LA-based indie pop rocker Maddie Ross was once described by The 405 as an “Alt-Pop Dream Queen.” Ross writes guitar-driven anthems about her producer, co-writer, and longtime girlfriend Wolfy. In September of 2018, songwriting legend KT Tunstall came across Ross’s music during a Twitter exchange, and immediately reached out via direct message to invite Ross to open on a 22-city North American tour. Ross agreed, and quickly released her sophomore EP, Touch Hands, Touch Bodies in anticipation of the tour. Tunstall fans fell in love with Ross’s high energy performances, “abundant cussing,” and candid love songs about being lesbian and proud. In May of 2019, Ross released her debut album Never Have I Ever, produced and co-written by Wolfy. The album was named Billboard Staff’s “Top 50 Albums of 2019 So Far,” and has gained praise from Teen Vogue, MTV, Billboard and NPR Music. Ross toured in support of Never Have I Ever by again opening for Tunstall.
(Photo Credit: Aubrey Devin)
The day KT Tunstall invited me to open for her on tour was like a movie. I was in bed before work doing a quick scroll through my Twitter feed, absentmindedly liking and retweeting things I read. I paused in curiosity when I came across a tweet about an all-female music festival lineup. I’m often, weirdly, my most earnest self online, gushing about everything and everyone that excites me. I clicked on the hashtag, found the full poster, and then retweeted it, saying “this looks incredible!” That was the last I thought of it.
About 10 hours later, I glanced at my phone. There was a notification that said, “would you like to accept a message from KT Tunstall?” I assumed it was a spam account. I responded to texts from my mom, replied to emails, and eventually made my way to Twitter. Only then did I notice that there was a blue checkmark next to the KT Tunstall “spam” message. Weird. I had already long forgotten the festival poster I retweeted hours earlier. What was the official account of one of my lifelong songwriting idols contacting me for?
“Hiiii Maddie… It’s KT Tunstall! Hope this finds you good. I just saw you replying to [the festival] tweet and checked out your stuff, sounds awesome. I’m on tour in the US Oct/Nov and looking for a solo opener – would you be into it? KT x”
I stared at it, re-read it, clicked on the profile to see if it was really her. Fuck fuck fuck, I was already 10 hours late in replying. What if she already moved on? Wait, is she even allowed to do this? Don’t get ahead of yourself, you’ll probably get another message from management apologizing, saying she wasn’t allowed to do that, but good luck with everything.
Now that I have toured with KT twice, I know what an incredibly rare person she is, how authentic she is, and how in control of her career she is. It’s very exceptional to find an artist with such a massive reach who gets to control all aspects of her business.
At the time when I read her message, all I could manage to do was send a screenshot to my girlfriend and to my parents. I was shaking. Equal parts of my brain were saying “you’re fucking ready for this — you’ve been preparing, studying, working for over a decade at this,” and “you’re nobody. You’re not a professional. She’s confused — she’s somehow got the wrong idea that you’re a real artist who gets real opportunities like this.”
I suppressed the second feeling as much as I could and ended up replying immediately and earnestly.
10 minutes later, we were emailing and discussing logistics. She asked if I would prefer she looped in my manager — hilarious. Everything I had ever released had been written, played, recorded, produced, and put out by my girlfriend and myself from our apartment. We were (and still are) a highly functional, hardworking two-woman team, intent on making shit happen. And so it happened: We had exactly two months to plan and rehearse for a 22-city North American tour.
One of the scariest parts for me was the timing of it all. I was scheduled to have a major surgery a month before the tour was set to begin. I was sick with worry about failing and throwing away this massive opportunity that anyone would have wanted. I was worried that my body physically wouldn’t be able to handle two months of traveling, that my voice wasn’t professional enough or well-trained enough to handle that much singing.
Here’s how I got through that anxiety: I had spent the previous year working on my mental health and self-care. About a year earlier, I saw a therapist for the first time. A few months into therapy, I was still having frequent panic attacks and debilitating stress. A doctor prescribed me anti-anxiety medication. I didn’t think I needed it, but I tried the medication, and within a few days I felt different. Before this, I didn’t think that I had any chemical imbalance — I thought the stress was circumstantial. I now know that it’s not normal to be burdened with high levels of anxiety, and how crucial it is for my overall success and happiness to be in a good place. It took time and effort, and I wasn’t all that productive musically or career-wise during that year or so of my life.
I’m including this detail about anxiety, even though it doesn’t seem like it’s part of the DIY touring story, because when I look back on it, it’s really the part that allowed the rest to happen. The months leading up to the tour, and the tour itself, were unbelievably stressful. They were more fun and more fulfilling than anything I’ve ever experienced, hands down, but I also was running on adrenaline and primal fear the whole time. I wouldn’t have been able to succeed or experience any joy on tour if I wasn’t already in a healthy place mentally.
By the time the tour actually came around, I felt ready. I had been consumed with planning it and had gone over every detail in my brain. This type of preparation made it possible to enjoy the experience. The first few shows were intimidating, as we tried to make sure we did everything correctly and professionally. But it became normal surprisingly fast, and the rest was easy! The fans were gracious. The drives were fun. KT’s crew was helpful and a huge asset to us, especially as they got into their own routine and were less stressed themselves.
I have lots of tips, spreadsheets, checklists, and advice for anyone going on a DIY tour (feel free to message me if you are interested!). But I will spare you all the details. I would say the most important thing we did: no matter how tired we were and how annoying it was, we always unloaded the car completely each night into our room, even if we had to wake up four hours later and put it right back in. I’ve seen so many bands post about having their gear stolen on tour, even from safely locked trailers. It would have stopped us from finishing the tour and left me completely broke if our stuff had been stolen. There’s no excuse for leaving it in the car — it’s just not worth the risk.
I feel really passionate about being open and honest about how all of this has gone, because I have been an aspiring artist for over a decade. All of my friends are ridiculously talented musicians as well, and we constantly talk about the emotional toll of putting yourself out there, investing all of your time and money and future into something that has absolutely no guarantees. It can feel daunting, especially when you get online or go to a party and witness people achieving this elusive success. My philosophy has always been to keep consistently putting out shit I’m proud of, keep up real, authentic relationships (in person and online), and be ready when opportunities pop up. I could never have predicted KT would invite me on tour, and couldn’t have made it happen if I was trying. But I’m so proud that when lightning struck and this lucky chance came, we were prepared.
(Photo Credit: Shabnam Ferdowsi)