On her new EP, You + I, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter faces complicated emotions with serenity.
There is something very clean about Madison McFerrin’s music. The Brooklyn-based artist, whose music Questlove once described as “sensual soul-appella,” made waves with her silky, light delivery on 2016’s Finding Foundations: Vol. I and 2018’s Finding Foundations: Vol. II. Now, with new EP You + I, that freshness is more present than ever. Floating atop buoyant synths and hallucinatory beats, her vocal melodies envelop the listener in an oasis of serenity. On the second half of “Fallin,’” when the track falls into a prolonged whirlwind of soft digital sounds and snaps, we can hear her whispering “Falling for you” in the background, as though from behind a cascade of ocean waves.
AdHoc spoke to McFerrin over the phone about using music as a form of meditation, being influenced by Brooklyn’s artistic community, and overcoming Internet trolls.
Be sure to catch her at her EP release show tonight at Baby’s All Right.
AdHoc: What are some themes that run through You + I?
Madison McFerrin: Each song has to do with a different type of relationship. “No Room,” for example, has to do with our relationships to society and dealing with this polarization that we’re feeling globally. [It raises] the idea of: Do we still have the opportunity to come together and really listen to one another, or are we too far apart now to be able to see eye to eye? “Try” has to do with your relationship to yourself. The track “Unwise” has to do with a break-up, specifically with friendship. “Know You Better” and “Fallin’” are both love relationships. It’s really just dealing with the different types of bonds we feel within ourselves and connections with other people, and how that comes about and how we navigate them.
For an EP that grapples with such intense emotions, you stay pretty calm throughout it all. How do you not go crazy?
I think probably because music is where I am most calm, and everywhere else in my life I feel pretty crazy and disoriented [laughs]. That’s my safe space to be calm and more level-headed.
The FADER premiered “No Room” and the headline read: “Madison McFerrin’s jazzy soul music is good for you.” I found that statement to be an accurate descriptor, because your music feels so fresh and meditative. Does it feel that way for you when you’re making it?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I’m probably my most present self when I’m making music and when I’m performing music. It’s definitely a form of spirituality and meditation for me. I’m glad that that is reflected throughout the music, but also that people feel that themselves. That’s what I’m trying to get at, you know? I’m trying to make a safe space.
What made you decide to look more outward on this EP than inward?
I think it is a very inward EP, but when it comes down to it, I’m writing about feelings and sentiments and emotions that I have, and I’m not singular in that. We are all human at the end of the day, and we share a very wide array of feelings. I was making something that was inward with the purpose of showing that that is actually an outward exercise, because we are all experiencing these different things as we navigate the world.
What are some influences for You + I?
I’m influenced by my community. I’m influenced by nature. I’m influenced by the myriad of people around me who help me be a better person and a better musician. Influences are endless.
Speaking of community, does being from Brooklyn inform your music?
Yeah, totally. That goes hand in hand with what I was saying about being influenced by my community, because there are so many incredible artists in Brooklyn, in particular, and so many artists that I get to call friends. I get so inspired by going out to shows, seeing the work that my peers are putting together, and seeing the narratives that they’re tackling, whether it be musically or visually or in writing. I think that’s a really powerful thing.
Your father is the famous jazz musician Bobby McFerrin. Coming from a musical family, did you always assume you belonged in music?
I pretty much was like, “Music is the thing—I’m gonna do that,” from a very early age. There wasn’t really any entertainment of other things. I never felt any pressure from my parents to go one way or the other. Going towards music was definitely a natural path.
You experienced online harassment after singing the national anthem at a Hillary Clinton rally in 2016, and lots of people told you to never sing again. Was it hard to regain the confidence to sing, or did you just trust yourself?
It was obviously a huge blow to my ego and a shot at my confidence, but, at the end of the day, I trusted myself enough to know that this is what I wanted to do and to know that those people were wrong. They didn’t know all of the other things that went into that moment—the fact that there was a room of 5,000 people who were singing the National Anthem with me, and I wasn’t singing the version that I wanted to sing because all of these people started singing along, and you can’t hear any of them and all of these other factors. I knew that it wasn’t just about me not sounding good.
Like I said, I decided to do music at a very young age, and I wasn’t about to just give up because other people told me that I couldn’t do it. If anything, I have the kind of thing where if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m gonna prove you wrong.
Do you think you learned from the experience?
Yeah, absolutely. It was an incredible learning experience for me. The Internet has afforded us this global community that a lot of people take down a negative path and feel like they have the right to say negative, hurtful things to people. It has helped me grow a much thicker skin because now, if anybody ever tries to troll me on the Internet, it’s like, “Okay, been there, done that.” That’s not gonna be something that tears me down. It also made me much more resilient to really get out there and pursue my dreams. I wasn’t doing solo music before that event happened, and it really took that moment to be like, “F all y’all — I’m gonna do this!”
It also opened my eyes towards bigger issues of cyberbullying that are going on. I was 23 when it happened, and I was like, “Wow, this is really hard for me, as somebody who’s out of college. I can’t imagine how younger children and teenagers are handling pressure like this.” It made me want to tap into connecting with other youth groups to talk about persisting and being resilient. So, it all ended up being for the best. I have no qualms with that moment in time.
Lastly, I wanted to ask if there are any moments on the EP that you can’t wait for people to hear.
I’m just ready for people to hear it, period. I think that different people connect to different moments, and I’m excited to hear what people connect most to. I think it’ll be interesting to find out if somebody’s favorite song is X, but somebody else’s favorite song is Y. [I’m ready] just to get the feedback for this next step in the journey. I don’t think there’s any particular moment on the EP that I’m really waiting for people to hear, but I am very much looking forward to people hearing it.