Madison Cunningham With Juana Molina (The Haw River Ballroom)

BY JERRY FRIEND When I was given the opportunity to cover Madison Cunningham, performing in one of my favorite local venues, The Haw Rive...


When I was given the opportunity to cover Madison Cunningham, performing in one of my favorite local venues, The Haw River Ballroom, located in a beautifully renovated old textile mill in rural Saxapahaw outside of Chapel Hill, I didn't hesitate to accept the assignment. Although I wasn't familiar with her, I had heard some buzz about her music over the last couple of years. I quickly learned that Madison, at just 26 years old, is an incredibly talented songwriter, vocalist, and a masterful guitar player, who has worked most of her life developing each of these skills since a very early age.

Her father, a worship pastor who she describes as always having a guitar in his hands, was her introduction to music. As early as four years old, she knew that she wanted to play guitar. Growing up she was brought on stage with her father to sing and later, when she was just seven years old, to play guitar. These early experiences helped create a foundation for her songwriting, vocal harmonies, and playing an instrument while singing at the same time. The earliest part of her musical life was immersed in church music, and it wasn't until she was twelve that she was introduced to an artist by the name of Brooke Fraser, a worship artist from New Zealand that was recording in Los Angeles. It was after seeing Fraser in concert that Cunningham first knew that she wanted to be a musician.

In her early teens, she became more exposed to secular music which encouraged her exploration of new directions in both her guitar playing and songwriting. After high school was another period of time where her ideas about music were once again expanded after being introduced to musical influences like The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and later bands like Radiohead, Fiona Apple, Jeff Buckley, and Juana Molina from Argentina.

It was during this early period of her musical journey that Cunningham's love for songwriting and passion for playing guitar developed simultaneously. She often talks about how her growth as a guitar player would a push her songwriting forward. Cunningham first found her voice playing using the acoustic guitars lying around the house, using basic cords and learning open tunings. Later by the age of 15, adding the electric guitar was another trigger of expansive growth in her music. Her acoustic playing was percussive and rhythmic but transferring that knowledge to electric took her years to work through. Those years led her to a new voice with the electric guitar and she described it was another lightbulb moment in her career. Her use of open tunings, low standard tunings, unconventional melodies, and her musical influences all were part of developing her own sound, which is in a big way due to her discovery of Juana Molina's use of odd meters which completely changed the way that she had previously thought about guitar. Now it was no longer just about rhythm and meter, not just counting, but how natural a song might feel by ear or emotionally.

As for her songwriting, she says the melody and arrangements often come first, but not always. She has said in interviews that “When I write songs, music often comes first. I have a lot of songs right now that are full arrangements – the melody, the shapes and the chords, the arc of it, but I don’t have the lyrics yet. I’m just sitting on these ideas and waiting for something to sing about.”

Even when she does manage to complete a song, she is likely to rework it over and over until it feels right. And for those times when she stumbles upon new chord arrangements, counter melodies, or has a lyrical idea she will just hold onto them patiently like puzzle pieces until she discovers where they fit. Over time her guitar playing has grown to be wickedly good. Her compositions are sophisticated, she has no qualms about her instincts to disregard the music theory that she's been taught, and to play in a way that not only sounds beautiful but conveys whatever emotional elements the song is intended to communicate such as, loss, vulnerability, doubt, or perhaps a sense of strength and determination.

I didn't realize at the time that I took this assignment, that not only would I get to see Madison perform for my first time, but that she had brought along with her one of her music heroes, Juana Molina. on the tour and how much of an influence Molina had been with Madison creating her own unique sound. Getting to see them both in one night perform both individually and together was a magical experience.

Molina opened up the show, with her first song being a duet with Cunningham who left the stage and then Molina played a few songs on her own. She was on stage with her guitar, an effects rig, and keyboard. Her music has been described as folktronica, experimental, indie pop and folk progressive, but as with Cunningham, their music defies categorization, it's genre bending. She plays a riff on the guitar into a loop, and plays a percussive rhythm, layering these, adding a vocal loop and then sings on top of these loops, adding them and removing them as the song goes on. It's all very complex but she masterfully makes these changes appear seamlessly as if she has a stage full of musicians accompanying her.

Cunningham returned to the stage for her set which included some acoustic renditions of the material of off her 2023 Grammy award winning recording Revealer and then later had Molina come back out to join her. Both artists completely captured the crowd's attention from the start to the finish of the show. There was no question that they are world-class artists and masters of their craft.

The encore was another act of improvisation with Molina asking the crowd to participate, first by picking a number. After several shouts from the audience, the number 69 was chosen. Then they asked the crowd again to help them choose three words, with more shouting from the audience the chosen words ended up being paper, pleasure, and cheese. The number ended up being a preprogrammed rhythm loop, The words were used in a song that was made up on the spot just for this show. It reminded me of an old game that as kids we played in school or even in a car on a long family trip called Mad Libs where you basically choose random nouns, verbs, adjectives, and names that fill in the blanks of a pre-written story which typically turns out to be hilarious based on the diversity of the words chosen. As the show ended, I visited the merchandise booth and came home with records from each artist to add to my vinyl collection.

I cannot recommend enough that you do a little digging into both performers. They have websites, YouTube videos, they've both been written about in countless stories, interviews and record reviews. If you like discovering new artists and their music, you can't go wrong with learning more about both performers.
Jerry Friend has spent most of his life chasing the joy that live music brings. Originally from Florida, he’s been in North Carolina the last 23 years after he settled in Burlington, NC. A systems administrator by day. In his free time, he enjoys photographing live performances by artists at clubs, concerts and festivals. His goal is to try to capture those experiences through his lens and be able to share these images with others. As a fan of artists that span diverse music genres, you might find him at shows that include Bluegrass to Jazz, Jam bands, Alternative Country to Electronic Dance Music, Rock and even Pop music. He loves to travel to festivals, in the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic. He also enjoys collecting show posters and vinyl records.

Read Jerry's posts here


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Strange Carolinas is the Travelogue Of The Offbeat, a wry look at the interesting, unique, and offbeat roadside attractions, people, music, art, food, and festivals in North and South Carolina.


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