On my radar this week is Madeleine Kelson, a young Nashville-based singer songwriter with an affinity for country music and Americana. She is a honest storyteller, whose lyrics and voice show a deep understanding of the spirit of the music she is trying to capture. In the past few years her experiences in Nashville became the inspiration for her debut album While I Was Away. In fact Kelson’s debut was written and produced by Kelson as her college thesis. That said, I recently caught up with Madeleine to chat about her music career. Here is some of what we talked about.
Madeleine, I find it fascinating that you began your music career with your sister in The Kelson Twins. How did that experience prepare you for what has come since then?
My sister and I started the Kelson Twins when we were around 13. We did everything: booking, writing, managing our band, everything that had to get done to move us foreword, we had to figure out. I think growing up in the music world as a kid made it a lot easier and less intimidating to just get started. By the time I embarked on a solo career, I already knew the ropes a little. In some ways I was starting over, but I had a solid understanding of how the industry works.
You are originally from Chicago but you are now based in Nashville. Are the two cities worlds apart from a musicians standpoint?
They are and they aren’t. Both have a very supportive community. Both have a focus on lifting up the people around you rather than stepping on your peers to get to the top. Nashville is a lot more saturated with musicians, which is great for networking and community building, but not so great for getting paid. In Chicago, we got paid for every show. There were plenty of shows where we maybe made $20, but we still got paid. In Nashville, that’s a lot harder to find. If you won’t play for tips, there are 100 other people who will. Nashville also has a bigger songwriter community. In Chicago, everyone I knew who wrote also played their songs, and was actively pursuing both outlets. There are a lot of people here who just want to write for other people, which is really cool to see.
You’ve just released your debut album While I Was Away. Talk us briefly through the concept behind it and how your new songs came to fruition?
While I Was Away was born out of my college thesis. I wanted to write and produce an Americana album that lyrically focused on my life since moving away from home, and musically focused on the building block genres of Americana. That’s why some songs sound folkier, some more country, rock, etc. I spent the first six months or so writing and demoing, and trying to pick the songs that best represented this pivotal change in my life. Because of Covid, I ended up only doing one co-write. It was a very introspective and personal project from a writing standpoint. Once I picked my songs, I spent January-March recording. It was my first time acting as the sole producer of an album, or any recording for that matter. It was such a creatively fulfilling process, and I got to work with some really phenomenal musicians.
What is it about playing the guitar and the addition of piano that felt so right in your development as a musician?
I actually started out on violin when I was about four years old. From there I picked up bass, and then guitar and piano. I still love playing bass, but guitar and piano are really great writing tools. They also bring very different songs out of me. When I write on guitar I tend to write more poetic, lyrically technical songs, whereas piano brings out more emotionally powerful music.
When growing up, what sort of music were you exposed to?
So much! I grew up on everyone from Dolly Parton, to Aretha Franklin, to Led Zeppelin. My mom played a lot of country, rock, and other American roots music. I didn’t listen to a lot of pop music growing up. I fell pretty hard for Americana. My sister, my mom, and I would sing Lucinda Williams songs and bluegrass standards around the house.
Who are you listening to now that inspires your mood?
There are many people. Some top artists for me right now have been HAIM, Yola, John Prine, Madi Diaz, and to be totally honest, I love the new Harry Styles album!
Has your creative process changed since you began releasing music? What kind of tools do you use for your songwriting process?
From a songwriting standpoint I think the only thing that has changed has been thinking about production and the final recorded song. I used to write and not really think about what the song would sound like beyond the work tape. Now that I have more experience with production, I think about what elements I can add and how I can build on what I’m writing. It’s helped me finish songs that I might not love lyrically or melodically, but have fun production ideas for. As far as songwriting tools goes, I keep it pretty simple. I have a lot of respect for artists who can build a song in a DAW, and have a bunch of production elements going while they write. I really just stick to an instrument, a pen, and my voice memos app!
Tell us something surprising about your latest single The Way I Do?
The Way I Do probably took me the longest to write out of all the songs on the album. I had the tag “god has never loved a woman the way I do” floating around in my head for months before I knew what to do with it. I felt like it was a powerful line that deserved something really good around it. A few months later, once I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say, the rest of the song came out in about half an hour.
Madeleine, can you tell us which song from the album in terms of themes and sonic arrangements was the most rewarding? Did it come out exactly as you hoped?
Sonically, I think Joker was the most rewarding. It came out a lot different than I originally imagined, but in the best way. I had planned on the acoustic guitar taking the lead, and using the more ambient guitar as a pad underneath everything, but I ended up lifting the pad to the forefront and making it a feature of the song. Thematically, The Way I Do is really important to me. I wanted to make that a bit of a jab at the Country industry by taking a theme that is essentially blacklisted from country music, and give it a very classic country sound. The musicians who played on that song really nailed it.
Finally, and I hope we can have a little fun with this one. Who do you follow on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram that makes you smile? And why?
Oh man. I’ve gotten really into cooking in the past few years, so I’ve been following a lot of chefs and I guess food influencers, which has been fun. On the more embarrassing side, I have become obsessed with Trader Joe’s and follow a handful of Trader Joe’s pages so I know every time they drop a new snack.
Madeleine Kelson’s debut album While I Was Away is out now. Listen on Spotify and Apple Music. For more information, including tour updates, check out her website. Follow Madeleine Kelson on Instagram and Facebook. Watch on You Tube.