Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

After it all, Madison Cunningham is still starting anew

An interview with Madison Cunningham discussing her tour, songwriting and creating
Photo courtesy of Madison Cunningham

“It’s not if, darling it’s when / Was there something left unsaid? / Were your eyes green, were they blue? / What was it that I forgot to ask you?” sings Madison Cunningham as she sifts through the past to understand the present’s occurrences. Sitting in the midst of an unfolding reality, you can imagine someone looking back to memorialize the loss that discomforts them. The lines, maybe on purpose, allude to Elton John, or maybe just stand as a metaphor for forgetting while life passes by. Something noticeable in this song, she never seems to center herself, even though it’s a personal one.

When speaking to Cunningham, she explains,“It’s a vulnerable and hard thing to get art at that place where you feel like you’re out of the way and it’s really just about what you’re trying to say.” Her one point of reflection becomes a universal understanding of grief. The “I” and “you” come across as characters that lost each other along the way, rather than a personal account from Cunningham. “Life According To Raechel” is haunting; live, the artist is enshrouded by purple.

Cunningham’s accolades proceed her. But, the five Grammy nominations and one win are not where Cunningham chooses to situate herself. During her performance at the Academy of Music in Northampton, she briefly mentioned how she gave her Grammy away to someone before returning to her guitar. “I usually define myself to myself,” she said during our interview.

This adherence to her self-identity shapes how Cunningham approaches her craft. Though grateful for the accolades of her career, the weight given to things like awards or any outside opinions don’t guide her work: “I want to make something that feels like
myself [and can be] described in a way that feels true to who I am at the time,” she said.

On stage, it’s only Cunningham and her guitar. Enveloping her are backing lights that seem to emphasize the emotionality of the songs. The lights move from a beating red, reflective blues to poignant purples. She flows between guitar switches, spending more time on performing rather than filling the air with false relationalities with the crowd. Other than the story about her Grammy, she offers one other story about fighting to get “Sara And The Silent Crowd” onto her 2022 album, “Revealer.”

She is focused on presenting the song to the audience. What lingers in Cunningham’s mind when she imagines a crowd is this: “How do I do something that includes the audience in this sort of moment with me and my instrument?” In this performance, her engagement with the crowd is found through respect and dedication to portraying a song’s narrative beyond what can be heard in a recording.

At the time of our interview, Cunningham is co-headlining a tour with Juana Molina. In conversation and on stage, she displays her excitement and respect for Molina. “This night is indulgent for me,” Cunningham said after the pair’s opening song together on stage, in reference to her excitement. Seeking to “improvise a little bit” is an element of the show Cunningham hints at, but fully delves into when playing with Molina. Their encore consists of making up a song on the spot from words selected from the crowd. They converge easily, weaving their ways into other songs as if it were their own. Together and apart performing on stage, Cunningham and Molina were unfazed by mistakes. They both recognized that they happen, but kept going, not getting angry and just continuing on.

Throughout our conversation, it became clear that Cunningham approaches each chapter of her career anew. Old ideas for a potential new song aren’t easily repurposed, and songwriting is reimagined with each new writing session. She considers engaging with her creative process from the point of a blank canvas as “the easiest way.”

“It’s very hard to go back in time and open up ideas again that are cemented … everything is kind of a blank page at the beginning. You throw paint around and see where it lands,” she said.

Cunningham is candid in how music continues to unfold for her: “I always feel like I don’t know how to do [songwriting] and something clicks upon exploring it.” Despite having an extensive musical career and much engagement with what her music can be, she reflects, “I feel like a beginner all the time.”

Approaching things with a beginner mindset has led to continuing to explore who she and her music are, extrapolating new facets of her musicianship while uncovering herself. Cunningham describes her latest album as experiencing the conflicting emotions and grief that lead to the revelations of “Revealer.” From this process of moving beyond the surface, what is tangible means coming to an unknown that may not be enjoyable. There are taxing questions that must be answered because the demands of the process are necessary for creation.

“These are the questions we ask by doing and by creating and that’s why it kinda never gets old. There’s always something to ask, always something to create,” she said.

Such moments of questioning always shape how Cunningham wants to approach her work. Where, by now in her career, she could just sit back and plug in the formulas of what she knows an audience will be automatically attuned to, Cunningham is wary of the unintentional. “It’s really easy to make art that’s very cool but doesn’t mean a lot. I’m very, very afraid of doing that in everything that I made. I want there to be a purpose behind everything.”

This drive for purpose had directed her seeking honesty from other artists and their work. Where she has found resonance has then reverberated in honesty being a core attribute of her music. “I’m listening for other broken people. People who are willing to paint a very unflattering picture of themselves for the sake of honesty and human connection … the more honest you are, it gives people permission to say ‘me too,'” she said. “I resonate with that.”

The lasting impression that Madison Cunningham leaves is not of someone seeking music for a vain purpose. From her narratives about her craft and artistry to her live performances, she is dedicated to music that brings proximity to the human experience beyond its glossy terrains. Whether that be through truthful reflections or acknowledging the commonality of making mistakes, her songwriting moves towards deconstructing who you were and seeing where that leaves you.

“I want to make sure that I’m an honest artist, honest person,” she said. That’s the guiding sentiment that Cunningham aims to imprint with her music.

Suzanne Bagia can be reached at [email protected].

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