Madison Ray has worn a lot of hats: Actor. Singer. Front man. Booker. Writer. Now, five years after the release of his last album with a band behind him, Madison is turning his most ambitious page yet, as he readies himself to release his first truly solo full length album, coinciding with the launch of a new, minimalist fashion clothing line called Andro.
Everything comes to a head on Friday, Nov 10 at the Stoner Theater, but in the lead up to that event, we sat down with Madison Ray at his home and listened to the upcoming album in its entirety, chatting about his music and life along the way.
(Ed. note: the following conversation has been edited for both space and clarity)
Madison Ray: Boys and girls. This is the new album “The Revolution, Vol 2.”
Culture Myth: Is there a “Revolution, Vol 1?”
MR: Yeah. It came out seven years ago. It’s an EP.
MR: So this is a song called “Kanyewest.” There’s something about the cult of personality around him. I like him a lot. Once I started understanding Kanye West as a symbol and not as a man, I was more fascinated by what his ego means. The notion of “being like Kayne.” You know exactly what I mean when I say that.
CM: this is a very different direction for you.
MR: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting, when you kick all the other cooks out of the kitchen, and just do what you want to do.
CM: How long have you wanted to do something like this?
MR: From like day one.
MR: This is a song called “Clash of the Titans”
CM: This is the song you put up on Facebook.
MR: Yeah. So, maybe this is a Des Moines thing, or an Iowa thing, I don’t know. But when you’re black, and you say “I do music,” the first question back is always “so you’re a rapper?” Like, that kind of racist shit. And it’s like “nnnno.” Of all the things I could do musically, why is that the first place you go?
MR: So part of it was me being like “fine. I’ll be a rapper for one song.” I just wanted to lay a beat down and get some stuff off my chest.
CM: Kind of like it’s a diss track TO everybody, ABOUT nobody.
MR: Naturally, people talk shit about you. By default, people talk shit about you. But in the information age, there are always receipts. Like, you just re-posted that thing from like four years ago…
MR: …With Richard Spearenburg. That shit lasts forever. There have been some things said about me. When it’s accurate, I can own it. But there are people who don’t know shit about me, or my heart or anything. And so I just wanted to say “here I am,” especially since my last album came out five years ago. I wanted to say “here’s where I am now, and if you don’t like it, fuck you.
MR: This is “Monster in the Mirror” It’s a duet. I have a friend in Omaha named Dominique Morgan working in the LGBT scene. He’s like my brother.
CM: did you co-write the song?
MR: I wrote the whole song. Then I went to him and said “here’s your part.” I’m very controlling, I guess.
CM: We’ve talked about this before though. I think there comes this point in every musician’s life—like we’ve seen with Bonne, and like we’re seeing now with Courtney Krause—where if you’re going to be successful, you have to stop some of the collaboration aspect of the creation.
CM: Where it has to change from “hey, let’s make an album,” to “hey, come play on my album.”
MR: Right. I think there’s that growth curve, but it’s such a necessary part of being an artist. Being able to say “this is my art.” And while I need your assistance, I need you to be my paint brush right now.
CM: You have to crawl before you can walk, and I think it’s interesting to watch how that transition happens. Sometimes it happens with a group of established musicians around and artist, and then the day comes when that artist has to lay down the law.
CM: and then sometimes it’s like you, where you haven’t necessarily had that one core group of musicians, but you’ve just now kind of emerged as an artist who isn’t so much looking for people to work with, as just finding talented people to play your shit.
MR: Right. And the thing is, I always think about this Miles Davis record. He’s in the studio and Thelonious Monk is playing keys for him. And in the take, Miles stops the take to tell Thelonious “yeah, don’t play it that way.” That’s amazing to me. These are Jazz monsters, and there’s this moment where one tells the other “that’s not how the song goes.” And I love that. The bottom line is the record. I’m trying to make this thing, and this is how we get there.
CM: So what’s next?
MR: The next song is a track called “Get Naked.”
CM: Did you produce the entire thing yourself?
MR: Yeah. It was me plunking on any digital work station I could get my hands on. Whether it was Fruity Loops or Garage Band or whatever…
CM: Where did you lay the vocals down?
MR: It’s been a long process. My go-to guy is Steve Capp, but he moved back to Detroit a couple years ago. But we stayed in contact. He was like “even though I’m gone, we’re still cool. Let’s do this.” So we’ve been working across the Midwest.
MR: So we set up a satellite relationship through Arc Recording Studio in Ames. So we did all the recording here locally, then it all was sent to Steve so he could work his magic.
MR: I used to sit in on all the sessions, because it’s my money. I’m not one of those guys who’s like “cool, thanks. I’m gonna go play Playstation while you work.” It’s like Prince said, you’ve got to learn everything you can about the process. So if I’ve got to learn how to play an instrument, or figure out a process, let me just learn and watch. And watching Steve edit is like fucking poetry, man. It’s so quick. It’s so exact, just like that.
MR: This is called “Roulette.”
CM: Who is this?
MR: This is a drag king who goes by the name Romeo Sanchez, and a singer named Lee King. There’s something I liked about Lee. She’s this big, black lesbian, and he owns it. I love it. There’s no “is she, isn’t she.”
CM: She is.
MR: Exactly! She is. So giving platforms specifically to female voices, but also queer voices that often get silenced or overlooked.
CM: We are five songs in. And while I feel like there’s definitely this kind of low-key R&B feel that ties everything together in a way, it’s all been really pretty different. Did you ever have any second thoughts about an album that’s so different from song to song?
MR: No. I always felt that my strength was the versatility. Like, my shows are always better when they’re longer.
CM: And I love a good, breathy voice-over in a song.
MR: No one does that anymore! That’s that Boyz 2 Men shit right there.
CM: I always liked the songs where someone sings a line, then someone else talks out the same line right behind them. “You don’t know…” “Girl, you don’t know…”
MR: This is Chemist. I don’t even know if he raps anymore. He moved to the west coast. Like, he put an album out, he moved away, and that was it. He was doing shows at Seven Flags, and all over. I got acquainted with him and it was like yo, this white dude can really go. He came in and cut this thing, and I was like “there it is.”
CM: Did you write that verse, or was that his?
MR: that’s all his. To me, it’s always a shame when someone was that good, and then just stops.
MR: And at the time, I didn’t know that was going to happen. It was just like ‘here’s something else to add to your portfolio.’ And then he was like “I think I’m done rapping.” But maybe if he hears this, it’ll light that fire again.
MR: This is a song called “Gone.” A friend of mine from college passed from brain cancer. It was one of those things where I wanted to do something or say something, and this song was right there. It was one of those moments where I didn’t have to go back and work it over, I just started writing and there it was.
MR: I didn’t have time to record it for her funeral. She’s French, so the funeral was in Paris. I didn’t have time to send a recording, so I just sent the lyrics to her family, as a poem. She was half French, half Japanese, so I had some friends who had translated it into both French and Japanese, and each parent got a different language version. So then I had the song done, and I figured I should put it on something. And as time goes by, you lose family members, and you lose more friends, and with each loss, I just felt like the song gained meaning and weight.
CM: And then there’s creepy kids singing.
MR: Yeah! This is a song, “Diamonds.” I released the song as a single a couple of years ago. So I just thought “I like the song. Fuck it, put it on there.”
CM: I feel like you should do that for every album you put out from now on. “Fuck it, put ‘Diamonds’ on.”
MR: Is…is this “Diamonds” again? Yes! Is it a remix? No, I just really like the song.
MR: The nice thing for me, writing from one source, being the sole lyricist, there’s a natural through line in much of the work. So while I didn’t write this song with the album in mind, it still touches upon a lot of the same themes, because this is my life. So now, when you put it in the context of the album, a pretty good song can become that much better, because it has the weight of all the songs that came before it, and the ones that come after it.
MR: It sits in a bigger picture.
CM: So why did the album take so long? Was it creative, or financial or what?
MR: Major artists usually go into hiding and do an album, and they put the album out, and then they tour. It’s like election cycles: every three or four years, a new album comes out. So they have the benefit of kind of living in that sine wave. In real life, that shit don’t happenYou write when you can, you record when you can, you come up with ideas when you can. There’s always that thing about art: is it ever really done?
MR: You go “oh, we could have done this.” Should I have written a third verse? Should I have cut that thing? You can do that endlessly.
CM: Do you have that now? Listening to this are you like “maybe…”
MR: No, I’ve got to let it go. Greatest lesson I’ve ever learned. Let it go. You can obsess and obsess and it’ll never be perfect. That’ll just halt your creativity.
MR: This is “Tokyo Blues." This is an older song that I’d done previously. I wrote this song about my living in Japan for a while. That was during a really pivotal time for me. Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” got me through that first year in Tokyo. I hated it at first. Everything I knew was gone. So I had that album on my iPod, and just put in my earbuds and walked around. And then there was that kind of Epiphany moment, like “fuck that, I’m here.” How many people would love to be here, and never will? And I’m here now, hating it? Fix yourself.
MR: So I had this idea, of “what is the Tokyo Blue?” and decided that it’s a theme that runs through different kinds of songs.
CM: It’s kind of a mid-90’s George Michael vibe.
MR: I love George Michael. It’s funny. You talk about the throwback feel of the album, and how it kind of carries over with each track.
MR: It pisses me off that people have been kind of going “oh, there’s a retro pop movement going on in Des Moines,” and I’m not a part of that conversation, but MAIDS is. You know what I mean? I’m like “are they though?”
CM: Yeah. And frankly, there’s not much about MAIDS that feels really retro to me…
CM: they’re like “we’ve got synth…” Yeah? Fuckin’, so what?
MR: Nice synth, bro.
MR: And that’s cool for them, let them do their thing. It’s that whole old is new again thing. I like playing with those sounds, you know?
CM: I was just going to ask, is this the same track, or did you cross fade into the next song?
MR: I Timberlaked it. Where the groove changes, and now you’re in this new space and you’re like “is this a new song? It’s NOT a new song.”
CM: It’s kind of like November Rain, where you’re like “Oh, November Rain’s done.” No it’s not.
MR: I also like those classical pieces, where it has those movements to it. So it’s like that: “Tokyo Blue, Movement 2.”
CM: I really like those transitions. They’re nice.
MR: Thank you. I wanted them to be smooth, with some kind of jazz flavorings. Chris Ford is the horn player on this one. He came to the session and I was like “give me your best Miles Davis impression.” He did a great job. I looked at him when he was done and just said “Good, Chris. That’s good.” He’s a total pro.
CM: Where are we now?
MR: This is a song called “Love.”
MR: I actually wrote this in the same sessions that I had written “Starship to Mars.” The feel and the ambition of the song was outside of the realm of the band I was playing with at the time. So this was the first thing where I thought “I’m going to do this one on my own.”
CM: At what point in the songwriting process does a title come out?
MR: It depends on the song. Sometimes it’s an idea, and then it’s what comes out of the idea. Other times, it’s like a couplet, and you go “oh, there it is.” Sometimes, you get into an kind of Of Montreal place, where you’re like “I’m going to call it something not even related to the song at all.” What is a title anyway?
CM: “I’m going to give this one a nine-word title that means nothing at all.”
MR: But then on the other side, I’m like “One word. Diamonds. Love.” I even write “Kanye West” as one word. “Kanyewest.”
CM: So is this another one like “Diamonds” where you had it finished and just sitting in your back pocket?
MR: Yeah, I needed something for the album, and it was like “this is cool. Let’s see how it fits.” The theme still fit.
CM: So how old is the oldest actual recording on the album?
MR: Probably this one. I recorded it in 2012.
MR: So this is the last track on the album, called “Black Tie Affair.” The vocals here are Mr. Larry Moore, a spoken word poet. He has a band now called The Feel Right.
CM: He performed at your birthday party this year.
MR: Yeah. We grew up together. He’s a brilliant poet. I use him everywhere I can, because the way he engages an audience is amazing.
CM: This is one of those songs where the lyrics are deep, it’s got a thing to it, but you could also just throw it on in the background, turn the lights down, grab a girl and groove to this song.
MR: Yeah. I always wanted to make music that you could immediately get into on the strength of the groove, but if you wanted to sit down and actually pick it apart, there was enough there to do that with.
MR: This is Danny B Picasso. He wrote this verse. He’s another one of those up and coming, underrated lyricists.
CM: So what made you decide that you wanted to end with this song?
MR: This next bit will tell you why.
(At this point in the track, the vocals are handed over to the incomparable Tina Haase Findlay. Her verse is soulful, sensual and earth shaking in its emotion)
MR: The weight of Tina Haas Findlay’s performance. Every time I get to this portion of the song, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. It had to be the last thing people heard.
CM: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
MR: This one.
CM: did you envision an audience for the record as you were making it?
MR: No. Which may have been why there were so many delays.
CM: Is it cathartic, being done?
MR: Oh man, it felt so good. It’s that thing, when you’ve finally pushed play, gone through the whole thing, and everything you’ve wanted to say has been said. It’s brief, but it’s still dense.
MR: I want you to hear this last part.
(As the album draws to its close, all conversation--all movement--stops, as Court The-Poet is given the final say. We sit in silence and self-reflection as Court's strong, lilting voice takes us home)
Court the Poet: I wonder how long it will take a black boy to realize how high he can fly without Jordan Flights? His wisdom suits him perfectly…black boy, be vulnerable. We are no longer accepting clip on tie negros. Grandma has had too many conversations with God about freedom for you not to realize those $250 sneakers will only buy you temporary satisfaction. Incomparable to the brilliant bronze that drops from your melanin, and the way you articulate your aspirations jump. Black boy, fly, and I promise you dreams will catch you.
MR: One take.
MR: First take. She came in and did it, and I was just like “welp, you’re done.”
"The Revolution, Vol 2" drops at The Stoner Theater on Friday, Nov 10 at 7:30 P.M.