference between knowing you wrote a good and it fitting with a larger body of a conversation that you know you want to have. And I think for this record particularly, it was really important for me to kind of hold up a mirror while I was going through this process of grieving and self-reflection and moving out of a house that I’ve shared with my former romantic partner and being alone with a lot of stuff that I hadn’t really had the time or space or the aloneness to really look at; desires that I had for myself that I felt like maybe I had neglected, or parts of myself that I had looked over for the last couple of years. So it was kind of like this grieving process of not only losing somebody that I loved, but also realizing that I was missing myself somewhere along the way, and the betrayal that comes with that from all sides. When I was listening back to the songs, I was very adamant that I wanted to make sure that all the songs felt like they fell together in the same kind of intense, digging-at-the-self sort of feeling.
Do you feel like those parts of yourself kind of revealed themselves during the writing process?
Well, I think so, yeah. Even just having the voice to talk about any of the things that you’re going through means that you have a voice in it, you know what I mean? And so, even striking that realization and being like, the very fact that I want to be writing and talking about this means that I have something to say. And it was almost the easy part – opening myself and being vulnerable with my friends and getting the songs out, as painful as it was, it was still the easiest thing. It was kind of like an unburdening.
As you’ve mentioned, the album as a whole ultimately comes from a place of compassion, but its honesty means leaning into a lot of negative emotions as well; resentment, frustration, rage. Was that a difficult balance for you to maintain?
That’s funny. When I talk to my therapist, she always holds up this card, and there are like seven or eight different emotions that it’s supposed to very acutely describe – it always makes me laugh that there are like, six emotions for hurt and sadness and anger and basically grief, and there are like two emotions for any sort of happy, joyful feelings. I think in our joy, we’re just so blissed-out and open and it’s so easy for us to feel what we’re feeling when we’re in a good place, and when we’re in a shit place it’s really hard for us to pinpoint where those things are coming from. So, when I was in a heavy grief period, it took me a really long time – and I think that’s where a lot of History of a Feeling, the album title, comes from – when you’re angry and you’re sad, it takes you so long to trace back where those feelings are coming from. When you’re unearthing things, a lot of the time it doesn’t even have to do with the thing that you think you’re upset about. [laughs] And I think that’s part of History of a Feeling, was this betrayal and abandonment that I was feeling didn’t even have to do with the thing that I had just experienced. It had to do with like, this age-old narrative that I had been living through in a lot of my relationships and even in my family history.
What you said about all the different ways we have of describing negative feelings, it made me think about how they often intersect with each other, too, and even with the more positive ones. Is that something that became more clear to you as you were processing these seemingly conflicting emotional states?
It did feel like the reason that the hurt exists in the first place is because there’s a deep love and there’s a deep caring, and the reason that I hate somebody so much is because I really care a lot about them and I love them. It’s like, if you have the gumption to hate somebody, I’m pretty sure it’s probably because you really deeply care. [laughs] So I think that the compassion and the love is still really easy for me to tap into, but the anger is confusing, because how could you be angry at somebody that you love? It took me a really long time even to realize that I could be really super mad at a really close friend that I love so much, and still love them but be so angry at them. It’s just because we’ve shared so much and I feel so aligned and when that is disturbed in any way, it’s very jilting to the whole reality that you’ve built.
To take it back to the process of selecting which songs would make it onto the record, how much of that was determining which feelings or which perspectives are more worthwhile or best fit this narrative?
That’s a good question. I go pretty heavily in an intuitive direction, and I was lucky to have a producer, Andrew Sarlo, who really, helped me parse out the big feelings that were being stated in each song. I just wanted to make sure that throughout the recording process I just stayed in the feeling and picked the songs that I picked based on that kind of body feeling. I feel really grounded when I sing ‘Crying in Public’ and I feel really grounded when I’m singing ‘Think of Me’, and they’re totally different emotions, but they kind of have this weird same throughline in the core of it.
You also worked with a few different co-writers on the record. You obviously have a lot of experience writing with others, but was it different opening up your process to other people considering how intensely personal the songs were?
I hadn’t met Stephen Wrabel or Jamie Floyd before I wrote a couple songs on this record with them. And it’s so interesting, to me, the people that find their way into your life or you find your way into their lives during these periods when you’re in a situation where, you know, I had some stuff that I wanted to say and I hadn’t really figured out how to say it yet. But I was just really lucky to be around some really close friends and people I felt like had a similar alignment in storytelling and truth-telling. I spent a lot of time with my friend Konrad Snyder, too, who I wrote a couple songs on the record with, and we just had shared so much and he has seen me through a lot of the progression in my life throughout the years. With Phantom, it was the same thing; you know, you get into a room with somebody and you start peeling back the layers. This particular time, I was just really very raw and letting myself feel the gravity of my current state. I have a tendency to hit the floor and immediately bounce back up, and I just couldn’t do that on this one. I just didn’t have whatever it was that I had formerly had.
And beyond that, I think I just was sensing a pattern in myself, and I think I really needed to grieve in a different way so that I could even recover from this in a different way, so that I could make different choices going forward in my life, in different relationships, so that I don’t keep hitting… keep hitting this sort of like, Well, another relationship has ended. We’ve bottomed out. I guess we’ll just kind of roll into the next thing. And I really dwelled on this and I really looked at myself in a different way.
That’s the thing about history as well, right, is that it has a tendency to repeat itself.
That’s exactly right. [laughs] It is the kind of wink in the record title. God, now that I’m thinking of it… I hope now that we’ve called it out that maybe we can move in a different direction.
As far as storytelling goes, the record starts with ‘Rage’, which I thought was an interesting decision. Why did you want to open the album with this really strong sentiment?
It’s kind of like getting it out of the way, you know. Rage is exhausting – like, to be so angry about something is not something that I find super easy to tap into, but I think it’s super important. I think it’s a really cathartic emotion. It kind of felt like the most naked of all the songs, and when you feel the thing exploding, I think there is this feeling of like, I just wish none of it had ever happened. That’s your knee-jerk reaction. Or maybe you want to go out and get drunk and try and do your own erasing. There’s so many things the song is trying to emote, but it sounds very sweet, it sounds very resigned, to go like, “I want to rage, but I know we’re just going to be laying on the ground here for a second.”
With ‘Resentment’, I feel like more so than rage, it’s a feeling that kind of has its own history, which I think is beautifully evoked in the song itself. I was wondering, recording that song after hearing it performed by Kesha, whether it took on a new resonance for you.
That’s such a cool thing about a song to me. Kesha is such a different artist and such a different singer than I am, and it was such a cool moment that she would feel such a deep resonance with that song and take it into her world and have it be all that it is. I hope I get to hear it live someday because it’s so fun to hear something in a completely different light. And the way that she sings that song, in my opinion, it feels even stronger and more confrontational, it feels a little bit more in your face. For me, resentment is like the feeling that you hold really close to your chest, and when I sing it, I feel like I’m more holding it closely and having this face-to-face moment with myself, and I really like how she wears everything externally on her sleeve. It was cool to see that and be like, you can really feel resentment standing two feet with your middle fingers in the air, as opposed to quietly admitting to yourself that you feel this thing. I guess for me, a lot of this record is that; a lot of this record me quietly admitting feelings to myself rather than to another person.
How do you feel like ‘Resentment’ fits into the story of the record overall?
I think it was a moment where I was actually just becoming self-aware and realizing that there were things going on in that relationship long, long before we broke up with each other. You know, not wanting to have conversations, not wanting to address a lot of things in myself and within the relationship. Of course it ended, because there’s no growth when you’re just tallying things up and putting things in folders and not meaning to keep a score, but you are. And realizing that in the moment is kind of just this like, Oh, dang, I didn’t know that I had this. I didn’t know I was carrying this or that I was capable of feeling this way. And definitely it was a little late, but better late than never. [laughs]
Those feelings are expressed in different ways sonically throughout the record, too. Songs like ‘Woman in My Heart’ have this raw grit to them, but then there’s the quiet intimacy of ‘Man in Me’, even though they deal with a similar aspect of the relationship.
Totally. I think that’s the thing about roles that I even am trying to figure out in my own gender. Am I this vulnerable, soft thing? Can I lower my voice so that you’ll come closer? Or am I this kind of loud, boisterous, confrontational, ready-to-take-on-conflict – you know what I mean? That wasn’t even really the idea behind any of those songs or moments, I think it just kind of came through naturally, that rather than figuring out what to be, I really am all of those things. And when you’re in a relationship with somebody, you find yourself being the full spectrum of yourself, hopefully, if you’re allowed to.
I apologize for maybe taking the lyrics out of context, but there’s this line on ‘Nervous’, “I have so many perspectives.” Do you feel like it’s related at all to what you’re saying?
100%. There are so many ways that you can obsess over a situation or yourself or the plotline and at some point, you just lose it, you lose the plot. [laughs] And I think at certain points in writing, especially when you write 100 to 200 songs for a record, you are in danger of losing the plot. Especially when you’ve come so far and you grow so much, the narrative can even feel like it’s shifting.
There’s the danger of losing the narrative, but given the right space and time, you can also create your own narrative. There can almost be a sense of curating the past or maybe leaning more into a positive headspace that wasn’t necessarily there when you were writing the songs but maybe is more representative of where you are now.
That’s right. That’s exactly it. And the importance of not feeling like I want to cram all that into one record; I am really excited to get on to the next phase of things. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve finished the record, and yeah, moving on and thinking about other stuff in life other than just this person or who I want to be in relationships, but who I am as a person walking through the world. You can’t fit all that stuff in a grief record, because it just feels totally manic.
Something you’ve said in talking about the album is that you felt like you had lost yourself in someone else’s story. Making the record and now releasing it, do you feel like that’s changed or that you’ve recentered the narrative in some way?
100%. I walked into a lot of rooms feeling pretty diffused, like, energetically diffused, if that makes sense. I just felt like I was everywhere and I couldn’t figure out where it was, but I knew that I was hurting a lot. When I was so enmeshed with somebody, it was really hard to pull myself apart from that. And to walk into so many rooms like that and to kind of ride my way through it and talk my way through it, I do feel like I came out the other side with just me. Which does feel how it’s supposed to feel: it feels good and bad and awesome and weird and scary and important. It kind of takes all the shapes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Madi Diaz’s History of a Feeling is out now via ANTI-.