In Conversation: Madison McFerrin and Jess Williamson

The singer-songwriters talk Mexican Summer, DIY recording, and how signing to a label is just “leasing your time.”

Madison McFerrin is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn; Jess Williamson is a singer-songwriter based in LA whose fourth album Sorceress was release on Mexican Summer last May. The two are featured in Mexican Summer’s Looking Glass series — a singles series focusing “on the human condition as reflected through chance and destined encounters” — so last week they hopped on the phone to talk about their contributions to it, and more. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Jess Williamson: Hi, Madison. 

Madison McFerrin: Hi. How are you doing? 

Jess: I’m OK. How are you? 

Madison: Ah, same. You know— 

Jess: [Laughs.] Weird week.

Madison: Yeah, very weird week. We’re, like, just now officially a week into 2021, and it is already crazy. Not that I was expecting, like, at midnight on 2021 all of a sudden it was going to be like, “Oh, my god, everything’s better!” But, um, yeah. Wild times. 

Jess: Are you in New York?

Madison: I am in New York, I’m in Brooklyn. What about you?

Jess: LA. 

Madison: It’s much warmer there.

Jess: I know dude. It’s nice. I just got back, and January is my favorite time of year to be here, actually, because all of the winter blooming succulents are in bloom, and it rains. So it’s really green, and [there are] flowers everywhere. It’s secretly the best time of year to be in LA.

Madison: That’s good to know, I’ll keep that in mind. My boyfriend and I went to California for the month of November, and we spent about a little over a week in LA with my brother [DJ Taylor McFerrin] and his wife. I’ve never really been like, Oh, I’m gonna move to LA. If anything, I’ve been like, I don’t want to move to LA. But then after this year of, like, needing to stay in the house all the time, I’m like, Oh, it actually would be really nice to be someplace where it’s warm in November and December and January. [Laughs.] Especially if we’re gonna have to be locked down for so much longer. It’s like, Oh, it doesn’t have to be cold? What a concept.

Jess: I actually had not even considered that. Yeah, if you’re in a cold place, you’re really just inside all the time.

OK, should we talk about our songs for the Looking Glass series? 

Madison: Yeah, totally. 

Jess: I love your song. I’ve been listening all morning, and I watched the video. I recorded a lot of my last album in that studio.

Madison: Oh, nice. It’s a great studio. It’s really beautiful. 

Jess: Yeah, and I love that piano.

Madison: Where did you record your Looking Glass stuff? 

Jess: In my house!

Madison: Oh, nice, what kind of set-up do you have?

Jess: So, they asked me if I wanted to do a song for the series back in March, like right when all the lockdowns were happening, and I kind of panicked because I was like, How am I going to pull this off? I don’t have a home studio at all — I’ve upgraded since then, but at the time I had just, like. GarageBand on my laptop, a $99 interface that I’ve had for over ten years, a microphone. But I decided to just try it. I’d already kind of started writing a song about that very specific moment, of Covid coming here and us all locking down and everything changing in this major way. I was having to cancel all my tours, because I had an album that was about to come out and was just feeling weird, obviously. So I decided to just try and, it was such a cool,kind of confidence-building experience in a way, because I realized it was fine that I had kind of a basic setup. I recorded my acoustic guitar and my vocals just in my house on GarageBand. 

I had sent a voice memo of the song to my good friend Meg Duffy, who is an incredible guitar player — they’re also a songwriter, and have a project called Hand Habits that I love. I sent in a voice memo and they liked the song, and I was like, “Would you want to record some guitar remotely from your house?” And Meg was like, “Sure!”

And then I have this other friend Jarvis, who is a musician and, like, a proper audio engineer — I asked him if he would be able to mix it remotely and add some bass. So basically it was this totally remote [project], the three of us from our homes just, like, sending files back and forth.

To my surprise, my dinky GarageBand file could communicate with their, like, more professional whatever files, and it worked out! 

I’ve never been so hands-off before. Meg just laid down the guitar, and I was like, “Sounds good.” Likem I had no notes because it wasn’t like I was in the room. I had more back and forth with Jarvis, but it was kind of just, like, a lesson in like having less control and just seeing what people do.

It was a really cool experiment, and I’m happy with the song. At that time, the idea of going into the studio was terrifying, in March. But y’all did yours a little more recently, and you were able to go to the studio and stuff, right?

Madison: Well, I wrote the song at home back in May, before they’d even asked me about doing a single for the series. I just kind of felt like the song fit with the vibe of what we were feeling, because it’s a song that’s actually about Bernie Sanders, but it sounds like it’s a breakup song. In May, I think that was also when it was like, Oh, shit, this isn’t going anywhere any time soon. You know, because when it initially was all going down, it was like, Oh, we’re going to be done by June for sure

So I had written it on the piano in May, and we recorded it in the studio in September. Beginning of September, things had calmed down somewhat. I had just gone somewhere for Labor Day weekend, so I had just gotten tested right before I got into the studio. So I felt a little more comfortable at least knowing I was negative at that time. But it was the first time I had been in a studio during Covid, and it took a second to get comfortable. Granted, it was just me and the engineer, and obviously he’s in the other room, in the booth, and I’m in the big room with the piano, so we were isolated from one another. But it’s just like, OK, this is a space that I’m not familiar with. Like, I don’t know how many people have been here. Like, I knew that they were being safe, but it’s just hard to quell your own anxieties during this moment. So I was nervous about that. 

I only recorded the piano and the vocals there, and I brought it home and did the rest of the production at home. One of the big things about the single for me is, like you said, it was a moment of experimentation for me, because one of the benefits of Covid was that I finally had time to really start working on my own production skills. So this is the first song I’ve ever released that has my own production on it. I’m playing everything except for the drums. I’ve had a bass and have, like, dabbled around with it for like a decade, but I’ve never released anything that had me playing bass on it. It’s like super simple, it’s not anything to write home about, but even just being able to use the opportunity of this single series to make that next step and to put something out that really started to showcase what the next evolution of my artistry is, was really exciting. So I’m really grateful that Mexican Summer allowed me the opportunity to explore in that way. 

Jess: I totally relate. For me, I’ve kind of leaned on other people a lot — like, music is collaborative and you bring in other players and you work with producers. So being forced to figure out how to record a song, arrange a song, and then put it out there basically just on my own — I mean, I had my two friends remotely, but I couldn’t get in a room and rehearse with a band, I couldn’t bounce ideas off somebody. 

A lot of times, I’m kind of insecure about my guitar playing, so a lot of the guitar on my last record, I didn’t play — like, I wrote the song on a guitar, but then somebody else played, and played it maybe more technically well. Normally, I like with this song I might have had somebody else play the guitar, and instead I played it, and I played it in my way that’s simple. And it’s a huge component of the song — it’s a picking pattern that’s a little unique that I came up with. I don’t think that would have happened that way if I could have gone in a room with a bunch of musicians. I’m always so quick to tell someone else to just play the guitar, because maybe they’re better or something, and that was a revelatory thing for me from doing this song.

I’m so impressed that you laid down the bass and did all of that. That’s awesome.

Madison: Thank you. It took a decade, but here we are. [Laughs.]

Jess: They say bass is easy. I’ve never tried. 

Madison: It’s pretty easy. I just, in Covid, have started… I have a guitar and have not been able to really get the hang of it, but I’m starting to just mess around with it. But a lot of the stuff when I produce now, if I can’t figure out how to play a chord, I just record each note individually. [Laughs.]

Jess: Oh, word. What’s your studio setup?

Madison: it’s just in my living room — I use Ableton, so I have an Ableton Push 2, I have a Korg Minilogue synthesizer, an interface, a mic, bass, and guitar. Then I have an upright piano that’s, like, not the best and very out of tune, but I use it.

Jess: That’s so nice to have a real piano. I was curious what interface you have?

Madison: I have an Apollo Twin.

Jess: I just got that!

Madison: I need to figure out how to actually use it. I traded with my brother, because he’s a producer, and there are so many things that… Like, I really haven’t gotten past turning it on and just using it that way. But I know that there’s so many settings that you can do to make it better. I keep telling myself, That’s really the next thing you gotta do, is figure out how to properly use this shit.

Jess: Absolutely. Yeah, I just got the Apollo Twin and Logic, because it turns out Logic is basically the same as GarageBand

Madison: Right, that’s like their update. Apparently Logic is also better for vocals, so I hear.

Jess: Really? Good to know.

Madison: One of the fallbacks of Ableton is, when I’m recording vocals, if I’m doing stuff in a loop, Ableton doesn’t record each of the loops. So in the way that Logic is like, if I wanted to record a verse a bunch of times, it would save all of them and then I would get to choose which one. Ableton doesn’t save them. So any time I get a good take, I have to stop and save.

Jess: Weird!

Madison: Yeah. Seems like that should be updated.

Jess: Yeah, probably so. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your song is about Bernie?

Madison: So, I was already kind of sad, and I just started writing this somber song. I kind of couldn’t really figure out what to write it about. I think my boyfriend and I had also just gotten into a fight, and I was sad about that, but I didn’t really want to write a song about that. So I was like, OK, what’s something else I’m sad about? And I was like, I’m sad that Bernie Sanders isn’t our nominee in the middle of a pandemic. He is advocating for Medicare for All. and all of these things that would be incredibly helpful in this unprecedented time. So I just went off of that feeling. The first line is, “Nothing left to say, sick of being honest,” and I kind of feel like Bernie Sanders must be so sick of being honest. He’s been being honest, like, as long as he’s been doing this thing — like, he’s been talking about this stuff since the ‘60s. You compare that to other politicians where you can look at something they’ve said five years ago and it differs from what they’re saying now. I started writing the song not too long after he had finally dropped out.

Jess: Yeah, because it was, like, mid-April. Yeah. Yeah.

Madison: Yeah. An obviously it was the right thing to do, but I was just feeling these feelings, and the refrain of like, “Could have said we went for it,” was just like: We had this opportunity to elect somebody who’s really for the people, and it just seems like for some reason, America doesn’t want it. [They keep] trying to be like, “We’re for the people!” And it’s like, you’re really not. Please stop saying that. It’s kind of similar to right now, when people are like trying to say like, “This isn’t who we are,” with the stuff that just happened. And it’s like, no, that’s very American. It’s very American for white men to be like, “This is mine and I’m taking it.”

I was just feeling so disillusioned about the fact that we had this opportunity to really have somebody who would fight for everyone, and we once again weren’t given that opportunity. Granted, I think there are some things that we can look back at and and say maybe Biden was the best, in terms of it [being] hard for Trump to accuse him of being socialist and radical — it’s like, Biden clearly is not those things. So I think it was easier for a lot of people to digest that.

I relate it to this moment that we’re living through right now — I really hope that we don’t have conversations about like, “We need to appeal to these people that just tried to have a coup,” you know. It’s like, no, we don’t need to do that, actually. This is a small number of people and they need to be held accountable. 

I also really love writing songs that you think are about one thing, but they’re actually about another thing. I think that’s just something that helps me write, because sometimes if I write a song and it’s a little too literal, I’ll get a little stuck. So it’s kind of like a writing prompt for me to be like, OK, what else can this be about? As soon as I was writing that song and got stuck, and I was like, What else could this be about?, and was like, Oh, it could also be about Bernie, I finished the song really quickly afterwards.

Jess: I’ve been listening all week to your song, and then when all of this crazy stuff happened, I’ve been thinking about how it applies now. It’s sort of like an evergreen song in that way, like this idea of “sick of being honest” — I love that line so much.

Madison: Thanks. It feels real practically every day now. With your stuff, you released an album in May, and then when did your single come out? 

Jess: June. 

Madison: So how did that work?

Jess: It was cool, because the album came out, and that was exciting. As albums go, it was all written a year-plus before it came out, so it’s like, of course, I was and still am really excited about my record, but the songs were from another time, and we were and still are in such a crazy moment. I was excited to pretty quickly follow the record up with a very current statement. People, I think, really responded to that, and that felt good. And it was something collaborative with two of my close friends, which felt really good. 

My last record had a lot going on, instrument-wise — there was a lot going on and I experimented a lot, and made songs way bigger than I ever had before. And the one that I put in the Looking Glass series really felt very me. It was simple and there wasn’t a ton of instrumentation, and the lyrics [were] really front and center and [spoke] to this moment that we’re in. So that felt good, also, to follow up my kind of ambitious record with something that felt really personal. I mean, [it was] literally recorded in my house.

A lot of people found me through that single, and then they realized I had had a record just come out, so that was nice to reach other people that maybe had missed the record.

Madison: Do you think that you’re going to approach recording music differently now, having put that out?

Jess: That’s such a good question. It did show me — and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — that if a song is good, it will hold up with the bare bones. It doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles. Now I’m writing a lot, and that’s kind of my barometer now as I’m writing. I’m like, Can I sit at my keyboard or sit at my guitar and play and sing this song, start to finish, just me? And is it good? And if it is, then it’s good enough to see where it can go from there. But it has to have this foundation of being a strong song with a simple skeleton. I think with my last record, there were a few songs — because I experimented with some more kind of pop directions with my last record. I have always been pretty folky and, like, rock, and then with this last record, I wanted to expand more and do more of a pop realm with a few songs. So there’s a lot of building that happened in the studio, which was cool. But I don’t know that I really want to do that moving forward. Like, I want to have songs that I can play start to finish by myself on a keyboard or a guitar, and then see where it goes from there. 

I found with some of these songs going into the studio, sometimes I got lost. Like I was telling you, I recorded a lot of my first of that record at Gary’s, where you did your single — I was there in New York for a few weeks, and recorded these songs and the record was supposed to be done. Like a week later, I got the rough mixes back and I like, This record is not done. Like, I played with a lot of stuff and that was cool, but there were situations on the record where I just felt like it wasn’t me or something. I ended up finishing the record at my friend’s home studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, which is outside of Austin, where I’m from. I had already made a whole record with him — my previous album, called Cosmic Wink. So I took the new record, which is Sorceress, to my friend at his home studio, and we spent four days and just pulled a ton of stuff away, started a couple of songs over, added stuff. I mean, we really like overhauled the entire album in four days, which is kind of funny. I spent, like, three weeks playing and doing all this stuff, and then honestly, the record really became the record in those four days in Texas just at my friend’s house.

I think that’s been a big lesson I’ve been learning. You don’t need a fancy studio and you don’t need a ton of bells and whistles — a good song is a good song.

Madison: That’s kind of what I’m thinking about as I approach my debut album. I feel like the main thing that I would be looking for studio time for would just be vocals. I have a nice microphone, but I don’t have, like, an isolated sound booth situation. It’s not calibrated for me to do the best vocals I could, but it’s definitely usable. I mean, people are recording things on, like, voice memos these days, you know. 

For me, since my voice and the harmonies that I make are really the thing that I’ve put my stake in the ground as, like, being what I want to be known for, I’m like, OK, I can do all this other stuff at home, but if I sign with somebody, I want to be able to step into a vocal booth that has a really nice microphone and where I know that, like, street noise isn’t about to seep in at any point. But pretty much everything else I can do at my crib, or I can do at somebody else’s crib that I know has a nice studio. It’s just interesting how the dynamics have changed so much in terms of what is necessary from a studio.

Jess: Absolutely. Talking about doing stuff at home or a friend’s house or whatever — I honestly think the number one thing for me is just being comfortable.

Madison: Right, one hundred percent.

Jess: Then you feel free to experiment and you feel like you’re trusted by who you’re working with, and you trust them. That’s the number one thing for me. I mean, for example, speaking of recording vocals — I recorded all the vocals for the record at Gary’s and most of them I kept, but for a couple of songs, I started over at my friend’s house and I literally recorded my vocals in his bathroom, and they sound just as good. It’s noise isolated there, and, I mean, the studio’s out in the country anyway, so there’s not, like, cars honking. But, you know, in my friend’s bathroom, I felt more comfortable that particular day on that particular song. 

Madison: I wish I could do that on mine, but unfortunately the vent to the neighbors above us is just like a clear shot — you can hear anything that’s happening in the room above us. So it’s like, I would literally have to text them to be like, “Can you not use your bathroom for the next hour?”, if I were to, like, try and record in my bathroom. Be like, “Hey, I’m going to record in my bathroom. I know you only have one bathroom as well, but, uh, please don’t use it.”

Jess: [Laughs.] That’s so funny. Oh, I wanted to ask, what vocal microphone you have?

Madison: I have a Shure KSM32. It’s a condenser mic. 

Jess: I think I have that, hold on. [Jess gets up to find the microphone.] They sent it to me for free.

Madison: Really?

Jess: Well, they gave me a microphone a couple of years ago because I played a SXSW showcase. Oh, I have KSM8.

Madison: Oh, I don’t know which one that is.

Jess: Maybe it’s not as nice. as they gave me the wheel.

Madison: I inherited the 32 from my dad [Bobby McFerrin]. He was clearing out his studio, and I got to take. [His] mic that I used for my previous EPs is like a Neumann something-something, which is a very high end microphone — I was not allowed to take that. But actually, the microphone that we are recording into right now is a little Shure microphone that they gave me for free when I stayed at the Shure house in Chicago. So, shout out to Shure! 

Jess: I know, thanks, Shure. It’s amazing, the microphone they gave me broke and I emailed it about them and literally just today they sent me a brand new one. 

Madison: Perfect. 

Jess: I know. So, thank you, Shure, we love you!

Madison: We do. The industry standard, for sure.

Jess: So are you not on a label? 

Madison: No, I’m independent. 

Jess: So have you been self-releasing this whole time?

Madison: Mhm.

Jess: Good for you. I did that. I self-released my first two albums before I signed with Mexican Summer.

Madison: Nice. Yeah, I think we’re at the phase to take it to the next place. I’ve been holding out on who the right fit would be, especially now that there is so much that we can do as independent artists. You’ve got to really weigh the cost and benefits if you are going to sign with somebody. 

I was in LA once and Timbaland was in the restaurant I was in — I went to go talk to him, and he talked to me for like 20 minutes. It was insane. I actually felt bad for his date because they were like getting ready to leave, and I felt like I was like holding them up, but he was just talking, so I was like, You’re Timbaland, Imma let you talk. But he was asking if I was on a label, and I said that I wasn’t. He was like, “Just think about it as leasing your time.” I was like, “That’s an interesting way to think about it.” So, shout out to Timbaland.

Jess: Leasing your time. Interesting. What do you think he meant by that?

Madison: I mean, obviously he’s much older and comes from an era where it’s like he really needed to be signed, and I think he was just trying to convey like, it’s not a forever thing — if you do want to sign with somebody, you’re just leasing your time to them, and that’s not your forever time, that’s just whatever period of time you with them for. 

Jess: I love that you had that conversation with him.

Madison: Yeah, it was pretty cool. I hope I get to meet him again and just be like, “Remember when we talked?” He probably won’t, but, you know, it’s OK. 

Jess: So do you have new music? You’re ready to make an album?

Madison: I am in the process of creating it right now. I definitely want to try and produce as much of it as possible, which I’m really excited about. I’m excited to just be in that place mentally and emotionally, to be like, I’m ready to take this next step. Because it’s really just this year that I’ve gotten into it. I would say August was when I, like, really like got past that wall of not knowing what I was doing and trusting myself. I think I could make a whole album by myself production wise. There are definitely other people that I want to get involved — I feel like I have a lot of ideas that maybe I can’t execute myself, but I can get other people to execute them. 

I also recently, just going through files that I have already made, was really getting into the mindset of like, OK, these are demos. I need to think about them as demos, and understand that I can like shop these demos to folks. I have this one song that I have the production for, and something about this one sound doesn’t sound right, but I like the line that I created, so in my mind I was like, What if this was strings? I have a really good friend who’s an incredible violinist and viola player, so I sent it to her being like, “Hey, could you redo this like as a string part?” So she’s going to do that, and I’m excited to hear what that sounds like, because it’s just the case where it’s like, OK, I like what I’ve started here. Let me try and call on my community to help.

Jess: I love that. I’m stoked for you, Madison.

Madison: Thank you. I definitely need to write a lot more. 

Jess: Don’t we all.

Madison: I’m trying to give myself a very hard deadline, which I’m not always great with, and it’s a pretty fast approaching deadline. So I’m like, Alright, let me bust this out ASAP. I do work best under pressure, though.

I actually have a picture of myself from fifth grade — I had a project and I had to, like, build this little house. I forget what exactly what it was about, but I waited till the last minute, and my dad took a picture of me because he was like, “This is going to remind you to not do anything last minute.” I’m like, “Joke’s on you dad, I’m almost 30 and I’m still doing everything at the last minute.” [Laughs.] I found that picture not too long ago, and I was like, Maybe this will help me, but no.

Jess: That’s so funny, I love that. Well, I guess we’re about out of time.  

Madison: Well, it was nice getting to meet and chat with you. 

Jess: You too! You too.

Madison: Best of luck with all the future music endeavors, and hopefully we’ll see each other IRL sometime.

Jess: I know. One of these days.

Madison: Maybe next SXSW.

Jess: [Laughs.] I hope, Madison, that when we see each other IRL it’s in a better situation than SXSW. I hope it’s at a candle-lit restaurant surrounded by flowers. 

Madison: Yes, I love that — very smooth music in the background.

Jess: Yeah, your new record!

Madison McFerrin is an independent singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, NY. In December of 2016, she quietly introduced her soulful take on a cappella to the world when she self-released Finding Foundations: Vol. I.