Growing up surrounded by music, her father a touring musician and her parents owning a live music venue, Madeline Merlo was destined for a career in music. That destiny would soon lead her to Nashville to fulfill her dreams.
Starting out on Canada’s stage and carving out quite a successful path for herself—signing a record deal with Open Road Recordings, scoring a hit song with “Honey Jack” and winning the CCMA Rising Star Award and BCCMA Female Artist of the Year—Merlo always had her sights set on Music City.
“It was very early on that I knew I wanted to move, but it was like, how do you get there? I’m not even a citizen,” Merlo tells American Songwriter. “I need a visa. There are a lot of steps that you have to take in order to make it happen. But yeah, Nashville was always kind of in the back of my mind.”
Fast Forward to the NBC song competition series Songland, which Merlo participated in and won, she wrote the song “Champagne Night,” with Shane McAnally, for the country group Lady A. The song became a No. 1 hit and Merlo was on her way. Now with the release of her EP, Slide, Merlo is eager to share her music with the world.
“I am elated to finally have this EP out in the world,” says Merlo. “I’m so grateful for my entire team, record label, publisher, all the co-writers, my producer Zach Crowell and every single person who had something to do with this project! My hope is that people have as much fun listening to it as we did making it.”
Merlo sat down with American Songwriter to talk about her musical influences, the hit song, “Champagne Night,” with Lady A, her latest EP, Slide and so much more.
American Songwriter: You’re new EP, Slide, is finally out. How does it feel to have your EP out in the world?
Madeline Merlo: It feels good. It was a long time coming. I spent a long time writing for this project and then kind of tweaking and changing and waiting for the right moment to put it out, so I’m thrilled to have it in the world now.
We’ve got a lot of tempo, a lot of energy on this project and I think that’s a common thread for all of my music. Growing up listening to someone like Shania, there was so much joy that was sparked by that music, and I think that’s always been kind of my goal. Obviously, you’ve got the songs that have a little edge or a little sadness, but I love music that makes me dance with my friends and I can turn up in the car. That’s the music that I love. So I think that’s a common thread. And sonically it’s really country instruments as well. We’ve got a lot of steel on it, got a lot of banjo and more acoustic kind of instruments, and then melodies that kind of flow in and out of little pop melodies and country melodies and kind of go in and out of those pieces.
It definitely felt like setting this kind of mood or setting the brand and each of those songs has something different in them, a different maybe side of me or a different note I wanted to touch on it, kind of tease what the rest of the album would be like. We’ve got some slower songs, but even the ballads, I just want them to move a little bit and make you feel something. But I love having a kick drum in the back just to push the song forward.
AS: Let’s go back. Tell us about you and how music and songwriting started for you.
MM: I grew up in a little town called Maple Ridge, which is about 40 minutes outside Vancouver, Canada, on the West Coast. And I grew up in a pretty small town. I grew up riding horses and it was kind of blueberry fields everywhere, really wholesome and cute and I just always loved music. I can’t explain it. I don’t remember being 11 and being like, “I’m going to choose music.” It was just always something that I felt was inside of me. I was always very moved by music and singing even as a toddler and a baby and stuff.
I performed for the first time when I was six years old and wrote my first song when I was eight years old. I’m sure it was very silly. It was all very inspiring. It was like, you can do it kind of stuff, which is really cute. I had a lot of journals. I was always just writing stuff down. I loved poems, loved English class, loved short stories, and just loved characters and imaginative things and stuff. So I think that I was always a little writer, but I remember being 15 and being like, “This is a song.” This is kind of sounding like a song and picking up a guitar and strumming along and putting those pieces together. I would steal my dad’s guitar and I just taught myself chords and strummed along. It didn’t sound very good. And I’m sure the songs were terrible as well, but that was awesome. And I remember that feeling really cool.
AS: When did you know you wanted to make the move from Canada to Nashville?
MM: My first concert was Shana Twain and I remember that kind of changed things for me when I was 10 and being like, “Okay, wow. She is doing this. She’s so beautiful and so great and awesome and she’s from Canada. This is a real thing now.”
And I remember learning about her story and how she moved to Nashville and that was like, “Okay, I have to move to Nashville.” So it was very early on that I knew I wanted to move, but it was like, how do you get there? I’m not even a citizen. I need a visa. There are a lot of steps that you have to take in order to make it happen. But yeah, Nashville was always kind of in the back of my mind.
AS: Was there ever a worry for you about leaving a successful Canadian career to start over in Nashville?
MM: It was always what I wanted to do. Leaving it would watch it dwindle a little bit. So that maybe was—there was a hesitancy for it. I wouldn’t say that it ever definitely stood in the way. I was just really busy I think. I was touring a bunch. I was playing a lot of shows. I filmed a movie in that time. I was working a ton. And so maybe the timing didn’t add up to actually move, but it was always on the plan. It was never something I wasn’t going to do. And it was hard. I was making decent money and living my dreams and winning awards. I got to sing with Shania Twain at the Canadian Country Music Awards one time. Amazing things happened to me. So it was a little bit of a decision to leave, but Nashville was always the place I was going.
AS: How did your appearance on the NBC show Songland come about?
MM: That’s a crazy story because I had a casting director reach out to me through Instagram and basically asked me to go on this show that never got made. It was this NBC show called Playlist or something. And so I went through these rounds of auditions and met with the director and the casting director and they did a background check and everything. And then they were like, “Just kidding, it’s not being made.” And I was like, “Okay.” And two years later, the same casting director was like, “Hey, I’m casting for Songland, are you interested?” And I was like, “Sure.” He’s like, “I remember you being a country singer, can you send me a song?” I sent him one song and he said, “Your flight’s tomorrow.” It was that quick.
And I was like, “Oh my gosh, Okay.” Very nervous and scared and all of the things. And it was a whirlwind, but a really good experience honestly from front to finish. I think everyone who worked on that set, all the songwriters, all the… Obviously, Shane (McAnally) and Esther (Dean) and Ryan (Tedder), and the whole production team were really amazing. I could have never imagined it would’ve ended up that way because I certainly didn’t think I was going to win. I thought I was going to sing on TV. I was like, “I’d sing on NBC. That’s amazing. What a great opportunity.” Was not expecting to win and no song had ever been put to radio or really put marketing dollars behind it from that show. So that wasn’t even something I was dreaming of. It just was such a whirlwind.
AS: After writing the song, “Champagne Night,” —a song which Lady A subsequently released as a single and scored a No. 1 hit—with Shane McAnally, did you think there was a chance you’d win the show?
MM: We couldn’t hear anybody else’s stuff. That was the thing, they kept us in these soundproof— obviously, it’s the studio, but I didn’t hear anything that anybody else did and we weren’t really allowed to talk about it. So I had no idea. I felt confident. When I, especially watching the episode back, I mean they’re really into it. Lady A was. They’re bopping along and everyone seemed to really enjoy it, but I had no idea that the other contestants might have had similar experiences or maybe there’s more. So I didn’t know. I remember being less nervous the second time. I was like, “They’re going to love this. We crushed it.”
AS: Where does your inspiration come from for your songs?
MM: Life for sure, I think it’s easiest to write from yourself and experiences that you’ve had or even your friends have had. And I feel like being a writer, you’ve just got these little antennas on listening for cool things and perspectives and moments, even in movies and other songs and TV shows. So I think the world in itself is inspiring and honestly, I’m a music fan first. I listen to a lot of music from a lot of different genres. And even if it’s that this song just makes me feel so good and I don’t know why, I want to figure that out and make a song like that.
AS: You mentioned performing with Shania Twain on The CCMA’s. What was that like for you?
MM: Crazy. I mean it was one of those life moments where I remember being so nervous, of course. And I did it with two other Canadian females as well. And I remember us all, we were all just shaking and I was like, “I don’t want to ruin this moment being so scared because I wanted to soak this in.” And so I remember trying to be really intentionally calm and taking it in and I mean, she reminded me of a fun aunt. She was really joyful. She was really friendly. She was very kind and she knew that we were all looking at her and she just kind of knew we were meeting our hero that day and she did not let us down.
So it was great because we were doing this tribute to her and she was so involved. I mean there were so many people around her. They were like, “Shania’s coming in the store. Shania’s coming over here.” She had this whole thing and choreographers and all this stuff and she was the one who was like, “This is what y’all should do and you should do it this way.” She was so involved in the whole thing. So I really thought that was cool. I do remember though, I had just seen her and then we were walking the carpet, and she was like, “Hey Madeline.” And I was like, “Yeah, it was very cool.”
AS: Take us through a few of your songs on the EP. Tell us about the song “Slide” and writing that with Sam Hunt.
MM: Zach (Crowell) called me. I was at dinner. Zach and I hadn’t really done anything together yet. We had just kind of talked about how we were going to. I was at dinner with friends and I was like, “I got to go.” Just got up, mid-conversation, and just walked out. I picked up the phone and he said, “So Sam and I and Jerry Flowers, this other amazing songwriter, have started this song and we just don’t feel like it’s Sam’s. We just feel like it has a little feminine thing and we don’t know, would you want to jump in and finish it?” And I was like, “Absolutely, send it to me.” So I got the track and Sam’s melody, the chorus melody, was pretty much there, not fully. And then just a couple of lyrics here and there, but mainly mumbling. But there was something super cool about it. It had this throwback-y kind of staccato groove to it that I hadn’t really heard. And I loved the melodies, kind of soaring-ness of them. And of course, I was open to helping them finish it. But we needed a hook. We needed an idea. We needed a lot of lyrics and obviously verse, melodies, and all that stuff. So we worked on it multiple times together. It’s cool because the song started over here, then we wrote it, and then we kind of rewrote it and then we tweaked it. So it kind of went through different phases. But yeah, it was really cool. It was great to have such a collaborative process. I mean Sam is an incredible artist, but he’s an incredible songwriter. I’ve always loved everything that he does. It is very clever and very smart, but it also feels very cutting edge, everything that he does. So he’s a big inspiration to me.
AS: …And “Girl Where He Grew Up”
MM: That one was great. I love that song so much. I wrote it with Nathan Chapman and Jon Nite and went into the studio at Nathan’s place. He had this idea called school and he starts off like, I’ll teach you how to love me. I’ll take you to school. And I said as a joke, “The funny thing is you teach this guy how to love you and then he goes and dates somebody else and uses everything you taught him.” And we all kind of laughed and we were like, “That’s a really good idea.” And I think we were just talking it through and I’m pretty sure it was Nathan that said, “You’re the girl where he grew up.” And we all just stopped what we were doing. It was one of those really funny moments and gosh, what an idea you can sink your teeth into. I think the whole lyric came out in 30 minutes. I just couldn’t stop writing down more stuff. It was like I had felt like that. I had been in that exact position. Gosh, my friends have as well. We know that feeling where you put so much into this relationship. I think too, it’s not even a gender thing. I think in every relationship, especially newer ones, there’s usually a teacher and there’s usually a student and then it doesn’t really work out. So I think it’s a very relatable topic and it was really enjoyable to write.
AS: Some people may not know this, but you sing background vocals on Cole Swindell’s hit, “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” a take-off of JoDee Messina’s hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” How did that opportunity arise?
MM: My producer Zach had this idea, he was like, “This is just a proof of concept. Would you come over and just sing?” He’s like, “Cole has this idea to take this old song. We’re redoing it.” And I remember being on the phone saying, “That’s such a great idea.” And I heard it and I was like, “This is going to be a smash. This is such a great song.” And he was like, “Will you sing her part?” It’s four keys higher than the original. I barely squeaked it out, but he really was like, “This is just my idea. I don’t know. Nothing might come from this. Who knows?” So I was like, “Sure, absolutely.”
That’s just this business… You just got to take every lead. Got to chase it down. And so that was really cool and it’s such a massive hit to just be a part of it in a really small way. And every time I’m driving, it comes on the radio I’m like, “That’s very cool. I love that.”
AS: Before we let you go we have to ask you about your experience with My Little Pony? You did some singing on My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks.
MM: Yes, it is amazing. It’s great. It’s really funny too. I just mainly did a lot of the singing and the background pad vocal things. This was years ago too. It was a really great experience though. And people have come to my show being fans of Sonata Dusk, the character that I played. They’ll come in the T-shirt or dressed as a pony and they’ll come to a country show and they will want me to sign this My Little Pony poster. So that is a whole other world. But it was super fun. I mean I love being part of it.
AS: What’s next?
MM: We’re definitely going to put out more music in the new year. We’ve got songs. Some of my favorite songs are not out right now. We actually didn’t put them on the project because I wanted it to come out on its own. We’ve got a lot in the bank ready to go. I’m excited about that, putting out more music. And just to get on the road and to watch and give these songs an opportunity to do what they do and touch people and resonate with people and do all of that stuff. But I’m just excited to play and continue to grow this little thing. With my Canadian career, it’s interesting how I’ve learned so much, but I’m kind of at square one all over again. It’s an exciting climb. So I’m excited to do it again.
Photo Credit: Brad Hersh / BBR Music Group