Madison Cunningham Talks Grammy Nominated Album ‘Revealer’—”It Feels Like The Hardship Was Not In Vain”

Thought I would always find you there / Sitting in your TV chair / While time is in a bar having a laugh somewhere / The nurse said you were waiting for me / To let go, these are just a few of the strikingly poignant lyrics in Madison Cunningham’s Grammy-nominated “Life According To Raechel.” 

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Written following the death of her grandmother, the grief-stricken song acted as the guiding force for her sophomore album, Revealer—also Grammy nominated for 2023.

Guilt can be a debilitating emotion. This is something Cunningham knows all too well. The 26-year-old folk singer opened up all the wounds surrounding her loss on “Life According To Raechel” and in return shaped something that is universal about running out of time and feeling powerless. That level of vulnerability then found its way into the rest of the record, leaving Cunningham with one of the most affecting albums of 2022. 

Though it’s not her first time being lauded by The Recording Academy, the emotionally draining process that came along with creating Revealer made the honor that much more special for Cunningham. She chatted with American Songwriter to discuss her nominations, her journey in beating the sophomore slump, and how her writing process has evolved over the years.

American Songwriter: This is not your first go around at the Grammy’s but, given the emotionality behind Revealer, how does it feel to be nominated for this album specifically? 

Madison Cunningham: It was unexpected news. I think this record was very difficult to make for a lot of reasons. I think the nomination makes it feel like some of the hardship was not in vain.

AS: Sophomore albums have a lot of superstition around them. How did you feel when you first started working on Revealer and was there a turning point where you felt like it was shaping into something special? 

MC: I was super paralyzed. There were a couple of weeks where I felt like, ‘I’ve got this and I know the direction that I want to head in.’ Then there were a lot of voices and opinions that were weighing in and then the pandemic hit and everything felt like trying to run through mud. There is a lot of superstition around sophomore records and that alone can make you feel like you’re gonna succumb to the folly of it. Along the way, I started to fall in love with the songs and started to believe in it. It wasn’t that I was shocked when I found out that people liked it, but I was so in my head about it for so long that there was an incredible relief to let it go.

AS: “Life According To Raechel” is a really vulnerable song. Did it take a while to write or did all the emotions just start to flow out of you? 

MC: Songs usually take a long while to shape for me. There’s usually a fair amount of process involved. But, at this time, I think everything felt incredibly clear and accessible. Those first painful feelings of losing somebody. In that sense, I think the song was incredibly easy to write – more so than any other. Everything was very fresh on my mind. All the guilt that I felt was very much articulated inside of me. Sadness can paralyze you, but this time, it was an active sadness.

AS: What do you think the overarching theme of Revealer is? 

MC: I think it ended up being about the ricocheting emotions around grief—all of the things grief tends to dig up. That’s where the title comes from, Revealer. It to me is like the character head of what grief is. It’s this mirror that illuminates everything else and shatters your perfect vision of yourself.

AS: What is the most challenging part of songwriting for you? 

MC: I’m precious and insecure about lyrics. I always feel like they’re not good enough, so I spent a lot of time approaching them. I think the guitar and melody come a lot easier to me. Then it’s just about figuring out what it is that I would care to sing about night after night.

AS: What is the best bit of songwriting advice you’ve ever been given? 

MC: If you are blocked up, and you’re angry about it, go to the movies instead. Keep feeding the muse and don’t try to strangle something to life. Continue to let it grow. I think also just making sure that you’re not longing for something to be instant. You can force mediocre things to happen, but you can’t force your finest work to happen.

AS: You were previously Grammy-nominated for your EP of covers, Wednesday. How did interpreting those tracks from the likes of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and The Beatles affect your songwriting moving forward? 

MC: It was a quilt of all the artists and songwriters that have inspired me. None of them really had anything to do with each other, but the common denominator was: I was struggling to write and I wanted to hear some wisdom from somebody else. I wanted to hear the music that had been written a couple of decades ago to hear what people were saying back then. I found it to be incredibly relevant for the time that we were living. They are examples of timeless songwriting. The universal truths are so important – That’s what makes up a classic song.

Photo Credit: Claire Marie Vogel / Sacks & Co

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