You don’t know delicate music until you’ve pressed play on Madison McFerrin. Be it her Finding Foundations a cappella EPs or her newly released, You + I debut, McFerrin, 28, stands a cut above singers with her tender and precious vocal performances. To listen to Brooklyn’s McFerrin is to cradle something fragile and overwhelmingly beautiful in the palm of your hand. You + I features twinkling sound design akin to the intimate flicker of a tea light. Though the EP is the first McFerrin release to feature backing production, Madison does not shy away from her voice. She does not wash away her instrument. She does not hide. In this way, her performances are fearless.
“I liked the idea of only having to depend on myself,” McFerrin explains over the phone. “I’m my most fearless on stage. I like it so much because it goes back to how fearless I was as a kid. I find that connection on stage, just being by myself. It’s not scary to me.”
Blooming synths and meditations on truth color You + I. On “No Room,” McFerrin plays with space and time, weaving her willowy voice between sharp chords. The warm piano tones of standout “Know You Better” give way to a jazz cabaret performance. Though You + I is only five proper songs, plus a hearty vocal intro, McFerrin uses her time well. The EP is positively electric in its approach to genre tinkering. Even on the most modern-sounding of cuts, wobbling closer “Fallin’,” McFerrin sounds classic and of another time with her skittering delivery.
“I want you to hear me,” she urges. “I’ve been training for a long time to have a good voice. I don’t want to hide it behind these mechanisms that make you not care about my voice as much [or] make you think I’m not that good of a singer. I’ve got a bachelor’s degree in professional music. I’ve been working on this for going on three decades. I’m not throwing my voice to the side, because I’ve worked hard at this.”
Considering the depth and lightness of You + I, McFerrin’s work is paying off. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Where did your love of music come from?
Madison McFerrin: It comes from my family. My father is a singer, and both of his parents were singers. So I come from a long line of [singers]. There was always music playing in the house, nonstop. It was inevitable. It would have been weirder had I not fallen into music.
When did you realize it was music or bust?
Very early! I moved from Minneapolis to Philadelphia when I was nine. At that point, there was a big transition. In Minneapolis, I was in different musical theater groups outside of school, and my school’s music program was pretty good. The new school I went to in Philadelphia was great, but the music program—to me, at nine—didn’t feel as advanced as the other one. So I was frustrated and didn’t have the same outlets. It was at that moment where it was, “Wow, if I’m not doing music stuff, I’m super unhappy.”
You’re best known for your a cappella vocal performances and releases. Why sing a cappella?
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Honestly, the a cappella thing was an accident. I did it out of necessity because I was waiting for my brother [Taylor McFerrin] to finish his album so we could start working on You + I. I had this loop pedal, and I wasn’t as confident playing piano and singing. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll write some a cappella tunes.” Harmony comes naturally to me from a vocal standpoint. My sets started getting shorter, so instead of bringing my synthesizer with me, I was like, “Oh, I’ll just do these a cappella songs I have.” So I [decided], “Before You + I comes out, let me put out an a cappella project to get my name out there.”
It’s kind of fearless, you know? There’s nowhere to hide.
Yeah, totally! Part of what drew me to [a cappella]—I had been in a couple of different bands, and I love working with people and being in a band. But there are always so many people and things to take care of and keep track of. I liked the idea of only having to depend on myself. I’m my most fearless on stage. I like it so much because it goes back to how fearless I was as a kid. I find that connection on stage, just being by myself. It’s not scary to me.
You’ve released your “debut” EP You + I, and it’s a lot more outward in approach. Plus, you’ve got production behind you. Can you explain these choices to me?
I had written an album called You + I, and the only thing that survived from it is “Fallin’.” When it was finally time to get the new version of You + I together, I wanted it to be a more outward perspective project.
In the last three years, I’ve grown a lot as a vocalist and a songwriter. All of these [songs] are about a love relationship of sorts. “No Room” is about our relationship to society. “Try” is about your relationship to yourself. “Unwise” is about heartbreak, but about friendship. I just wanted there to be more outward looks because we’re going through a lot of stuff as a society right now, and as an artist, I feel an obligation to be a mirror.
In an era where voice modulation has been popularized and normalized, your work feels inviting and bare. Why move so subversively?
My grandpa was an opera singer. My dad is an a cappella vocalist, and I love the voice so much. It is my favorite instrument. It is so beautiful, and I get disheartened that it’s not a thing people care about in pop music. The quality of the voice is not as important. To me, it’s the most important thing. Some people aren’t great vocalists, but they’re great songwriters, and they have great songwriting behind them, and I respect that for what it is. But when there are people out there who are trying to be singers, I feel a type of way if you can’t sing that well.
I am always down to play with different vocal effects, but at the end of the day? I want you to hear me. I’ve been training for a long time to have a good voice. I don’t want to hide it behind these mechanisms that make you not care about my voice as much [or] make you think I’m not that good of a singer.
Finally, who is the ideal Madison McFerrin fan?
My ideal fan is anyone who feels the need to escape into music and wants to feel seen, loved, and safe. I sing so I can spread joy, even in the sadness. Music is such a connector. My ideal fan is somebody who cares about the greater good of humanity and is trying their best to bring peace into this world.