Those who grew up with Madison Cunningham have said that visiting her family is a lot like being in a musical. Cunningham’s father, a Costa Mesa pastor and guitar player, dreamed of starting a modern So-Cal version of the Carter Family band with his five daughters, and their home was a place of near-constant singing. Madison began playing guitar and reportedly wrote her first song at the age of four, but it was not until she was twelve that she began taking songwriting and performing seriously. At fifteen she decided to make a career of it and, now twenty-five, she already has proven herself a consummate artist with the power to fuse melody, meaning, and an eclectic blend of musical styles to create grand works that can still fairly be described as pop songs.
Producer Tyler Chester—who has worked with a slew of Americana artists including Andrew Bird, Sara Watkins, and Julian Lage—said, “When I met 15-year-old Madi and she played one of her early songs for me, it struck me within the first 15 seconds that I was witnessing one of the most purely musical human beings I would ever meet.”1 In the decade since, Chester has helped Cunningham record a handful of singles, an EP, and in 2019, her first full-length album.
Although she says she now feels disconnected from her earlier releases, even these evidence a striking musical maturity and a devotion to her craft. In fact, one of her early songs, “Beauty into Clichés,” sheds light on the songwriting philosophy that sets Cunningham apart. Protesting the widespread propensity toward making and consuming shallow art, she sings, “I don’t ever feel right, I don’t ever feel fine about shaping the meaning to fit in the rhyme, changing the human into what sells and buys.” In a culture that often awards the trite and deliberately ugly—see, for instance, the 62nd Grammys—that song’s message is as relevant as ever. As she sings:
It’ll never be enough
It’ll never measure up
Turning the depth of the ocean
To the size of a cup
Her desire to see real beauty in the world has driven her to create lots of it, and like a painter aware of the possibilities in every color tone and brushstroke, her music demonstrates an ability to leverage every element for maximum effect: tempo, dynamics, timbre, time signature, and so on. Every turn of phrase and melody leads somewhere unexpected and exciting. “Remember, Remember” convincingly portrays a lifelong romance she’s too young to have experienced, the lullaby-like sweetness of its verses exploding into soaring melodies, punctuated throughout by the brilliant musings and lush strings of a jazz orchestra. She is sprightly and agile, singing:
Time, it doesn’t wait for anybody
It only turns into the past
If I could change the things that changed me
I would only let each moment last
In the Western-sounding “To Another Land,” each verse introduces a character struggling to make life meaningful, but, in the choruses, the discontented aimlessness that each feels erupts into confident certainty.
Of all the lovely things Cunningham’s work illustrates, the most beautiful is an intelligent mind at play. By and large, though, her music is not cheery, especially her recent release, which some have called her “coming-of-age” album. In some literal ways, it is a “coming-of-age” album: It features some of the first songs she’s written since getting married, including “Something to Believe In,” a dissonant yet gorgeous tone poem that describes how lovers sometimes let each other down. Through airy vibrato, she asks, “Can I believe in your love?”; the pained sweetness only subsides into sunny beneficence in the very last notes.
No doubt, Cunningham is musically mature, but like many of the people her songs describe, she still is trying to figure out who she is. Her soul-searching is most evident in her recent album’s title, Who Are You Now?, a question she posed to herself—and also the title of a song that didn’t make it onto the album, because she has yet to finish it.
That inner questioning—along with her yearning for beauty in a world that often scorns it—manifests in darker themes, such as in “Trouble Found Me,” with its moody guitar hooks; “Plain Letters,” inspired by her encounters with the poetry of Sylvia Plath; and “L. A. (Looking Alive),” a jaunty but sly commentary on the irrational tendencies of so many in the entertainment business.
Cunningham’s portrayals of the darker emotions we might feel are similar to the gifts that John Keats gave the world in that they conceptualize and thereby help us to understand and deal with such feelings. And, as Lisa VanDamme put it (in her TOS-Con talk, “Enrich Your Life with Poetry”), “anything that makes us feel, deeply and meaningfully, stretches the very capacity of our souls.”
There is a danger, though, in equating darkness with maturity. As the prodigious young musician and composer Alma Deutscher attests, many influential figures in our culture seem to believe that mature music must concern itself exclusively with the darkness of the world. “I’ve always wanted to write beautiful music, music that comes out of the heart and speaks directly to the heart,” says Deutscher. “But some people have told me that nowadays melodies and beautiful harmonies are no longer acceptable in serious classical music because, in the 21st century, music must reflect the ugliness of the modern world.”2
Fortunately for Deutscher, she is not searching for her identity—neither the ideas on which to base her life nor her life’s work—in such an ideological climate. She knows who she is, and she rejects the fallacy of equating darkness with maturity. At Carnegie Hall, introducing her “Waltz of Sirens” (a work inspired by the wailing of Vienna’s police cars), she explained, “In this waltz, instead of trying to make my music artificially ugly in order to reflect the modern world, I went in exactly the opposite direction. I took some ugly sounds from the modern world, and I tried to turn them into something more beautiful—through music.”3
A romantic can only hope that Cunningham, too, soon will recognize and embrace who and what she is—a force, like Deutscher, for turning ugliness into beauty.Madison Cunningham fuses melody, meaning, and an eclectic blend of musical styles to create grand works of art that can still fairly be described as pop songs. Click To Tweet