When asked about a theme she often returns to in her songwriting, Madison Cunningham replied, “mortality.” If you’ve ever heard her music, you would not be surprised by this response.
The healing qualities of her mixture of Americana, folk and jazz are accentuated by her light voice. Her sound switches between a relaxedly sunshine-dappled sound and quieter piano ballads, sometimes with driving sections containing powerful wailing. She accepts the brevity of all experiences, saying, “That happens to be a theme I think about a lot, how everything is very temporal and kind of momentary, and I think my songs sort of tend to live in that headspace.”
Of course, she finds herself returning to love in her lyrics as well. As love is one of the most important human experiences, it’s hard not to gravitate to it. But even here, she enjoys playing around and seeing what non-traditional takes she can bring to the matter, telling The Daily, “I think as a songwriter, I tasked myself to not just write the obvious, which is wonderful.” Her circumventing the conventional is not an easy thing to do and it reflects Cunningham’s range while simultaneously tossing Cunningham into occasional confusion: “At times like I’ve felt incredibly clear about who I am and what it is that I want to say (with songwriting) and then other times I feel totally lost.”
This pressure to align herself with her songwriting also hangs heavy. Cunningham admits, “If you write songs about love, if you write songs about, you know, morality or mortality or whatever it is, it’s like, you have to live up to that all of a sudden as a person, or you feel that pressure in a way. I don’t know (if) it’s a good thing ultimately, but it definitely has kicked me in the ass multiple times.” After an intense statement, she finishes up hopefully, “And I welcome that.” She went on to speak about a record she released when she was 17 that she has since taken down because it no longer reflected who she is as a person. The compulsion as an artist to be your music, in your fan’s eyes and your own, is immense. Although art expresses who we are as people, one song can not encapsulate a whole person. A person can change; a concrete recording cannot.
However, that does not mean the song cannot be re-recorded. Some of her best work has come when she releases herself from the pressure to write and enjoys simply making music when she does covers, which she sometimes does of her own songs. Having recently released two reimagined versions of her songs “Song In My Head” and “Plain Letters,” she described the experience as liberating. “(It) kind of released me of the authorship. It was like covering your own song, and you got to just enjoy it as a finished product as opposed to being in the throes of trying to make it better, because it was like, oh, it’s recorded, it’s out in the world.”
Songs and their creation are an important part of her identity, something reflected in her values. She believes in “serving the song always before serving your ego. I think that’s a good sort of balance to have in life and to know that like, there’s a higher purpose than yourself and you’re not the only one in the world.” She follows up, “I think, to remind yourself that you’re a part of a larger thing is always important.”
She does this, in part, by taking a lot of inspiration from non-musicians, especially poets such as Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath and Dave Eggers. There is a common thread in their work, one that she defines as “a very honest, non-pretentious approach to capturing the ordinary things of life which makes it instantaneously relatable. I think that there’s a direct correlation to songwriting there.” It once again comes back to Cunningham finding her place in things that are bigger than her, as she tells The Daily: “We’re all trying to tell a story. We’re all trying to hold up a mirror. And not just, you know, biographies, but hopefully to like, shed light on someone else’s life and experience and kind of have a shared human connection.”
Daily Arts Writer Fia Kaminski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.