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Madison Cunningham: “As guitar players, we should be challenging ourselves and hurting our brains a little bit”

Madison Cunningham
(Image credit: Paige Wilson)

As Madison Cunningham prepares for the September release of her second full length album Revealer, it seems as though the Southern Californian virtuoso has located a whole extra chapter in the instructional manual for singer-songwriters.

Devoid of rudimentary strumming, and rich in intricate rhythms and ingenious lead playing, her brand of guitar-driven songcraft has always been appealingly tricky to define. For Revealer, she admits, “The complexity knob was turned up a little bit.”

She’s previously been nominated for Grammys in the Best Folk and Best Americana categories, but the new album’s two teaser singles, Anywhere and Hospital, swerve such classifications by a country mile with their respective breezy calypso-esque and mean indie grooves. 

A boundlessly inventive spirit pushes her sound forward. “When you have an ideal goal of what you would like to sound like,” she explains, “that’s when the journey gets quite frustrating, and I think that should happen every couple of months or more for guitar players. Every week, we should be challenging ourselves and hurting our brains a little bit.”

I do love the idea of making people forget that you’re playing in seven, and making a song that feels effortless

It’s an admirably industrious approach, but unlike a lot of “clever” music, Cunningham’s passes none of the brain-ache on to the listener. Uncommon time signatures and alternate tunings are camouflaged beneath catchy melodies, and she laughs: “I do love the idea of making people forget that you’re playing in seven, and making a song that feels effortless.”

When it comes to guitars, she has a modest collection that she describes as “incredibly cheap, miscellaneous and so fun to play.”

It includes her number one Fender Jazzmaster, a Mexican Telecaster, and a Harmony Juno. “You can’t ever quantify what will inspire you, or what will be the instrument to bring the song out,” she says.

Another favorite comes in the form of a 1960s parlor guitar with a rubber bridge that lends its “muted and woody” tones to the acoustic portion of Revealer. 

Live, she uses a pedalboard that was put together for her by JHS, containing their delay, distortion and boost pedals, as well a DigiTech Whammy. The new star of her ’board, however, is a soon to be released signature pedal that she developed with the same Kansas-based effects company.

Christened “the Artificial Blonde,” her first foray into gear innovation promises to deliver a “slow, 3D sounding vibrato,” designed to emulate the classic dual-speaker sound of vintage Magnatone amps.

  • Revealer (opens in new tab) is out September 9 via Verve Forecast.

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