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Madeleine Kelson Is Vulnerable, Playful And Poetic On Solo Debut, While I Was Away

Meghan Marshall
Madeleine Kelson

Wow. I love when an entire record knocks me out and the solo full-length debut from Chicago native, now Nashville-based Madeleine Kelson has done just that. Kelson’s been playing and writing music all of her life. Starting on violin at just four years old, she later picked up the guitar, bass and piano. There’s a familiar warmth to Madeleine’s voice, and her songs, while drawn from her own personal experiences are relatable and memorable. The recording is based in acoustic guitar, piano and drums but electric guitar shows up as well and it all comes together wonderfully on this album. I asked her about songwriting, growing up in a music mecca like Chicago, forming a band with twin sister, Juliet and more. While I Was Away is out today.

AnaLee: What a beautifully thoughtful recording, Madeleine. Congratulations on While I Was Away. I want to ask you about a couple of songs in particular, but if you would, tell us a little about your background, growing up in another “music city”, Chicago and forming The Kelson Twins with your sister Juliet.
Madeleine: Thank you! I’m so glad you like the album. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m very excited to finally have it out in the world. Chicago was an amazing place to grow up. It has a thriving music scene today, but it also has such a rich history. During the Great Migration, Black Blues artists like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy brought the Mississippi Delta blues up to Chicago and changed the sound of the city. I grew up playing shows at Buddy Guy’s venue and learning about these legends of Chicago music. Being in a major city also gave me access to resources like School of Rock, where I got to start playing at real venues like Schuba’s at a very young age. I wouldn’t say I grew up in a musical family, but music was a big part of my life from a young age. My mom started my twin sister, Juliet and I on violin when we were four (how she could listen to two four-year-olds on squeaky 1/16th size violins is beyond me), and we both developed a serious passion for music right away. We were the family that sang along to the radio in three-part harmony. My mom tells a story that during her parent/teacher conference in kindergarten, my teacher remarked that, “Madeleine doesn’t talk very much, but she sings all day.” In 2nd grade, Juliet and I were in “competing bands,” Peace Love & Soul, and The Pitbulls respectively, and would play little shows at school events. We would get our friends on the playground to buy fake tickets and see who could sell more. By the time we were in high school, we had let the feud go, and started playing shows around Chicago as The Kelson Twins. We were lucky enough to attend schools where music education was a priority, so by the time we were ready to book shows, we had a network of friends a grade or two ahead of us that we could open for. A lot of local bars and venues would let high school students book early shows, so we played as much as we could. In hindsight, I probably went to just as many bars in high school to play shows as I have as an adult!

AnaLee: Writing and producing a full-length album seems like a huge undertaking. You did this while attending Belmont University as your college thesis?
Madeleine: Yes! Writing and producing While I Was Away was my college thesis, and it was quite the project. It was one of those things where someone should have told me no or encouraged me to take on a smaller project because I was in way over my head; I was a fulltime student, working 15-20 hours/week and using every moment of free time to record. That being said, it was one of the best times of my life. For better or for worse, shortly after I turned in my thesis proposal, the pandemic started. It gave me a lot of time to sit home and write. The one co-write on the album, which happens to be the title track, was my first Zoom write. Fortunately, it was with a childhood friend, Alaina Stacey, so I could still show up in pajamas in my bedroom. I had to change my recording plan too. I had planned to do the initial tracking with friends from Chicago, but in January 2021, there was no way that was going to happen. Being in Nashville, it was easy to find other great musicians to record with. RJ Thornton, Jonathan Mason, and Neal Johnston played drums, bass, and guitar, and were fantastic. Liv Painter, who was also a Belmont student at the time, engineered the album. She was a student engineer at Ocean Way, and we were able to use perk time there to record for three days. After that we tracked vocals and overdubs at a couple other studios around town. Because Liv and I were both in school, and I was working a lot, we did a lot of tracking at night. The last overdub session we did was really down to the wire. I had to hand everything over to Britton Deuel, who mixed the album, a couple days later. We finished tracking at midnight during a pretty bad snowstorm. I wiped out on the ice walking out of the studio, and we drove home going 10mph down the highway. But I got it done in time! Working as a producer for the first time was a challenge too. I produced an album in 8th grade as my independent study project, but there was obviously a lot more handholding involved in that. I really didn’t know what I was doing this time around. I sat down with the liner notes and credits from my favorite albums, and just listened. I tried to hear every sound and notice where different instruments were placed in the mix. There were some songs I had listened to probably 100 times, that had sounds I had never heard until I sat down to listen critically. It was a real learn-as-you-go project.

AnaLee: You were an intern for Olivia Management/Olivia Records and the company’s founder, Erin Anderson told me she was blown away when she heard her intern’s music! Well, I can certainly see why! While I Was Away is a compelling collection of songs and sounds. Tell us about that experience and working with Erin today, from a different side of the business.
Madeleine: I was! I worked as an intern for Olivia Management for two semesters in college. I originally wanted to intern with them because they were one of the few women run companies in the industry. It is truly inspiring to see how hard she works and how successfully she has been able to run her company. I learned so much as an intern. It was a very hands-on experience. It was not a go buy coffee and shred papers type of internship. I got to see everything that goes into planning a tour, planning a release schedule, creating all the graphics that different artists needed… So many things. I was very hesitant to show Erin my music at the time because I was there to learn and work, not to pitch myself. I don’t think she heard anything until after I left. The timing worked out perfectly. I ended up finishing my album around the same time she was thinking about starting a label. It was an easy decision to work with Erin and Olivia Records as an artist. I had already seen how hard she and her team work during my time as an intern. I remember as an intern there was a day where I spent the whole day following Hush Kids in the studio taking pictures and videos. It was a lot of fun, but I kept thinking, “I want to be them. I want to be on the other side of this.” Here we are now! 

Meghan Marshall
While I Was Away album art

AnaLee: I really love the production on this record, it’s sparse yet full sounding and it rocks, yet it’s introspective and personal, especially on the closing track, a piano based balled called, “Make You Proud”. Can you tell us about writing for this album and the inspiration behind the songs?
Madeleine: My goal when I wrote my thesis proposal was lyrically to write an album about my life since moving to Nashville, and musically to produce an album that touched on the different building block genres of Americana (rock, country, folk, etc.). I grew up on everyone from Led Zeppelin, to Dolly Parton, to Mavis Staples. I feel like musically, Americana is an amalgamation of all my influences. Lyrically, it has been such a safe haven for artists to write honestly and intimately without having the pressure of being really commercial. That’s something I really leaned into when writing. I always feel like a song should be specific enough to tell a story, but broad enough to be anyone’s story. I wrote Make You Proud during my senior year of college. I was having a familiar crisis moment of wanting to drop out of college to pursue music, while simultaneously wanting to finish college because I was so close to the finish line. My mom was on the receiving end of way too many panicked midnight phone calls about that. She has always supported me as an artist, and she did so much as a single parent to raise me and get me safely into adulthood. I had a major fear that I would disappoint her by not looking for a real job right away. I wrote Make You Proud about not wanting to let her down. I sent her a voice memo after I wrote it, and she asked me who it was about. My mom is a therapist, so when I told her it was about her, she rightfully told me I was projecting! 

AnaLee: I’ll admit, you got me with your April Fool’s joke last week when you released, “The Way I Do”, your self-described “queer country anthem”. This one definitely brings the twang, and it sounds great. Tell us about this song and what it means to you to be a voice for a growing, yet still underrepresented faction of country music. 
Madeleine: Hahaha! I had so much fun filming that video with my friend, Tanner Grandstaff. I was really excited to record The Way I Do. I had the line “God has never loved a woman the way I do,” floating around my head for months before I wrote the song, just waiting to find the right line to come before it. When it turned into “If I don’t get to heaven for loving her true, God has never loved a woman the way I do,” the rest of the song came together in probably half an hour. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. The Way I Do is so important to me. I grew up on classic country music. I love it so much. But it has a long history of excluding women, people of color, and queer people. Pretty much any minority group. When I came out, I thought that was it for my career. I didn’t write a love song with a pronoun until The Way I Do. There were no big country or Americana stars that were openly gay when I was a kid. I remember discovering Brandi Carlile’s music as a teenager, and watching her rise, and thinking “ok maybe I can do this.” Moments like that are why representation is so important. If popular music is only written and recorded by straight, white, men, you’re excluding the experiences of most people. It makes me happy and hopeful for the future to see more women, queer people, and people of color breaking through the noise. Even still, when I look at the Americana charts, out of the top 10 records last week only two featured women, and only one was solely by a female artist. There’s still a lot of work to do.

AnaLee: The first song I heard from the album was “Joker” and it has really stuck with me. It’s really beautiful. Can you tell us about this track?
Madeleine: Thank you! That was the first song I intentionally wrote for this album. It’s actually about a former friend/roommate of mine. I moved to Nashville two weeks before my 19th birthday. The first house I lived in was a 100-year-old house on 6th and Shelby. The many layers of wallpaper had been painted over with many layers of paint, there was an ongoing brown recluse problem, and I had 4 roommates, but in my eyes it was perfect. The girls I lived with quickly became my closest and only friends. We stayed up all night playing cards and singing songs together. I’ll hold back on calling anyone out, but there were some pretty big problems pretty quickly with one of the girls in the house. There was a lot of gaslighting and bullying that happened, and by the end of it, I was completely alone. It was a devastating but defining moment in my life. It forced me to spend a lot of time with myself and prove to myself that I can take care of myself and be ok on my own. On the production side, the whole thing came together when Neal put down what was supposed to be a guitar pad that played quietly underneath the track. Instead of using it as a pad, I decided to turn it up and make that droney electric guitar part the feature of the song. 

AnaLee: Any tour plans or local shows coming up?
Madeleine: I just played a really fun release show at The Basement, and I leave for a little run of release shows today! I’m planning some local shows as we speak, so definitely keep an eye out!


“The Way I Do”

“The Way I Do – Setting The Record Straight”

Ana Lee is the host and producer of "The Local Brew," a weekly radio show plus a live showcase for Nashville based artists. She hosts mid-days on 89.5 WMOT Roots Radio, Nashville, is a voice over artist and curator of musical experiences for events.
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