Madeline Adams, best known by her stage moniker “Madeline” sings sweet, soft country-influenced folk, with a voice that emits the passion of Joni Mitchell and the soul of June Carter, yet for all intents and purposes, she’s totally punk rock. Madeline is one of the best examples of how modern punk has become much more a function of energy, ethos and attitude than sound or speed.
Adams found her first taste of musical recognition at 15 years old, fronting a local indie dance band called The Sugar Shakers. Two years later, she self released her first solo record, Kissing and Dancing. It was around this time that her music caught ear of Chris Johnston of Plan It X Records. At the time, Plan it X was merely a strong DIY outfit with a small a roster and a reputation for holding steadfast to their DIY ethics. However, the forthcoming popularity of the band Against Me! would bring a lot of new eyes and ears to the world of Plan it X, and thusly, to Madeline. Plan it X would go on to re-release Madeline’s Kissing and Dancing record as well as her much-hailed split EP with Dead Bird. Now, with two more full lengths under her belt and multiple tours with bands like Defiance, Ohio, Madeline has branched out as a singer/songwriter who’s not entirely encased in the punk bubble. Her new LP Black Velvet features a full backing band, and is a departure for Madeline into new and interesting musical terrains. Having started as a 17-year-old semi-crusty southern chick armed with only an acoustic guitar and voice likely to extinguish the many campfires she was known to sing around, Madeline has grown into a mature and able musician with the kind of musical maturity and restraint that comes with age. The Rumpus caught up with Madeline, to talk about the seeming DIY renaissance in the American Midwest, and what it means to be a female sing songwriter, and a punk in the digital age.
The Rumpus: Your voice is extremely unique. Where did it come from? Are there any vocalists who’ve influenced you or who you’ve tried to emulate or are there any vocalists people tend to compare you to?
Madeline Adams: I’ve studied voice casually off and on my whole life. I did musical theater and church choirs as a child and moved on to private lessons from classical teachers. I haven’t taken a voice lesson since I moved, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a good teacher in Athens. You always leave voice lessons feeling fantastic because you’ve been breathing deeply and moaning for an hour. Sometimes I try to emulate the attitude of a different musician. I like using Happy Woman Blues era Lucinda Williams for country songs for sure. Every time.
Oddly enough (or maybe not at all), I get compared to The Cranberries often by people in the audience. At first I was kind of offended, but actually I think the Cranberries have recorded some pretty solid songs over the years. I get the Irish thing too– It’s because I over enunciate. Blame theater. That was like the mantra “Enunciate! Enunciate! Enunciate!”
Rumpus: How’d you end up in Bloomington, Indiana? Once you moved, was there a palpable sense that something special was happening in Bloomington? Did people seem to feel that there was an important and thriving music scene afoot?
Adams: I was looking for a sort of Athens outside of Athens: some sort of small, creative Mecca with low rent. I came up with Olympia, Washington and Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington won.
Bloomington was already a happening place by the time I got there, so I can’t really explain where the hell the scene came from. When I first played in Bloomington I went to a Matty Pop Chart show at Boxcar Books where everyone was drinking mint tea instead of beer, passing around vegan cookies and there was a big group of radical women hanging out. This blew me away. Athens’ punk scene was pretty drunk and very male-centered at the time. Later on that day, I was walking down the street eating mulberries off the bushes, watching bunny rabbits (Bloomington is actually kind of overrun with them) scamper across people’s yards, and just really having this, “Are you fucking kidding me!?!” moment. I decided then that Bloomington was the place for me. Unfortunately, I got it in my head that the move was going to solve all my problems. I was going to quit all my vices and ride my bike all the time and join every awesome radical organization. The scene kind of had the power to make you feel that way at the time. I ended up involved, but obviously my personality didn’t change overnight either. I was running punk shows out of my house and seeing my friends play all the time, but most of my own time in Indiana was spent being a hyper-dramatic kid and writing a ton of songs alone in my room.
Rumpus: When you first started playing solo, you had a solidly punk following. Your music has become more eclectic since, but that following, it seems, is still there. Is it strange being considered part of the punk scene while playing music that sounds the opposite of what most people think of as “punk?” Is it ever awkward playing with bands like Defiance, Ohio having all these people who want to jump around in the audience while strum your acoustic guitar?
Adams: I was honestly a little bit confused when Chris asked me to be on Plan-It-X. I wasn’t playing punk music, but I sort of looked the part because I was just starting to dip into the radical feminist-punk dress code. I also hung out at DIY shows, which is why he heard me in the first place. I’m proud of my young peace-punk following. They’re good people. My crowd has gotten pretty varied over the years, though. I suspect that plenty of the people in the audience are like me in that they use to wear their scene on their sleeves, but slowly got sick of assumptions being made before they got the opportunity to open their mouths. I will never ever get sick of opening for bands like Defiance, Ohio. I get to play my songs and then jump in the audience and dance along with everybody else. It’s the best. The worst is getting billed with five folk musicians.
Rumpus: There’s a major leftist and anarchist contingent to that scene. Do you consider yourself and anarchist or a radical? Does politics or social, civic values have a place in your music?
Adams: I’m like the opposite of an anarchist. I want a giant government devoted to the whole well being of its people. I guess I’m pretty leftist on most issues. I want equality regardless of nationality, sexuality or gender identification. Medical marijuana and cheap/free abortions should be available for everyone as part of the kick-ass health care system that we could afford if we would stop invading other countries, incarcerating our own people all the time and giving tax breaks to the super-rich. Gun ownership needs to be seriously dialed back. We could be using alternative sources of energy right now and should. Animals don’t belong in factory farms. Wars on drugs are unwinnable. Basically, I’m for common sense and American politicians strike me as greedy and heartless to the point of insanity.
Rumpus: I’ve spoken with female singer/songwriters and there’s this sense that often men sexualize the experience of watching a female performer rock, like sex is inextricable from being entertained or moved for some people. Is that something you find? Are men often unable to separate sexual from artistic attraction?
Adams: I see what you’re saying, but I think it goes both ways. Sexualizing the experience of watching a performer is natural. Look at the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis. Hetero ladies have a long history of the same behavior. There’s a difference between having a sexually charged experience and being unable to recognize the beauty and skill (or lack thereof) due to sexual attraction. That’s painfully lame and can ruin the atmosphere of a show. I’m assuming that you’re also talking about the few bad apples that don’t know how to enjoy a show without stumbling over to the performer and getting all sleazy at them. That’s all sorts of wrong. Luckily, my audiences are usually made up of really thoughtful folks, so my creepy experiences have been few and far between.
Rumpus: After Bloomington, you moved back to Athens. Do you think the move influenced your sound?
Adams:It did directly. I started coming back to Athens to work with Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent. He produced my record and is responsible for the choices of songs as well as the spooky farmhouse ambiance of the record. That record got signed to Orange Twin, which is why I moved back to Athens permanently and I met the White Flag Band during that period of time.
Rumpus: In your music and lyrics you seem to identify very much with your southern upbringing. Tell me a bit about that and what it means to you.
Adams:My adulthood strikes me as a hell of a lot more southern than my upbringing. I grew up in suburban-ish neighborhoods in a very white bread community. I am a southern lady because my mother is very much a southern lady, but few of the typically southern stereotypes I sing about really existed in my home. Only as a teenager when I began to see the amazing everyday southern ironies like the blasphemous “Don’t Make Me Come Down There – Love, Jesus” billboards did I realize that something a little weird was going on down here. As an adult, the more I travel, the deeper I fall in love with the South and identify as a southerner. The Baptist thing can be so dangerously oppressive, but it’s also damn interesting from an outsider’s perspective. The slow pace of life mixed with the humidity and drinking beer outside in the sticky heat… I could go on and on. It’s easy to write about the south. It’s so romantic! We have cicadas and lightning bugs and church music! We also came up with country music, which is a pretty killer genre.
Rumpus: Tell me about Black Velvet, what’s different about it?
Adams: Nothing was premeditated. We got in the studio and played live as often as we could and the overdubs were pretty minimal. My song writing got a little weirder for sure. There are quite a few dark moments on the record.
Rumpus: Are you interested in doing music as your career and life? Do you have any feelings about major labels, would you sign to one?
It’s an interesting question. How much money do you have to make or how many years do you do something before it’s a career? I’m interested in doing a lot of things in life. I take it a year at a time. I wouldn’t be opposed to signing onto a major. They give you a good bit of dough to record with/live off of and then usually kick you off when you don’t make them enough money. I think it’s fine as long as your contract isn’t terrible and you realize that it’s not the be-all end-all.
Rumpus: What do you do aside from music?
Adams: For money I bartend and work at a vintage clothing store. I’m also a visual artist.
Rumpus: What influences your music outside of music itself?
Adams: Recently long drives and baths.
Rumpus: Do you have a musical hero?
Adams: Willie Nelson
Rumpus: If you could tour with any band, who would it be?
Adams: Defiance, Ohio. Hands down the most fun band to travel/play with. They totally know how to do it right.
Rumpus: What is next for you?
Adams: Well, I’ll be touring for Black Velvet right up until January and past that I’m not too sure yet.