The risk in revealing: 2023 Grammy winner Madison Cunningham comes to Northampton

The 2023 Grammy winner for Best Folk Album, Madison Cunningham, grew up in an evangelical family and was first exposed to music in her church. She’s since won praise for her songwriting, guitar playing and vocals.

The 2023 Grammy winner for Best Folk Album, Madison Cunningham, grew up in an evangelical family and was first exposed to music in her church. She’s since won praise for her songwriting, guitar playing and vocals. IMAGE FROM MADISON CUNNINGHAM

Madison Cunningham, who won a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album, generally plays more electric guitar than acoustic. But she says she’s incorporating more acoustic sounds on songs she’s working on for her next album.

Madison Cunningham, who won a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album, generally plays more electric guitar than acoustic. But she says she’s incorporating more acoustic sounds on songs she’s working on for her next album. PHOTO BY JUSTIN HIGUCHI/WIKIPEDIA

Cunningham has described “Revealer,” her 2023 Grammy winning album, as “a product of me trying to find myself and my interests again. I felt like somewhere along the way I had lost the big picture of my own life.”

Cunningham has described “Revealer,” her 2023 Grammy winning album, as “a product of me trying to find myself and my interests again. I felt like somewhere along the way I had lost the big picture of my own life.” IMAGE FROM MADISON CUMMINGHAM WEBSITE

Madison Cunningham performs at the Winnetka Music Festival in Winnetka, Illinois in June 2023. More often than not, Cunningham plays electric guitar rather than acoustic.

Madison Cunningham performs at the Winnetka Music Festival in Winnetka, Illinois in June 2023. More often than not, Cunningham plays electric guitar rather than acoustic. WIKIPEDIA

The 2023 Grammy winner for Best Folk Album, Madison Cunningham, grew up in an evangelical family and was first exposed to music in her church. She’s since won praise for her songwriting, guitar playing and vocals.

The 2023 Grammy winner for Best Folk Album, Madison Cunningham, grew up in an evangelical family and was first exposed to music in her church. She’s since won praise for her songwriting, guitar playing and vocals. PHOTO BY CLAIRE MARIE VOGEL

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-11-2024 10:19 AM

Madison Cunningham, who comes to Northampton’s Academy of Music April 19, won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album, for her 2022 release, “Revealer.”

In fact, Cunningham, who grew up in southern California and still lives there, also has won Grammy nominations in the last few years for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Performance of a song.

But in hearing that, if you then envision acoustic guitars, and maybe a bit of fiddle, on quiet, contemplative songs, think again.

Cunningham has a hard-to-define sound and a unique approach to playing guitar. There are folk elements in her music, but she most often plays an electric guitar, usually in non-standard tunings, adding riffs, chord progressions, and arpeggios that borrow more from rock and indie pop, or even jazz.

She also plays a good amount of fingerstyle electric guitar, an unusual though not unheard-of technique, and a number of the tunes on “Revealer,” such as “Hospital,” are buttressed with solid drums, bass, and keyboards to complement Cunningham’s short, crisp rock fills.

During a recent phone call from California, Cunningham, 27, said she’s never thought of her music as belonging to a specific category. But she joked that she’d had conversations with friends on how they might describe her sound to an Uber driver — a simple, one-line term that could best sum it up.

“I’d say it was ‘ethereal folk-rock,’” she said with a laugh.

More seriously, she says she was astonished that “Revealer” won a Grammy for Best Folk Album, as she figured some of the other nominated records that year, by artists such as Punch Brothers and Aoife O’Donovan, had a more typical folk/acoustic sound.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hadley’s Hampshire Mall faces foreclosure
GOP silences McGovern over Trump remarks
Looming rent hikes worry artists at Cottage Street Studios in Easthampton
Balise finds temporary home for Subaru dealership in Hadley
Officials sorting out disarray at Leverett Elementary School
Guest columnist Larry Hott: ‘Daughter of Cummington’ brings stories to the stage

“I can’t describe how unexpected this was,” she said.

Yet with her clear and often soaring vocals, Cunningham does capture some of that folk element. She also cites Joni Mitchell as a major inspiration as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

And on “Revealer,” Cunningham also tapped into something of the singer-songwriter tradition of writing introspective, confessional songs that came out of her struggles with depression, anxiety, and self-doubt — and the risk involved in, well, revealing such deeply personal feelings.

Writing and performing those songs helped her come to grips with some of those issues, Cunningham says, enough to know that even if problems aren’t easily resolved, writing and performing music is a good way to keep addressing them.

“The self-doubt hasn’t gone away,” she said. “And talking to other people, you realize this is something many of us deal with. It’s just part of life … you keep working through it.”

“Who Are You Now” is one cut that examines those conflicted thoughts, as she sings ”Doesn’t it feel strange / When you come and say it out loud? / Time to act your age / No one’s gonna show you how … The mind has a way of building you up to break you down.”

She also can be tough-minded, such as on the rocking “Your Hate Could Power a Train,” where she calls out an unnamed person for arrogance and aggression: ”You’re not to be crossed, but then you never were / You say God and men have always raced to be first … What does it say about you? / Your hate could power a train.

By contrast, “Life According To Raechel,” a song Cunningham wrote following the death of her beloved grandmother, is a slow, mostly unadorned number that she plays with basic strums on an acoustic guitar, her voice dropping to a near-whisper in a few places: ”Once your girl / I’m always your girl / When I’m here or when I’m there /Or on a plane headed somewhere.”

‘I just kept exploring’

Cunningham followed an unconventional path to her career. She was raised in an evangelical family, the oldest of five sisters, and was homeschooled up through grade 12. Her first exposure to music came from singing in her church; she started playing guitar when she was 7.

She says she didn’t make that much progress on it until she was a teen, when a family friend showed her various open tunings; that opened up many new sounds and chord voicings.

“I just kept exploring after that,” she said, noting that she also began playing much more electric guitar around that time. Experimenting on the guitar also became a big part of her composition process; Cunningham says developing chords and melody, then writing lyrics, is her most common approach for writing songs.

Another big step was simply getting her first real exposure to popular music after she’d finished high school. Growing up, she says, there was a kind of “unspoken understanding” that that kind of music was not part of her family’s life.

But at 18, she started immersing herself in new sounds, from 1960s stalwarts like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan to unique guitar players such as Ry Cooder, Nick Drake, and Lindsey Buckingham. The latter three, known for their fingerstyle playing, became big inspirations for her own guitar work.

“I was ready to hear that” kind of music, said Cunningham, reflecting on turning 18.

It was also after she finished school that she met Tyler Chester, a veteran music producer and session player who has produced a number of her records, including “Who Are You Now?” which was nominated for a Grammy in 2020 for Best Americana Album.

In addition, Cunningham released an EP, “Wednesday,” in 2020 on which she covered songs by The Beatles, Radiohead, Tom Waits, John Mayer and others; she has since toured with Mayer and will do so again this year.

These days, Christianity has taken on a different meaning for her, she notes. There’s less church in her life, but at the same time, she sees herself as a spiritual person.

“I’m a seeker,” she said. “I believe there are a lot of mysteries to be explored in the world.”

One “mystery,” so to speak, will be at her Academy show, where she’ll be appearing with another singer-songwriter, Juana Molina, an Argentine guitarist who also plays in open tunings and unusual time signatures and in general takes an unconventional approach to the guitar.

“I love her playing,” said Cunningham, who noted that the two will play separate sets but will also join each other on some of each other’s songs.

“It will be an experiment,” said Cunningham, who often plays with a three-piece backing band but will be solo this time. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Maddison Cunningham and Juana Molina play at the Academy of Music April 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at aomtheatre.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.