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Don’t Invite Madison McFerrin to Your Bad Party

Photo: Justin French

Madison McFerrin is the kind of beloved vocalist and producer the Brooklyn bruhs and baddies swear by. Over a handful of EPs and singles, the 30-year-old singer has solidified a distinct style stuffed with fractal harmonies, claps, breaths, and a cappella melodies. Her 2019 pop-soul song “No Time to Lose” imagines a woman plucking petals off the day’s offering while her internal monologue anxiously presses her to get her shit together. On “Know You Better,” she brings a near-Disney-esque simplicity to iambic pentameter. When the pandemic hit, McFerrin chose to go even deeper into her bag of vocal tricks, landing on a new approach that squeezed out as much “flowery” (her word) beauty from her voice as possible. Her new single, “Stay Away (From Me),” showcases that technique, as McFerrin operates in her middle register, something she had never tried before. On the just-released “(Please Don’t) Leave Me Now,” she looks for an even “grittier” tonality.

Both songs serve as a preview for her long-awaited debut album, I Hope You Can Forgive Me, out May 12. While McFerrin’s previous music felt lightly touched with gloss and gleam, this album, she says, is more grounded. “Maybe it’s something about now being in my 30s,” she tells me, “where I’m like, ‘Nah, I’ve gotten over the idealistic phase of things; let’s get to the heart of it.’” With almost a decade of skin in the game, Madison McFerrin feels like she has finally found her footing.

You did a couple shows in Brooklyn and L.A. last month. How have folks been receiving “Stay Away (From Me)”?
It’s definitely producing a vibe. People are getting down and really moving, which is the goal.

The song is a darker tone for you, too. When I first listened to it, I was like, Who pissed off Madison, bro?
I mean, who pissed me off? Probably me. I pissed me off. Most of the time just being like, “What are you doing? Get your shit together.” And that’s what this is a little bit: me speaking to myself to let go of some internal stuff that I feel holds me back or has historically held me back. So I wrote a song about it.

That actually reminds me of “Try,” from 2020, which was one of those songs that was about your own internal struggle. Is that accurate?
Mm-hmm. It’s a common theme in my music. It’s like, “Get out of your own way, girl. Just embrace your awesomeness and just go for it and stop thinking that these structures that have been put in place are better than you. You got to do you.” So lots of self-reminders and self-reflection, knowing that that is a thing that a lot of people deal with; hopefully me getting out those elements of myself via my art can help somebody else too.

How does it usually manifest? If you say, “Okay, I’m standing in my own way,” what does that look like in your life?
Just not believing in myself, not trusting my own instincts, letting other people dictate what they think I should or shouldn’t do and abiding by that, which I think comes from just how our society is structured in general. But as a woman, as a Black woman, I’ve been told that I can’t do a lot of things. And it’s not easy to just let that stuff roll off you and not affect you in any way. And so really fighting through the patriarchy and the white supremacy and just shedding as much of that as possible to just be able to shine and be my best self. I think that’s what a lot of that is.

There’s an urgency to it. Do you come to the mic with general topics or full-out songs?
I start with the groove, the chords, the beat; the melody goes on top of that, and then lyrics go on top of that. I think it’s the closest I come to communicating with a higher power, because it really is just all of these things coming through me in some regard to bring together something that I think sounds nice, that I think other people think sounds nice. The process of navigating within that and through that is really special. And so I try to tap into myself as much as possible so that I can create something.

It’s harder for me to be like, I’m going to sit down and write a song, which I need to do more of, honestly. But sometimes there are just these moments where something happens and you gotta get it out immediately. I’m trying to find out where a song goes myself. Part of the adventure of it is, you start with the idea and you’re like, I’m liking where this is starting and I want to know where this journey ends. And being able to find that is really fun.

What are your practices for coming back to that understanding?
Well, I journal every day. I think that helps get the top layer of whatever thoughts might be ruminating out, because sometimes that layer gets in the way of me being able to access the deeper, more creative stuff. I have songs where they were only created because I started to create something else and I didn’t like it and was like, Let me just try and go somewhere else. It’s all about getting out ideas so that you can find the juiciness in it. And sometimes, randomly, I have a thing where it’s the first thing that comes out, which is amazing.

When I was listening to “Stay Away (From Me),” I was thinking just how much you’re exercising your voice now. What are some ways that you try to experiment with your vocals?
Well, I would say that for a lot of the newer stuff I’ve been working on I’ve been tapping more into my lower register. I think that a lot of the a cappella stuff, it’s very light and floaty and airy. And I have very intentionally been trying to tap into a deeper — both sonically and metaphorically — space, as well as a little bit of a grittier space. I’ve been trying to not be as flowery.

Funny enough, a lot of the stuff that I’ve been writing in the last year or so has been in this space in my voice that’s actually the most difficult area to sing in, but I’ve just been really drawn to that. I don’t know if it’s because I want the challenge, but I’ve just been writing these songs where it’s like, Oh, I’m really trying to get into that sticky part where my voice is not in as firm, stable ground as some of these other places. And that’s actually been fun. I’m liking the challenge.

So you have several EPs and singles to your name but not an album. Is that an intentional thing? 
I think it has mostly been from a place of really wanting to figure out how I want to present myself in an album context, because an album is a more definitive statement. And being able to experiment with smaller projects and find myself in those ways, I think that’s definitely been an intentional choice on my end. I don’t want to present something just because people are like, “Oh, you need to present it this way,” when that’s not where the journey is, or that’s not where the sound is. I want to make sure that the album is an album and it’s not just, “Here are a bunch of songs put together,” you know what I’m saying?

But, am I dropping an album? Yes, I am.

Okay, let’s go!
We are doing it. It is finished, it’s ruminating.

Something that kept coming up earlier in your career is how you’re primarily a solo artist. You largely like to do your own thing. It feels like that has changed a little because you’ve been collaborating on remixes with others. Are you still showing that fidelity to working solo?
I actually produced 70 percent of the album myself, so still going on that solo note. But it was more so because I wanted to challenge myself to do that. Not as much, like, I just have to do this by myself. I learned how to produce during the pandemic, and I was like, this would be an interesting challenge and I’ve got nothing but time right now because we ain’t going nowhere. I definitely wasn’t anticipating that that’s what it would be, but that’s what it ended up being. I think that the album is really just an expansion on what has been happening [with me].

I have been incorporating a band into some of my live shows, which has been really fun and just a new way to experience the music. And also a new way for me to experience myself as a performer, because I get to let go a little bit. Whereas with my solo performances, my brain is like, Must pay attention to all of these different things. But I know that if I were to get an offer to perform with an eight-piece band, and the day of the show every single person gets sick and I gotta do it myself, I know that I could do that. That has been a thing that I’ve become even more grateful for in this moment. It’s allowed me to tour more because I’m just worried about myself. There’s not a bunch of other people with me. It’s very much contributed to the growth in my confidence. It’s not an easy thing to perform solo. A lot of people don’t do it. If anything, I’m more confident as a solo performer than I am having other people onstage with me just because I’ve done it more.

I’ve always wondered if you’re a turn-up type of person. Are you?
Oh, I love being out with the people. One of the last things that my fiancé and I did before the pandemic was that we went to two really great dance parties within three weeks of the pandemic hitting. One was in the Bronx and one was in Newark. And it was just beautiful Black people dancing to amazing music. And it’s funny, too, because when we were there, we were like, “Oh my God, these have definitely been two of the best parties we’ve been to in a while.” And then literally a week later it was like, “End scene.”

Universe said, glad y’all had fun, sis! Pack it up!
Yeah, but I’m really grateful my family loves to have a good time and dance and turn up in our own little fun way. Margaritas and wine over at the McFerrin house. I love a great party. Who doesn’t love a great party? I hate bad parties. Bad parties are dumb. Since I was a little kid, too, I was always trying to find a dance party. I was like, “Where are we going? Where are we dancing?” In fifth grade, I wrote a letter to the principal about why there should be a lower-school dance because dances only started in middle school. I was like, “We should be allowed to have a dance too.” But they didn’t listen to me.

The drama! Like, who’s child is this tryna tell us to throw a dance?
Listen, I was going to the teen night at the club as soon as I could when I was 14. I was like, “Let’s go. I want to dance. I need to let out this energy,” which was just hormones. But, yeah, Madison McFerrin loves a good turn-up.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Don’t Invite Madison McFerrin to Your Bad Party