Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham grew up performing along with her four sisters in church, where her father was a worship pastor. She started playing guitar at age seven and formed her first band while in high school in Orange County, but it wasn’t until after graduating that she discovered influences such as the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. She cut her first EP with producer and longtime collaborator Tyler Chester, who went on to work on her 2019 debut Who Are You Now, the 2020 covers EP Wednesday, and her latest LP, Revealer. Following its release last September, Cunningham toured extensively in support of the album – which earned her the Grammy for Best Folk Album – and recently shared a new version of the track ‘Hospital’ featuring Remi Wolf. Cunningham’s songwriting naturally lends itself to mystery, particularly on Revealer, whose searching, wildly imaginative arrangements reward repeated listens and whose emotional resonance has deepened over time. Ιts 11 tracks often center around and bend ideas of personal freedom and growth in ways that can be dark, playful, and defiant, but Cunningham always manages to land someplace earnest.
Ahead of her show at London’s Barbican on March 8 for International Women’s Day, we caught up with Madison Cunningham for our Artist Spotlight series to talk about Revealer, her relationship to the songs, live performance, and more.
It’s almost been half a year since Revealer came out, and you’ve had the space to really sit with the songs and take in people’s response. Do you feel like the months have flown by?
Yeah, it’s so strange. Making the record took about two years in total, and then to just have it be out for everybody to hear and digest and make opinions of – it’s strange and it’s liberating. I always forget that there’s always still more work to be done for it. It’s easy get caught in celebration of it or the grind of touring it, and then I’m reminded, “Oh yeah, this is this whole body of work that I spent years pouring myself into.” I myself am not ready to move on yet, but mentally, I think I’ve just been trying to trying to put both feet on the ground in terms of writing and opening up my mind to new ideas again. And that feels great, too, because it feels like I’m able to turn the page, in a way. It has been a lot of work, to not only make record but then promote it and all the things following.
I’m sure you get asked a lot about your process, which is something that involves stringing many different ideas together. At this stage, are there still parts of these songs whose meaning continues to reveal itself to you?
That’s the beauty of songs and what they tend to do if you step out of the way – if you’re not too heavy-handed with the the songwriting process. I think that allows some room for people to create other narratives inside of it, and also for the narratives to change to you. I feel like a lot of the songs have done that in hindsight, taken on different colors and shapes. ‘In from Japan’ is one of those tunes for me, because it takes on different angles for me depending on how I sing it, how I feel it. Sometimes it feels very desperate to me and other times it feels incredibly liberated, and I love being able to sing that song from either place. I don’t have many songs where I’m like, “I’ve got to really put on a smile for this one.” I think most of the time, at least in this body of work, those songs exist where my emotions usually are resting at. They’re usually pretty true to who I am and where I’m at in an emotional sense.
People talk about songwriting as something that’s often aspirational, and the thing that a lot of performers strive toward, especially songwriters who have a complicated relationship with performing, is greater confidence. What I like about a song like ‘In From Japan’ is that you can interpret the line “No one’s holding you back now” in different ways, and you said that you can sing it from different angles. Having come out the other side, do you find yourself leaning more on one side when you’re performing it now?
It’s one of my favorite songs to perform live, and I think the way that it sort of leans musically brings out a confidence and excitement in me. So just from a purely musical standpoint, I really feel like I can get behind that that tune, and I really enjoy playing it. I feel like that line in particular, “No one’s holding you back now,” depending on where I’m at – my confidence or lack of confidence – sometimes that line can read as passive aggressive to me, in terms, “This is all yours, what are you gonna do with it? No one’s telling you what to do, so make it good.” Or it’s incredibly just, “You got this. Don’t freak out.” Any time that song comes up in the set list, I get excited because I generally feel like it’s true for me, no matter what angle, what mood I’m in or coming from. Maybe in ten years I’ll have a different perspective on it.
Sometimes the songs take on new life in a more literal sense, and you recently got to rework ‘Hospital’ with Remi Wolf and Ethan Gruska. How did the collaboration come about, and what did it mean for you to revisit the track?
That song already had so many different versions, and the the one that made it on the album was the third iteration of it. I feel like there’s this sort of madness that’s brewing in the song, and then it kind of reels itself in, which was a purposeful artistic decision. And then I felt like I really want to make like the sort of crazy hospital version of it, where basically in my mind the patient starts running the hospital, and there’s like a “no doctors” kind of vibe. I was thinking who could help this come to life and that idea come across, and Ethan was someone I thought of because I love his production. And then I thought of Remi. We were recent online friends, we were talking a bit back and forth and we got coffee. I was apparent to me, I was like, “I think we’re going to be a fit.” Our second time ever hanging out was was making that tune and hanging out. It just was so free-flowing and exciting and fun, and we laughed a lot. That, to me, is a recipe for success.
Are there any songs that still remain a bit of a mystery to you?
I think ‘Collider Particles’ is one of those spacey, mystical tunes to me that, I know the angle that I was singing from, but sometimes the rest of it remains a little bit ambiguous, which I love. And I still believe it, because I relate to the feeling that it’s portraying, but it’s definitely me singing from a place of being a little bit inside of myself and naturally melancholic. It’s sort of me just having a conversation with a friend – I’m singing from the perspective of the friend talking to me, if that makes sense. It was a fun world to create for that tune.
We talk about songs feeling like intimate conversations, but is this idea of playing with the perspective of who’s doing the talking something you find yourself more and more drawn to?
Yeah, the joy of it is getting to sit in different seats and getting to to view this stage, if you will, from different angles. Or even getting to play different characters – the power of it is also getting to inhabit other people’s perspectives. In talking to my friends a lot and being observant, that tends to to happen, and if you’re an empathetic person, it’s a lot easier to put yourself in somebody’s choose and into somebody’s perspective that might differ from your own. I think that’s where great and interesting songwriting comes from, is being able to sympathize and empathize with others.
There’s a line on ‘All I’ve Ever Known’ – “I’m a daughter to the mystery but a servant to strain” – that seems relevant to what we’re talking about. It’s interesting how you describe your relationship to abstract concepts on that song.
I kind of forgot about that line. But when I wrote it, it meant a lot to me because I definitely feel that – this sort of push-and-pull with these big overarching ideas, where it’s like I feel welcomed by these things that I don’t understand and also estranged from them. That tends to be a theme every day in my life [laughs] – just kind of wondering where I stand on things, what I’m able to understand, and it’s a constant inner dialogue.
You have an upcoming show at the Barbican on March 8 celebrating International Women’s Day. How are you feeling?
I’m truly excited because the Barbican is a beautiful space, and I played there once back in 2019 opening for Andrew Bird. I wanted to go back because it sounds beautiful in there, and all the women who are supporting – I’m so excited to hear all those incredible artists. I haven’t done an event to commemorate International Women’s Day before, and I feel like there’s going to be a weight to it because of that. I’m really looking forward to it.
Are there any things you can share that are inspiring you at the moment?
I’ve been doing a lot of podcast listening, and to one podcast in particular called You’re Wrong About. The host is so incredible, I’m totally hooked. And then I’ve been listening to this record by Daniel Rossen, You Belong There, I’ve been just drinking that up. And Sahar by Tamino, I listen to that record all the time. Those are those are the three things that have been keeping me inspired.
In terms of new music, I assume you’re still in the very early stages of the process?
Yeah, still very early stages, just because touring is such a hard state for me to write in, and we did so much of that last year. I’m shifting gears, and it always takes a minute to turn the whole ship around. But I’ve been excited and I’ve been reading, just trying to soak up ideas and what other people are up to.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.