We meet a rising singer-songwriter and ukelele player from Brighton and discover that she really is a ‘Silent Cynic’ underneath
ophie Madeleine is an award-winning singer-songwriter and ukelele player from Brighton whose third album Silent Cynic has just been released. She was one of the first to graduate from Bath Spa University with an MA in songwriting, and has made a name for herself with beautifully crafted songs played on her guitar, ukulele and tenor guitar.
Her first two albums, Love. Life. Ukelele (2009) and The Rhythm You Started (2011) achieved great critical success and many of songs have been used on soundtracks of TV adverts such as those for Pets At Home (You Make Me Happy) and Macys (Take Your Love With Me). She has supported the likes of Gruff Rhys, Newton Faulkner and Babyhead.
When did you first start getting interested in music?
“My parents listened to the Beatles, the Stones and Joni Mitchell. My mum loved Donovan and my father was a big jazz fan, so I heard a lot of music from before he was born even such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, who were using all the great songwriters. My dad used to love Benny Goodman as well, Hoagy Carmichael and Glen Miller. And my brother and I would listen to a lot of Queen.
“When I was older I listened to lots of Britpop. I liked Blur and the Bluetones and anything that was pop but with guitars. Like everyone, one of the first things I learnt on the guitar was Oasis’s Wonderwall.”
We read that you played the piano when you were younger. When did you start playing the ukulele?
“My boyfriend at the time bought me a ukulele. I already played the guitar so it was a fairly easy transition. I think people associate me with the ukulele but I was really doing half and half. I liked taking songs which were not ukulele-based and seeing how they sounded on a ukulele. If it sounds good on a ukulele, it is a good song.
“I was looking for a steel string baritone but that doesn’t exist”
“I also play tenor guitar. That was because I wanted to keep the four-string harmony but also wanted a steel string sound. I was really looking for steel string baritone but that doesn’t exist. I have used Nashville tuning on guitar which I really like the sound of it. I have one guitar that is always Nashville. I like messing around with different tunings and different tones.”
You studied at Bath Spa University and attained a BA in Commercial Music and a Masters Degree in Songwriting – tell us about that.
“It was great. I don’t know how useful. It was useful in the sense that I made great friends and connections. It was useful to me in that one of final products of the final year was my first album and the guidance of the tutors was helpful. We were the first year to do it and it was still quite experimental. It was an interesting experience. More than anything it was just fun. I had the luxury of saying I was student.”
Do you think successful songwriting is something which can be taught?
“I don’t think you can teach someone specifically songwriting but you can teach them how to analyse music for themselves and how to figure out what it is about songs that makes them successful. There are things which are just a natural consequence of absorbing a lot of music. It depends on the person and the music you are absorbing. You can teach the technical side. Teaching music theory is useful but not necessarily required.”
What’s your process when writing songs?
“Well, it differs every time, I think. But my favourite way to write is to come up with a title. When I’m walking down the street a title pops into my head, or the time when I write most is when I’m half asleep, just about to go to sleep, halfway in-between awake and asleep. I can get terrible insomnia – I don’t remember the last time I had a good night’s sleep. I’ve always had trouble with sleeping because of that reason, my brain doesn’t stop working. Then I’ll come up with the lyrics and melody.
“And other times, I will just sit down with an instrument and the lyrics will come out.”
What are your views on collaborating?
“I’m lucky that I have had some great collaborations with people who specificially want to write song for me. I’ve tried writing songs for people who are not me, with other people… with limited success. I can’t really imagine writing in a team of pop writers. But collaborating is definitely something I enjoy doing. It’s nice to pick someone else’s brain. Sometimes with a collaborator, a song can go in a completely different direction. So you can come up with some interesting results.”
What advice do you have for aspiring singer/songwriters?
“I would say: absorb a lot of music, collaborate with people, especially when you are starting out and analyse the music that you love – not to the point you stop enjoying it, but just look at it as a song and figure out why it is that you love it, and that will inform your writing.”
Looking at some songs from previous albums, the first song of yours I heard was Take Your Love With Me. Do you remember how that song came about?
“It was the first song I wrote on a ukulele. It was for the boy who bought me the ukulele, and as it turns out he didn’t deserve the song. But anyway it is a cute song and it still exists.”
Do you have mixed feelings about playing it?
“No, I can play it and detach myself from the meaning now. It’s become something else to other people – so many people have said, ‘We played this song at our wedding” or ‘It means so much to me’.”
Change The Numbers is another song I love from your album The Rhythm You Started. It has a real emotional charge.
“That was the one with Nashville tuning. We were just being inspired by poems and that was one of them. I had the title but it was about two years later when I wrote the song. It’s about a failing love and you just want to go back in time and try it over again to get it right. It’s a situation a lot of people have been in at some point.”
“Making ‘Silent Cynic’ was one of the most stressful experiences of my life”
Moving on now to Silent Cynic, you recorded it in Brooklyn. How was that?
“It was mixed. It was the first time I’ve recorded an entire album in a studio. My previous albums have partly been recorded in my studio, partly in my living room and sort all over the place. This was all recorded in the same studio, with co-producer Nadim, and to be honest it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. I don’t know why exactly – there were just so many hiccups along the way with instruments not working or equipment. I also had problems with my voice at the time, suffering from illness.
“The songs I had had for a while and I had been trying to get the album made for a long time so it was nice to finally get the wheels in motion. But it was tough. I am happy with the songs, though. I think the album gets across the feel I was going for.
“Oscar brought a huge selection of percussion. He put down percussion on every single track and we didn’t use it all. He’s a character. It’s the first time I’ve recorded full drums and bass before anything else.”
“I was worried because it was so different. It’s still my voice and my songs. As long as I could create something that sounds beautiful. I couldn’t just write the same album over and over again. People would get bored… and I would get bored.
It seems darker than your previous albums, and then of course that’s reflected so some degree in the title, Silent Cynic…
“I have always been a cynical person. There have been melancholic songs on my previous albums but there have also been the chirpy ukulele songs to bring it back up again. And a lot of the happier songs I wrote were not a representative of how I am as a person. I’m pessimistic naturally. It was me trying to cheer myself up. I somewhere came up with cute whimsical lyrics.”
The first song on the album is Parallel, a wonderful mix of poetic lines such as “Slow train, creeping up double lines / Tracks curl together round the mountain side / and I remember, they remind / me of sweet words you whispered when I lay / Parallel, parallel to you.” Tell us how this song came about?
“It’s a song about missing someone. I started with the title, the idea of lying parallel and then started to think of all the metaphors. The backing vocals was more a stylistic thing than anything. I like the call-and-response backing vocals of The Shangri-Las. I just loved singing it. I loved singing the harmonies.”
Another stand-out track on the album is Calico, which mixes sweet harmonies with a macabre story: “Sitting in a pink hotel room / Just another girl with a job to do / Waiting there to turn the screw / With nothing but a knife and a sweet perfume.” What inspired you to write the song?
“That was intentionally a juxtaposition of the cheery chirpiness and the dark lyric. It started off with the title and started off being about a cat. And then I just decided to make the cat into a person who was some kind of assassin. I thought that would be interesting. I was trying challenge myself with this album. I just wanted to write songs that weren’t necessarily from personal experience. I wanted to do something different to see what would happen.
Tell us about the track Never Let’s Let Love?
“That was an experience I’ve been in. Many years ago now. I wanted to write the anti-love song. I wanted to write a song about not falling in love, and that is what came out. Just knowing that the person you are attracted to is not the right person to be attracted to.
One of my favourite tracks is Triangle which has a wonderful African-style guitar part. How did that come about?
“It was my Paul Simon song. It just came out like that. And Oscar the drummer had a lot of fun doing the percussion for that. Again, really it was me being a cynic. There’s this trend at the moment for triangles. In art, it’s a style thing, geometric shapes. I just seemed to notice triangles are everywhere.
“I used to have a boyfriend who was a hipster, which is word I don’t usually use, but it is the best way to describe him. The triangle reps a hipster and it’s about being in a relationship with a hipster, a failed relationship. It’s just me letting rip. It’s a fun song. I liked yelling the chorus.”
Interview: Nic Rigby (@nicrigby1)
Nic is part of Norwich band Emperor Norton, see @emperornorton1
For more on Sophie Madeleine, visit her website. Below, you can watch her performing the song Let’s Never Let Love