Madeleine Mayi: A Multi-dimensional Exploration of the Stages of Grief
I’ve been listening to your tracks on repeat and… wow. I’m absolutely obsessed with it. You seem like such a natural musician-- how did you get your start making music?
I started singing in choir when I was four, and I sang in choir with the same choir director from when I was four to when I was eighteen and finished high school. I never took voice lessons or anything like that because I liked to sing by myself at the time, and it felt like enough to be in choir. I went to a really weird high school-- there were 80 kids in the whole school, there were 15 kids in my class, and no one liked music except me and two other people. There were people in choir but it was only as an elective, they didn’t actually care about it, and that was when it was beginning to become clear that I loved it a lot more than the Average Joe. I started playing piano when I was 15, but I didn’t start taking lessons until I was in college. My mom, actually, was the one that convinced me to go to music school; she said “that’s obviously what you’re best at, what are you doing?” I guess I thought that I should do something else, and she said “no, that’s what you’re good at, do it!” I went to USC, which was a pretty small and exclusive program and pretty hard to get into, and that’s when I thought “if I get in, that means something.” I went in as a vocal major; there was a singing/songwriting major but I didn’t really think of myself as a songwriter back then. About a year into school I started to get comfortable with my few songwriting classes and I started realizing “oh, this is exactly what I should be doing with my life.” That’s when I went into a passion of writing and singing and playing gigs in LA, and after about a year of doing that I discovered the seed of my project and it’s been a stream ever since.
Your EP is about grief, and progresses through the stages of grief in each new track-- how did that come about? How did you personify a stage of emotion in a song?
The concept behind the EP plays into every piece of it. Even the release plan, which is a bit unconventional-- I did three singles super spread apart (in a year) that are going to be on the record, whereas normally people do one within a couple months of the big release date. It was really important to me for these singles to have room to breathe on their own before they got recontextualized into the album, because in the album, it’s such a clear progression.
The record is called 2/14 (and is coming out on Valentine’s Day) and obviously there’s meaning in that, from both 2019 and 2018. Valentine’s Day growing up was normal-- you’d give out valentines at school, and my parents did a family thing for Valentine’s Day like Santa Claus, where we’d wake up and there would be little valentines waiting for us. A few years ago, my godbrother died from a battle with cancer just a few days before Valentine’s Day, and my godfather’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day. My whole family was so sad going through that; I was close with my godbrother but I’m really, really close with my godparents, and it was the first time I really saw people grieving for someone so close to them. He was their youngest son, he had just had two babies-- it was one of those moments when you grow up where some crazy thing happens and it makes you empathize with other people. I also have some close friends who have lost people really close to them, so it’s something that I’ve talked about a lot with my friends. When that happened, I started to understand what grief actually was. Then the next year right before Valentine’s Day, another really really close friend to our family passed away, and we went to their funeral on Valentine’s Day. The same day, I had one of my bigger LA shows; we still went, and it was the weirdest day of my life. Because it was all in one day, it’s what inspired me to write the record-- I was experiencing all of this in less than 24 hours. I went from so sad to angry, and at the end of the day there was this little glimmer of hope and a strange peace.
When people hear “stages of grief” they think that the record is going to be a sob story, that everyone will be crying, and it’ll be so depressing; it was really important to me to not just make it that, but to make it multi-dimensional, which is why the last two songs and the interlude make a switch upward to a more positive viewpoint. The last song, “Here,” is supposed to be the angel of the person talking to the person who’s struggling and saying, “I’ll always be here for you, it’s okay-- move on with your life, I’ll still be there.” So, that particular day was the day that inspired the record, but some of the songs had already been written because I had been going through some of that stuff beforehand. That day was when I decided how I wanted to put everything together, and fill in all the missing gaps and filled it with intention.
Do you have a favorite track on the EP?
It’s ever-changing; there’s a certain allure about the ones that haven’t been heard by people yet, so I think “For Anything” or “Here” are my two favorites right now. “Here,” for me, is one of the most important songs on the record because it’s the positive lift at the end. I’m very proud of that song-- when I wrote it, I just sat down and it all came out because I was feeling all of those things and ding, there it was. “For Anything” was a bit more work to get to the final product of it, so I think it might be my favorite one right now. It’s the pinnacle of the album; whether you call it the low point or the high point, that song captures what I’m trying to say in the record in one song, so I’m pleased about how that came out. It’s meant to be that pure, honest, “over it”-ness of grief. It says “to be honest with you guys, everything sucks,” and that’s what the song is.
What do you want listeners to take away from the EP? What’s the message?
I’ve been trying to hone in on how I describe my approach to music, because it’s changed over time. I say, “I give you a house, and you furnish it.” I want to give you enough, but not too much, where it’s only my story and only my experience; I want people to listen to it and be able to inject themselves into it. Whatever they need from it is what they should get from it. In one sense, what I want people to get from it is whatever they need to; but from a personal and narrative aspect, I think the biggest takeaway that I hope that people see is that it’s not just a story about being sad and depressed. Obviously dealing with grief is very difficult, but I also deal with depression, and there was a time during which I was writing this in which I was so depressed. I wrote “Friendly Fires” in peak depression; it’s a song that I worried my friends were going to leave me because I was depressed. There was a lot of pure sadness on the record, and luckily because of therapy I was able to come out of that dark period in my life and now I have a better understanding of how to wiggle my way out of it slowly. The record isn’t about being depressed; it’s my way of showing people how I wiggled my way out of it, and my hope is that as people listen to it, they’ll go to a sad place and then be able to wiggle their way out of it with the help of the story. I have no issue with sad girl music, but for me it’s really important that my music isn’t just “sad girl music;” it’s “sad, and then we’re gonna do something about it, and we’re gonna get through it.” It’s not a wallowing album; it’s a hopeful type of sad girl music.
Who are your musical influences? Who do you listen to when you’re not writing your own stuff?
I mean, Phoebe [Bridgers] is definitely a contemporary inspiration; she’s also at a young point in her career, we almost share the same circles, so I somewhat think of her at a peer level. (Not that I’m quite there yet, but I believe in myself!) Ethan Gruska is a good example of someone I feel the same way about, someone I look up to because I’m reaching up to them. In terms of my deep-heart inspirations that I always go back to, one of my big ones is Prince. His catalog is maybe the most valuable catalog of music of all time, because he has something for everyone. He’s not a pop star; he’s a rock star, and a pop star, and a funk god-- he did everything, he did a sad piano ballad, he did it all and he did it with style. One of my favorite songwriters of all time is Bill Withers; he’s just a master of simplicity, and can bring so much with so little that it’s absolutely mind-boggling. I didn’t grow up listening to pop music, but I definitely took a hard left when I got to high school and went, “fucking pop music is amazing.” I became a super-stan of Lady Gaga, and she’s still my number-one; she’s just absolutely fearless. Sound-wise: Phoebe Bridgers, Ethan Gruska, Moses Sumney, Daughter, Mitski, and Billie Eilish I love. I just love people who are doing fun and interesting things with their music.
How has COVID impacted your creative or writing process?
I’ve started writing with other people more because I miss shows and interacting with other songwriters and musicians, and an easy way to interact is by setting up songwriting sessions, which is very unlike me. I don’t usually do writing sessions-- they’re not something I’ve ever gravitated towards, but something about COVID has made me miss having a community with musicians and it drove me to that level. Thankfully I have a really small team of three people: my drummer (who also wrote the interludes on the record, and I think they’re so beautiful), my guitarist (who also arranges a lot of our music, so we usually start the early stages together; he’s one of my creative inspirations too!), and my producer, Cole Mitchell. Because it’s a small team, it’s been easier to record; everyone I work also with has their own home studio setup. After the initial shock of COVID wore off we were able to get back to sessions; wearing masks and being good friends, it was all fine. Thankfully that process wasn’t too weird, although at times it got dire-- I recorded the “Friendly Fires” lead vocal in my closet with blankets surrounding me-- but we innovated and got down to business.
Do you have any dream collaborations after COVID is over?
100%, James Blake. He’s also been one of my biggest inspirations since I was 14. Again Ethan Gruska, Blake Mills, and one of my high school ones was John Mayer. For what I’m doing right now, though, those few.
What can your fans and listeners expect next from you?
More will be coming in 2021! Some new and exciting things, for sure. Definitely not another project this year, but I’ll be releasing more music this year and starting to simmer on what my next project will be.
California native Madeleine Mayi is the next name to watch in the indie-pop rock music scene. Her EP, “2/14,” highlights the stages of grief in their most honest form, underscored by her uniquely rich and raw lead vocal. Her expert use of instrumentals meshes lo-fi beats with indie alternative rock, creating an other-worldly experience that brings the listener through sadness, anger, and inevitably, hope. Madeleine’s cathartic new record releases on February 14, 2021, on all streaming platforms; you can also find her on social media @madeleinemayi.
Press shots done by Sophie Gragg.