“I was crying. I was miserable.”
A sentiment felt by many during the holidays. On this particular Thanksgiving, however, it wasn’t due to the never-ending questions of what you’re going to do with your liberal arts degree or why you still don’t have a boyfriend. No, on this particular Thanksgiving, Madison Malone was at a crossroads in her life, knowing she had to make a decision: to continue pursuing music or finish her degree.
Malone has been a musician for over thirteen years. She was introduced to the cherry oak baby grand in their living room at age five. Kindergarten is the year young impressionable children are asked to choose a hobby like that, although it usually results in laughable but adorable refrigerator art or bruises and scars from the little league team.
“My musical beginning is as simple as that,” she said. “It was the thing that I chose. I could have done soccer or whatever but I chose piano.”
At the time when most kids would give up for another short-lived hobby, she transitioned out of piano lessons and started teaching herself modern pieces so she could accompany herself while she sang. No longer enjoying the strict setting of learning classical piano, she let the structure of classical training go, which led to her start in writing lyrics.
Throughout high school she began performing gigs around Madison and her hometown of Portage. As she got more involved she realized if she wanted to continue on this trajectory she had to learn the business side of the music. Through family friends and connections in her hometown, Malone began to learn the ins and outs of the music industry, and as a junior in high school struck up a mentorship with Nathan Russell, a Portage native and successful musician.
“He was one of the people that checked my gears. It’s a business, instead of selling insurance or quilts or something you’re selling yourself, your music,” she said.
At this time she learned that if she wanted to pursue music seriously there would be sacrifices, like sleeping in or going out with friends on the weekend, as well as financial sacrifices.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2013. As a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, she had spent the past year balancing her music while singing with the acappella group Redefined, and working towards a degree in Social Work and Spanish. She came home for the holiday weekend exhausted.
“I felt I was stuck between studying all the time and singing all the time. I wanted to push the boundaries that had been laid out in front of me of being a student and musician, so I had these dueling lifestyles,” she said.
The holiday weekend sparked talks of quitting school and moving to Nashville or Denver where she could pursue her music in a well established music scene. Before jetting off at the end of her sophomore year, she decided to see what Madison, the city she is named after, could do for her.
“I thought I can’t leave without saying I did all I could in the Madison music scene,” Malone said.
The combination of trying out venues like The Frequency, Orpheum, and Majestic, accompanying others as a session musician in studio, and falling in love with her boyfriend Jo Jo, she stuck around, thinking that if she left then she may not have ever created a base in Madison, a network she wanted to have under her belt.
Malone spent a semester as a part-time student, continuing her studies in Spanish, and finally decided to drop out before going into what would be her senior year. With her dreams now solidified and a path to follow, she took the isthmus music scene by storm. In the past year, Malone released an EP and debut album, Liminal, toured in Denver, Chicago and Nashville, and strengthened ties with other Madison musicians. She recently calculated she has performed 196 gigs in eighteen months.
Her positive personality pulls you in. It’s almost ridiculous actually. One conversation with Madison Malone and you feel like you’re her best friend. Dressed in an outfit she described as 1970s bohemian country star, her confidence radiates from her almost always correct posture. The posture, however is a conscience decision due to spondylolisthesis, a spinal condition she was born with. Her flexible joints cause vertebrae to slide out of place, forcing muscles to cross over each other. Because of this her back is often in a state of spasm. As we sat at the coffee shop even, she was experiencing one. She hides the pain well.
“I am in a constant spasm. Like right now, I can feel it, it’s painful. But it’s something I’ve had all my life so I just live with it.”
In high school, doctors also discovered a small tumor resting on her pituitary gland, resulting in migraines that sometimes cause her to go temporarily blind and lose the ability to talk, write, and comprehend speech. She tries to not let it get in the way of her music, she says it’s just something she lives with. Although Malone doesn’t dwell on the condition, she admits it can be difficult.
“It sucks for music because I really can’t look, read or process anything so I can’t send emails. The full blown migraines usually have me down for two to three days, and when I get back to work I’ll have like 80 emails,” she said. Here she exhaled with a heavy sigh, as if the tumor was an obnoxious pet or friend that distracts her from work.
Her positivity and love of music are more powerful than the tumor-induced migraines or back spasms she deals with every day, and she refuses to let it prevent her from going places, both literally in touring and in her career. Her spring schedule has her looking forward to the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City and tours in New York, Minneapolis, and Nashville again.
“And after that, who knows? Here I am! It’s always a question mark.”
This Thanksgiving, Malone has a lot to be thankful for. The upcoming break will give her a chance to relax and reflect with some of her closest relatives. This year there will be no tears shed over future uncertainties, but rather a celebration of the direction she chose and the success she has had during that Thanksgiving just two years ago.
“This time around I am looking at the bigger picture. What can I do in this music industry that can touch more people? What bigger goals can I accomplish? I want to be told ‘no,’ I want to be challenged daily. I want to meet humans with unique stories, with a new set of eyes.”
Madison Malone was a guest on On Wisconsin Radio on July 6, 2015. Hear the full episode here or check out the live set below.