Madi Diaz On Weird Faith, Love On Tour, And Her Late-Breaking Success

Muriel Margaret

Madi Diaz On Weird Faith, Love On Tour, And Her Late-Breaking Success

Muriel Margaret

When Madi Diaz got the phone call that Harry Styles had handpicked her to open a string of his Love On Tour stadium shows, she really needed some good news. The Nashville singer-songwriter was stuck in traffic as it started to get dark on a 12-hour drive to Philly to begin tour. And at some point, she had noticed that the rental car she was driving had an ant infestation. Frazzled, ant-bitten, and decidedly not in a good mood, she put her manager on the Bluetooth.

“He’s like, ‘Okay. So. There’s this pop star,'” she tells the story now, on Zoom from home at Nashville. “I was just like, ‘Great, I’ll do it, whatever. Who is it?’ He’s like, ‘It’s Harry fucking Styles.’ I pulled the car over — my whole body was hot, just flushed. Then I got out of the car and I jumped up and down a couple times, and then I got back in the car with the ants and I drove the rest of the way.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t just an opening slot. After Diaz had played a couple of Styles’ shows, he reached out to her and asked her to join his live band, in which she spent three months singing backup vocals and shaking maracas across the world. This feverish, celebratory summer was the culmination of a wild couple of years for Diaz. The now 37-year-old had been putting out music since 2007, around the time she dropped out of Berklee. For the ensuing decade-and-change, she moved around between Nashville and LA, signed a 10-year “really horrible publishing deal,” and had some successful co-writes with the likes of Kesha and Pentatonix plus sync placements on Pretty Little Liars and Nashville — stuff that paid the bills, but nothing that could be called a big break.

In 2017, she moved back from LA to Nashville, feeling chewed up, with a few grand left in her bank account. She wasn’t sure what was left for her in music; if it hadn’t happened yet, when would it? Slowly but surely, though, she rebuilt. She hired longtime friend Christian Stavros (who also handles Best Coast and Angel Olsen) for management. Eventually, she signed with the esteemed label ANTI. In 2021, when she put out her fifth full-length album History Of A Feeling, her big break finally came. She appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, headed out on several triumphant headline tours plus dates supporting Olsen and Waxahatchee, and of course, got the call from Mr Styles. (“He heard me on a playlist — I’ve still never asked him what playlist,” she says.)

Now, after that victory lap, she’s releasing the follow-up, Weird Faith. History Of A Feeling was an album about the end of a long-term relationship; Weird Faith is about falling into new love. But it’s definitely not a gooey record. Just as much as it’s about the beauty of new love, it’s also about all the weirdness and darkness and frustration that it can bring. “Do you think this could ruin your life? ‘Cause I could see it ruining mine,” she asks on the opening track, “Same Risk”. On “KFM” she declares, “I wanna kill, fuck, marry you forever,” egregiously breaking the rules of the titular game. “Don’t Do Me Good” — a duet with Diaz’s friend Kacey Musgraves, which features an honestly breathtaking key change on the final chorus — was written as much about a toxic relationship with the music industry as with a person. Diaz is an excellent songwriter; her pop-folk earworms are honest and searching, giving them an earned emotional impact.

In the interview below, Diaz chats about the album and how she got from sweaty Philly punk basements to standing onstage with one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

You grew up in Pennsylvania Amish Country. How did your music taste develop there?

MADI DIAZ: I think becoming a teenager, I just really wanted to be a part of any sort of scene or musical movement. And growing up in the middle of nowhere our internet was pretty spotty — not that you really could find much music on the internet at that point anyway — and our radio was very country music radio. But when I was in high school my friends introduced me to the Pixies and Weezer. And my mom was actually a really big Bikini Kill fan and introduced me to Kathleen Hanna, which got me into Le Tigre and Cat Power. No one played shows in Mount Nebo, Pennsylvania, so I was always trying to go into Philadelphia and see shows.

Do you remember any of the first shows you saw there that were formative?

DIAZ: My first show with my friends on my own, I remember we went and saw Le Tigre play at… I wanna say it was the Trocadero, which I’m pretty sure isn’t even there anymore. [It was a] high school teen girl out in the world moment — you’re wearing your fishnets and your boots and checking each other out, and then just jumping around like a total sweaty maniac, and running around Philadelphia until all hours of the night.

First Unitarian in Philadelphia, back then, they had everything. They had, like, RJD2 and Lightning Bolt and Dinosaur Jr. Just all of the crazy, cool shows were happening in this place. Just, again, that 16-year-old spirit where it’s summertime, it’s hot, and Lightning Bolt or Japanther is playing, and they’re set up in the center of the room and everyone’s running around and it’s so sweaty and everyone’s sliding on their own sweat. And then the show would get out and we would run to the closest city fountain and just jump in with all of our clothes on.

I mean, it was everything. Everything. I feel like when I walk around Philadelphia now, it still is so drippy with nostalgia.

How did you start writing your own music?

DIAZ: It’s funny, growing up in a more basement punk, grungier rock scene — even when I went to college [at Berklee], my favorite shows were the crusty basement ones out in Allston. It was quite contrasting writing the kind of music that I write; it didn’t feel cool for so long, and it still doesn’t quite always feel cool all the time. But I think when I was around 19 I saw Brandi Carlile solo open up for Ray LaMontagne solo, and I remember that specific show experience being so profound and life-altering for me. I’m finally seeing this thing that I wanna do, that I hadn’t really experienced yet. And from that point on, I also discovered like Gillian Welch and — for better or for worse — Ryan Adams, and Patty Griffin, and all of these just super heart-on-the-sleeve emotional acoustic guitar songwriters. That was when things really shifted for me.

Fast forward to releasing History Of A Feeling, and finally having all this mainstream success. Having been at it for a decade-plus at this point and this being your fifth album, what were the feelings that came with that?

DIAZ: Before that record released, I really didn’t expect to ever get picked up by a label again, or even have much of a music career when I moved back to Nashville. So it was so overwhelmingly beautiful and relieving in this very strange way, music still kind of swooping in to catch me after years and years. And now it’s a really funny thing, to not bring the first 12 respective years of baggage with me forward. It’s still really hard not to brace myself preparing for the floor to just kinda fall out from underneath me.

One of the Harry Styles shows that I opened up was one of the four nights that he did at Wembley. And I was so excited, I just went out with me and a guitar because I was like, when the hell else am I gonna be able to play Wembley with just me and a guitar? So I went out, I said my thing, I felt really good about the first song. And I finished the first note of the first song, and I heard in my in-ears, ‘Oh, Madi, so sorry, honey. We’re having a technical difficulty and we’re gonna have to pull you off the stage.’ I had to walk off stage, there was like a 10-minute period where they just lost signal. And I was really grateful in that specific moment that so many difficult things had happened to me throughout my career. I just didn’t have to play the main character in that moment, you know?

There’s this pervasive idea that if you’re not successful in this industry as a young prodigy, you’ll never be. Is that a feeling that you wrestled with over those years?

DIAZ: My friend [singer-songwriter] Stephen [Wrabel] and I have talked about this quite a bit. We both have been doing it for a while, and we both have had so many moments in our career where we’re like, ‘This is it. This is the one. Here it goes. Everyone contact me while you can because I’ll be changing my number soon,’ that then kinda fizzle out and go nowhere and you’re still just here. Even now, I think I’m still waiting to catch this lightning-in-a-bottle moment, and it’s such a combination of things. It’s not just the talent, or the timing, or the luck. It’s staying, and it’s continuing to choose to love to something, and to work hard at this thing that has become the path.

Speaking of the Harry Styles shows, is there anything you learned from that experience that you think you’ll take forward into your own career?

DIAZ: You know, talking about the first 10, 12 years of a career being pretty tough, I think sometimes I can get stuck in this treadmill thought process of like, ‘This is a job, this is a job.’ And if it’s work, it has to hurt a little bit for it to be real. And I remember standing on stage — I’m also not a maraca player, I will never play maracas for anyone else, it’s just singularly if Harry Styles calls again I will unsheath my maracas and I will heed the call. But you know, I’m onstage, I’ve never been on a stage this size, I’ve never been in front of this many people. And I’m singing the song and I remember being aware of this, like, ‘you have to get through it’ feeling. And I was like, “Oh my god, what is that? Why do I feel like the show is something to survive, or the performance is something to get through?” And that moment unlocked so much joy going forward, in this way where I was like, “Oh my god, I love singing these songs, I love being a part of this moment for these people, for this band.” I’m the one that can unlock the fucking floodgates for joy, for myself as a performer. And it just shifted something. I’m excited to carry that forward, in my world, in my shows. Just the idea that maybe it doesn’t have to hurt a little bit the whole time.

I wanted to ask about the new album Weird Faith. I really like the perspective that the album comes from, where it really explores all of the anxiety and darkness that can come with falling in love. How did that come together?

DIAZ: I feel like if the writing process for History Of A Feeling was like falling forward, Weird Faith was sort of like… you know those videos where people are tripping on ice for, I don’t know, five minutes, and they’re like constantly catching themselves? The whole record came at a time where I was trying to learn how to trust myself again, and trust that I can make good decisions after having made many bad decisions. Because there was so much happening in my life that required that kind of trust in myself — trust in this career that was suddenly happening again for me, trust in my new relationships with my manager, my label, and in my new actual romantic partnership. I’ve been in therapy for four or five years, and it’s such an interesting thing learning the difference between an intuition and a trigger, and it’s really hard to tell the difference between those things. And I think this whole record is really trying to walk through that haze, and trying to do that in a loving way for myself, and then trying to also lovingly see this person and these people in front of me, and trying to honor what’s happening between us.

What’s your relationship to writing love songs, and the idea of writing a love song that at least on this album isn’t the most straightforward, stereotypical kind of love song?

DIAZ: [Laughs] Yeah, I think I’m still waiting to write that very syrupy, bubblegummy, full-on love song. Which is so funny ’cause this record is the closest that I’ve ever come to that. When I was writing this record, I really did think that I was writing love songs, ’cause they were the most loving things that I knew how to express at that point. I do think that I’m gonna be able to write just a straight-up, unapologetically lovey, gross love song at some point. I just have not conquered that beast yet.

That’s a goal for you?

DIAZ: Absolutely. And it’s so funny — I feel like you wanna try to write a song, and the song is going to write itself. The song tells you what the song is. And no matter how much you wanna muscle around the song… it’s just the mirror. It’s the mirror that you don’t wanna be standing in front of but you are.

What do you bring to a song to allow for that to happen? Do you find you need to figure things out on a personal level first or does it happen the other way around?

DIAZ: This has almost gotten me in trouble in relationships in the past. Sometimes you have to say a thing out loud to see how true it is, or how honest it is. And I think that’s the process for me with writing songs. I’m trying to get at this feeling, and I’m gonna say hundreds of thousands of things around this feeling until I know that I’ve hit the mark, and that this is absolutely without a doubt the closest that I can possibly get to saying the actual thing. So it is a process of really detangling the potentially harmful word vomit. [Laughs]

The phrase Weird Faith, what does that mean to you?

DIAZ: That whole feeling just became so important, and still is so important. Even in just the release of this record. Or the first ‘I love you’ — it’s just a jump, it’s just a chance that you take. It’s choosing to trust people, choosing to trust the world, choosing to trust the air that you’re breathing. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s become the mantra. Because that way, I can find a way to coax myself forward in this next phase of things. It’s my own little cheer to myself.

Weird Faith is out 2/9 on ANTI-.

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