It could be the way she coolly navigates her immense vocal range, or her deep expertise with loop pedals; it could also be her stage banter, during which she’s just as likely to charm you with a humble, earnest comment about human connection, as she is with a bitingly clever deadpan quip.
It’s easy to make sense of the fact that Madison McFerrin seems so comfortable on stage–she comes from a family full of performers. There are a lot of things about her that could hook you the first time you see her onstage. Her father, Bobby McFerrin, is a widely renowned a cappella vocal artist, best known for his cultural staple, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Her older brother, Taylor, is a musician and her second brother Jevon is an award-winning actor. Madison’s first solo music was a collection of a cappella tracks entitled Finding Foundations, which she released in two volumes: the first in December 2016, and the second in February 2018. Her EP, You + I , came out in December 2019 and is her first solo music venture with backing beats.
McFerrin took time with FRONTRUNNER in the midst of her You + I tour to tell us about the EP and what went into it: the themes, the cultural and social influences, and the nitty-gritty of her songwriting process for specific lyrics. In the process, she shared her perspective on what makes New York such a unique place to work creatively, and the social responsibility that comes with being an artist. Throughout the conversation, one idea kept surfacing: if you stay true to yourself – and to your roots – you will be rewarded.
You’ve used the term “future soul” to describe your music. What does that term mean to you?
Ultimately, I consider myself a soul singer, and that stems from the fact that all of the music that I make comes from my soul. [When] I use the term “future soul,” I’m trying to evoke looking to the future both sonically and in life in general. But also, I’m trying to make sure that I’m incorporating the soul music of the past that is the bedrock for a lot of the way that I approach music. So that term really combines the two things that I’m looking to do. I want to make music that’s new and innovative but that you can tell is rooted in history.
Leading up to the release of You + I, you made it really clear that you are part of a long legacy of artists and musicians as social commentators. Is it fair to say you believe there is a social obligation there for artists?
Are there specific artists that you remember learning that viewpoint from, or did you just kind of grow up around that message?
I think it wasn’t something that I even noticed until later in life… I don’t think I knew how to put words to it. But it was something that I understood from being an observer of the type of art–and music in particular–that was born out of the late 60’s and early 70’s. When you’re growing up listening to Stevie Wonder, and a song like “Living for the City” is playing, even if at a young age I couldn’t fully understand what the context was, I knew that he was speaking truth to something. Similarly, when I got a little older and had a very heavy Beatles phase. Just the idea that art can actually help people see different perspectives and can make it much easier for people to digest–versus when they’re trying to have a conversation with somebody, [which] can oftentimes lead to somebody being intimidated or feeling pressure to have a certain type of view. It might not be until they see other people on screen or on stage or hear a song that they begin to understand somebody else’s perspective. I think art is really powerful in that way.
Art is also [used] in destructive ways. There are a lot of people who are behind the scenes in government who have degrees in creative writing and art, and they’re using it as a propaganda tool. So I think that, as an artist, it is important to understand the amount of power that we have speaking to a massive group of people. Obviously there are some people who don’t feel it’s important to them to use their platform to speak out on issues, but for me, I want to make sure that I’m being responsible with the platform that I do have. For me that means being socially active and trying to bring light to certain things that maybe people don’t have an understanding of.
One thing you have said you learned from your father is the importance of being true to yourself and to your art. What decisions has that lesson led you to or helped you navigate?
I think that deciding to become a solo musician was a big example. I had definitely been hiding from taking that leap for a long time, and then it became very apparent when I finally made the decision to do so, that it was the right thing to do. There were all these things that lined up in my life that made it very clear that that was the path I was supposed to be taking.
And, even doing these a cappella [EPs] that have started off my career. Instead of running away from being too on the nose in terms of being my father’s daughter, I just went with what was most natural, and that opened up a lot of doors that I wasn’t anticipating. And it was very clear that it wasn’t just a nepotism factor, but that people were really interested in what I was doing musically. A lot of that came from following my gut and staying true to myself, in terms of how I write music. I think ultimately when you are true to yourself that’s when you are the most rewarded.
You mentioned you started a cappella. But the new project, You + I, has some production and some beats. Most of the tracks were produced by your brother, right?
Four out of the six were produced [by him], yeah. One is an a cappella intro, and the other is me and piano, so all the ones with beats behind them, [my brother] Taylor did.
How did you decide to let him produce those tracks?
I had written a previous album–before the a cappella stuff came out–and he was gonna do one song. After he finished that one song I was like, “You know what? I want the whole thing to sound like this.” That project ended up getting reworked, but I waited for him to finish his own album, and then we were able to work on our stuff together. It really came down to, he produces what I hear in my head. So instead of me trying to ask other producers to produce like this, I was like, “let me just ask my big brother to do it!” [laughs] It helps that he’s talented.
In your song “TRY,” there’s a line that’s repeated throughout, in a way that sounds mantric: “No sacrifice comes without mistakes.” What’s the story behind that line? Is it a reaction to a specific instance?
It’s just an ongoing thing that I try to remind myself, because I make plenty of mistakes on a daily basis. When you’re sacrificing something, it’s not gonna be perfect, and a lot of mistakes are gonna be made before you can actually get to where you want to be.
With You + I, [the songs] are not about regular relationships per se, and I knew I wanted [“TRY”] to be about a relationship with somebody and themselves. Once I figured out what I wanted [the song] to be about, it flowed pretty seamlessly. I always do melody first, and that actually helps me fit in the words more fluidly. Singing along with the melody, that just really came out. [That’s] another instance of me being true to myself. I try to not overly force things–particularly in a musical sense–that aren’t coming to me naturally. I think that was just probably my deep subconscious coming out.
I hear that from so many artists, that when you’re writing songs you feel like something just came out of your deep subconscious, and you’re like, “oh, I didn’t know that was in there.”
In “NO ROOM,” the most striking thing to me is the ending, the way it cuts off really suddenly. Why did you choose to do that? Or did it just happen organically?
So, I had the track order before I even wrote any of the melody or lyrics, and [the production on] “NO ROOM” got reworked the most from what it originally was. The first half was the same, and then I had my brother change the middle and the end. As I was singing along– something about it–I was like, “I just want it to cut off, I want it to feel abrupt, I want it to be kind of jarring.” On the EP, there’s not any second of pause or anything; it just cuts off and goes right into “TRY.” A lot of people have been like, “Is this a mistake?” and actually the whole point is that you’re supposed to listen to the whole EP. That was really the main intention behind it: I wanted to force people to listen to it that way.
But also, “NO ROOM” is the song that deals with your relationship with society and is a bigger comment on the disconnection and polarization that there seems to be with us collectively as a society. So that abrupt ending kind of symbolizes not knowing where to go.
You have been using loop pedals in your music for some time. Do you have any tips for artists who are interested in getting started with loop pedals?
I would say just keep trying–no pun intended. For me, the learning curve mostly happened with trying to get things synced up in the way that I wanted them to. I think it comes down to figuring out your layers and then practicing those layers over and over and over. I took a lot of time practicing how to get from one line to the next. Also, I was practicing with a metronome, making sure that my timing was right.
There are so many looping tools that you can use now. I did a session with Apple [with] looping on GarageBand on your iPad, and you can do it on your phone and stuff too. I like the stomping of the pedal. I had a very brief stint–as an adolescent–playing drums, so stomping with my foot was a better connection for me.
You live in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn). Everybody talks about how New York is such a magical, unique place to be working as an artist. Do you agree with that? If so, what exactly do you think creates that magic?
I would definitely agree with that. Even just in my neighborhood, there are so many incredible artists. I think that New York has been a melting pot of a lot of different types of art, which is unique. There are other cities that, maybe they have a really great theatre scene, or maybe they have a really great visual art scene, but to have it all mixed together is a uniquely New York situation.
The other beautiful thing about it that has bred so much incredible art is that New York has been, and continues to be, the hub of cultural mixing. Even though there are obviously places where the Hasidic Jews live, and Chinese folks live, and where Black folks live–even though there are pockets of communities–they’re in the middle of all these other things. Everything gets blended together. The fact that you get to walk around and see so many types of people–that’s incredibly inspiring, because it’s not homogenous. You get to be inspired by different skin tones, different ways of dress, just different everything. That is a very beautiful thing about New York, and I’m grateful to live here.
What do you have planned following the release of You + I, into 2020?
I’m always gonna be continuing to work on music. I definitely want to look towards a full-length album. That won’t be coming out in 2020, but that’ll definitely be worked on. I want to involve more collaboration on the next project, because I think that there’s a lot to be said [for] bringing communities together to create a greater project. So I want to continue to build that community and continue to spread joy through music in the new decade.