Madison VanDenburg: From Second-Runner-Up To Running Full Speed Ahead (Part 1 of 2)

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When it comes to reality TV shows, there’s no such thing as the binary. It’s never just as simple as “I watch it” or “I don’t watch it.” There are so many gradations that float in between “do” and “don’t.” There are the guilty pleasure watchers. There’s the casual watchers or the home-sick-in-bed watchers. You could be one of the watching religiously watchers and/or one of the live-tweeting commentating watchers. Or you could be like many and watch when a citizen of your locale becomes a focal point of the show. While I probably more closely fall into the “casual watcher” category, having turned these reality competition shows on and off for the past fifteen years or so, I know the latter category probably encompasses many citizens of New York’s Capital Region these past couple of years. Who could blame them with incredible talents such as Moriah Formica (The Voice, American Idol), Sawyer Fredericks (The Voice), and now more recently, the incredible Madison VanDenburg coming out of the woodwork and taking second runner up in season two of American Idol at only 17. No, sorry, scratch that. Not coming out of the woodwork. Coming in like a Category 5 hurricane.

Photo by Kiki Vassilakis

So, if you haven’t seen how absolutely mind-blowingly talented Ms. Madison is, well this interview is sure to be a good place to learn all about her. Madison is a queen of melisma and control, and damn good pitch. Her voice sucks you in, and she sounds exactly like she does on TV. No autotune needed. She is incredible to see perform live, and I am fortunate and humbled to know her and watch her forge her own path and conquer her dreams.

Elissa’s note: This is my favorite Idol performance of hers. Period. Everything about it just steals me away for a fast minute. This is music at its most honest with just her voice, the piano, and the bass guitar. The casual nature of it all with the flaking nail polish and jeans with holes in the knees. But I’ll be damned if I am not moved by the emotion she brings and the control of her vibrato. The power, purity, and pain with the little cry in her voice when she sings the title lyric. Katy Perry’s mesmerized doe eyes. The little, almost impossibly subtle “Wow” from Lionel Richie at 0:55.  I could listen, no, DO listen to this over and over again. If you want an idea of what Madison is like as a trained and seasoned vocalist, this here is the place to start. And I am positively livid that there is no full length studio version of this.

Elissa Ebersold: Let’s start off with an ice breaker, even though you and I don’t really need one. If you were the villain in a Disney musical, which contemporary song do you think would be your used as your character’s song (ie “Mother Knows Best” (Tangled), “Gaston” (Beauty and the Beast), “Ruber” (Quest for Camelot), “Oogie Boogie’s Song” (Nightmare Before Christmas), etc.)

Madison VanDenburg: Honestly, I kinda like your suggestion of “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled. I love that song. That whole soundtrack is amazing, but that song is like[SHIMMIES HEAD] creepy.

EE: (Un?)popular opinion. Tangled is way better than Frozen.

MV: Between the two, I kinda agree with that. I was not hooked with Frozen the way other people were.

To me, it felt very done before. I dunno. Like Tangled, but on crack.

MV: Yeah, I kinda feel that.

EE: Okay, here’s the usual question. When and how did you get started in music?

MV: So I got started when I was really young, around five or six. I started classical piano and guitar lessons. And then when I was ten I started singing. Since then I started to play out with my sister, and we did like a duo group. My dad half owned a bar at the time, and we would play there. That really helped me gain experience performing in front of crowds. Then we branched out. I stayed and music and [my sister] didn’t, and after that it was kind of like a grind. Every year to just get farther than I was the year before. Once American Idol started, which was a year ago, that’s when everything really started to take off. That was my true start into the business.

EE: As we’ve seen in your performances on Idol, live performances, and in your singles, you obviously have some country roots, some pop roots, and some Melissa Etheridge roots. Talk a little more about your musical roots and influences.

MV: Yes! Oh my god! [POINTS ENTHUSIASTICALLY AT ETHERIDGE’S The Medicine Show VINYL MOUNTED ON WALL.]

EE: Oh goodness I didn’t even see that!

MV: That’s amazing that you remember.

(Eric McCandless via Getty Images)

EE: [LAUGHS] I try. Your guitar is signed by [Melissa Etheridge] right?

MV: Yes, she is a crazy inspiration. When I was a kid I used to listen to her stuff. I met a friend of hers who saw me playing out at Philly’s Bar in Latham and she asked, “Do you like Melissa Etheridge?”

And I said, “Yeaaaah!”

She said, “I’m like best friends with her.” And she truly is. And I got to meet [Etheridge], and I got to talk to her over the phone. She’s given me such great advice. She signed my guitar and the record is up there, obviously. [GESTURES TO WALL]

As for pop and country, I grew listening to a lot of old country, and a lot of classic rock.

EE: Who specifically, would you say?

MV: I would say as my sound has changed, it is a lot more pop now. But as a kid was Faith Hill. Dolly Parton. All the great country musicians. For some reason I’m blanking. Céline Dion, even though she’s not country, she’s probably my biggest inspiration. I used to listen to her all the time on the radio in the car.

EE: Do you have a favorite Céline Dion song?

MV: I would have to say “All By Myself” or “Power of Love.”

EE: So you mentioned Faith Hill, Dolly Parton, Céline Dion…anyone else of note?

MV: I think I grew up listening to them more than as if they were influencers on my sound. Because I don’t think I sound anything like old country […] Adele is a huge influence on my music as well. I think if we’re gonna go into anyone I would actually like to shape my sound after, I really really love Billie Eilish, Fletcher, James Arthur, Adele, Sia, a lot of really amazing songwriters as well as people who have a true artist vision. They have their own sound and I think that’s super important. So yeah, like I kind of grew up listening to stuff that’s not my sound, but that is what I listened to growing up.

EE: But I mean, I would say they are your influences too. They’ll creep in here and there. You may not be consciously saying, “I want to incorporate so-and-so.” Like for me, I listened to a lot of Queen and a lot of Eagles, I may not explicitly mold my sound after them (if I were a songwriter) but facets and details may come through inspired by those. Like an Eagles harmony or a Queen-inspired grandiose falsetto note (if I could hit such a note). All these things come together to form your individual sound, which is yours.

MV: I think the whole vision of them being big, big stars and legends was also so impactful to me as a child. That is where I want to work to, to get to a point like that. I want to be able to see myself eventually in life, hopefully, at that type of level. And that was so inspirational to me as a kid. Artists like Céline Dion and Faith Hill—just seeing them living the dream that I want to live. That I still want to live that dream through music. I think that’s part of what influenced me to get into music.

EE: Then what is your ultimate goal as a musician?

MV: There’s so many different parts to the vision that I see my dream as. But I guess getting to a level where I—specifically I want to do a world tour. I want to sell out an arena. I think that would be so cool. That would be so incredible. I’d love to hopefully write a number one record. I think that’s my main goal as an artist right now. I think most importantly right now, even though that stuff is incredible to have in a career, the thing that’s most important that’s stayed the same since I was a kid—being able to share music with people and bring out emotions through music is the most important thing. I think that’s what music is meant for. It’s meant to get your emotions out. It’s meant to have a good time. Music doesn’t have to be sad. It can be a happy thing. That’s what’s most important to me. That’s why I like to write songs. Some of them are fun, but some of the ones I’ve been writing lately are slower, more meaningful songs because that’s just the mood I’ve been in.

EE: I guess a follow up would be where do you find the most inspiration for your songwriting?

MV: I like to picture two different artists whose sounds I really like—James Arthur and Billie Eilish, who are two of my favorites right now. And I like to picture what their, it sounds so dumb, but what their musical baby would be. That’s kinda where I like to start with my sound and exploring that type of sound. So taking elements from both artists. Usually I’ll come to my piano and just sit down and whatever I’m feeling I’ll just hum a few melodies. It just comes together like that.

EE: You have a very specific sound goal in mind when you start. I didn’t quite expect that answer for some reason, but then again I don’t know much about the process of songwriting.

MV: Sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes I’ll just sit downlike, “I’m angry! Here’s some chords that’ll make me feel angry.” And I’ll write something and I’ll never touch it again. Sometimes it’s just a place to vent.

EE: What album changed your life? You’re young, do you even listen to whole albums? [LAUGHS]

MV: Surprisingly the first album I listened to in full was Chase Atlantic’s Phases. When I first listened to that all the way through I thought it was incredible. They’re very dark pop and they’re crazy good. And after that all of James Arthur’s full albums. And after that, that’s when I became a true fan of his songs, of his music. So yeah, I’d say those two were the first people whose albums I’d listened to all the way through.

EE: And those changed your life? How so?

MV: James Arthur’s more than Chase Atlantic. Definitely in the new music I have coming out, there’s a lot of elements from both of those artists in the songs that I have. So yeah, I’d say both of them actually then. It kinda helped me mold a sound together out of the two of them. It’s kind of cool. I’m excited to release music to show what I mean.

EE: I can’t waaaait.

MV: It’s soon. It’s soon! A couple are already almost done. My goal is to release a song every couple months and keep it going. I don’t know when an album is going to come. With the quarantine, it’s a lot harder to record a full album, so releasing singles is a lot easier. And a lot of people tend to like it one at a time. It’s a lot more content that way, I feel.

EE: I like it one at a time followed by an album, personally. Because that way I have time to absorb and digest each song. I feel like it’s a lot harder to do with an album, especially now with streaming and attention spans being different, you know? I think it’s harder to learn all the words to a song when you’re listening to something in a whole album. You’ll find a song that you like more than others. You’ll listen to that one on repeat and neglect all the others…

MV: Exactly. You explained it exactly the way I think about it. Thank you!

EE: You’ve only released a couple of your own original songs. What do you feel is improving or changing with each new song you write and release?

MV: I think, from this point on, the sound is totally different than the first two I’ve released (“Need a Little Heartbreak” and “What I’m Looking For.”) They’re an indie alternative type with a little pop country in it. The next songs I’m releasing are fully pop. Some are ballads. The [ones already out] are not as full production as the ones that are coming out soon. But they still have their own way of being pop. And I think that I’m finally comfortable enough in that genre. For the longest time if someone asked me what my genre was and I told them pop, I’d feel like I was a fake musician. For some reason, [pop] has always been my thing. I don’t know why. I feel like people look at pop music and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a pop artist?”

EE: There’s a stigma against pop.

MV: Yeah. The stuff that I’m releasing is more of a dark pop than a preppy pop. I’m really excited for them. I think my audience will respond a little better to the new ones. They’re a little more modern sounding. I feel like they sound a lot more current. I’m excited for it.

EE: What song do you hear and every time you wish you had written?

MV: That’s so funny, I’m starting a YouTube series soon called “Songs I Wish I Wrote.” Gotta scroll my Spotify for the one I’m trying to think of because I can’t remember the name of it right now.

EE: While you’re doing that. I’m by no means a songwriter and I hardly consider myself a musician, but there’s a song called “5am” by this band Amber Run—

MV: Amber Run!?

EE: You know them?

MV: I don’t know if I’ve heard “5am” and I haven’t looked into the artist, but I’ve heard this song—

EE/MV: [Simultaneously]

“I Found.”

EE: Yeah! I love them. But “5am” is one of the most incredibly depressing songs I’ve ever heard, but every time it speaks to me on some level I don’t understand, and every time it breaks my heart, and I wish I had the lyrical genius to write something as emotional as that.

MV: Yes! I know the perfect song then. “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys. That song. It’s kind of funny. When she did her GRAMMY performance, it was this whole thing about songs she wished she’d written, and then you finally write the song you wish you’d written. Chills, bro […] When I was on [Idol] we were in the rehearsal space, she was in the other room practicing her GRAMMY performance. We clearly heard her. We had no idea she was gonna do that for the GRAMMYs. So when we were listening, we were like, “This is cool. This is cool.” But then we were watching the GRAMMYs and it’s like “Holy Crap!” We heard her practicing that. It was the coolest thing ever. We heard her practicing that! So yeah, “Empire State of Mind” is one of those I hear and wish I’d written.

EE: There’s a lot of poetry in there that just speaks to anyone who’s ever been to The City.

MV: It makes me feel very patriotic for New York.

Photo by Elissa Ebersold

EE: I mean I don’t think I feel the same way, per se. But it makes me feel something about it, that’s for sure […] How did you make the decision to try out for Idol? What was the audition process like?

MV: I saw online that they had posted that they were going to be in Buffalo. I had just gotten back from LA because I had just auditioned for The Voice. I had gone through the whole process, and the had ended up telling me to go home. I had the pass to perform in front of the judges but they had filled all their teams before I got to audition. I was out there for a month and I was five feet away from the stage to perform, they were like, “We just got our 40th person. We can’t audition anymore people.”

So I flew home and I was like, “Let’s do something else! Let’s try American Idol.” So I went to Buffalo and it was crazy cool. It was really cold. I was outside with my dad all day and we were freezing. And I auditioned for the producers. They sent me the judges’ pass so I could perform in front of the judges in New York. And from there it’s all a blur, I guess!

EE: So there are three rounds of auditions before you get to the judges?

MV: Actually there were technically two. I had auditioned in front of the producers, and then the two main producers Skyped me and I had to perform two songs for them. It was super quick, and they said they’d call back if we give you the pass for the judges. They called me a week later and said they were passing me through. So that was how that went. It was like, “What’s going on???” That’s why I think it felt so surreal to be in front of all three celebrities. It was such a short process of getting to that point. It was a lot easier than I felt The Voice was. So when I got there I was like, “This isn’t happening? What the heck!” 

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