Brooklyn artist Madison McFerrin grew up in a musical home. Her father is Bobby McFerrin, the guy who gave us “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” She’s forging her own path within music, recently taking her career into the solo artist realm. Madison’s next album Finding Foundations: Vol II will be out this fall, followed by a concept project in 2018 that is being produced by her brother. We talked about where she hopes to go with that work and staying true to herself throughout the process.
How did you know it was the right time to transition from being part of a band to a solo artist?
I was in a band called Cosmodrome, we were a funk jam band. Which was really fun because I hadn’t really envisioned myself as being in a band. When we got together it happened so seamlessly that I didn’t think about what else I would possibly be doing. I had a lot of fun.
I had always had the solo vision in my head, it never went away even when I was in Cosmodrome. It eventually came about when I decided that I was going to write some solo music. The music process that I was taking, something in that felt so right. I was actually getting goosebumps as it was happening. Everything was aligning in a way that was so clear that I was supposed to be doing this. I went with my gut instinct and here I am.
How does it feel performing as a solo artist?
It has its pros and cons for sure. One thing I miss about being in a band is that I could really work the stage, dance, do my thing, interact with the other band members. As a solo artist, it’s just me. I’m solely responsible for everything that’s happening. One thing I really enjoy about it is that even though it can be daunting not having anybody else up there with me, it’s nice to know that I only have to deal with my emotions and I just react to what I do. It’s kind of comforting. It forces me to be a better musician, I can’t fall back on anybody else.
You’ve been candid about your experience with internet trolling following a performance you did for Hilary Clinton. Would you like to share anything about how that’s affected you?
It motivated me to book my first solo show. I had already written the tunes and just hadn’t gotten the courage to actually book a show. So, after all that stuff was happening and people were like “you should never sing again,” I was like you know what f-you, I’m going to do this. It really hurt at the moment but honestly, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to my career. I’m grateful to all the haters. Also, I realized that if that’s as bad as it gets it’s not that bad. Because of it, I have a tougher skin and for what I’m trying to do I’m only going to continue to face stuff like that. You’re going to have bad days.
Let’s talk about the draw of soul music.
I think something about soul music that hasn’t changed is that it’s really a place for storytelling. Something that I think is lost in a lot of other genres. At least popular genres. I think you’re hard-pressed to find soul music that doesn’t have some kind of story behind it that resonates and really touches your soul, there’s a reason it’s called soul music. I can’t think of any popular soul songs that don’t really hit you. And I think it’s really important that storytelling in a positive way continues to happen, especially in popular music. That’s the kind of music that I want to make.
Your recent work is acapella, what made you want to give that style a try?
Well, the acapella thing was actually…I wouldn’t say an accident but it wasn’t how I intended to start out a career. I had actually written about ten songs on the piano. I discovered that it was going to take a bit longer to release the project. I started doing some solo shows with the loop pedal and I can’t actually perform some of these songs that I had written on my loop pedal. So I started writing some acapella tunes for my solo shows and as I was writing them I was like you know what I think it would actually be a good idea to take a couple of these songs and put them out first before this other project. To get my name out there and garner some buzz. I think it was the right decision because I also discovered that I love writing that way.
That was actually how I wrote my first tune that became the song that got Cosmodrome to be a band together, and then I stopped writing like that. That’s why my EP is called Finding Foundations, kind of like going back to my original form of writing. So it’s been really fun to explore that and I have deep acapella roots within my family, it goes back to a way of honoring my father as well.
What is your writing process like?
I generally start with chords and then it usually goes chords, background, then melody, then lyrics. “No Time to Lose” took me about an hour total to write. I came home and my boyfriend wasn’t home and I took advantage of having the apartment to myself. I just started writing and it just happened. I had a song on Volume 2 that was the same way, I couldn’t get to sleep with this song in my head and I got up and was back in bed in under 30 minutes because that’s just how it happened. Then there are others that take more time, I’ll have just the chords. Those are the times I have to force myself to sit down and work with it and work it out. I’ll have a concept that I really like it just needs to be a little more formulated. It really varies.
The majority of them are somewhat autobiographical because I think that’s the easiest way to write. No body’s emotions are a new emotion, everybody has felt everything in the history of time so even if you’re writing about yourself people are going to be able to relate to it. Everybody has gone through a myriad of feelings, we are all the time.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I love the Beatles, they’re definitely my favorite band. James Brown is a huge influence. James Brown and Stevie Wonder were always playing in our house all the time. Those are two big ones, Stevie Wonder when it comes to songwriting. Aretha Franklin, Hiatus Kaiyote, Eryka Badu.
Do you feel like it’s been easy to stay authentic to your sound?
I think it’s been easy in the sense that I’m just writing in the way that I like to write. I’m making music that I would want to listen to myself. So in that way, it’s easy to be authentic to myself. But at the same time, it can be difficult when maybe the stuff that the masses like isn’t what I like. So to find that balance of how can I have something that a lot of people will get down with that is still true to me. You really have to pay attention to what people are paying attention to. Sometimes that can be really frustrating, there are certain things that I don’t want to do but I want to have a more popular sound there are adjustments that I need to make. It’s something that I’m continuously learning as a solo artist.