By Lily Rex
Americana singer-songwriter Madeleine Kelson released her debut album While I Was Away in April, right as she was graduating from Nashville’s Belmont University. In the interim months, she’s kept busy playing as many gigs as she can. She performed to a packed house at the Queerfest showcase in May, and she’s also released two music videos: one for the single “Make You Proud,” and another for the track, “Cool Kid,” which we’re premiering today, exclusively, on Country Queer’s YouTube channel (see below).
Curiously, the silky-voiced Kelson’s new album came out on Olivia Records— no direct connection to the classic Women’s Music label, as it turns out. But founder Erin O. Anderson, who named the company after her great grandmother, says that as a label run by women, she’s proud to carry on the tradition. And, coincidences abound, the first two Olivia releases are both from queer women.
While I Was Away is a smart, sometimes soothing collection of country songs about the inevitable changes in the tough transition between early life and adulthood—growing up, meeting (or failing to meet) expectations, finding your path… watching others veer off theirs. Like any artist worth their salt, Kelson is keenly self-aware—both of how she’s evolving in response to the world around her, and of the growth she’s challenging herself to achieve. She recently took time to chat with us about her creative path, the use of pronouns in her writing, self-production, and more.
What can you tell us about the “Cool Kid” video?
My friend Tanner directed it, and we had so much fun. We filmed it at Belmont. It was after I graduated, which was funny because I hadn’t been there for two years for classes anyway because of Covid. We filmed in a classroom there and had to do some editing later because we left a tag on someone’s jacket.
Can you tell me a little about your inspiration writing “Cool Kid”? Did it take a long time to develop?
“Cool Kid” was probably one of the quicker ones. It’s a bit different than what I usually write because it’s upbeat and a little poppy. I guess the inspiration behind it was the end of my college experience… really, my experience all through high school and college. I’m not gonna say I was a huge loser, but I was never in the cool kids group, which wasn’t something that bothered me. It’s not my scene at all. But I was just seeing a lot of friends and people around me trying to go to tons of parties and dress up cool and get in trouble, and I was feeling like, ‘Oh man, that is so not me.’
There’s definitely an evolution in your sound on While I Was Away—a shift toward something brighter from older material like the single “Addicted” and the Siren EP. Was that purposeful, or has that just come along naturally with changes in your life?
“Addicted” was the first song I put out when I moved here. I was 19 when that came out, so there’s still a little bit of teenage angst and that teenager-y feeling of ‘everything is about me.’ I think that came through in Siren too. That whole EP was about a breakup. By the time I was writing While I Was Away, I was in a much better state. I also made a conscious effort to write some more upbeat and happier songs, partly as a challenge to myself because it was something I’m so not used to doing.
On Siren you used pronouns very sparingly, but on While I Was Away you come right out and say, “God has never loved a woman the way I do.” As a listener that feels like a very purposeful shift… and like a victory.
I think in everything up to this point I kind of intentionally left pronouns out of it. I came out in high school and I grew up in Chicago, a very liberal city, so in my personal life it felt like it wasn’t even an issue growing up. My family was all super liberal. None of them really cared. But it was a much scarier thing to come out here. I never really hid it, but I never really talked about it as an artist.
Siren was very much about my first real relationship, and the breakup of that was not great, and now I’m in a really wonderful relationship, and that’s something I can be proud of and want to display.
I don’t know if I got fed up with myself or just the climate, I just really wanted to write that song (“The Way I Do”) and put that out and be really open and loud about it. Although, it has been interesting at shows picking and choosing when I play that— which crowds I’m gonna play that for. That’s the first song I feel like I kind of have to be brave about playing in some places.
You were a music business major at Belmont. Is that how you came to produce While I Was Away yourself?
Yes, and I had a focus on audio production. My thesis was part of the honors program, so I got to choose to do anything I wanted for it, within reason. I had written and recorded albums and co-produced on singles before. Growing up, I was in a band with my twin sister, and I had produced our demos at home, so it was something I had done on a small scale, and also something I knew I liked to do. And it seemed like a good opportunity. Not a risk-free opportunity, but career-wise, perhaps a lower-stakes thing… because if it totally failed, I could just think of it as a school project.
That’s surprising. I expected you to say it was higher risk because when you’re doing everything, every mistake is on you.
That is true! But once I got into it, it started going well. Anytime I would have a new iteration of a finished song, a new mix, or when I was adding a new instrument, I would send it to so many people. The down side of doing it by yourself is there are no new ears on it. I definitely sent it around a lot.
Having majored in music business, can you talk about the importance of taking ownership of your music as a woman and as a queer person?
I think something like only three percent of music producers are women. That’s pretty horrible because we’re definitely not 97 percent worse at it than men! I wouldn’t say that everyone should produce their own music. I don’t know that I’ll always do it in the future for myself, and many people don’t like to do it or have the desire. I think hiring female producers and engineers is important. I don’t want to say especially if you’re a man, but there’s something important about having different perspectives. If you’re only hiring men to work on a project, you just don’t have that other perspective. And the more perspectives and more different places you can have people coming from, that’s always beneficial.
It is definitely super male dominated. I had a female engineer on this album, and a woman mastered it. We definitely need to support more female producers.
On While I was Away, I noticed only one co-write. Is that your preference? Do you want to do more collaborating in the future?
It’s definitely something I’m trying to work on doing more. I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, so I got very used to writing alone. And even when I was writing with my sister, she’s my twin sister. We went to the same school, had the same friends, it was almost the same as writing by myself. We had essentially the same life experience, and actually the one co-write on this album is with a friend I’ve known since I was a little kid, and we wrote a song about growing up. So, I guess it’s a preference in the sense that I’m still trying to figure out co-writing and work that skill a little more.
I feel like it’s a difficult skill to learn. Do you tend to revere artists who write solo?
That’s a good question, and I guess I don’t know. Growing up, I didn’t really know you could just be a songwriter until I moved here. When I lived in Chicago, there wasn’t really a big songwriting community that I was a part of or that I had seen. Everyone kind of wrote for themselves. I never really thought about who wrote what, with the exception of Alison Krauss. I listened to a lot of Alison Krauss growing up.
I love Alison Krauss!
So, I saw an Instagram post you made recently about God creeping into your music. You said you feel like you mention God in your work not because you want to, but because religion informs the context of the world you move through. Can you expand on that? Because I feel like a lot of people can relate, queer or not.
I grew up in a family where none of us were really very religious. My whole family is Jewish, so we would go to synagogue on really important holidays. I didn’t have a lot of really religious friends, either. Then I moved here and went to Belmont. I definitely was very aware of being an ‘other,’—probably less-so because I was gay and more as a Jew and non-Christian.
And Nashville, in general, is more Christian. I would hear about people who met each other at church. Or when I was looking for housing, it was all ‘looking for a nice Christian roommate.’ I’d start talking to someone, and they’d ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ and that’s kind of where the conversation would end, and it was like ‘Cool, I can’t find a place to live.’ So it wasn’t something whereby it was my choice to insert religion into my life, but it was like all these things around me started coming up about religion and that impacting me. It was definitely a shift in the world around me rather than a shift within myself.
Do you feel like that has opened something up for you, or is it more something you’re doing begrudgingly?
I’ve accepted it as something that’s always going to be around whether I want it to be or not. I don’t know. You can’t control the world around you, so I tend to write about my feelings. I don’t think it’s something I’m seeking out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up more often, especially now if I’m writing more queer songs and being more openly in that space. I feel like that’s the biggest place where that part of my identity meets a sort of wall or hurdle. I have some friends I write with who are very religious, and it’s never been a problem because we accept those parts of each other. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be religious. I think it’s a bad thing to be discriminatory in the name of religion.
What’s next on your agenda? Are you working on something new?
I’m writing more now. I really love being the studio, I really love recording, so I’m wanting to write more songs so I have more material to record because it’s just so fun. I definitely have been working on both ends, writing a lot of more lyric-focused, folkier stuff and also trying to branch out a little and write more upbeat stuff on the rock side of Americana. Because that’s really fun to play live, and I really love playing live.
Lily Rex (they/she) is a queer, Nashville-based writer obsessed with American history, rivers, and Country/Folk/Americana music. They hail from Northwest Indiana, where they amassed over 600 bylines in three years as a government watchdog reporter for an independent newspaper, and are the author of the poetry chapbook ‘Rivers Have Friends Too,’ (2021). Follow them on Instagram @rexpoet