Madi Diaz Brings Her Intensely Personal Songwriting to the Big Stage

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter reflects on her musical journey from the early days to touring with Harry Styles.
Madi Diaz playing acoustic guitar. (Photo by Caity Krone)
Madi Diaz, Photo: Caity Krone

“What the fuck do you want?” is the brazen opening line of Madi Diaz’s new record, Weird Faith (Anti-), sung softly over the strum of her acoustic guitar. With that moment, Diaz sets the tone for the unapologetic examination of love, bravery, trust, faith, God, dreams, and even therapy that the songs offer. 

In the album’s credits, the singer-songwriter explains that these songs are “little representations of this weird faith that we are always living by, moving each other every day, never ever knowing what is ahead, but aiming as true as we ever can.” And with her newest release, Diaz’s aim is as true as her opening line is direct. She hits the mark every time. 

Diaz’s blend of pop, country, and folk elements in her songwriting has garnered widespread acclaim since she made her recording debut back in 2007, but her career has been on a remarkable trajectory in recent years. After hearing her 2021 album, History of a Feeling, pop star Harry Styles invited Diaz to open for him in arenas and stadiums−and ultimately asked her to be a member of his touring band. That led to television appearances, a solo tour (her first since 2014), and other opportunities, including collaborations with the indie band Waxahatchee, Angel Olsen, and Kacey Musgraves, with whom Diaz duets on the devastating Weird Faith ballad “Don’t Do Me Good.” 

As Diaz, 38, navigates the questions and uncertainties of life, her music continues to resonate with a growing fanbase. I recently spoke with her from her home in Nashville, where she reflected on her musical journey from her early days to finding her creative process and the making of Weird Faith.

Finding the Guitar

Diaz grew up playing the piano because it was her father’s main instrument, but eventually gravitated toward the guitar. She still has her first acoustic, a Yamaha LL15 jumbo that she brings on the road. 

“It’s a special guitar,” she says. “It’s funny because I’ve played a lot of fancy acoustics, but this Yamaha is very reliable and such a beater. It’s just a great guitar. My friend Chris Plank [Musgraves’ guitar tech] has been helping me for the last few years, just keeping me on my game. He put this really fun, cool, shapey pickguard on it before I went and played it in Harry Styles’ band.”

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Diaz’s father, Eric Svalgard, a music teacher and performer who has played with a Frank Zappa tribute band and in many other settings, had a big role in her musical upbringing. My dad helped me make my first chord shapes on acoustic guitar,” Diaz says. “He told me to practice till my fingers bled so they would build callouses and get tough. We’d learn songs by the Eagles and Alice in Chains and sing the harmonies together. We’d be on a road trip, and he’d turn around and grill me on what instruments were accompanying whatever song was on the radio.”

When Diaz graduated from high school, in 2004, her father gifted her a brand-new Martin D-28. It has been her main acoustic ever since, and she finds that its voice has become enhanced with maturity. “That guitar is now 20 years old, and it’s just sonically so different than when I started playing it,” Diaz says. “In the last five years I’ve noticed a warmth and grit and depth that wasn’t there before. I really feel like we’ve grown up together, and it makes me feel weirdly emotional thinking about it. It’s pretty special.” [Sadly, at the end of April, Diaz shared on social media that her Martin was shattered due to mishandling on a Delta Airlines flight. —Ed.]

Struck by a Meteor

Diaz’s pursuit of music led her to Berklee College of Music, where she initially majored in guitar. However, the competitive environment and the overwhelming presence of what she calls “the super bro shredders” led her to switch majors to contemporary writing and production. “I made it not even halfway through my junior year, when I dropped out,” says Diaz. “And then I mostly was sticking to the songwriting stuff because that was what I was really excited about.” That shift marked a significant turning point in her musical life, allowing her to explore and develop her unique style and voice. 

In 2007, Diaz moved to Nashville, where a fateful shopping trip to a Guitar Center with her bandmates Kyle Ryan (guitar) and Adam Popick (drums) sparked another love affair with a guitar. “They’re such gearheads, and at that point I was like, ‘I play acoustic guitar and everyone else does all the rest, thank you,’” she says. 

“But then I remember the moment when I saw her,” she continues. “It’s so romantic. I remember the light, and there was no one else in the room, you know? I saw this ’59 Harmony Meteor. She looks like she’s cut out of a gym floor and then walked all over for decades and decades. There’s just something about this guitar, like you’re just there and it’s kind of playing itself, you know what I mean?” 

Madi Diaz, eyes closed, rests her arms on an acoustic guitar.
Madi Diaz, Photo: Joseph Wasilewski

The Meteor reshaped the way Diaz approaches her instruments, informing not just her technique and vocabulary on the electric guitar but on her cherished D-28 as well. “My Harmony turned me into a real guitar player,” she says. “It’s made me more adventurous as a player and writer, and in turn it has been fun to focus back on my Martin with certain licks like the ones from ‘Nervous’ and ‘Woman in My Heart,’ which were both written on acoustic, although they shifted to the Harmony in the studio. I feel like if a lick can carry on acoustic, it can live on electric.” 

Diaz seems comfortable in her current guitar configuration, which primarily includes the Meteor and the D-28, and she might like to score a Harmony Jupiter to complement the Meteor. But, she says, “I don’t know, I’m kind of stuck on the Meteor. I mean it kind of writes songs for me. It gives me so much. Why would I leave it?”

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The songs the guitars have given Diaz have been deeply influenced by the folk and Americana artists whose music she fell in love with during college, including Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, and Lori McKenna−who co-wrote the title track of Weird Faith with Diaz. When asked about the ways in which these artists have influenced her songwriting process, Diaz says, “I don’t know if I can really explain that. I feel like if I could, I’d have the perfect formula for a song and I’d write it every time over and over. Those influences are just in there and part of my vocabulary, much like if you read a book and look up some words you don’t know the meaning to−voilà, you have different words to pull from in your brain bank. They make an appearance when life requires.”

In Collaboration

Currently, Diaz mostly tours as a duo with Popick, who plays drums with his right hand and bass lines on a keyboard with his left. On certain songs, she says, “He’ll pick up a guitar and we’ll drop the drums, or he’ll do kind of a Fender Rhodes [electric piano] melody thing. So it’s just us, and we’ve made it work. We travel really well together, and it keeps costs low. 

As a duo, she adds, “We’re weirdly able to cover a lot of ground. You’d be surprised. That’s the reason we’ve kept it, because it actually does work. There are instances where I’ll have a bigger band, like when I did a TV debut last year or when I opened the Harry Styles shows. Then, yeah−it’s ideal to have as much manpower as possible.”

Collaboration plays a crucial role in Diaz’s creative process and is especially evident on the new album, on which each song is a co-write and co-production. Diaz thrives in such settings, finding them more stimulating and productive than working solo. 

“Working alone is like having a conversation with yourself,” she says. “I mean, one day I do probably need to lean into that part of myself and really give myself the time and space to just produce something fully of mine. And the same thing with songwriting. It’s just about finding that time and space and patience to sit with myself and know that it’s OK to run into the walls and then come back from the walls−you know, get stuck by myself and get myself out of it.” She adds pensively, “I’ll get there.”

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The songs on Weird Faith chronicle a relationship from beginning to end with all the questions, emotions, and myriad experiences that ensue. It then delves into the beginning of a new relationship all the while prying deeper into the most important relationship of all: with oneself. 

“I’m recently out of a relationship, and it’s so funny to have been with somebody for so long,” she says. “I knew exactly what I wanted within our relationship, and now being outside of that relationship I feel light and open and not really sure what I want. But I also feel good not knowing what I want. I’m not rushing towards anything.”

There is a stillness that not knowing offers, and in it, Diaz grapples with her weird faith in the title track and also in the song “God Person.” “Both of my parents are Catholic,” she shares, “but they raised us going to Quaker meetings, which is a pretty ‘choose your own adventure on your spiritual journey to the heart’ kind of religion.” 

Diaz attended Quaker meetings through high school but then stopped as a late teenager when doubt crept in. She says,I’ve kind of dabbled in a little bit of everything. As human beings, we can all probably agree that there’s some sort of law of attraction with the unknown of all of it. I love watching people look for it. I love looking for it myself. I’m very private about it all. I don’t really have any faith practices, but I feel very spiritual, and I feel very solid in whatever those practices are. You know, it’s usually walking around in the woods and being like, ‘Holy shit, what are we all doing out here?’ At this point, it’s always going to be a question, and I kind of love that.”

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Diaz is sitting in the questions and the unknown of it all, poised at a very beautiful moment in her life and career, surrounded by a close-knit community of great artists with the support of a label and a quickly growing fanbase. She is sure of one thing, though: the opening F-bomb on her record. 

“I guess it’ll probably weed out the people that are not willing to go all the way,” she says. “Like, don’t be faint of heart, you know? Come on in−or get the fuck out.”

Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 347

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Natalia Zukerman
Natalia Zukerman

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