Pop songstress Madi Diaz returns this month with Phantom, her sophomore album that was recorded in her newly adopted town of L.A. We chat with Madi about her songwriting heroes, the lessons she learned at Berklee and more.
How would you describe Phantom?
Phantom is a collection of memories and moments. Some songs were written while I was walking through those moments/memories and some in retrospect.
How does it compare to your last album?
We Threw Our Hearts In The Fire was a very experimental record for me in the best of ways. I was playing a lot with new soundscapes and song forms and really pushing myself to connect with the art part of music. Phantom is definitely the next stepping stone along the greater path of searching for the ground between myself and whoever is listening. Phantom is pop and free and fun, but also deep and dark and searching.
What’s the best lesson at Berklee about songwriting?
You’ve spent much of your career in Nashville and Los Angeles. Do the different locations affect your writing?
Nashville was wonderful for me as a fresh artist searching for my words and my voice. I had a lot of support and room for growth. Los Angeles has allowed me the space to fine tune and focus. Both have been adventure-filled in different ways, so yeah, that for sure tends to make my writing different. The feelings are different, and I grow and become changed by my world changing around me.
How does it feel to have your songs used in shows like “Nashville” and “Pretty Little Liars?”
Pretty amazing and strange … especially because I don’t have a TV, so it really tends to pass me by until I’m in some random hotel room on the road and a rerun comes on … and I get to see some poor girl crying on a bathroom floor on TV to one of my songs, ha ha.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Oh my good god, SO MANY. I’ve been on an Interpol kick recently, but always go back to Phil Collins, Zappa, Fleetwood Mac … Garbage … Bjork … I mean, it’s endless. Patty Griffin, Ray LaMontagne, Neil Young, Pinback, Emily Haines …
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I was 15 … oh man, ha ha, I’m sure my dad has a demo of it somewhere that will hopefully never ever see the light of day. He saves everything. I wrote it about a girl wanting to be someone else and somewhere else. It was very wordy and probably terrible.
How do you go about writing songs?
Song writing is different every time. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes not so much, but the music always comes quickly for me. The lyrics tend to take me a second only because I’m just … particular … about the way a word fits my voice or the melody.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I start by spilling everything out that I could possibly spill out, and then clean it up and fine tune. And then get totally anal and perfect things. And then messy it up again when I sing it so that I can find the natural in between of what just sings right.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Oh you know, basic human stuff. Love, loss, lost feelings, found feelings, the most incredible moment, the most dark and confusing moment. Walking in the woods. Being alone. Wanting to be alone. Wanting to not be so alone … etc etc.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m really proud of “The Other Side.” it was a pivotal point for me in the writing of the record because it was kind of the gateway between the first half and pushing for the second half of the album.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
From “Ghost Rider” –
“Don’t tell me all your secrets/ It’s kinder to keep it
Just sort of fell out, but was one of the truest lyrics I’ve ever written. Sometimes after you hear something, you wish you hadn’t. But. The truth just is, and has to be.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I love most words, and the words I hate I’d rather not say. Anyway, when you say you HATE a word, you’re just giving it more power, you know?
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Burn,” from We Threw Our Hearts In The Fire, has come up a fair bit, which is awesome because it’s definitely one I’m most proud of. It is searching so earnestly in a total raw restlessness. It came from a really confused and broken, but honest place.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I think Peter Gabriel might be up on top for me right now. He is such a true blue artist that I think it would be truly amazing to watch him do his mental backflips in person.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Poe. Man. I was obsessed with Poe. Poe was so so big in my own world that I literally didn’t understand that not a lot of people know about her. I still don’t. She’s a powerhouse … raw, witty, honest and fearless… and hilarious.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
Hmmmm. That’s so hard. There are so many incredible songs that are just the best for different reasons. One that’s one of my favorites right now is “Medication” by Garbage. It’s got such a perfect pop song arc. The melody is so simple and the lyrics are so cutting. The melody of the chorus twists and rises and falls just perfectly. And then the bridge isn’t a total departure and enhances the song in the most special way … I absolutely couldn’t do without it.