Songwriting and ReverbNation proudly present the second winners of our monthly songwriting contest – Brooklyn-based experimental pop trio Madam West
es, it’s that time again… time for us to announce the second winners of Songwriting and ReverbNation’s songwriting competition. This month’s winners are the fantastic Madam West, a trio from Brooklyn, NYC comprising Todd Martino, Sophie Chernin and Mike McDearmon. They describe their music as “orchestral pop with an electronic bent”; we were struck by how appealing their winning track Epic Love Song No 107 might be to lovers of Bjørk, Goldfrapp or even Grimes.
Here, Sophie tells us that they make music because they have to – because not making music makes them sick…
What inspires you to write music?
“We’re inspired by anything, from a journalistic experience of songwriting, using it as a diary to process and understand what I’m thinking about, to this song we were writing about an omnipotent super being!
“Symbolism is also an important influence on how we write. For example I spent time house-sitting and cat-sitting and the symbolism that engendered was very affecting. I felt real anger with the super-rich and how their lives are so soulless and dark. You know, they have all this art in their houses and it’s just meaningless, decorative, and art should mean something. The anger was inspirational.
“But then we also write about social experiences, personal experiences and classic break-up songs.”
“There was a girl I knew in high school, I was best friends with her cousin. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy I was reading an article which was talking about this couple who’d died after the hurricane had caused a tree to be blown on top of them. When I found out that I knew them it was just so shocking. She was a great girl, with a real social conscience and I felt that I wanted to write something to honour her memory. So I wrote about a mother watching her daughter play, worried and terrified that anything might happen, because life is so fragile.
“We were literally surrounded by it, we could look out of our window and see the wreckage and that chaos was inspiring. I mean, for a week there were no trains and no gas, we were very isolated and played a lot, it was how we processed what was going on around us.
So October was about catharsis?
“Yes, absolutely. The girl’s name was Jessie and I just wanted to write something to remember her by and something to come to terms with the emotions that her death had caused. The first time I played it I nearly couldn’t sing because I was so overcome with emotion. The Boston Marathon was something as well that we’ve been dealing with through music. It helps being able to share experiences in music.
“The songs we’ve been working on are a little stark at the moment”
“That’s one of our major goals as musicians, to share emotions. The songs we’ve been working on for our EP are a little stark at the moment, we’re going to add more synths. But it made me think about how I hate the term chillwave, because of the sense of separation and disconnection that it creates, which is the opposite of my goal as a songwriter, which is to connect.
On that note – connection – what’s the feedback from your audiences been like?
“People really connect to October. They also really connect with Todd, who’s the co-writer, because of his musicianship. He comes from a jazz background and is a really wonderful player, he makes the audience want to dance! I consider myself more of a singer and a writer than a musician.
What musical influences do you have which our readers might be surprised by?
“I’ve been listening to a lot of soul and R&B artists lately, and Todd plays in another project with a classically trained soul singer. We recently saw Lianne La Havas play and I was really struck by her performance. She’s such an accomplished guitarist and it’s not often that female musicians are given credit for the strength of their musicianship, they’re usually spoken of as singers. Her performance of Forget made me cry. I’ve also been listening to Atoms For Peace and Radiohead, of course!
“I started my career playing folk music”
“I grew up with a folk background and loved Sheryl Crow, especially her first album, the one with Everyday Is A Winding Road. I started my career playing folk music in tiny venues. Then when I moved to Brooklyn I met loads of electronic musicians and became inspired by that style of music. I also love Elliott Smith.
“In fact, me and Todd both named our dogs Elliott Smith! Before we even knew each other. I think it was meant to be that we make music together. Listening to Elliott Smith is just so personal, so real, he’s like a little ghost whispering in my ear, giving me reassurance that there’s someone out there that feels the same way. He makes other people/musicians feel comfortable with making music that’s personal, because he’s so brave. It’s how I want to approach songwriting, to make a bridge to a more diaristic approach.”
What’s more important: the lyrics or the music?
“Lately it’s been the music. I’ll start singing, some ooo’s and some ahhhs and then from those melodies the lyrics will develop. Sometimes it’s about trying to work out how to fit the lyrics that I’ve written into the melodies. My solo stuff always used to start with the lyrics, but now I’m happy to start with a mood and move from there.
Savages have recently been telling fans not to take photos of their gigs, because they don’t want their images to end up on Tumblr. How do you approach using social media?
“Well, I have a marketing background, I work for a law school doing their web marketing, so I’m acutely aware of the importance of social media. It’s something that I’m not necessarily too wild about, but that you have to make an investment in. I’m reading this book called Get More Fans: The DIY Music Guide To The New Music Business at the moment that’s quite revealing about the importance of social media.
“I use Twitter, which I would never use unless I had to, and use Soundcloud and check out internet radio stations that might play our music. I also target bands that are a similar size to us and look at how they’ve approached using social media and see what I can learn from them. There are so many lazy musicians who think that if they sign for a major label then the hard work of self-marketing will be done for them and I really think that misses the point, that right now we have everything in our hands to be self-determining and not in the hand of the so-called ‘gatekeepers,’ which is what this book calls the record industry people. I just think that now you’ve got all the tools at your disposal to make it on your own and it’s about having the courage and the motivation to do so.
In terms of social media, to an extent it’s about image. We loved the image of you guys with your eyes blacked out. How important is image to you?
“We’re working on an EP which is called Not Pictured. The blacked-out eyes came because the photo that was taken gave us red eyes, but having our eyes blacked out kinda follows the feel of what wanted for the EP, the idea of absence and the loss of loved ones.
“We want to promote the sense that anyone can play music”
On image though, I don’t want to down the route of being liked by the ‘fashion bloggers’, because our image represents something more than the music. I’m so sick of the link between fashion and music; I’d really like to be known as a smart band. Do you know the TunE-yArDs? I really see Merril Garbus as a role model, because she has her own sense of identity and she’s androgynous. We want to promote the sense that anyone can play music and want the music to speak for itself. I couldn’t care less about image!
When can expect Not Pictured to be out?
“We’re hoping to have it out at the end of the summer. We’re working on adding the other instruments and the harmonies at the moment. We’re using this really great new synthesizer at the moment to layer a lot of synth onto the music. It’s called an OP1 and I really think that it’s one of the emerging new synth instruments, it has a four-track recorder, a drum machine, synth and oscillators and effects. It’s great!”
“Hopefully next year. We think that you Brits have a better connection with the sort of music we’re making than American listerners. I remember reading a comment a Canadian blogger had made, where he said, ‘I really like your music but I just can’t connect to it’! I think you guys connect more with what we’re doing.
What tips do you have for aspiring songwriters out there?
“Stay away from censoring yourself. We live in a post-post-modern world where everyone is very worried about their music being clichéd, but everything’s been done and people should see that as liberating. Don’t worry about what people think, don’t let the judgemental side of your brain interfere with your songwriting process. It’s really gross when dance musicians try and tap into a sort of hipster vibe and create something that’s just superficial. Their music is just like weak tea, it passes straight through you. I’d also say that simplicity is universality.
Finally, what question would you like us to have asked, and what would have been your answer?
“I’d liked to be asked, ‘In a landscape where the chances of you making a living from music is slim to nothing, what’s the point? Why carry on?’. And my answer would be that we have to do it, have to make music. Todd’s a jazz musician and he plays every day, he has too. It’s like a sickness, an addiction and he feels sick when he doesn’t play. I love listening to new music and it’s really rough to hear bands that are indistinguishable from the status quo, who don’t feel it. There needs to be more to music than the status quo or we’ve lost.
“I started off in the acting industry and in that it’s really tough to make it. In the USA you can work a 9-5 job and still have a career as a musician; you can do it in your spare time. It doesn’t have to be about making money from music now, especially with the major labels crumbling away. You can approach making music with a much purer state of mind, you’re driven to make music now because you have too, because it makes you sick not to.”
Interview: Damien Girling
If you’d like the chance to be featured in an article like this on Songwriting, our monthly songwriting competition is still open. To enter, you’ll need to be registered with ReverbNation, and submit a track for consideration via this link. Each month, we’ll listen to every entry and select the most promising artist, who’ll be the subject of an interview feature similar to this one. Good luck!