“When I was a teenager,” Madi Diaz recalls, “my dad and I would hang out in the living room and learn songs by bands like the Eagles and Alice in Chains. We’d pick parts to harmonize and sing our way through them, over and over. My dad would get so excited when he figured out something by Yes or the Mamas and Papas, then he’d let me pick my favorite Silverchair song or whatever I was obsessing over at the moment and we’d learn it together, too. It was the best.”
Diaz’s advance EP, Far From Things That We Know, and forthcoming full-length, Plastic Moon (out January 24), are her first releases with the newly launched tinyOGRE Entertainment. The music reflects a lifelong attraction to song craft as well her deep-rooted affinity for contrasting types of music. One part pop music and one part organic Americana, the album is a hooky, confident collection of songs that is as heartbreaking in places as it is catchy in others, sometimes within the span of a single song.
The 25-year-old, Nashville-based musician is herself a bit of a contrast, growing up in Lancaster, PA, surrounded by Amish farms, where she was home schooled by her Peruvian mother, Nancy, a proponent of early childhood development and the visual arts, and her Danish father, Eric, a woodworker and musician. Madi began piano lessons at age five at the behest of her father, himself a keyboard player in the Frank Zappa tribute band, Project Object. The family’s home stereo fed her a steady diet of Metallica, Sheryl Crow, The Beatles and Whitney Houston.
In her early teens, Diaz switched from piano to guitar and when she sought advanced instruction, she landed at School of Rock in Philadelphia. Her family eventually moved to the city and both Eric and Madi’s brother, Max, went on to become part of the faculty.
“The school was a big part of my life,” she acknowledges. “It showed me how to be in a band, and taught me about dynamics and orchestration, taking apart sections and basically leading and directing other musicians. I’m definitely opinionated and I was always the one to come into a room where everyone’s doing what they want and try to get them organized.”
Diaz was a standout among the pupils and became a focal point of director Don Argott’s 2005 documentary about the program, Rock School. Nearly a decade later, she holds a fondness for the fierce teenage Madi captured on screen, but doesn’t plan to see the movie again any time soon. “It’s embarrassing enough to have pictures of you when you’re 15 or 16 years old; I have an entire doc.”
After high school, Diaz was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston and began spending every waking moment making music: writing, singing and recording. She credits the period with helping her get serious about pursuing music as a career.
“It was one of the smarter things I’ve done,” she says. “It made me focus on finding what I wanted to do. It helped me realize I didn’t want to work in production; that’s not my brain. Do I want to work in film scoring? No, not that either. I came to recognize that I liked songwriting the most.”
A fellow student’s production assignment provided the first opportunity to work with Kyle Ryan. The Lincoln, Nebraska-raised guitarist would turn into her future songwriting collaborator and right-hand man. Diaz was in awe of his guitar playing, and Ryan had similar admiration for Diaz’s abilities, yet the two cagily circled each other for a time. Diaz was convinced Ryan was just being nice when he gave her his number and asked her to write together, while Ryan was sure Diaz hated his guitar playing, which was why she wasn’t calling.
“We were kind of awkward to each other around campus for a while,” she says. “Turns out we were both just completely intimidated.”
The ice was broken when that fellow student, a producer looking for a project, offered Diaz the chance to record an album in Hawaii—all expenses paid, no strings attached. It was a no-brainer for Madi and she worked up the courage to ask her favorite guitar player on campus to come along as part of the band. The self-released, alt.country-leaning Skin And Bones was the result, and a songwriting and performing partnership between Diaz and Ryan was struck for good, as well as a friendship.
“I was going through a lot of weird stuff personally at the time,” she reflects. “My parents had recently divorced. I was going out with shitty boyfriends. My brother was still living at home and having a hard time. But Kyle was really great. He’d come over to my apartment and we’d write and talk for hours. It was super helpful and I’m still grateful for it.”
Not long after that, Diaz tired of Berklee and subsequently left the program. She and Ryan kept writing though, and, armed with a strong batch of new material, the pair began heading down to New York City regularly for gigs. One otherwise inauspicious night at Greenwich Village landmark The Bitter End led to a chance meeting with a manager who had come to see another artist and stayed when she heard Diaz’s voice. The manager left her card, and soon thereafter she began representing Madi. Their first order of business turned out to be sending Diaz and Ryan for a month-long visit to Nashville to do some co-writing.
The trip went so swimmingly that Diaz and Ryan relocated to Music City in mid-2010. “When we moved to Nashville it was like clouds lifted off our heads,” she says. The pair was quickly thrust into the center of the city’s nascent indie-pop scene, eventually landing Madi on the Ten Out Of Tenn tour showcasing the best of Nashville’s emerging artists.
With the release of the EP, Ten Gun Salute, Diaz began receiving some encouraging exposure, touring with The Civil Wars and Landon Pigg, garnering favorable press in Paste (who dubbed her one of the “Top Ten Buzziest Acts” at SXSW 2009) AOL’s Spinner and on NPR, as well as and having her songs licensed for ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva and Army Wives.
Plastic Moon initially began as a self-produced project. Diaz and Ryan gathered up “60 or 70” songs in progress and started paring them down, looking for a collection that held together as a singular work. At the same time, producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Liz Phair) was seeking his next project and connected with the pair, who then decamped for Dave Matthews’ palatial studio near Charlottesville, Virginia. The result departs from Diaz’s early rootsier side, though the record is no less heartfelt and arguably even more so with its poignant melodies and inventive arrangements.
“It’s funny,” says Diaz, “we moved to Nashville and moved out of the alt-country box.”
After years of perfecting her craft, it’s no surprise that the album boasts uniformly strong songwriting, ranging from the power-pop bounce of “Nothing At All” and the unshakably inviting “Let’s Go,” to the soaring, introspective majesty of “Heavy Heart.” Diaz’s pure, effortless voice and unerring sense of song craft shine throughout. Thanks to Alagia’s meticulous and sympathetic production, the music keeps Diaz’s indie spirit intact while bringing forth a more sophisticated soundscape, with everything from Fender Rhodes to marimba popping up in the mix. The strength of the record was enough to land a deal with tinyOGRE for Diaz, meaning that she may not remain Nashville’s best-kept secret for much longer.
“Hopefully the next few years are going to be terrifyingly busy,” Diaz says, her voice excitedly rising. “I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I have had people say to both of us, ‘You’ve done so much; aren’t you ever going to be happy?’ I think that’s such a silly thing to say. Of course we’re never going to stop.”
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