Interview with musician Madison McFerrin

By Becky Brown
Photographed by Meg Wachter

Madison McFerrin is a wildly talented singer and songwriter, a trait she no doubt inherited from her Grammy-winning father, jazz performer Bobby McFerrin. She grew up singing alongside living legends Aretha Franklin, George Clinton and P-funk, De La Soul and The Roots, and spent her life developing her musical aesthetic. Among her myriad of accomplishments, McFerrin was asked to sing the national anthem for a Hillary Clinton rally in June 2016, and due to audio issues, her performance was not well received. The experience propelled McFerrin to start putting out solo shows and she is killing it.

McFerrin’s vocal artistry is remarkable. She uses a loop pedal to record herself live during her performances, using her voice as an instrument. Her voice is hypnotizing and soulful, a sound McFerrin describes as “future soul.” She released her debut EP, Finding Foundations Vol. 1 in December and her first music video, “No Time To Lose,” launched earlier this month. I was lucky enough to see McFerrin perform a few songs from Finding Foundations as well as a politically-charged and beautifully poetic song, “Can You See?” During an intimate gathering in Brooklyn, McFerrin’s heartfelt vocals silenced a chatty audience.

I had a chance to speak with McFerrin, who is as warm as she is talented.

You describe yourself as a “born-and-bred solo artist.” How did you get your start?

Well, I grew up in a family where music was prevalent every day. Whether that was my dad singing, or music being played, the majority of the music that was being played was James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles. That was pretty much what I was raised on every day. We like to have a good time.

Did you start as a back-up vocalist?

No, I’ve always been singing. And I think in the back of my mind I always knew – not in the back of my mind- I always knew I wanted to be a solo artist. Then in college, I was in a band called, “Cosmodrome,” and I really enjoyed it. I loved the people that were in it and the music that we were making. I thought that was going to be the path, but things just didn’t work out. I still love all the guys. I was in another band called, “Binary Soul,” which was always something that was missing. When I finally decided that I wanted to be a solo artist, things kind of came together where I was like, “Yep, that where I’m supposed to be.” I’m happy I made this decision.

Who are some of your influencers?

Definitely the people I mentioned before. Eryka Baddu is a big one. Her vocal finesse is amazing and her lyrics are incredible. The Beatles are a big one for me. Hiatus Kaiyote, that’s a big one, too.

On your site, you describe your music as a combination of “the story telling once revered in the past with the sound of the 21st century.” Can you expand on that?

Just as an example of the people I mentioned before, and what I’m growing up with today, there was more of an emphasis on what you actually said in your lyrics and telling a story was really important. People were really honest. And not to say that people aren’t necessarily honest today, but the stuff you hear on the radio today is, “I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna fuck some bitches, I got a lot of money.” There’s a lot more emphasis on drugs being cool. I don’t think that’s something you need to be spreading to the masses. I think it needs to be more about love and happiness and real stories. And there are some people that have deep drug use stories, but it’s not what you’re hearing on popular radio. I want to have more of an emphasis on real experiences that aren’t encouraging people to consume in a negative way in their life. I’m very inspired by a lot of the sonic stuff that’s happening today - more underground stuff and the sounds of the past - but I don’t want to sound super retro. I want there to be a feel to it, but I want it to be relevant, forward thinking.

What do you mean by “sonic stuff”? It’s a term that I don’t know.

When I say that, I mean the melodies of a chordal structure, of actual sounds that are being used if it’s not instrumental. There is a lot of good stuff out there, but a lot of times, unfortunately there are dumb lyrics on top of it.

In your BRIC TV interview, you mentioned that you had planned on singing a different version of the national anthem for the Hillary Clinton rally. Is the different version of the anthem you planned to sing in the song, “Can You See?” that you posted in late January?

No. I thought the, “Can You See?” song was really fitting, and it’s kind of for people who know what I have gone through, but it also fits with the song really well. I changed it just for the song. What had happened at the Clinton rally was that I had practiced the national anthem all day, but then all these people had started singing along with me. I couldn’t’ tell people to stop singing the national anthem, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll just go with the crowd version of singing the national anthem,” vs. spotlight’s-on-me, I’m going to be the only one doing this. Of course you can’t hear the crowd singing in the audio of the taping.

You can kinda hear it.

Eh, I couldn’t hear myself. But you know, it was one of those things where I recognize that mistake and I’ll never make that same mistake again. I’ll make plenty more mistakes, but not that one.

So, “Can You See?” is such a powerful song. Is there a specific event tied to its inspiration or is it a broader political comment?

More of a broader political comment. There wasn’t a specific moment that sparked it.  I didn’t go out trying to write a politically-motivated song, but it just so happened that that’s what naturally flowed. I was happy with how it came together. Actually, my boyfriend was the one who recommended adding the national anthem into something. It wasn’t necessarily that song, but after I had finished it I was like, ‘I think this would really work.’ It’s more in the feeling of today.

It’s so important.

I plan on writing more.

Finding Foundations Vol. 1 is very relatable and personal. Are these songs based on real experiences?

I think regardless of whether or not I write a song about a specific moment, it’s relatable. I definitely draw from inspiration. “No Time To Lose,” funnily enough, is the one that doesn’t really have a specific something I can go back to, or is about a specific person. It was one of those moments, where I was making some music and the words just kind of flowed out. I’ve been in that situation many times. It’s not dishonest to my experience because I’ve struggled with wasting time on boys.

You also recently composed the music for Keenan Scott II’s play, “Thoughts Of A Colored Man On A Day When The Sun Set Too Early.” Has your creative process changed with this new challenge and if so, how does it differ from the way you approach your personal work?

It definitely was different. I’ve never done anything like that before. It was just me and the loop pedal, and it was about 75% improvised every show. I had an idea of what was supposed to happen because the interesting thing was, my instructions on what to write about, were pretty vague because the director doesn’t speak music language. So, she’s trying to give me feelings of stuff. On top of that, the play was small vignettes, so it wasn’t like a whole connected storyline for the most part. Each story, the monologue had it’s own vibe. I had to go with what I thought that meant musically. It was a challenge that was very accepted because now I’ve got that under my belt and would not be afraid to say yes the next time around.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on 2 things: Finding Foundations Volume 2. and a produced project called, “You And I,” that I started writing about one year ago, after I’d decided to become a solo artist. It came about in a very natural way. It’s 5 songs, and I don’t know which one is going to come out first because a funny thing happened. I was planning on releasing, “You And I” first, and when I started doing these solo shows in September, the songs I wrote for “You and I,” - I wrote them on a piano, and I can’t do them on a loop pedal. I wanted to be able to perform solo, completely solo. My first solo show, I did half solo and half with the band. The band did play songs from, “You And I,” but since I knew I didn’t want to do that, I had to write a bunch of new music to be able perform on the loop pedal. When I start writing stuff on the loop pedal, I ended up writing these songs that are on Finding Foundations and I liked them. Because, “You and I” is more of a bigger project for me, I was like, ‘I’ll do an a cappella series’ and that way I’m gonna keep writing a cappella music, so that when have like 3 songs I want to put out, I can record them and put them out easily. I recorded and put out Finding Foundations in about 6 weeks. It’s done a pretty good job of getting that initial buzz I wanted.

You just started putting on solo shows since September?

Yeah. I’ve been performing for a long time, but I’d been afraid to do the solo artist thing because you know, I think we all have fears of failure. It was the debacle - all these people telling me that I couldn’t do something that I was really passionate about for me to be like, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to book a show and then I have to do it.’

Did you always want to put out solo shows?

I think so. I’m enjoying doing it by myself but it’ll probably grow in the future. For right now, it’s a lot easier to manage one person, one person’s comings and goings and one person’s egos.

Is there anything else you want to plug?

Joe’s Pub on April 1st. It’s going to be an EP release show.