Madison Cunningham is a true triple-threat musician: not just a gifted singer and inventive songwriter, but a wickedly good guitarist—a seeker of unconventional riffs and tones on both acoustic and electric instruments.
Just 26, the Southern California native got an early start with music, picking up her father’s guitar when she was seven. She grew up immersed in church music and didn’t fully discover the titans of pop/rock songwriting until her later teens. Cunningham released her first album, Authenticity, at 18, and hit the spotlight five years later with the Grammy-nominated Who Are You Now, and through her extensive collaborations with Chris Thile on the public radio show Live from Here and on tour with Punch Brothers. Along the way Cunningham also paid tribute to her diverse influences in a remarkable series of weekly cover videos, leading to the mostly acoustic EP Wednesday (Extended Edition) and another Grammy nomination in 2021.
Inspired by such free spirits as Joni Mitchell, Juana Molina, Jeff Buckley, and Fiona Apple, Cunningham’s songwriting is sophisticated—full of unexpected harmonies and melodic/rhythmic twists—yet also hooky and accessible. And her music is so engaging and energized that it’s easy to overlook what a sly and subtle lyricist she is.
All of these qualities are abundantly clear on her new album, Revealer, another substantial creative leap forward. Anchoring the songs are deep grooves and intricate patterns played primarily on low-tuned and open-tuned guitars, including a 1960s-era Silvertone acoustic with a rubber bridge that has become one of her signature sounds.
On the cusp of the release of Revealer, I reached Cunningham at her guitar-packed office/studio in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood for a wide-ranging conversation about her travels—so far—as a guitarist and songwriter.
You really have your own voice on both acoustic and electric guitar, which is rare among singer-songwriters. Which came first?
The instruments that we had lying around the house were always acoustic, so I started on acoustic guitar and found my voice there first. That’s where I learned basic chords and started incorporating open tunings.
When I was around 15 or 16, I started transferring what I knew onto electric because I was enamored by it, but I quickly realized that it was like the difference in playing a violin and a cello. The way that I had approached acoustic was highly percussive and rhythmic, and on the electric, the strings had more give and were thinner and louder. So it took me a lot of years to figure out what my voice was on electric. Transferring the open tunings I was playing on acoustic to the electric was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me.
Which tunings do you mean?
What I primarily play in when I write my songs is D A D F# A D [open D]. I was playing in DADGAD a lot and then someone just tuned my G string to an F#, and it changed the way I started to create voicings and put together chord progressions. So that was completely course correcting for me.
What are some songs you play in open D?
Off of my last record, “Something to Believe In” [capo II], “Looking Alive” [capo II], “Plain Letters” [capo III], and “Common Language” are in open D. On Revealer, “Your Hate Could Power a Train” [capo I], “Collider Particles” [capo I], and “Our Rebellion” [capo III].
What I love about open tunings is that there are so many hidden voicings and cool scales that you don’t expect. That’s been just endlessly fun for me to get lost in. I like to be a little bit lost and sort of have one headlight out, not sure exactly where I’m going. That’s where a lot of discovery happens.
You also use a lot of lowered standard tuning—down to C or even down to B.
Exactly. I play in C standard a lot, which is a half step above baritone. Sometimes it’s B. For the song “Anywhere” on Revealer, that’s B. “All I’ve Ever Known” and “Who Are You Now” are C standard. So I just alternate between [open tunings and low standard] all the time in my writing and in my playing. Those are my go-to methods or modes.
You must have to set up your guitars to handle going that low.
Yeah, you have to. Otherwise it’s like a piece of paper flapping in the wind. There’s no give. The [Fender] Jazzmaster that I play, it’s like that guitar was made to be a baritone. It just handles thick, low strings very well. I get no issues with buzzing on that guitar. But this Harmony [Juno small-body electric] guitar that I’m playing my open tunings on is a little bit more sensitive.
What is that low-tuned Silvertone you’ve been playing?
It’s a parlor acoustic guitar with a rubber bridge that gives it this really wild, almost immediately exotic-sounding, low-sustain sort of effect. That guitar is throughout the record, sent through an amp, so it’s a cool, electric sort of identity.
I do play a bit of [straight] acoustic on the record, but mostly it’s the rubber bridge and the Jazzmaster.
Where did the rubber bridge idea come from? Did you hear someone play one?
The first person had to have been Blake Mills. And then from there, my producer, Tyler [Chester], bought one from Reuben Cox of Old Style Guitar Shop here in L.A. During the pandemic, Tyler let me borrow it and then didn’t let me give it back. I wrote so many songs on the new record with that guitar. It was immediately inspiring to me because it’s also a baritone.
I take that guitar with me everywhere and preach the gospel of the rubber bridge. It’s become a sound that I lean on heavily, and actually, that’s the case for a lot of musicians here in L.A. It seems like that gospel is starting to spread and people are using it all over everything.
What guitar do you play for traditional acoustic sounds?
This Collings dreadnought [D2H Traditional] is the guitar I reach for every day when I’m in my office and writing songs. Sadly, it didn’t make it on to the record just because I didn’t quite own it yet. Really it’s the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever owned.
Overall, you seem drawn to unconventional, funkier guitar sounds. What is the appeal? Is it just to create a sound you don’t hear all the time?
With guitar, I get bored of the way that we think it ought to be played, the way that I thought for a long time it had to be played. You know, there’s so much possibility that it’s hard for me not to feed it through weird effects.
There’s one song, “Your Hate Could Power a Train,” that has a ukulele that I detuned a whole octave. That song is really aggressive, but it’s played on ukulele. I thought that was so funny, but I didn’t do it because of the irony. I’m constantly wanting to see where the guitar can go and what it can sound like. That venture holds my curiosity and excitement constantly.
Your whole approach to guitar strikes me as so song-oriented, rather than showcasing leads or any kind of technique.
Yeah, that’s been a goal of mine. I care about songwriting first and foremost, so all the musical elements are there to prop that up, guitar included. It’s the instrument I probably love the most and feel the most at home on. But at the same time, if the song doesn’t call for it, I will quickly throw it out.
The guitar parts in some of these new songs remind me of Afro-pop, with those fast arpeggios and riffs up the neck. Is that a style you’ve tuned into?
One hundred percent. Dust to Digital, if you’re aware of that as a social media platform, basically just showcases all these beautiful videos of people around the world playing traditional music, and that account really did [spark] so many ideas.
Just watching people play guitar into these lower-quality amps . . . It was all down to the fingers and the playing, and that was so instantly inspiring to me. It was a great reminder that gear is just a vehicle. It’s not what’s most important. I don’t view a more expensive instrument as more inspiring. It’s usually the opposite, actually. I love beater guitars, and that’s what I fill my office with, because those usually have so many songs and ideas pumping through them. And you know, there’s something about owning gear that’s replaceable. That’s a fun thing for creating.
Many songs on this album are driven by drums in a way that reminds me of Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints or Graceland. Were the beats central to writing these songs?
Oh, yeah. Drums and bass probably inspire me the most. I am so drawn to the way those function together in the song. A lot of the drum parts were coming together in my head while guitar parts and melodies and lyrics were being written. So I definitely made a point of that being at the forefront of the recording.
Also on the rhythm side, you have an awful lot of songs with unusual meters, in sevens and whatnot. Where do you think that aspect of your songwriting comes from?
The first time I ever heard an odd-meter song that I didn’t detect being odd-meter, and then figured it out later, was a Juana Molina song. Just her guitar-playing and writing completely shifted the way I thought about guitar in general—not just about rhythm and meter. I was obsessed with her music and still am, and I think as time went on, the [odd meters] became a natural instinct to me. Music students are going to notice that no matter what, but I was hoping we could create music where it felt incredibly natural and people wouldn’t necessarily sit there and count.
You didn’t want to make the songs like math problems.
Yeah, because who wants that?
In general, I get the sense that as a songwriter and guitarist, you’re coming less from a theory place and more from just searching for sounds.
Yeah. It’s all me throwing paint at the wall and just seeing what sticks. The way I’ve created and the way I learned music was just loving it and trying it and understanding it from a more primal and instinctual place. Theory never made sense to me. It actually always kind of severed me from music. That’s the reason I didn’t go to school and decided to learn by watching and listening, because that was my entry point in the music world: my ear. That’s not to say that I know zero theory—some of it makes sense to me. But mostly I just need to be figuring it out as I go.
That reminds me of what you were saying earlier about how open tunings help you get a little lost.
Exactly. When you have no idea where it’s going, that’s my favorite place to be, because it’s pure discovery and joy rather than, “I can’t play that chord because jazz school or whatever taught me that these chords can’t live together.” I don’t have the burden of that knowledge. So many people I know, though, are smarter because of it. I look up to them and benefit from their knowledge, but that’s not the way I have come to understand music.
At the same time, for someone not so versed in theory, you have found your way to a very wide melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic vocabulary that you use in songs.
Oh, man, that’s cool. I’m glad that you think so.
You played so many instruments on the new album: all these guitars, keyboards, mandocello, lap steel, drums, bass… Why did you wind up doing it that way? Was the pandemic a factor?
The pandemic didn’t influence it. Before any of that went down, we had talked about taking that approach, because the way I had built demos in the past was playing everything. And then I would get musicians to come and play it better.
So the initial attempt [on Revealer] was to see if I could make a record where I played everything. The first song in particular, “All I’ve Ever Known,” is the only song where I do play absolutely everything. But I think actually the pandemic worked against that [approach], because I was already so alone and isolated and just tired of hearing my own thoughts, and I actually needed an outsource of inspiration.
How do you go about layering parts like that? Do you start with guitar or drums, or use a click or loop to lock it in?
The first song I did, I used a click. I started with guitar and probably did bass next, then drums, and built everything else around that. That was the easiest way to start.
Other songs were started in a similar way but finished with different elements, different players. It was this interesting hodgepodge of whatever made sense in that moment. The last record was very much, “Here’s exactly what’s going to happen.” This one was far more instinctual. I loved that there were no rules.
When layering a lot of parts yourself, it can be hard to keep it from sounding mechanical. Do you find there’s any particular key to maintaining the feel of a track when you’re doing so much of it?
I think recording as live as you can, even if it’s to yourself, is one way of making it feel like it’s living and breathing. And the temptation is always there to completely perfect everything, and in doing that, you can suck a lot of the life of the song. One of my methods was like, “Yeah, I want to try to get it right, like it’s not riddled with mistakes or gaffes, but I want it to feel like an actual human is playing.” So I would definitely leave a couple of mistakes for that very reason, because I think that really helps with the overall fluidity. I tried to play along to myself as though I was playing with a band.
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Along with your original music, you’ve released a lot of great, inventive covers of all kinds of music. Does interpreting songs like that feed into or guide your songwriting?
Yeah, 100 percent. You obviously didn’t write the song, but in covering it and making it your own, there’s a very similar process to songwriting. You’re playing something that you believe. In doing those covers, I was trying to show, “Yeah, these are things that influenced me.” But more than that, I really wanted to feel those songs under my fingers and learn something new about them. I was able to take new chord ideas from learning the songs, and that was the impetus for embarking on weeks and weeks of just learning covers.
Also, I was so envious of people I love and respect, like Sara and Sean Watkins, who know so many songs and can just pull them out of their hat. And I thought, I want to force myself to learn as many songs as possible, so I can bring them out if I need to.
My sense from listening to your music is that you have a very wide-open curiosity about songs from different eras and genres.
If my musical tastes were dinner guests, none of them would get along! I don’t know that any of them would find things to talk about.
Who would be invited to your dinner?
Björk, number one. Juana Molina for sure. Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright… I mean, these people would probably get along socially. George Harrison, Ry Cooder, the list goes on and on.
The beauty to me is there’s so much music out there, and I really do learn from it. And so much music that I hated at first ended up being the most foundational music to me, so I try to keep my mind open. If there’s something I have a real disdain for immediately, I give myself a year. And usually I come around or find something in it and it’s like, “Wow, I learned something from this.” My ear just wasn’t stretched for it at the time.
The Rubber Bridge Sound
Reuben Cox of Old Style Guitar Shop in Los Angeles specializes in reinventing cheap catalog guitars like Cunningham’s circa 1960s Silvertone, featured on her Grammy-nominated song “Life According to Raechel.” Each guitar is different, he says, but he typically resets the neck, does fretwork or other adjustments as needed, and then sets up the guitar with a rubber bridge (a block of wood wrapped in rubber), flatwound strings, and a magnetic pickup designed for loud electric guitars. Madison Cunningham’s Silvertone has a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup and gauge 13 strings, and it’s tuned down to C, nearly in baritone range. When she plays the guitar through an amp, as she does throughout her newest album, the sound is otherworldly—almost like the guitar is underwater. —JPR
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.