Words by SassyBlack
Photos by Karston “Skinny” Tannis
A music producer oversees the recording process, specifically in the studio, but this vague definition doesn’t do someone like 26-year-old singer, composer, and producer Madison McFerrin justice. She has crafted her own unique vocal looping and layering approach, making her a one-woman band. With the voices, seemingly, of many, McFerrin is an excellent example of what musical vision can accomplish by taking creativity, skill, and production tools to make something original and magical.
If you’re wondering why her name sounds familiar, it’s because her father is the world renowned musician also known for making his voice into a distinct instrument—“Don’t Worry Be Happy” singer Bobby McFerrin. Her brother, Taylor McFerrin, is a producer, keyboardist, and beatboxer signed to Flying Lotus’s label Brainfeeder. Needless to say, she comes from a very talented family.
She spoke with Tom Tom about her sonic history, as well as what it’s like for her to explore music while growing up immersed in it.
Tom Tom: How long have you been doing music? I imagine you’ve been doing it awhile, given your background.
Madison McFerrin: I have been doing music my whole life, no question about that. I can’t even put a date to it. I think it’s hard not to get into it when you’re surrounded by it all the time, you know? Particularly considering my main example of how to make a living was through music. So it was kind of like, “Oh, that seems like the right choice.” I started writing solo music for this particular phase that I’m in in January 2016, and I had my first solo show in September of 2016.
Your voice feels like a musical hug, creating an atmosphere that takes place when you perform. Do you like being solo, or would you like to have a band one day?
I like “musical hug.” I enjoy that [laughs]. I definitely see myself doing solo music for a while. Part of what feels really right about being a solo musician at the moment is that I’ve always wanted to be a solo artist. I feel that it is always what I’ve envisioned myself to be. I was in a band in college, and that felt right in the moment, but at the same time, there’s always been this little voice in the back of my head that’s like, “Well, I think the solo thing is probably what you still wanna do,” and when I started writing with the intent of being a solo artist, the way that things clicked, there was no other way to look at it but that this is what I am supposed to do.
What about using your voice solely as an instrument? How’d you get into that?
The whole acapella aspect happened totally by accident. The music I was writing on the piano, I intended to eventually have it played by a band, but for whatever reasons, I didn’t see myself performing with a band in these beginning stages of my solo career. I saw it as my own thing, and I really wanted to explore that so that’s where the ‘loop pedal acapella’ stuff came from.
How did you come to create music through voice looping and layering? You mention that a lot of it is in your head, so I’m wondering how you figured this process out for yourself.
The first time I saw someone using a loop pedal for vocals was this professor during orientation at Berkelee College. My initial reaction was like, “Oh, damn! He’s biting my dad but needs a machine to do it.” [Laughs.] So I wasn’t particularly drawn to it at that point in time. I also saw a video of this woman Julia Easterlin [a.k.a. Hite] doing a vocal loop that was pretty dope. After college, I asked for a loop pedal as a Christmas present. I was just freed by it. I got a Boss RC-30, Dual Track Looper. I had asked my dad’s sound man what a good loop pedal was, and he recommended that one. I was more intrigued by it, not by having the intention of doing vocal loops, but by the thought of being able to compose music live and only need myself in the moment.
Since looping your voice takes a lot of concentration, how do you go about creating each song?
I have two different styles. I write on the piano and then transfer the piano parts to my voice. Usually what happens is that I figure out some chords on the piano that I like, and I just record it in the loop pedal, then I can go around, and I can sing on top of it. That method makes it a lot easier to compose. The other way I write is straight looping my voice, without the piano as a reference. This way is more challenging but way more satisfying. When I’m at home and writing, I have the ability to record a single line and just keep rolling. I figure out whatever the next thing is going to be, versus live, where I have to [record the vocal lines] back to back to back. The tough part is that after I make a loop that I like, after however long it takes to figure out the exact chords that I want, I have to listen back really intensely and figure out each line that I sang. More often than not, I’m not recording while I’m making [the song], which I’m sure could be an easier way of doing it. Instead, I’m listening back and going through and [figuring out each line]. It’s not always the easiest, in terms of intervals, for me to do the first line that I did and then the second line and then the third line. It doesn’t always go in order from top to bottom, just because of what the last note is going to be in relation to the first note of the next line, because it’s some crazy interval, which doesn’t make sense. So, I have to figure out each line and then be like, “Okay, what’s the best order to sing this in?” That one’s harder to do, but in the end makes me feel more accomplished.
How is it to have so many musical resources? How has that impacted your artistry?
I’m incredibly grateful to have the resources that I do, and, honestly, it has taken me awhile to really appreciate them. It’s easy to take them for granted when that’s all you know. I didn’t really understand the level of Bobby McFerrin until I got to college. I understood that he was very talented and very well known in certain circles, but I didn’t realize he was the premier vocalist in the world. I was so blown away. You know people often ask me what’s it like being Bobby McFerrin’s daughter, and I’m like, “I don’t know; he’s my dad.” I grew up, and he was singing all the time to the radio, and it was really annoying, because I just want to hear the song, but he’d do all his scatting behind it.
Growing up with somebody who is an icon in his own right and what that comes with: When I was growing up, he was conducting the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and I take for granted that I went to orchestra concerts more times that I could possibly count, you know? Or you know, the amount of shows of his that I’ve been to, or the people I’ve met and been surrounded by, but as I’ve gotten older, I definitely try to not only be more grateful for that but also have more awareness of it. I need to not be so insular and just ask for help from these incredible people. I’m still learning how to do that, but it’s hard to not think that it’s informed everything about my musicianship.
Who are three artists who are currently influencing you and keeping you motivated?
I’ve been listening to the new N.E.R.D. album all week, and Pharrell has always been a huge production inspiration to me. I feel like a lot of the things he does are so simple, but so full, and I try to do that with my loops. He is someone I’d definitely love to work with. I’ve been a fan for awhile, and the messages on this latest record are so necessary for this time.
Erykah Badu is always on my radar. Her melodies and lyrics are just insane. I would definitely just like to talk to her, or just sit in a room and watch her for hours. Like be my mentor, please. I can put on her album any time and find new meanings that I didn’t even think of before. Every day is a journey of figuring out what it means to be myself as an artist, and she is so fearless, or seemingly fearless, and that is something that I really admire. A newer artist I love is L’Rain. She’s a friend of mine, Taja Cheek [also featured in the DIY issue], and she has the largest discography of music in her mind of anyone that I’ve ever met. Like she knows every song that was ever made in the history of everything. Every time I see her perform, I immediately want to go home and practice, and having that in somebody who is a peer as well as somebody who I admire as a musician is really awesome.
Who are you planning to collaborate with? What is on the horizon for you?
Hopefully, my brother’s going to produce the EP of work I created when I first started writing my solo stuff. We already have one track, and I love it. Sibling psychicness is really real, because he produces the music that I wish I could produce. He is my favorite producer, and that is totally biased. I had a couple of other producers that I was going to have work on it, but then after my brother and I did the one song together, I was like, “You know what? This is what I want the whole thing to sound like.” He’s working on his own stuff, and I’d rather be patient and wait for him to have the project that I hear in my mind.
This piece was featured in our DIY Issue. Purchase a copy here.