“One” of a kind: an interview with queer singer/songwriter Rett Madison
By Gregg Shapiro
Every once in a while, a major-label debut album comes along to take you by surprise. Queer singer/songwriter Rett Madison’s “One for Jackie” (Warner/War Buddha) is one such album. First, the suits at Warner got it right by signing Madison to their roster. Second, Madison, still in her mid-20s, has the songwriting and performance chops to rise through the ranks and achieve the kind of celebrity enjoyed by Phoebe Bridgers, Angel Olsen, and others. It’s difficult to choose a standout on “One for Jackie,” but it’s safe to say that “Lipstick,” “How It All Began,” “Ballet,” “Kiki,” “Fortune Teller,” and “Mediums, Therapists, and Sheriffs,” will likely end up on multiple playlists. Rett was gracious enough to make time for an interview in the autumn of 2023.
Gregg Shapiro: Rett, we’re talking in late October, a few days before the release of your Warner Records debut album “One For Jackie.” What are you most looking forward to about the album coming out? Rett Madison: I’m hoping the album causes a ripple effect of healing. If it can make waves within my own audience by inspiring them to feel the depths of their feelings and to speak candidly and without shame to their loved ones about their own struggles or pain, I’ll be content. I hope these songs inspire conversations among fans that’ll be healing. GS: In terms of your influences, I hear old-school artists such as Carole King, Kate Bush, and Tori Amos, as well as queer contem-poraries such as Becca Mancari and Angel Olsen. Am I on the right track?
RM: You are definitely on the right track! I loved listening to Carole King and Kate Bush as a teen! I also spent a lot of time listening to artists like Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Prince, and Jeff Buckley throughout my childhood and teens. There are countless artists that have moved me, but the through line is always a theme of timelessness and authenticity in their work. I’ve also admired Angel Olsen for years. I’m deeply flattered that her music came to mind as a possible influence after you listened to mine.
GS: One of the things that stands out for me in your music is the incredible power in your vocals. Do you remember when you discovered your range and how it made you feel to be in possession of such an exceptional gift?
RM: Thank you so much for the kind words about my voice!
GS: You’re most welcome!
RM: I began singing at a young age, and while the technical aspect of my vocal range took many years of studying to develop, I do remember discovering fairly young that I could express my emotions easier whenever I sang. When I was a child, singing was healing for me. It was a salve for much of the pain I felt as a little girl. So, at first, discovering my love of singing felt like a gift sent to me to heal my own wounds. As I got older, I realized I could share my singing with other people and help them feel catharsis or less alone in tough times. Once I understood that, it made me feel especially grateful to experience a lifetime where I can lean on music as an emotional outlet both for myself and to help others.
GS: Your album “One For Jackie” is a tribute to your late mother. Do you have a sense of what she would have thought of the songs you wrote for her?
RM: While my mom would likely appreciate the musicality on this album, I think she would be most proud of my storytelling, vulnerability, and honesty. My mother wasn’t given a roadmap of how to talk about her trauma, mental illness, or addiction. She was burdened by secrets and shame, a lot of those feelings that were no fault of her own. If my mother knew how healing writing this album about my grief and pain has been for me, I think she’d be immensely proud that I’ve broken out of a generational cycle of secrecy and shame.
GS: Making art can be cathartic following a traumatic experience, in the same way that seeing a psychic, a medium, or a therapist can be. “One for Jackie” includes the songs “Fortune Teller” and “Mediums, Therapists, and Sheriffs.” Please say a few words about the ways in which you seek catharsis. RM: Songwriting has always been therapeutic for me. I began writing songs as a tween and it was the easiest way I knew how to process complex emotions. I used to internalize a lot of my emotional pain, but writing songs was an outlet for me. I could say things in songs that I couldn’t always say to people in my life. Writing songs continues to be a therapeutic tool to carry me through the dark chapters in my life. Additionally, I’ve found that incorporating spirituality into my life again since I lost my mom has helped me greatly. Speaking with mediums and journaling about my dreams has infused my day-to-day life with a little magic and makes me feel more connected to my mother. GS: I love the vintage R&B vibe of the aforementioned “Fortune Teller,” as well as the girl-group homage in the music video. Is it a conscious effort on your part to infuse your music with a timeless quality or does it just occur naturally?
RM: I’ve been influenced and deeply inspired by many songwriters and artists that seem to have mastered writing timeless songs. For me, if I write a song that sounds timeless to a listener, I think it’s subconscious and more of a testament to my musical diet. Once I have the bones of a song, the decision to reference timeless works of the past, both in the band arrangement and later, visually, is very much a conscious effort on my part. I’d say my songwriting often comes from an intuitive place, but everything else after that is an effort and a choice!
GS: Your music videos have a dramatic effect. Were you a theater kid when you were in school?
RM: [Laughs] Oh goodness, how could you tell? But yes, I was a theater kid! The first musical I performed in was “The Wizard of Oz” at age five.
GS: “One for Jackie” closes with the song “Kiki,” on which you are joined by Iron & Wine. How did that collaboration come to be?
RM: First off, I have to say that I’m incredibly grateful to Iron & Wine for singing the vocals on “Kiki.” Even though I’d written the song, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time when I heard his interpretation of it. His performance brought me to tears. I haven’t met Sam (Beam) yet, but he’s good friends with Tyler Chester who produced “Kiki” and the entirety of my new album “One for Jackie.” Sam recorded this song as a favor to Tyler, and I’m just the lucky beneficiary of both Tyler and Sam’s generosity, talents, and Tyler’s good standing with authentic and awe-inspiring musicians like Sam.
GS: Speaking of guest artists, you rereleased your song “Pin-Up Daddy,” with new vocals by Katie Pruitt, during Pride Month 2023. To my ears, it sounds like a non-binary anthem. What would it mean to you for the song to achieve that kind of status?
RM: Katie Pruitt is such a phenomenal storyteller and vocalist! I’m still so thrilled that she cut a vocal for the “Pin-Up Daddy” re-release. If “Pin-Up Daddy” was ever to be considered an anthem by non-binary folks, I’d be absolutely honored. Although I identify as a queer woman, I wrote that song about my own fluidity in gender expression, and I feel so honored anytime folks of various gender identities express a connection to the song.
GS: You are embarking on a concert tour. What are you most looking forward to about performing the songs on “One for Jackie” in front of a live audience?
RM: I’m really excited about (the) connection. I hope these songs bring audiences catharsis at the concerts. I also would like these performances to inspire folks to be candid about their own grief and needs with their loved ones and community.