Our Gothamist House series returns! You can visit past episodes here.
As anyone who attended an American college sometime in the past 30 years can attest, there are few more nightmarish questions than, "Can you come to my a cappella showcase?" Somehow, a cappella music became distinctly the realm of uber-sincere college kids doing their best to ruin "Free Ride" and "Your Song" and "No Diggity" for generations to come. With the exception of the occasional "Sweet Child O' Mine" rendition or brilliant Key & Peele sketch, a cappella wasn't just uncool—it could be physically painful to experience.
So when you come across an actual artist working in the medium, it is all the more credit to their vision. And there is no more impressive artist making a cappella sound cool again than Madison McFerrin. "It's freeing to remove the other instruments," McFerrin told Gothamist on a hot day in July. "One, from a logistical I-don't-have-to-carry-things-around-with-me standpoint. So that's definitely freeing—freeing of literal space. But it's also freeing to rely on just my natural instrument. I don't have to worry about tuning an instrument, I just have to tune myself. Which is also very scary. But there's a freedom to fear in certain ways."
McFerrin has released just two EPs over the last year or so, Finding Foundations Vol I & II, but with brilliant, melodically complex tunes such as "No Time To Lose" and "Insane," she has found a special niche combining funk, soul, jazz, and R&B into a flurry of vocals. She plans to release a piano-based EP next, and a full-length album eventually, but she expects to return to the Finding Foundations series throughout her life.
"Part of why the series is called Finding Foundations is the first real song that I wrote, I wrote a cappella because I couldn't figure out the chords on the piano but I could hear them in my head," she said. "So it's kind of like finding foundations back to that—also it's an ode to my father as well, because he's part of my foundation. And so I was like, oh I have these a cappella tunes, I really like them, I can put these out before I put out this produced project that I have in mind, and then it just kind of stuck."
Her father certainly knows something about a cappella music as well: Bobby McFerrin is a Grammy-award winning jazz musician best known for the ubiquitous hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy." And McFerrin's grandfather was Robert McFerrin Sr., the first black man to sing with the Metropolitan Opera. "[A Cappella] wasn't the intended path, but I'm in no way surprised that it has happened just given that that's been my entire life in a familial sense," she said. Even so, she didn't feel pressure to enter the music industry due to her family, though she has picked up some foundational wisdom from her dad.
"He didn't give me voice lessons growing up," she said. "He doesn't deal with a lot of the business end of things. He actively avoids it, so there was a lot of that that I didn't get from him, but the main thing was definitely being true to yourself, because he has always done that, and he's even turned down a lot of things that probably would have made him more money and more famous so to speak, but he turned them down because they didn't align with his values and they took him away from his family. Having that example has been really informative in my own decision making about how I go about my career. Sticking to yourself and being true to yourself is really, really important, particularly in this day and age where it seems like there is a big focus on stuff that is not real. So, I'm trying to be as real as possible."
The process of watching McFerrin layer her vocal harmonies with a loop pedal—adding in her own rhythm section made up of clicks, vocal noises and mic bops along the way—is nothing if not as real as possible. It all adds up to a warm, intimate sound that sticks with you as you go about your day.
Check out McFerrin performing her singles "No Time To Lose" and "Insane," along with an interview, up above. Below, there are a few more excerpts from our conversation with her.
Do you find that your songwriting tends to be more inward looking or more external? I would say for the most part my songwriting is more inward looking, which is something that I'm actively trying to work on, because I think that while it is still very honest to look inward, it's also important for artists to look outward and reflect things that are happening not just to them, but to society as a whole. Songwriting is definitely a very personal introspective process. I'm trying to expand that just so that I'm not speaking to my own experiences, but to the experiences around me, because I think that's equally important.
Has the Trump era and everything that's happened over the last two years affected your process? I would definitely say the era of 45 has affected the inward vs. outward writing process just because it's become that much more apparent that it's necessary to write not just from an inward perspective, but from an outward perspective, which I think is one of the silver linings of this administration, and something that I definitely realized when he got elected. Because I think a lot of amazing art is going to come out of this era just as it did in the '60s and '70s, because people feel a greater need to speak truth. I think artists have a really important role in doing that for society and holding up a mirror to society. So, in the era of 45 I try and take that fear that he attempts to impart on all of us and use it as an outlet of sorts.
This is a question from my colleague Rebecca Carroll: Do you feel pressure to present a certain kind of sexuality or sex appeal in the age of Nicki and Cardi B? There are parts of me that feel pressured to sexualize myself, but I would say mostly I do not feel pressured to sexualize myself in this era of over-sexualization. It's interesting because looking back, I can see as a kid noticing the sexualization of women and desiring that, but because I had been told that that was part of being a desirable woman. I've definitely shied away from that as I've gotten older just because I don't feel [it's as] necessary to me, particularity given that I feel like I'm talented enough from a vocal standpoint that I don't necessarily need that. I think that with some artists they use that to kind of cover the fact that they may not be the best in their field otherwise. I don't feel that pressure. There is a level of femininity and sexuality that I am attracted to within myself that is more or less part of who I am, but I don't feel the need to post a bunch of pictures of my ass, or my breasts, or whatever just for the sake of getting attention. I would much rather draw the attention to my artwork and my songwriting and my singing, and I'm pretty confident in that. I don't feel much of a pressure to over-sexualize myself as a means of getting attention.
What is your craziest or most memorable subway experience? Oh, my goodness. My most recent memorable subway experience was [when] my boyfriend and I were going back to Brooklyn from Harlem and we got on the train, and there were only two people on the train—one of [whom] was eating food and the other one was potentially a homeless person. But the entire car smelled like literal poop. Like just feces. And we were so surprised that somebody could be eating in the car at the same time, because it was straight feces. As soon as the train stopped, we immediately got onto another car and like stopped people from getting on the particular car. We were like, "It smells like poop!" We just talked about that the other day actually, because it was bad.
You know you're a hardcore New Yorker when you just eat through it. Yeah, I was like, 'can this person not smell?' I did not understand how it was humanly possible to sit through that.
What was he eating? I don't know. He was eating though. That's really all that matters.
If you could change one thing about the city, what would be your utopian way to improve the city? I say that I wish that people communicated with one another a little more. I'm always struck by the fact that you encounter hundreds of different people on a daily basis, particularly if you're commuting, and there's not much of an acknowledgement of one another. I find that really fascinating. I went to a Quaker school growing up, and there's this thing called meeting for worship, and once a week, you sit in this room in total silence and if you feel moved by the light of God, so to speak, you stand up and you speak.
The day after 45 got elected, I was in the subway car and everybody was so down, and I stood up and I just told everybody on the train that I loved them and that I hoped they had a good day. Mainly that I loved them. And that was the only time, especially on a subway car, that I've felt connected to a broader [group], outside of just like somebody's sitting next to me on the train. People really responded to the fact that I was telling people that I loved then after this really shocking thing had happened. Then I tried to repeat it again that same day on another train, and people weren't digging it as much. So, I guess it was really just that first morning commute that was into it, but I would really love to just have more personal interactions versus just people going places and needing to get some place and you don't really just stop and smell the trash.
What's your favorite thing about living in New York? My favorite thing about living in New York is the people and the art that the people make, which is part of what drew me to New York after college. I moved to New York five days after I graduated from college because Boston was not a city that I wanted to stay in.
I went to school near there, and I feel that. Way too many white people, and the kind of white people that I don't vibe with. But in New York, you can see any kind of art at any time of day. You can eat great food and it doesn't have to be a five star restaurant. There are plenty of things on the side of the street that are delicious. I mean, the amount of dollar slice pizzas that are on point—try eating pizza anywhere else in the world outside of Italy and it's not a thing. People can really mess up pizza and it sucks and it hurts my heart.
But the fact that I can go to a show on a Wednesday night and it's a friend of mine and they're making incredible art and it's inspiring me to make incredible art, or the fact that I can just stumble into a gallery and learn about an artist that I've never heard of before or somebody who's up and coming, or that you can just sit and people watch and see the most beautiful looking people and people who are wearing really awesome clothing. There's just so much culture in this city and so much to take in. I think that's probably my favorite part of living in New York. People are cool except for when they're not cool, and then they really suck.
I feel like we probably have a better ratio of cool to not cool people here then they do in a lot of the other parts of the country. Oh totally, totally. 1000% higher ratio of cool here. That's why it also sucks that 45 is from here. It's like, "Dude, you just suck, you just suck all around."