Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

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Q&A with Maddie Witler

By Christopher Treacy & Maddie Witler

Courtesy of Maddie Witler

You may not have heard about Maddie Witler until now, but some of you have likely heard her play in GRAMMY nominated fem-string ensemble Della Mae or the progressive bluegrass group the Lonely Heartstring Band. A skilled mandolinist further gifted with a wild imagination, Witler’s first solo release, ‘Astronaut,’ is a clever display of homespun craft, written during the initial onset of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown period. The tracks are concise; simultaneously raw and gentle, Witler is her own one-woman band, playing bass, guitar, fiddle, banjo, and percussion, in addition to her mandolin. All but one of the tracks feature her singing voice—small, but plenty expressive, especially once you get feel for her cadence and phrasing.

Of the songs on ‘Astronaut,’ “Rose (the Sentient Cactus)” jumped out, and we ended up making it our new Song of the Week in the current CQ Roundup. Initially, it was the track’s upbeat pace mixed with Americana textures that grabbed us, but it’s the story contained within that sealed the deal. The concept of a space-traveling sentient cactus is a little more complicated than it might seem on the (thorny) surface. Witler indulged our curiosity by making time to answer a few questions about Rose and how she fits into the ‘Astronaut’ trajectory.

Does Rose feel displaced? She chooses to travel in space, but says she can’t find home.

Definitely she does. It’s exciting to travel but you can also get stuck in it and forget to learn how to settle in one place. If your job and life is to travel, sometimes you never get to feel like you belong anywhere.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

It would seem like Rose’s sentience is her greatest asset and biggest liability. Things would be so much simpler if she wasn’t privy to emotion… something tells me that might be the whole point. The quiet of the desert evening in her memory seems so inviting in its simplicity…

Yes, sentience can certainly be a burden to us all. How weird is it to exist and be aware that we exist? But with sentience comes the knowledge that there’s a lot out there to see and learn, and that can be motivation to keep going on good days and bad. The desert is a place with happy, simple memories for Rose, and for myself. A place and time we both cherish, but struggle to get back to. 

Rose longs for connection, and yet the physicality of a cactus makes intimacy a dilemma. Plants are surely lovable, but loving Rose, you might get cut up… even if you’re another plant. It’s a compelling metaphor. 

Well perceived. As a songwriter I can’t help but make things autobiographical even if not directly. I think the feeling of wanting intimacy but feeling prickly, difficult, and like you could hurt someone, is a feeling I relate to… maybe other folks do also. I love cacti and often use the cactus emoji to represent myself when texting with friends. ?

Is Rose giving up in the end, or is she moving on, continuing her search in territories unknown? 

I think she wants to go home, and almost makes it, but ultimately gets afraid and anxious and ends up traveling on, sticking to what she knows… which is being on the road and taking care of herself.

Perhaps you could talk a bit about how Rose came to be in your imagination and how her story fits into the trajectory of Astronaut.

The first tattoo I got was a cactus with a space helmet, the artist at the time asked if she had a name and I immediately said Rose. I liked the name and at the time I was listening to and thinking about Rose Maddox, an early figure in California country music. The first couple lines of the song started as a little thing I’d sing to myself when I thought about explaining who Rose the cactus might be. It’s one of two songs on the record that started as tattoos. Everyone wants to know what tattoos mean and sometimes they don’t mean anything, but writing songs about them can retroactively give some meaning to things that feel intuitive. I’ve gotten a lot more tattoos since then so maybe more songs are eminent.

Rose, the tattoo. Courtesy of Maddie Witler.

Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.

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