SPOTLIGHT: Madi Diaz on Mining the Soul for Songs
Madi Diaz (photo by Muriel Margaret)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Madi Diaz is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for February 2024. Read more about her and her new album, Weird Faith, here, and look for more all month long.
It’s such a weird thing, starting a record. It’s almost like starting a conversation that you don’t know how to have with someone you love when you know you have something to say, something you know is important to express, some soul-mined gift that you haven’t quite fully dug up yet. I know I have songs. I know I mean what I say when I sing, but where do I start, how do I start, how do I do it? Where do I go, who do I trust to angle this ax with me, who can be the one at the other end of the line when I’ve gone in so damn deep that I can’t see anymore? When I can’t tell the difference between myself and me, like my past me, or my future me, and who will give me the room to take a big deep breath and then climb back into my body?
The whole thing becomes such a mirror of where I’m standing in the scheme of my life at that very moment. It’s all over me. It’s in my voice, it’s in my confidence and my playing. My decision-making, my timing, my rushing, my resistance, my surrender. It immediately becomes soul mining. I have to show up with a shovel and be ready to bust myself up digging through layers and scraping them back. And I really have to start with breaking the surface of the bare hard ground. That’s the bitch of it, I’m not just suddenly so deep down there.
I don’t feel like the same person I did when I first started making music. I really just wanted to play. I really wanted to get something out that I didn’t know how to. I wanted to feel the rush of anxious adrenaline that came with aiming at perfection. I wanted to make something immaculate and obvious. I loved the challenge of staying with a performance and hitting it as many times as my body would allow, like some kind of relentless gymnast hell-bent on scoring a 10 on a landing. Execution became the desire and was almost compulsive. I would just sing before I really was sure of how I felt.
I don’t know what shifted, but that couldn’t be more different from how I can do things these days. I know that perfectionist still lives inside of me; she rears up sometimes and still glares at me behind the scenes. But something in the last seven years has made it so that it feels impossible to not be bare-chested, raw-beating heart about it all. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the world, maybe it’s relationships or time or age or who knows, man, probably all of it. And some of the time it’s a relief to desire to be so direct and sometimes it’s made it more impossible than ever to be able to tell in the studio if I’m really, really nailing it. If I’m as translucent as I can be, as inside of my songs as I have to be to feel that “thing.” And that “thing” is such a funny one to chase because it’s this inexplicable magic that just is or it isn’t. Maybe that’s god? If it is, I guess that’s how I chase god.
I’m trying to break ground. I’m trying to get quiet enough to hear what’s down there with me right now. When I’m tracking I’m trying not to listen to anything but myself because it’s hard enough to know what that sounds like and anything extra feels like a flood. I’m trying to stay purely on some path of making whatever is down there in the caverns of my brain heart come out. And when it does come out, I want it to be as concentrated and pure as it can be. Not an echo of anybody or anything. I mean, I already am a walking vessel for everything that has come before me. Any and every song I’ve ever heard is basically embedded in my DNA anyway. I am the makeup of all my influences. The languages and patterns of my mother and my father, the whip crack of the Northeast, some softness that I learned when I moved down South, all chewed up and mushed around is what comes out in weird singsong.
Without putting on any records, on the regular I wake up with Joni Mitchell, SZA, Patty Griffin, Bjork, Lucinda Williams, Kate Bush, Feist, Lori McKenna, Bonnie Raitt, Judee Sill, Patty Loveless, PJ Harvey, Rihanna, The Carpenters, Kathleen Hanna, Madonna blowing through my mind. A lyric looped over and over on repeat. Some brilliant song coming back to taunt me when I’m weak. It’s all in there all the time so I try to stay clean and go for long aimless walks deep in the woods. I’ll take the same few paths but every time I’ll try to step it a little differently or walk a little outside of the line or skip halfway or do a cartwheel if I’m feeling mentally tight-fisted. I will put my cheek against a tree or lay down on the back of a sun-warmed boulder and close my eyes and breathe. I will talk to myself the way I used to when I was 13 keeping myself company. Ask myself what I’m feeling and try to answer honestly.
And whether I am feeling honest or not, I still show up and I open the door and get my butt into the studio. I struggle, I relax. I try to let myself trust myself. I at least know now that the album is done, that it is exactly what I made, and the most accurate reflection of who I was and who I am. It’s a record of me, and for me; it can’t be perfect and packaged. It’s a process. It’s growing. It’s learning and embracing. It’s a stab at being less self-effacing and more emboldened by moving through feeling. It’s holding my own hand. It’s trusting that I can harvest the words and melodies inside of me. It’s Weird Faith.