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Madison McFerrin on ‘Soul-Capella’, Her Famous Dad and Her Break from Beer

September 04, 2018

By Mike Greger, September 04, 2018

Madison McFerrin didn’t set out to be the new face of a cappella music, and she certainly doesn’t want to be trapped in a single genre. Her sound is a revival of old-school soul, sometimes unexpectedly teeming with sensual undertones. Famed Roots drummer Questlove termed it “soul-cappella” during a recent episode of his Questlove Supreme podcast and it strikes a chord with her. “I think I might steal that,” McFerrin says when asked to put her sound in a word. Whatever you want to label it, McFerrin has found her own voice.

It wasn’t easy for her to find that voice. Growing up the daughter of Grammy Award-winning artist Bobby McFerrin, pressure was heaped on her the moment she stepped foot in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It’s ironic, considering her dad’s top tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was released in 1988, three years before Madison was born.

Currently, McFerrin is riding a wave of success after releasing her second EP, Finding Foundations: Vol II, this past February, and will head to Europe later this fall for a series of festivals, including Pitchfork Paris. But first, the 26-year-old will perform at the second-annual OctFest in New York City. McFerrin, a Brooklyn resident, will be the first act anyone hears when she kicks off the festival on Saturday.

Ahead of her performance, McFerrin shared her thoughts on everything from anthem protests to growing up a nomad. McFerrin, who immediately identified my 215 area code in her caller ID as Philadelphia, moved around a lot as a child. She was born in San Francisco, moved to Minneapolis when she was three and spend her formative years in Philadelphia. As we settle into a conversation about our favorite Philly neighborhoods, broken up by her infectious raspy giggle, I gently take a swig of a fresh PseudoSue.

Here we are, mere days away from OctFest, so how are you feeling?

I’m anticipating some really cool vibes because the lineup is so awesome. It’s funny because when Pitchfork first sent me the lineup I sent it to a friend of mine who lives in Philly and I said you should come up for this and she was like, ‘That looks amazing!’ – and then she immediately texts me back, ‘Oh my God, you are on the bill!’ She didn’t realize. There are some really dope people on the bill. I’m a big fan of NAO, Standing on the Corner and Nile Rodgers.

Are you ready? How are you preparing?

This is my first time performing on Governors Island! I got my vocal warm-ups and I got my practice. I need to get my lineup down and run through it a number of times. I am going to treat this show like any other show. I have to be on top of my game to give the best performance I can.

OctFest doubles as a food and beer festival, too. What are you looking forward to sampling there?

Well, I don’t drink at the moment, because I’ve been taking the year off from alcohol. But I definitely love me a good IPA. I really enjoy Sierra Nevada, and the first time I had a Red Stripe was the first time I said, ‘Oooh, I like this.’ But I’m excited to eat all the food, because I love food!

Nathan Bajar

Questlove called your sound ‘soul-cappella’ and that’s what we’re going with, right?

Just for the moment. Currently that’s the state I’m in.

The song “Insane” has been the breakout hit on your latest album, Finding Foundations: Vol II. What was the inspiration behind it?

When I wrote the song, I was trapped in my parent’s house by myself in a snowstorm, about a year and a half ago. I didn’t really have anything to do, other than to write some music. I think the internet was out, too, and my boyfriend wasn’t there with me and I hadn’t seen him in two weeks. That was the source of the inspiration. I feel like a lot of music can be overtly sexual and doesn’t express the sensuality of it. I feel like there is a coyness of the song that isn’t super in your face. I am not trying to be an overtly sexual artist—not that I’m anti that—I just think there are more playful ways to talk about sex, rather than being crude.

Briefly, take me behind your creative process.

It kind of varies, but for the most part, the structure is always chords, melody, lyrics—which is the same way that I listen to music. Whether I play chords on the piano and then transfer it to the loop pedal, or I start with the chordal structure on the loop pedal, I always like to get the structure of the song first. For me, it’s difficult to write a structure around melody because that is a little more vague, whereas if I have a chordal structure and floating through that structure is much easier for me. Sometimes, I come up with a song in 30 minutes and sometimes it takes six months.

Finding Foundations: Vol II came out in February. Any new projects in the works?

I am working on remixes for both Finding Foundations: Vol I and Finding Foundations: Vol II. There are going to be a bunch of collaborations with some good friends of mine, including ARKTKT. I’m also working with my brother, Taylor.

I have to ask about your father, the legendary Bobby McFerrin. How has he influenced you?

I think it’s hard not to be influenced by your father, regardless of who they are. He influences me on how to be a person, let alone a musician. But me doing a cappella wasn’t intentional, and that wasn’t because I was trying to avoid doing the same stuff as my dad or anything. I just hadn’t expected that to be the path, but it makes sense. I’ve grown up with vocal harmony all around me and that happens to be how I hear music best and how I can perform best. He’s been a really wonderful father throughout my whole life and always been encouraging in all that I’ve done.

Would you ever do a song with him?

If he wanted to, sure!

You’ve talked about the pressure of being Bobby McFerrin’s daughter. What was that like?

When I got to college, it was all of a sudden, pressure was on 100. Up until that point, I hadn’t been aware of the level of influence that he had globally, especially with people in my age group. I was born after “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” came out, so by the time I was cognizant of any of that stuff, it was past the serious heyday of that song. When I got to college, all of a sudden I was surrounded by peers who idolized him.

Like most college students, I knew I wanted to be a musician but I didn’t know who I was, and I definitely wanted a level of anonymity to figure that out. I did not get that level of anonymity, and a lot of people had the impression that I was some kind of genius or something. That was definitely tough to work through. I’m on the other side of that now. It’s all good.

Any funny stories growing up with him?

He was and is an amazing storyteller. I had him read me bedtime stories until I was 12. He would do different voices for all the characters and make all the words of the story come to life, to the point where I wouldn’t have my mom read me bedtime stories anymore. I was like, ‘You aren’t doing it right!’

He’s always been a character. Sometimes, I would sing backgrounds for him for this band he has called Spirit You All. When I was on the road with them heavily, I would come back and tell people that I essentially got paid to travel the world and laugh, because every time on stage he and I would have some kind of moment that would make us fall out. We were always laughing together. He’s a pretty goofy guy.

I was at the Union Transfer show and my mic stand kept falling away from me, and all these people were leaving the room, and I was singing to an empty crowd.”

What has been the biggest moment, or breakthrough moment, so far in your music career?

I opened up for Nai Palm at Music Hall of Williamsburg last October. Up until that point, I was confident, but only filled with a certain level of confidence. When she asked me to do the show, I had a dream like two days after she asked me—total stress dream, because she had asked me to open for her at Music Hall of Williamsburg and at Union Transfer in Philadelphia. I had this dream that I was at the Union Transfer show and my mic stand kept falling away from me, and all these people were leaving the room, and I was singing to an empty crowd and I wasn’t doing well. I think I rehearsed for four or five hours, or something like that. The room was packed when I got on stage and I killed it.

I did a really, really good job and the audience loved it. It was a very reaffirming moment—this is what I am supposed to be doing and I’m on the right track. I was beaming for the next… I’m still beaming about it. That was a turning point in terms of my own self confidence—and being able to have stable feet on the ground when I set foot on stage—knowing that I’m doing something right.

OK, I’m from Philly and you are from Philly. I have to ask two questions. First, are you an Eagles fan?

Ummm, that Super Bowl game was amazing! Here’s the thing, I don’t watch a lot of sports in general. When the Eagles were playing the Vikings, I was like, I have to watch this game, because I hadn’t been watching the NFL for a number of reasons. I watched the Eagles-Vikings game, because whomever wins, I have a team in the game. In Minneapolis, they always get so close and never follow through. But when the Eagles got in, I had to watch the Super Bowl. I don’t think I ever have to watch a football game ever again. That was a good game, nail biter to the very end, and we beat the Patriots.

Second, what’s your favorite cheesesteak?

I’m not really a cheesesteak fan. They are kind of gross and there’s always a line out the door. Sorry, not really for me.

Last question: Finish the sentence: Don’t worry…

It’s going to be alright.

Check out Madison McFerrin live in New York City at OctFest.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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