Madison McFerrin on Developing Her Craft and the Politics of Art

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Vocalist Madison McFerrin has scheduled several European performance dates for the spring.

(Photo: Justin Morris)

Madison McFerrin is the last musician you would expect to be going it alone. As the youngest child of Grammy-winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin, she has some of the best musicians in the world in her orbit. Yet, there she is on stage, before a mic stand wrapped in brilliantly colored flowers, a bloom of loop pedals spread at her feet. She’s alone.

Since ditching her band and embarking on this solo mission, McFerrin’s self-made soundscapes and poetic lyricism have fetched her attention from around the globe. Her sound is soulful with nods to pop, jazz and improvised music; Questlove calls it “soul-capella.” At age 27, McFerrin occupies a fresh space that defies a dogmatic adherence to genre, and Finding Foundations is the name of her latest series of EPs.

In addition to stateside gigs in and around Brooklyn, where she’s based, McFerrin is set to perform in the U.K., Belgium, Norway and The Netherlands during the spring. During a recent stop in Toronto, she spoke to DownBeat about being a solo artist buoyed by a remarkable musical legacy and the responsibility that comes along with that.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The title Finding Foundations has a fair amount of heft to it. What does it mean to you?

When I was coming up with the name, I liked the alliteration, for one. But another part of it was about the first song I wrote. I came up with this melody and I could hear the chords, but I couldn’t play the chords on piano. So, I was like, let me just record the chords with my voice in GarageBand. I wrote this first song a capella.

The song was the catalyst to forming a band in college. I didn’t write any other a capella tunes after that. But recently, I came back to this mode of writing, which harkens back to my father, who is obviously an a capella vocalist. His father was an opera singer, and so the voice is really important. I was just really trying to go back to my roots in that musical manner. Now with this project, I have this outlet to be able to do that.

Your older brothers, Jevon and Taylor, also are performers. Did you feel the weight of that legacy as you figured yourself out as a musician?

I actually wasn’t aware of my father’s global reach. He is such an inspiration to so many people.

It really wasn’t until I first got to college and people where like, “Oh, my god, you’re Bobby McFerrin’s daughter?” That wasn’t something I was necessarily prepared for, because I, like many other people who first go to college, didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to sing, but up until that point I hadn’t written a lot of music. All of a sudden, I had the pressure of people assuming I was a jazz musician, assuming I wanted to scat or do improv—I was like, “No, no, no.” I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that I didn’t want to do that. But now, I’m so grateful and appreciative of being able to have someone like my dad in the house.

You played in bands for years, but now it’s just you and your loop pedals on stage. How has that changed the creative process for you?

You might think that there’s more pressure because it’s just me, but I feel like there’s less pressure, because I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s opinion. Also, I have enough of an ego [laughs]. I definitely love to collaborate, and plan on doing that more. I don’t want to discount that—but I also feel like when I started doing the solo stuff, I really needed that time to just do me. I really wasn’t in a place to be concerned with what other people were thinking about me and my stuff, because I had had enough of that in college. So, I really just needed to do my own thing. What a freedom.

With freedom comes responsibility. James Baldwin speaks of the role of the artist in times of social and political turmoil, and you address some heavy issues on your EPs. How do you see your role as an artist in difficult times?

Being an artist in itself is a political act, because you’re going against the status quo. But also, when “45” got elected in the States, one of the only good things to come out of it, the silver lining, was that I was excited to see the art that would come out of it. Because, if you look at the art of the ’60s and ’70s, that is a response to what was happening globally, and I think that it is happening again. As an artist, especially as a black woman artist, it is so important to reflect on what’s happening around you. And I’m not doing it in an any kind of “I am a political artist” way; I’m going off of what I feel and what I see and what I hear. And for me to not comment is me saying that I am blind to certain things that are happening around me. I think that it’s pretty shallow if people who do have the privilege of being an artist don’t use some of that to speak out on injustice. It might be the only benefit of being a celebrity ... having this platform to speak out.

I definitely feel most spiritually attuned, most present when I’m singing, when I’m on stage, when I’m performing. I definitely feel it when I communicate with people after my shows. That is when I know that this is a gift, that something has been given to me to spread positivity to people. I definitely feel like it’s very important for me to respect that. DB



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