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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

Madison Cunningham astounds while supporting Hozier at Leader Bank Pavilion

The artist’s opening act was a masterclass in experimentation and artistic prowess.

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Madison Cunningham is pictured performing at Leader Bank Pavilion on Sept. 22.

Madison Cunningham brought her singular artistic vision to Leader Bank Pavilion on Sept. 22 and 23 as the opener for Hozier. At the Sept. 22 concert, Cunningham was fronting lead guitar and vocals, backed by Kyle Crane on drums, Eliana Athayde on bass and Philip Krohnengold on keys. The team is serving as direct support for the entirety of Hozier’s U.S. tour. 

Cunningham stands out as a truly original talent within the music industry. Her sound blends a mélange of formative musical influences such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley while still remaining authentically Madison Cunningham. Achieving an originality of voice marks a rare feat for any artist, making it even more impressive for Cunningham, at only 26 years old.

Musically, she impresses as a triple threat: an incredible rhythm guitarist, singer and songwriter. Her guitar playing, despite often being based on complicated syncopated lines in unconventional time signatures, always stays right in the pocket. Her singing offsets this rhythmic complexity with a laid-back and totally in-control feel. Her performance is nothing short of virtuosic; she sings and plays the complicated guitar lines at the same time.

Cunningham's talents as a songwriter are equally impressive. Simplistically, songwriting can be split into four camps of melody, harmony, rhythm and lyrics. Often a songwriter prioritizes one or two of these categories without focusing as much on the others. Conversely, Cunningham seems intent on addressing all four, as she always challenges herself to grow as a songwriter. Her affinity for rhythm is already apparent; consider the 7/4 time signature of “Our Rebellion” (2022) or the polyrhythmic feel of “All I’ve Ever Known” (2022) as examples. Her love of harmony can be heard throughout her discography. Most of her songs are littered with creative chords and progressions. Listen to “Your Hate Could Power A Train” (2022) for a crazy harmonic ride through chromaticism and dissonance that somehow just works.

With all this focus on harmony and rhythm, one might expect melody to fall off. But Cunningham still produces some of the most ear-catching melodies. Take for example one of her most popular songs, “Hospital” (2022), which arose out of a writing prompt that forced her to write a song with only five chords. Harmonically restricted, the resulting earworm melody shines to create one of her best singles. Lastly, Cunningham’s lyrics speak for themselves throughout her work. Consider the poetic line of Cause regret is like an infant / that won’t let you sleep it off” from “Hospital” as an example. 

Creativity and experimentation constitutes an integral part of Cunningham’s music. While playing as an opener shortened her set and diminished the energy of her performance, she also had greater freedom to experiment. In an interview with The Current, Cunningham mentioned she feels a “reckless abandon” as an opener, and goes on to mention, “I can just do whatever. And it’s a liberating feeling. In a staunch departure from any of her recorded material, Cunningham frequently sustained wordless, visceral tones, aided by Krohengold's synths. Doing so produced a core-shaking and riveting effect that strongly recontextualized the songs off of her Grammy-winning album “Revealer” (2022).

But experimentation does not mean alienation. The key to Cunningham’s music is that despite all of these heady concepts, anyone can understand and enjoy her songs. You don’t need a B.A. in music theory to understand that her music is good. Fans expecting standard arrangements of Cunningham’s hits might not have known what to make of her primal singing, but considering she opened for the wildly popular Hozier, there was room to throw in a few new ideas amidst her standards.

The only downside of Cunningham’s opening set was that it had to end so soon. The taste that Cunningham offered as an opener left only a desire to see her headlining. Met with the daunting task of opening for the luminary Hozier, Cunningham still managed to surprise with musical innovation to great effect.