There’s a moment, about three minutes into Madison Cunningham’s song “Plain Letters,” that crystalizes the ambition and execution in her intricate folk pop. She’s just sung the second high-intensity chorus when the band’s roar suddenly collapses to an atmospheric whisper. Then the electric guitar – Madison’s electric guitar, not some sideman – interjects a rising scale so pristine and luminous it feels like fireflies in formation. Its timing, touch and its resolution into the final verse is other-worldly. And it’s one of a hundred ways the artist goes above and beyond what’s expected, lyrically and musically, on her debut album Who Are You Now.
Those parts “are all pretty particularly written out,” she said in an interview with WMOT on a recent tour stop in Nashville. “We recorded live, so everything you hear was very premeditated and written. And that’s I guess how I work. I arrange everything with the guitar, so each section is sort of marked by it.” And sure enough, a couple of hours later, Cunningham delivered “Plain Letters” and most of the other songs from the album with guitar and voice synched in flawless, contrapuntal precision. Steely Dan used to bring in side dudes and spend weeks laboring over passages and parts to achieve their expansive, layered pop rock. Madison Cunningham, 23 years old, achieves similarly intricate results with only a rhythm section, her sonorous Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar and a ton of imagination. Her carefully woven opus was recognized this winter by a Grammy Award nomination for Best Americana Album.
Cunningham brings an instrumental virtuosity to her electric folk that we’re more used to hearing on the progressive side of bluegrass, where we find Sierra Hull, Noam Pikelney and Chris Thile. So it’s of note that Thile has championed the California newcomer with a score of appearances on his Live From Here show on NPR. Cunningham also opened a tour for his band Punch Brothers, which brought her to Nashville for the first time in 2018. She stood on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium by herself and dazzled before her 21st birthday.
“That was my first tour ever,” she says. She recalls the strangeness of her first look at Lower Broadway and her wonder at the Ryman’s legacy and sound. But it always seems to come back to the musicianship. “They (Punch Brothers) are probably the best at their instruments that you can possibly be, and it was wonderfully intimidating to me. I hadn’t practiced so hard in my life.”
She’s been practicing guitar since coming of age in Orange County, CA in a large family whose world and music revolved largely around church. “My dad is still a pastor and worship leader,” she says. “So I came up with him singing there from when I was 12 to probably 17. And it was a wonderful time. There was nothing really pressing. In a lot of ways I was able to just make music. I had a lot of friends in the band. It was a wonderful introduction to what it was like to perform in front of people and it was safe too. I knew the people there loved me, so that was a nice net to kind of fall on.”
The story of those days is captured in a literate and literal way in “Song In My Head,” which recounts graduating Class of ’14, her dad’s too-small van and a growth environment she describes as “Information, education, given in love/Questions digest like sugar in my blood.”
When the time was right she left for Los Angeles, where she feels much more in tune culturally. And she got a somewhat late but clearly fateful education in the Laurel Canyon heritage, especially Joni Mitchell with whom she shares a breaking mezzo-soprano and a desire to stretch harmony and form in her songwriting.
Who Are You Now opens with a relatively simple, cyclical riff of “Pin It Down,” but the chorus drops beats and leads us into a syncopated wonder-whirl of meter that reflects the disorientation of the singer who chants “I think we’ve been here once before.” The song “Trouble Found Me” finds Cunningham getting more grindy and crunchy on the guitar, but not without big sweeps of dynamics that lead the listener through passageways far more decorated and twisty than most pop songs. Even in her moodier balladry there’s a lot to listen for, as when “Common Language” gradually scales up its groove and lushness to a rhapsodic string and voice climax.
Chris Thile told the world via Twitter last summer that Who Are You Now is “FRIGHTENINGLY good!” and coming from the world’s foremost pop/classical fusion mandolinist and a contemporary musical genius, that’s even higher praise than the Grammy nomination. And it’s a sentiment I heartily endorse, thanks to Cunningham’s sublime marriage not just of melody and lyric but of guitar and voice. There are plenty of great singers who are also great guitarists, but if you notice, they’re often doing one or the other. Cunningham, somewhat like Richard Thompson or Martin Simpson, offers an ongoing, high-level dialogue between her hands and her lips. Her melodies leap in unexpected intervals, and her guitar issues curious harmonies, seamlessly. She says this came from an inescapable attraction to the instrument and a hungry ear.
“I was just so entertained by guitar and different tunings,” she says. “I started on acoustic and then went to electric and that was mind blowing for me because so many possibilities opened up. I just did a lot of sitting in my room, making mistakes and calling them chords. That’s still what I do.”
She’s slowed her frantic tempo of the last year enough to work on a new album. “It’s so exciting to be there again because anything’s possible when it comes to songwriting and arranging and instrumentation,” she says, while clarifying her non-negotiables. “The ideas have to be there and it has to say something.”