It’s around breakfast time in Nashville, and Madi Diaz is tucking into a tub of ice cream. “I haven't been grocery shopping for, like, a really long time”, she says by way of explanation. “So I've been eating ice cream for breakfast. I just get to the point where I'm like, something has to happen, or I'm gonna have a total meltdown. So I'm just gonna eat the ice cream. You’ve got to do cake for breakfast sometimes, and maybe you'll put a little ice cream with it too”
Talking about her new album, History Of A Feeling - her fifth full-length record since her first in 2007 - she laughs when I explain to her that this is an introductory piece.
“I read this thing that Feist put on her social media a while ago about getting her Grammy for Best New Artist after having been rolling around from van to van and tour to tour for 10 or 15 years. When I read that, I was just like, ‘I’m 35 and doing this thing that I've been doing professionally for 14 years’. I guess you hit these moments and you realize that you're going to be seen as a ‘new artist’ for a while”.
In some ways, History Of A Feeling does feel like something of a restart for Diaz. Musically, it’s emptier and more exposed than the sound of her previous albums, as she pulls together some of the rawest, most direct and introspective songs she’s ever written. The songs – which detail the breakdown of a relationship - are intimate and personal, yet also completely universal. A universality shaded by the fact that the relationship breakdown Diaz is chronicling coincided with her former partner transitioning - a complex reckoning she approaches with empathy, candour and care.
“The bulk of this music came from dealing with a kind of tsunami clash of compassion, both for my former partner while she was discovering a deeper part of her gender identity long-hidden, and my own raw heartache over having lost the partner I knew,” Diaz says. “I felt so torn through the middle because half of me wanted to hold this person through such a major life event, one that is so beautiful and hard, and the other half felt lost - like I had lost myself in someone else’s story.”
We sat down with her to talk about the heartbreak and pain that went into making the new record and how she’s made Nashville her home since moving there. “I'm also trying to grow out my bangs”, she tells us, trying to tuck her outgrown fringe behind her ear. “You don't even understand what my plight is!”
It feels a bit weird doing an Introducing piece with you, because you’ve actually been doing this for quite a while. How did you get started in music?
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I put my first record, Skin And Bone, out in 2007, before the internet even really existed in a musical sense. It was just 13 songs that I recorded with my friends before I’d even dropped out of Berklee College of Music or moved to Nashville. I was 20 years old, and from that I got my first publishing deal and moved down to Nashville, where I wrote Plastic Moon. I released that in 2012, signed a record deal, but it fell through.
I then signed a couple more different record deals that were either defunded or I found my way out of. I played South by Southwest for 10 years in a row as a “new artist”. It’s like this process of rebirth and rebirth and rebirth. It’s all momentum, it's all like that first push.
The last record was the Okay To Be Alone EP in 2017. Had you been working on History of a Feeling since then?
Yeah, it took three years. It's the longest that I've ever taken writing a record, and I'm glad that I took this long because I'm really proud of this one. It feels like it really stands apart from the others in a way that I didn't really expect or plan for. Luckily, I didn't really even have an opportunity to make a record earlier than I did, because in a way maybe I would have made something two years ago and it just wouldn't have been as good.
These are some of the most personal songs you’ve ever written. Was it difficult when it came to recording the songs?
I've been thinking a lot about how, when I'm going through any sort of heartbreak or grief period, it is so unique. Grief is such an island and it makes you feel like you're this alien walking around in this strange world. You anticipate misunderstanding from every direction, because no one understands what you're going through, and I think that was really how I felt.
It's how I've definitely felt in any grieving process, like losing people that I love or having to part ways with romantic partners. It's all very isolating stuff, but it's very universal at the end of the day. The most universal feeling on the planet is heartbreak and grief.
How does writing help with the process of heartbreak?
It’s like journaling. There were so many moments in writing this record where I’d think ‘I don't know how I would honestly get through this if I wasn't able to write a song about it, without having music as the nurturing thing that it is’.
When I moved back to Nashville from LA, I jumped ship from a lot of things: I was without record and publishing deals, I wasn’t in any bands and I also wasn't in my relationship anymore. There were a lot of things that I was fresh and raw from. I got a job bartending for a little bit, just to really allow myself to feel the process of music being the thing that I can turn to.
You co-produced the album with Andrew Sarlo (Big Thief, Bon Iver). When did he jump into the process?
I’d already done all the songwriting by the time he came on board. I think I had whittled it down to probably like 25 songs, and I wrote somewhere around 150 to 200 songs for this record. I brought the list of 25 songs to Andrew and we made a list of our favourite 14 or 15 songs - whichever songs were on both of our lists those were automatically on the album.
We sat down for breakfast and talked for a long time. Then he just said, “you know, I really love these songs, and I think they're really special. I don't want to fuck this up”. When you work with a producer, that's all you really want, because no one knows what the fuck they're doing. We’re just out here shooting in the dark and hoping that we hit something. I think as long as you make room to capture the essence and rawness of something in the recording process, that feels to me like the most honest way to get something good.
Was the “you” in the album that you sing to always the same person in your mind?
I think, mostly, it’s a conversation between two people. But a lot of it is also a conversation that I'm having with myself, which is what happens when you break up with somebody because they're not there anymore. Instead, you're left with this complete fucking mess and you have to figure out how to put it back together again. For some reason, the least crazy way to do that was to create a conversation between two people within myself.
Tell me about ‘Man In Me’, the first single from the record?
It’s the most personal song on the record, which was why I felt like it was really important to lead with it as a single; to just rip the band-aid off. I wrote it from a place right after my ex and I broke up. It’s me walking backwards through some really intense moments between the two of us, and it may have been the catalyst - like most breakups are – for new beginnings. This song definitely was the catalyst for the beginning of the record, setting me on the path to grieve and then move on to something else.
The song ‘Nervous’ feels like it stands out on the album from the other songs, what went into writing that song?
Well, ‘Nervous’ was just a break from being so intense and deep about shit. I just wanted to be like, “Urgh! Why? Let's get it out. Just fuck it, man. Why am I making myself feel fucking crazy all the time? It's ALL THE TIME!”. It almost didn't make it on the record because it feels like such an interruption. But then it kind of really works, because I think it's just so abrasive.
What places do songs like these come from?
So many places. I wrote ‘Man In Me’ by unpacking what had happened and what was going on with me internally. The whole record was all just me trying to talk about what it was that I was feeling - what these emotions were, why I was feeling them - and asking how the fuck did I get here? They come from these very brief visceral flashbacks; in the middle of a waking dream.
What’s it like singing these songs now?
It changes, like anything else. Some days these songs hit me differently than they do on other days.
One of my favourite things I've ever seen is Joni Mitchell doing a rendition of ‘Both Sides Now’ with a full string arrangement. She’s in her seventies now, and it was so wild to witness all of her wisdom, glory and timelessness, and listen to her singing this deeply profound song that she wrote when she was just 19. It just adds more layers to it - you can feel every grain and every thread in the fabric of that song.
Just like with Joni’s music, as time kind of goes on, the songs on this record are going to take on whole new lives and meanings. A song like ‘Resentment’ will be felt in a totally different way. I hope that it continues to morph.
History Of A Feeling is out now via Anti. Madi is the featured artist this week on Holler's New Country Artists playlist! Subscribe and listen below:
Photography by Natalie Osborne.