Always introspective and often experimental, Madison Cunningham’s music doesn’t fit neatly into any one specific genre. The Recording Academy, for example, nominated 2019’s “Who Are You Now” for best Americana album, but recently bestowed her “Revealer” with the Grammy for best folk album. This, in itself, is a little mystifying for a project that leans heavily into alt-soundscapes and seemingly owes more of a debt to Fiona Apple than Joan Baez.
Not that it bothers Cunningham. ”People like having references,” the 26-year-old tells Variety. “But I would never categorize ‘Revealer’ as folk at all.” When pressed on how she would label it, Cunningham pauses to consider. “I’ve had a hard time really being able to generalize what the sound is,” the California-bred artist says. “It’s electric guitar forward and it’s singer-songwriter. I guess I would categorize it under indie-rock alternative.”
Categories aside, Grammy recognition is a game-changer for Cunningham. When her name was called out she “just started running to the microphone” and likened the experience to blacking out. “I don’t remember what I said,” she laughs. “It was very surreal.” The magnitude of the achievement wasn’t lost on her. “People describe [the Grammys] as the Super Bowl for musicians,” she says. “It feels wonderful to get that recognition from your peers.”
There’s usually a halo effect from the win that entails a higher profile and more opportunities, but Cunningham has modest expectations. “I have yet to see the difference in terms of how it really plays out in the real world,” she says. Her biggest hope is that more people discover the album: “That’s all I could have ever wanted.” After all, “Revealer” took more than three years and a whole lot of heartache to make.
Cunningham describes “Life According to Raechel,” a song about losing her grandmother, as the linchpin for an album that documents the mercurial effects of grief.
“That song is the tarp that lays over all the ideas,” she says. “When you lose somebody, it changes you forever. It opens up parts of you and locks down other parts of you. The whole record is about the idea of absence and missing someone.”
While anchored in sadness, “Revealer” never wallows in it. The second half of the album, in particular, finds Cunningham expressing herself through wildly experimental songs like “Collider Particles” and “Your Hate Could Power a Train.”
“Side B is fun because it definitely goes off the rails a little bit,” she says, before describing the former as “a great example of a tune that reaches outside of the record’s sonic palette.” It’s an exercise she revisits on a new version of “Hospital” featuring alt-pop artist Remi Wolf.
“Remi and I had been talking online,” she says of the collaboration. “We hung out and got coffee.” When they hit the studio, the creative chemistry was already there. “We were all just being led by our curiosity; there were no rules around it,” Cunningham says. It’s the kind of experiment she hopes to do again and again. “I’ve always wanted to keep the sonic landscape broad. I’m not afraid of delving into that a little bit more.”
While ideas are slowly starting to materialize for Cunningham’s next project, she’s currently contending with festivals and live performances. “There’s always something that’s brewing,” she says. “It’s really easy to collect melodies, but the follow-through is almost impossible. I never write full songs on the road, just take away souvenirs from a sound check.” She has time set aside this year to write. “I very much hope that it is a faster turnaround than the last time.”
There’s a sense of tradition in the way Cunningham approaches music, which can be at odds with the current musical landscape. She balks at the idea of embracing TikTok, for example. “I hate it so much,” she says bluntly. “It deeply confuses me.” Instead, she outsources the work: “There’s somebody on my team, which I realize is a privilege, who runs it for me because I can’t ignore it. It’s there, and it’s a useful tool for a lot of people.”
For her, TikTok is emblematic of a larger problem. “There’s a pull between artists and tech, and they’re at odds, but they also can work for each other and need each other,” Cunningham continues. “But my opinion is that there’s a working order that’s important. The artist is in charge of the tech, but if tech is in charge of the artist, I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen.” She puts that losing battle down to shortsightedness in the music industry.
“Why don’t we stop to ask ourselves if this is right for the artist?” she ponders. “I don’t think longevity is always a part of the decision-making. It’s really just, ‘How can we make money now? How can we sell tickets now?’”
It’s a shortcut to the top that Cunningham isn’t willing to take. “I love being in control of the art that I make and the music that I write,” she says. “If that means that it’s a slower burn or a longer road, I’m more than willing to take it.”
Ultimately, however, Cunningham is happy to be making music at this point in history. “Labels are a little more lenient than they used to be and people are starting to push back against outdated ways of thinking,” she says. “It’s always a fantastic place to be when these foundational things get questioned. I think it’s a wonderful time, despite my long rant about TikTok!” She also notes that things are improving for female artists.
“It was so much harder for women 50 years ago,” she says. “And there’s always going to be echoes of that forever that us women will deal with. And I have and will, but it is a more fruitful time, I would say, to be an artist in that way.” By not-so-quietly stretching the boundaries of folk and tackling social media on her own terms, Cunningham is doing her part for the next generation of artists to come.