The only Canadians to win the John Lennon Songwriting Contest Grand Prize, folk duo Madison Violet – comprising of Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac – release their new album, The Good in Goodbye, in March. With Americana inspired melodies and candid lyrics, the record was written as an “open diary” about their personal experiences. We chatted with the duo about their songwriting evolution, their inspirations, and their favorite Neil Young and Gillian Welch songs.
You became the first Canadians to win the John Lennon Songwriting Contest Grand Prize in 2009 – what did it mean to you as writers?
BRENLEY: I think it’s given us more confidence knowing that Elton John, Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige, just to name a few, listened to a song we wrote and liked it. Winning this award is another accolade we’ve worked hard for, but I think the true reward is the temerity it gives us to make the next song better than the last one.
Your music references roots, pop and country – who are some artists that inspire your writing?
BRENLEY: When I was younger, Neil Young, Richards/Jagger and Cat Stevens were definitely some of my favourite writers and I’ll often pick up the guitar and play tunes that they’ve written when I’m feeling stuck and uninspired. I think the hardest song to write is that three chord simple one that just shoots straight from the heart lyrically and is melodically so infectious it never leaves your head once it gets in there. Hearing Harvest was a life changing moment for me. I started sneaking into my brother’s room to play his guitar when he wasn’t home, leafing through his Eagles’s songbooks, Rolling Stones’s songbooks and soon enough from the chords I’d learned, I was able to teach myself “Old Man” and “Heart Of Gold” by ear so I could play along with the record. Later on, I really got into Elton John/Bernie Taupin, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, Lucinda Williams, Pheobe Snow and Nick Lowe as well.
How has your songwriting style evolved since your first record, Worry the Jury?
LISA: When we put out our first album Worry The Jury, it was much less a collaboration lyrically, than it is now. I came from more of a music/instrumental background, playing trad fiddle since I was 9, whereas Brenley was more a lyricist. I think that we were still trying to find our nitch and our place sonically with WTJ. It definitely has more pop elements, not only in the lyrics, but also the production, having worked with John Reynolds (Sinead O’Connor, U2, Andrea Corr). The longer we worked together, the more we got to know one another, and the easier it became to meld our stories into one (getting progressively rootier along the way).
I found that being new to co-writing (when Brenley and I met), we were more delicate in our phrasing, not in the words we laid on paper, but in the way we addressed each other’s input. It was difficult to understand why either one of our thoughts wasn’t working with the other’s, so we had to tread lightly initially, while we got to know each other. Now, after 12 years or touring and recording, and maturing as writers, we can be brutally honest, and fight for lines to stay or phrases to go, and not feel emotionally attached to them. We write nearly everything together now, words and music, but we’ve definitely come full circle over the years. 2009’s No Fool For Trying could be summed up as a roots/alt-country album, while the writing with our last album, has not only has elements of bluegrass/alt-country, but it also some full on pop melodies.
You’ve described The Good in Goodbye as an open diary of your personal and professional experiences together. From this standpoint, were any songs difficult to write?
BRENLEY: “Stuck In A Love” was an easy song to write, but a hard song for me to hear and be heard I suppose. It’s a very candid 10 year breakup song and at times I feel quite vulnerable and exposed performing it. I’m in a great place with it, but it still pulls on the heartstrings from time to time looking back at that time in my life.
What was the last song you wrote? Tell us about it.
LISA: The last song that was written was actually the title track of our last release, ‘The Good in Goodbye’. We knew that the record was missing something; a track with some grit to it. A lot of the songs on the album are farewell songs, and keeping with that theme, the lyric “The Good in Goodbye” came to Brenley one day while we were recording. We finished the song in a matter of a couple days, between takes of recording other tracks and eating take out. It’s really about looking hard, digging deep within yourself to find that one good thing in goodbye. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s usually there.
What’s a song on The Good In Goodbye you really want people to hear, and why?
BRENLEY: “Christy Ellen Francis,” because I want the whole world to know who this incredible grandmother of mine is.
What’s a lyric you’re proud of on the album?
BRENLEY: Gee, this question makes me bashful. I feel like the whole album is sort of a painting, so if I chose one lyric, it’ll be like putting it up on a pedestal and putting the rest in a cage away from the canvas and then it’ll seem incomplete. Or maybe I’m too insecure to choose!! I’m proud of everything we’ve written on this album, but honestly I think we still have so much more to say, and I think that is what makes me most proud. Proud that we want to start on a new canvas.
Any interesting real life stories behind the songs on the album?
BRENLEY: Going back to the song “Christy Ellen Francis,” Christy is my 100 year old grandmother who is blessed with this scintillating wit that amazes me each and every time I see her. When she was 15 years old she became a lighthouse keeper on Cape Breton Island before she went on to mother 16 children, one of which is my father. Where I am in my life today as compared to where she was at my current age, our experiences couldn’t be more different and yet we have this very special connection. She’s been read her last rites a million times in the last six months, but then she shocks us all a few hours later by sitting up in bed, having a cup of tea and a biscuit. She’s remarkable.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
LISA: Panties and doily. Hate those words. Don’t think they will find themselves in any of our songs. However, I used to hate the word lover and then I realized that it’s a very good word. It can be gentle or crass. Soft or strong. It’s a very versatile word.
BRENLEY: Lover. Not sure why but I don’t like the word lover. Love is good, lover: bad.
LISA: Brenley, did you not read my last answer? Stop skimming. Now I look ridiculous. I like the word ‘lover’. Nuff said!
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
BRENLEY: It changes from song to song. Sometimes a melody just pops into my head and I start singing sounds rather than actual words that sound good with the chord changes, and then start working the lyrics, keeping those first sounds I was singing in mind. Sometimes Lisa thinks she hears me say a word and it’s perfect and feels like a gift. Like there’s this mysterious invisible middleman helping us write the song. It’s fun when that happens. Other times, we might write a whole verse or a chorus and then pick up the guitar and craft it into a song together.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
LISA: I don’t find we revise a lot of our lyrics. I think what comes out first is typically what stays in the song. Your first idea is usually your strongest in the end. We do, however, have a plethora of songs that will never come to be, for any ears other than our own. Maybe not revising is our downfall, as when we finish a song, if it doesn’t make the next album, we typically deem it unworthy. If we had more discipline, maybe we would go back in the vault and take those songs to a place where we would be happy to share them. But it’s hard to rewrite a story once you’ve seen the credits roll by.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
LISA: I think that Amelia Curran (an east coast Canadian artist) has a gift. She’s a gorgeous writer who creates such beautiful imagery with her songs. She writes a killer ballads (which I am a sucker for). You just want to wrap your arms around her lyrics when she sings them.
What’s a song you wish you’d written, and why?
LISA: “Everything Is Free” by Gillian Welch. I admit, I have the attention span of a gnat. But when this song comes on, everything comes into focus. I feel clear, inspired and a bit teary at the same time. It’s written about music piracy, but it’s one of those songs that can be interpreted in many different ways. I found my own meaning in her lyrics. To me, that’s the beauty of a well-crafted song.
BRENLEY: I wished I’d written “The Needle And The Damage Done.” It made me want to be a songwriter. Had I written it, it’s a song I could sing over and over and never tire of it. The melody is beautiful and the lyrics are sorrowful… I love sad songs.