Photo credit: Kylah Benes-Trapp
We spoke with Madison McFerrin, soul a capella queen, to discuss her influences, finding her feet in an ever-changing industry and relying on the power of your own voice to communicate who you are.
I would like to let you know that I’ve listened to your stuff and I have your song “Insane” on loop. Cruising through Bombay in Auto Rickshaws and it was just playing on my headphones.
Oh, thank you!
I wanted to ask you - how did you know that you wanted to transition from a band to being like a one-woman solo show? What drew you to acapella or soul Capella in particular?
MM: Well, I’ve been in a band in college and then a little bit post college, but I always knew I wanted to do solo music. I just didn’t really know in what way and I think that I really needed to strip down all of the other elements involved. People included, in order to able find my voice as a solo musician. So, I think that once I really made the decision to move forward, everything kind of fell into place. It was almost as if that’s what the universe was waiting for me to do.. What drew me to acapella aside from the obvious familial legacy of sorts was just that I can play a bit of piano and I’ve got a hold on other instruments as well. But, I hear harmony in my head much better than I can play it. And so, being able to sing is the easiest way to get my ideas out and it kind of evolved from there.
And, it makes sense as well because you have a voice that lends itself beautifully to acapella. You’re based out of NY. It’s just such a vibrant city. How would you say it influences your songwriting and composing process?
MM: Well, NY has such a large community of different types of people. I’m really blessed to live in a place where it’s not homogenous and I can be exposed to so many different cultures, styles and ways of being human. It’s inherently inspiring just because no matter where you go, there’s just this melting pot of ideas. Brooklyn, where I live, has a lot of up coming artists living in that very short radius. It’s hard not to be inspired by such people in one’s own community.
Do you feel inundated by how much everyone is creating constantly?
MM:You know, it can feel that way sometimes. But more often than not, it is inspiring. I can go to a show of a friend and have these moments of like, oh man, it seems like they’re doing so much more than I am. But at the same time, that same show would inspire me to go home and do something beautiful for myself. Not in a competitive sense but in a way where they inspire me to push forward with my own art.
What would you say the highs and lows of your journey have been?
MM: The highs have definitely been really beautiful - to be able to travel the world and see that people respond to my music. I get really inspired just travelling to different places where we don’t speak the same language but we have that connection through music and the fact that my music facilitates that connection is really beautiful. You guys are in India and like my stuff. It’s crazy to me that I can record new songs and actually have a global reach. I think the lows just come about with my own self-doubts and being self-conscious. I came up in an interesting time because I was too late for the whole label thing that was so prominent but I was too early to be so savvy on social media. I’m stuck somewhere in between where I want to be able to do things independently but I was trained in a way or socialized in a way that had me believing that one day, a record label would just show up and do all the work. Adjusting to today’s mood and the fact that I don’t really need a music label. The fact that I’m completely independent and have been able to reach India but I was at the same time, dealing with the transition to being social media savvy was a probably a low for me.
Can you talk to us a little bit about how you’d say your sound has developed over the years?
MM: When I first went to Berklee College of music, I was still very much finding myself in terms of the kind of singer I was. I had really bad stage fright and you know, just from being in a band and playing shows all the time, I was able to shed a lot of that. Ever since I began doing the solo stuff, it’s trained my ear in a way that I don’t know would have happened otherwise. Just needing to rely on my own sound; I have to learn to own my mistakes since everything is live. There’s an inevitable evolution in that.
Would you say there’s an overall narrative that inspires your songwriting and your music?
MM: Well, I think that the narrative of trying to believe in yourself comes up a lot. To sort of hype yourself up. If anything, there’s not necessarily some arch or thread in terms of narrative. I’m trying to have timeless music that’s just of the moment. That’s probably the most connected tissue.
And if you had to choose for example like how a person would or should feel when they listen to your music…what would say that would be?
MM: I would like somebody to feel joy.
How do you sort of tackle a writing block? Do you experience any?
MM: I definitely experience it. There was a period after college, after I left my band, when I didn’t write a song for at least a year, maybe even two. I don’t try and force it if nothing is coming to me naturally. A lot of my favourite songs, they’ve flown out very naturally. In terms of the writing process, I go chords, melody, lyrics in that order. But, sometimes if I can’t find a melody that I like or lyrics that fit a melody, I’ll try going straight to the words and try and fit something around that. Often, it isn’t a lyrical block but a melodic one. So, switching up the method helps me get to my ultimate destination.
What do you like to do, as an artist and a woman, to feed your soul?
MM: I try and spend time with family. I think family and food really feed my soul. Those are two big ones. Friends too. I try and not isolate myself too much. It’s easy to spend time isolated and a huge part of me enjoys that but being a part of my community and people around me inspires me a lot too.
Was it a very cohesive understanding for you in terms of wanting to pursue music?
MM: When I got to college, that’s when the pressure started. It was the first time that I was fully immersed in a musical environment. When it comes to my family, aside from my brother, my dad was the only musical one. But, when I was exposed to other kinds of people, I was exposed to the level of influence my dad had in the global music community. Plus, not knowing what kind of a singer I was going into college along with stage fright along with people expecting you to be some sort of a virtuoso was hard. I did choose to pursue music from a young age and my family only encouraged that. I was lucky to be in that kind of an environment.
What would you say about your father’s music or him that inspired you?
MM: I mean, he had so much fun on stage; he brings a lot of joy and laughter. And, I think that’s definitely something that I try and emulate. It’s a really beautiful connection and he inspires me to have that kind of connection with my audience. He’s been a really wonderful father. He never put pressure on me in a way that could have hindered our relationship. We still have a really beautiful bond and I’m really grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to travel and tour with him and just see the kind of influence he has globally firsthand.
Collaborations so far that you have loved, collaborations that you would love to have and a dream venue that you would want to perform at.
MM: I worked with Photay on his album. That was a fun collaboration just because I hadn’t met him before this. He reached out and I thought it might be cool. The song that he sent me was a bit of a challenge just in terms of finding the form. I went to his apartment and we really just worked it out together; there was a lot of experimenting and I definitely pushed myself as a songwriter and collaborative writer. I would love to collaborate with Pharell. He’s probably like, my dream producer. And, I would love to play in Africa. I was recently told that somebody at a Sofar in Nairobi, Kenya did a cover of one of my songs.
Any current artists that you admire and learn from? And any artist in the past that have been big influences in your life?
MM: Well, past artists that are big influences are the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, James Brown; those were the artists I grew up listening to and have definitely shaped who I am. In terms of current artists, there’s an artist named ‘L’rain’ who is a friend and is incredibly talented and every time I see her, I walk away being like “Oh my goodness”. She’s so amazing. Same with another woman named ‘Melanie Charles’. She’s another artist and a friend who I am in awe of every time I hear her sing. And you know, this just goes back to what I was saying about being inspired by the people around me. I think my friends are the people who I look up to the most these days.
You have a very interesting visual aesthetic. Are there any visual artists that inspire you or any sort of trend across the world that you find yourself drawn to?
MM: Hmm, that’s a good question. I am so tied to the sonic aesthetics of things so my visual aesthetics are on the back burner. I was recently turned on to Hilma af Klint. She was from the 1800’s but was so ahead of her time and didn’t even want people to see her artwork for another 40 years after she died. When the time did come and people saw her work, they realized they weren’t ready for it. So, it didn’t end up being shown for another 80 years or so. She’s pretty cool.
Would you say that somewhere your music is also its own form of politics, especially being a woman of color?
MM: Yeah, I think being an artist is a political act in itself. I want to be able to sing about things going on in the world that are important to me. And I think as an artist, I kind of have the duty to do so. And, particularly, being not only a woman of color but a black woman in America - I wouldn’t necessarily call it radical but I would call it a political act to choose to do something that is rooted in art.
You work with your boyfriend and manager, Ned! As a creative couple who lives together and works together, how do you guys manage to separate work from quality time?
MM: That is a great question. When I figure that out, I will tell you. But you know, I think the fact that I’m a musician and he is not helps balance everything.
Do you want to talk a little bit about your upcoming project?
MM: My next project “You and I” was actually the concept that came about before I even started doing acapella. It was what prompted me to do solo music. I wrote this whole project and recorded some vocals but then I wrote it on the piano. And, so I wanted to figure out some other way to do solo music. And I have this loop pedal, and I started writing acapella songs and I was like “Oh, let me just put these songs out first to get some buzz and kind of put ‘You and I’ on the back burner. And then, as the acapella stuff blew up, I kind of evolved the ‘You and I’ project and re-wrote some stuff. I’m really excited about it just because this is actually how I wanted to introduce myself. So, it’s mostly a way of re-introducing myself. It’s 5 tracks and it’s going to be coming this November. And “Try” which is the Colors single that you guys saw, that’s the first single out that’s going to come out in a few months.
Here's the official music video for TRY
Madison also put out a new single "No Room" earlier this month.
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Madison.
MM: Thank you.
Words by Alina Gufran