:: EP Review and Artist Interview ::
With a fearless, creative energy, rising New York City pop artist and singer-songwriter Madeleine McMillan dives into the intimate and political in her new EP “Not Sorry.” Backed by a tight group of musicians who contribute to the depth and dynamic of her quality songwriting, her thoughtful lyrics and melodies reveal a giving individual who redefines popular notions of love and relationships in her work, bringing artist and audience together through honesty, not idealism.
It is through this honesty that listeners may share in the experiences of a woman who struggled with disappointment, illness, and self doubt. But don’t be mistaken. This isn’t an EP of sadness. The first track sets quite a different tone: “I’m gonna take control ‘cause I know I’m worth more.” This is an EP of strength.
In getting to know Madeleine McMillan, we find a spirited individual who lives by the philosophies her work promotes. As a self-described “feelings writer,” the following interview shows how she attempts to connect personal story and history in order to improve each day not only for herself, but for others as well.
How did you get started in music?
My grandparents bought me a piano when I was around seven years old, but I only took a few lessons at a local music school before I stopped going. Instead I taught myself with a book of Christmas Carols and a note diagram. That was when I learned to read music. When I was 11, a family friend gave me the Spice Girls album “Spice World.” That album opened my eyes to the joys of singing. I discovered that it is an incredible release of emotional energy. At that point I was skilled enough on the piano and had plenty to say, so singing wasn’t difficult to add to my skill set.
I have always been imaginative and outspoken, so writing came naturally to me at a very young age. I recorded my first album of original music when I was 12 years old at Buck’s Rock summer camp. That album wasn’t “good” by any means—it was cute and funny—but it was a defining moment in my life. Writing music never felt like a choice I was making, it was just what I did; it was like breathing to me. It still is to this day.
Who or what is your support system during moments of creative block?
New York City, my hometown, is my support system as an artist. There are times when my thoughts get stuck in a loop; I get caught up in ideas to the point where they won’t come out, or sometimes I’m just uninspired. However, thanks to living in NYC, I have so much art and music at my disposal at all times. I go to concerts and movies, sit in restaurants alone with a notebook and jot down all my observations— I grow as a creator, and a human, whenever I leave my apartment. There is inspiration to be found in every nook and cranny of NYC. I’ve never lived anywhere else, but I assume it would be a lot harder to step out of my comfort zone if I didn’t live in a big city.
What trials did you face putting your EP “Not Sorry” together?
The one prevailing struggle for me was making creative decisions. I have recorded at least nine albums worth of music in my lifetime, but this was the first time I decided to release it to the public, to complete strangers! This made every creative decision significantly more terrifying than it had been in the past. However, it wasn’t a fear of not being good enough. The real fear was wondering if the music I was making was an accurate representation of who and where I was at that point in my life. I wanted to look back on it the way I look back on old diary entries. I wanted it to be an honest portrayal of that chapter of my life.
Do you have a favorite track?
My favorite track is “Undermined.” It’s the most personal song on the EP. The song happened so organically, from writing it in my apartment and then arranging and recording it in the studio. I wrote it on my living room floor in a moment of vulnerability. The lyrics, melody, and chords all fell into place at once. I think it ended up being the best track because it feels so natural; it is me at my realest.
(Watch Madeleine perform “Undermined” live at Shrine in Harlem.)
Explain the story behind the song “Not Sorry.”
“Not Sorry” I sometimes call my feminist anthem, but it goes way deeper than that. It is a song about self worth. It’s about valuing yourself and not apologizing for the parts of yourself you didn’t choose—gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. As I like to say, “I don’t need to list them all. Trump did that for me.”
I wrote it after years of obstacles related to my health and gender. My health forced me to take a 5-year hiatus from music. The minute I was feeling better I dove into making music again with such enthusiasm. It was my “I’m back!” moment. I learned so much about myself and the human condition during the time I was ill. I owed it to myself to write the song. I want its message to resonate with others, for people to hear it and celebrate their strengths the way I was finally able to celebrate mine.
Tell me about the dance mix version of “Not Sorry.” How did that idea come about?
The remix happened at the suggestion of my mother’s best friend from college. A few weeks after I released my EP he told me the lyrics and melody of “Not Sorry” would be perfect for a dance remix. Fast forward a few months and I casually mentioned the idea to a new musician friend of mine. He immediately referred me to DJ Latenight and the remix was born! We had a great time working on it together.
Who is your audience?
My audience is anyone who has suffered or felt misunderstood. I am a feelings writer, and I’m always glad to hear when my music resonates with others. I want my audience to hear my lyrics and know they are not alone.
Is there a message you want to deliver to your audience with this EP?
Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. Be your own advocate. Never let anyone tell you who you are, how to feel, or what you are worth.
What is your relationship to music as a woman?
My relationship to music as a woman is complicated. Being a woman in music can be incredibly frustrating, and I often find myself working with men who are more interested in controlling me than working with me. Even when I’m the one writing the music—there is usually some kind of power struggle. However, I think the frustration of being a woman in music makes me work harder. It forces me to push myself and step out of my comfort zone on a regular basis.
I also think my sensitive nature makes me a better writer and I think some of that has to do with my gender. The fact that women are usually more in touch with their emotions makes them great listeners of music. The female musicians I know have incredible intuition. The way they hear music is as beautiful as the music itself. I am seeing more instances where women are making a conscious effort to collaborate with each other. There is a sense of community when working with other women that I haven’t found in any other setting. It is so empowering.
In your opinion, what is the toughest challenge women in music face, whether formally educated in music or not?
I think the toughest challenge women face is being taken seriously. I can’t count how many times a man has been surprised that I wrote a song myself, or that I can read music, play multiple instruments, and produce my own records. I’ve had so many men tell me they believe in my music and want to support me, but sometimes it turns out they were making empty promises in the hopes of sleeping with me or making a quick buck.
That being said, I do know plenty of men who take me seriously and treat me as their equal. They are out there! But it’s a sad truth that the awesome men are outnumbered by those who look down on women instead of admiring the work we do—whether they are aware of it or not.
Is there a politics to your practice?
My one rule is to never second guess an idea. Always put it on paper. Always trust your instinct. Always try it before you rule it out. Once you try it, then you can decide if it feels right or not. I majored in songwriting in college and dissecting my writing all day with peers was exhausting. I ended up doubting my writing abilities and it made me hyper-aware of all the things I might be doing wrong. I had to find my own voice again after college. I’m glad I learned how to tear my writing to shreds with rules, though. Through honing my inner critic, I eventually learned how to turn her on and off at will.
In your opinion, what does the term “artist as citizen” mean to you?
To me it means that being an artist is both my identity and my job and because of that, I have a responsibility to do something good with it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately due to the current political climate. I think it’s more important than ever for all creative types to be using their voices for good. I shifted my goals as an artist for this reason.
Is there any kind of song outside of your normal style you’re itching to write?
I want to write a lot more about feminism and human rights–more protest songs. I also have this hilarious fantasy of being in a metal-opera band. Occasionally people will tell me I have the voice for it, so hopefully it will happen one day. I don’t listen to much music in that genre, but I still think it would be fun!
What project are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a full length record. I’m releasing the first single for the album very soon. It’s called “Sorry.” Yes, I am aware of how confusing that is. My Spotify page is developing quite the apology theme. It’s a new sound for me, a ballad with only guitars, bass, and pedal steel. No percussion of any kind. The song is about gas lighting, specifically about regretting and overcoming the devastating effects of being in an abusive relationship. It’s really a more personal and passive aggressive take on “Not Sorry.” I’m also exploring the idea of making a music video for the “Not Sorry” dance remix.
Outside of music, what do you like to dabble in?
I really like tap dancing. I’m not very good at it, but I go to beginners classes pretty regularly. I find it’s a great hobby for a musician, to learn about music and rhythm in a refreshing new context. Most practicing involves sitting or standing in one place, so it’s great to engage both my brain and my body.