Madison Cunningham was wrapping up a tour with Iron & Wine back in February when she received a surreal Instagram DM from a fan.
“Out of the blue I got a direct message from Harry himself,” Cunningham tells American Songwriter in an interview featured below. “He was like, ‘I just wanted to reach out and say that I really love the record and I would love to connect at some point.’ I was, of course, blown away. I couldn’t have imagined that my record would have made it into his world.”
The Harry in question is Harry Styles, and the record in question is Cunningham’s impressive 2019 debut Who Are You Now, which earned the LA singer-songwriter a Grammy nomination and marked a milestone in her creative relationship with producer Tyler Chester.
But it’s what Styles said next that really took Cunningham by surprise: “He said from there, ‘I don’t want to be forward but I would love it if you would somehow be involved in my touring this year.’”
Soon Cunningham was billed to support Styles’ October 2020 Madison Square Garden appearances along with Orville Peck. Those dates have now been pushed to 2021 due to COVID, but Cunningham is eager to get back in front of live crowds.
“I think an audience really relieves the performer with bickering and interaction,” she says. “Talking with the people in the crowd—and the applause—that’s a relief for an artist. I don’t have that right now.”
What Cunningham does have right now is time: she’s spent the last few months hunkering down in her apartment in Los Angeles, where she’s gearing up to release a collection of B-sides and working on her sophomore record. Two of those B-sides—“Giraffe” and “No One Else to Blame”—have already been released, and today Cunningham shares a third.
“It was one of those songs that was written in a hurry,” says Cunningham of “Coming Back,” which layers her breathy, cacophonous vocals over slinking, sputtering instrumentals. “It was written maybe two weeks before we went in and recorded, and my goal was to just be as free as possible and to let my stream of consciousness run the song.”
We caught up with Cunningham by phone last month about the track and her forthcoming collection. She also opened up about connecting with Styles, collaborating with Chester, and giving herself space to write without needing to know what she’s writing about.
Listen to “Coming Back” and check out the full interview below.
American Songwriter: Are you in LA right now?
Madison Cunningham: I am! [Me and my husband Austin] decided to duel it out here and haven’t left for a while. We’ve been in this small apartment for about 9 or 10 weeks now. It’s hard to keep your imagination up when all you have is just walls around you!
What’ve the last few months looked like for you guys?
Thankfully with the nature of my job I’ve been able to keep [working]. I can work as much as I want to and I’m actually in the process of working on a new record, so I’m just using the time to find what I want to say next and to write these songs.
It’s hard to find a silver lining in all of this, because it feels like there is so much [negativity] and so much sadness, but I think one good thing has been spending a lot of time focusing on the next record, which is not always the case for your sophomore album. It’s usually more touch and go—just dive in and get it done as fast as you can. I feel like I have more time to sprawl out and put all the pieces together.
Tell us about “Coming Back.” What’s it about? When did you write and record it?
It was one of those songs that was written in a hurry. It was written maybe two weeks before we went in and recorded, and my goal was to just be as free as possible and to let my stream of consciousness run the song.
In all honesty I don’t totally know what it’s about. I feel like it’s someone recalling a memory or someone having an epiphany about something, but I don’t totally know. Sometimes I think it’s freeing to have songs that exist like that, ‘cause I feel like I spend so much of my time trying to figure out what a song means and how to make it hit hard. Anyways, this was an exercise to be as free as possible and just let the ideas roam free.
“Coming Back” comes after “Giraffe” and “No One Else to Blame.” They’re all pretty different—how would you compare them?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know if you can compare them. The idea was to have these B-sides live in their own universe so that it didn’t feel like it was necessarily an extension of the record. I really felt like they weren’t a part of the Who Are You Now body of work. They are their own life forms, even though they technically make a bonus record.
I feel like the songs themselves don’t even have much correlation in how they exist and what they’re saying. They were all written at very different times, probably all six months apart. Maybe they’re distant cousins twice removed. That’s how I would put it.
“Giraffe” is an instrumental. That one feels very different than anything I’ve ever done, very different from the record as well. I feel like they’re all pretty distant from each other. I think that’s also the main reason why they didn’t end up making it on the record, because they all just felt like different thought-forms.
What did you make of the reception of Who Are You Now? How’d it feel to get nominated for a Grammy?
It was wildly unexpected, and just an honor. None of us from the president of my label to the producer of the record had expected that that would happen, including myself. Not in my wildest dreams. That was a big compliment that we all felt when we received the news.
Do you think you’ll be working with any of your collaborators from that record on the next?
Totally. I think we’re going to approach this record a little bit differently but it will be Tyler Chester producing, who produced Who Are You Now as well. I’ve worked with him since I was sixteen, so I feel like he comes with the package of what I do. I feel like we lean on each other pretty heavily. He’ll be there, and that’s kind of all we know. We’re just letting the songs inform how we’re going to do everything.
Has that artist/producer relationship evolved since those early years?Certainly. I felt like it was more of a favor that he worked with me at the beginning, just because I was young and I had no experience. Then I think it grew into a mentorship, and then a very collaborative [relationship]. We work together a lot. I feel like it went from him helping out—doing a favor for his friend’s kid—to ‘Oh, now we’re in the business, working side by side.’ He mentored me along the way. He’s like a brother figure too. You go through so many highs and lows together. But I know it’s an incredibly rare thing to have that sort of foundation and person to bounce things off of and steer you in the right direction. I feel incredibly lucky to have met Tyler when I did.
Have you guys been able to collaborate remotely during the pandemic?
We collaborate weekly. I’ve seen him a few times. We’ll make instrument exchanges via the driveway. We’ll pass them at a safe distance. That’s been the only contact right now, but we talk all the time and send each other ideas back and forth. It’s a pretty constant thing.
I know you’ll be supporting Harry Styles later this year at Madison Square Garden along with Orville Peck. How’d that come together?
It was totally crazy! I was in the middle of a tour with Iron & Wine earlier this year and out of the blue I got a direct message from Harry himself. He was like, ‘I just wanted to reach out and say that I really love the record and I would love to connect at some point.’ I was, of course, blown away. I couldn’t have imagined that my record would have made it into his world.
Then he said from there, ‘I don’t want to be forward but I would love it if you would somehow be involved in my touring this year.’ So that’s how it ended up coming about! None of us expected that. I’ve not met him yet, but from the way he’s communicated he’s just such a sweet guy and really [cares] about giving other people opportunities. That’s a rare quality in someone at his level and of his caliber, so that was so special.
Do you miss in-person performances? Have you done anything virtually? That’s been the battle to figure out—how to make a concert translate over the internet. I have done a few of them and I feel like I’m still trying my hand at it. But I really just miss [live crowds]. I think an audience really relieves the performer with bickering and interaction. Talking with the people in the crowd—and the applause—that’s a relief for an artist. I don’t have that right now. I feel like I’m just filling dead space all the time with me talking too much. That is something I really miss: not talking so much.
“Coming Back” is out now.