Mouthing Off With Madeline

photo by Chris George

Madeline Adams (also sometimes known as simply “Madeline”) was born and raised in Athens, Georgia, one of America’s most musically rich and innovative cities. So it’s no wonder she’s found herself gripped by a persistent drive to create and perform for over 10 years, despite being relatively young. Her current tour, kicking off in early September, will bring her back through her self-professed favorite city to play, New Orleans, on the heels of the re-release of one of her earliest albums, The Slow Bang (which she will be playing in its entirety at the NOLA show). We sat down with Madeline to talk about the roots of her musical passion, the new creative outlet she’s exploring and what it means to be fulfilled as an artist. And we even got her to diss the Falcons, sort of…

 

For those who might not be familiar with your work, how did you first get into the music game?

Madeline Adams: I grew up in Athens going to local shows like Of Montreal, Circulatory System and Elf Power, so I was surrounded by music at a very early age. I started playing publicly by 15, mainly because I wanted to belong to that crowd of oddball artists.

 

Did you ever get a chance to record or play around with any of those local artists?

Yeah. [Of Montreal’s] Kevin Barnes and I recorded a couple of duets that were never published and I sang back-up on some Elf Power tracks. Athens musicians tend to collaborate. Our bands are musically incestuous.

 

What do you think it is about Athens that fosters that sort of energy? 

That’s a difficult one to answer. I used to think that all college towns must have that vibe but then I started touring and found out that wasn’t the case. Athens’ music scene has such a long history of being a tight-knit community; and it kind of perpetuates itself. If you come to town and play the hell out of the trumpet, you’re going to land in a band; you’re going to make friends and then you’re going to find yourself in about six more bands.

 

Some of your older work has a distinctly more country vibe to it, which made me wonder: have you ever worked with the Drive-by Truckers?

No, never! I wish! Patterson [Hood] and I are mutual fans, but we’ve never worked together. He has been helping my drummer, Jim Wilson, work with some field recordings from Ghanaian percussionists, though.

 

Speaking of your earlier work, The Slow Bang is being re-released soon. Were there any production edits to the release or is it simply a new pressing?

A better quality pressing! The punk label that put it out in 2007 pressed it on vinyl as thin as paper plates and they only pressed 500 copies.

 

And the label went under, what, 6 months later?

Yeah, they stopped putting out music quickly after they pressed that record. It’s a tough game.

 

Are you still pleased with the quality of that record on the eve of it being released again?

Yeah. Actually, I listened to it for the first time in forever yesterday. It’s moving for me, honestly. When Matthew [Houck] recorded it, he was about as old as I am now and I was just 19. I thought he was so old and wise!

 

Do you still perform a lot of your older material live? Or have you moved on to focus more on recent work?

I do a mix. I’m going to school full time these days, which really sucks the writing energy out of me, unfortunately. I’ve got maybe six new ones knocking around but I’ve really enjoyed playing with old, old songs that I never recorded.

 

Deep cuts. I’m sure fans love that, though. How has the crowd response been?

It’s been good! I’m going to school in Atlanta right now and I’ve been playing to crowds that don’t know me at all, so it’s really pretty awesome.

 

Where are you in school now?

The Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta. I’m nurturing my visually artistic side. It’s nice.

 

Have you ever had a hand in designing your album artwork?

I’ve always collaborated with other artists. Standing over the shoulder of someone skilled in graphic design and saying, “This goes here; that goes there.”
The image on our cover, Daniel Fell’s photograph: how did you two put that together?

I wanted to paint myself like the rainbow spewing wolf on the cover of Black Velvet.

 

What kind of paint did you use and how uncomfortable was it?

I used children’s face paint; it wasn’t all that uncomfortable. It cracked as it dried, which added to the creepiness. The pink paint stained my skin for a few days. It was nothing compared to spitting glitter for the cover of The Slow Bang. That was gross.

 

You’ve been at this a while. The eternal question posed to every artist – where do you see this going? What is the goal? Is there a goal? Do you still hope for a major label and more notoriety? Or are you doing it because you can’t not do it?

To be totally honest, there are absolutely no goals any more besides to keep playing music and writing for my own enjoyment and hopefully others. Even though my following is small, it’s bigger than I could have ever hoped. I’ve toured all over the states for literally years when you add up all the months on the road. It took me to Europe twice. I don’t think I have the stomach to chase down fame. I think I probably did when I was younger, but now it doesn’t really fit in with other goals like sanity and daily stability. I’ll never stop doing it but I don’t expect I’ll ever be on the cover of the Rolling Stone either.

 

I think that’s a sentiment plenty of artists can echo. So do you hope to turn the graphic design thing into a “regular” job now and do music on the side? Or does music still hold your top spot?

Oh no, I’m hoping for a [graphic design] job for sure. Music will always be an important part of my life and my identity, though. I don’t really know who I am if I’m not some girl that plays her songs in front of people. The hours spent making music versus the money made has always been a joke. It’s always been a labor of love. The money has always been a teeny tiny little cherry on top. And I don’t think it’s sad at all to have a hobby that you’re passionate about and that defines you. Think of all the people in the world that don’t have a passion.

 

It sounds like this might be the last tour for a while, as you concentrate more on school.

The last one for this year, for sure. My next break won’t be until Christmas. I’ll probably be back in the spring. Fall and spring are the best times to play in New Orleans.

 

Oh, cool. It looked like maybe you were semi-retiring! But a few months is nothing.

Well, I’m dialing it back, but New Orleans is close enough to keep up with! Chicago, not so much.

 

Good news for us. Since you’re so tour-savvy (and we ask this question a lot because we’re obsessed at AG about touring), do you have a few quick tricks you’ve learned through the years you’d like to share?

Oh sure! Careful who you bring on the road with you. Touring should really be left to type B personalities. Luckily, my bandmates travel extremely well. It’s important to be very patient, able to entertain yourself and flexible with your expectations. If you don’t enjoy playing for 5 people just as much as playing for 50, don’t bother. And never do it for the money.

 

But aren’t most musicians type A?

I don’t think so. Most of us are a pretty chill bunch. Those that aren’t don’t travel well, or at least that’s what I’ve noticed. And by “travel well” I mean “have fun.” It’s also really important to sleep.

 

Do you normally perform and record with or without a full backing band?

For the last five years or so, I’ve had backing bands. Most consistently, the lovely boys that will be playing with me in New Orleans—the Black Velvet Band—are Jim Wilson, Jacob Morris and Jason Trahan.

 

Since you’ve been with them a while, do they have any input in writing or composing? Or is that all on you?

Oh no no no, not all on me. I barely know what chords I’m playing half the time. They write all their own parts. But we have some crazy telepathy. They’re so easy to play with.

 

Would you consider yourself more of a lyricist than a composer? Do you write your own instrumental parts?

I write all my own songs but they aren’t musically all that complicated. I play some odd chords with some weird finger picking styles; but for me, the chords have always existed to work around my voice and the lyrics. It’s safe to say I see myself as more of a lyricists and vocalist.

 

Do you have a process for writing? Or do you find it mostly just comes to you?

So far, all the keepers have just come to me. You work out the kinks but it does tend to come in a flash. That said, if I don’t pick up my guitar frequently enough and work through some real mediocre stuff, then it’s like I’m not really around to get the signal. Number one rule, though: if you’re working and working and it’s still awful, just toss it.

 

So do you have a memorable moment of “this is the worst damn song I’ve ever written?” Or do you try to avoid being self critical like that?

They all get lumped together because I toss them so fast!

 

Forgotten then?

Absolutely. I barely write anything down. If I can’t remember, then no one else can either.

 

A lot of your lyrics feel very personal and intimate. What does it do to those moments you capture in your songs, because you have to go over them a thousand times, either practicing, performing or recording. So how does it change how you feel about something you’ve written about after, say the thousandth time you’ve played it?

Even by the time the song is finished, it moves away from the specific event that inspired it. I think it’s important to leave a song open enough to allow others to apply it to their own lives. Rooting it in a real experience keeps it genuine but ideally, at least half of the audience should be able to honestly sing it too.

 

But what does it do for you, personally?

It’s cathartic as hell! It’s the best. If a man wrongs me, I get up on stage and tell a room full of strangers “That motherfucker did me wrong!” over and over again for years! The only reason you ever stop talking about a broken heart is because eventually your friends will get annoyed. But people let you sing about it forever.

 

You’ve been to New Orleans a good bit, yeah?

New Orleans is one of the first places I started going on tour and it’s my favorite place to play. I try to make it at least once a year.

 

Any memorable shows or venues that stand out?

I love the AllWays Lounge a lot. The Dragon’s Den has a pretty cool vibe, too. I’ll be playing the Big Top this time. I use to play there a lot from 2004 to 2006, so it’ll be nice to come back.

 

You’re a Georgia girl: any interest in football?

I like it when we beat Florida but that’s about it.

 

So you’re not suddenly a Falcons fan now that you live in Atlanta?

You know, I just can’t get into the pros. And what’s there to love about the Falcons? They’re not the Saints, you know?

 

Madeline and the Black Velvet Band play the Big Top on Friday, September 7th with Shaved Christ, Moths and the Ghostwood opening. For more information, visit madelinesongs.com