At first glance, you wouldn't guess that Madi Diaz was born and reared in Bucks County, Penn. "It's the middle of nowhere: There's just corn fields, Amish people, and woods," she says. With blunt bangs, an unequivocally '90s grunge wardrobe, and a sizable tattoo of a bird on her left shoulder (a made-up creature she hand-drew herself), the folk-pop songstress definitely reads more like an L.A. native, where she currently resides. "My interview question for the high school yearbook was, 'Why do you dress the way you do?'" she adds with a laugh.
Since releasing her debut album Plastic Moon in 2012, the 28-year-old has been touted as one of SXSW’s buzziest acts, and has had songs featured on an eclectic mix of TV shows, including Pretty Little Liars, Drop Dead Diva, and Sons of Anarchy. Now, armed with a brand-new record label and producer, Nick Ruth, who's worked with Wiz Khalifa and Active Child, Diaz is back with a third record, Phantom (out now), and a decidedly non-folky sound. Before checking out the singer's release show at Rough Trade in N.Y.C, we caught up at the InStyle offices. Here’s an excerpt from our chat:
What bands did you listen to growing up? A little bit of everything. My parents were big music fans and my dad plays music, so I grew up with Madonna, Frank Zappa, the Beatles, Alice In Chains ... it was all over the place. I had a Third Eye Blind record, but I also had Korn, Courtney Love, and Shania Twain.
You did a stint at the Berklee College of Music, where Quincy Jones and John Mayer are alums. What was the most important lesson you learned there? The grading systems were very rigid. When you're in a songwriting class, and you write a song, and you hand it in to a teacher to grade, I'm still going to say that it's a really awesome song whether I got an A or a D. I learned to stick to my guns, and take the tools as tools and not as rules.
You also lived in Nashville, and now you're in L.A. Have these different locations had an effect on your sound at all? When I was in Boston, I was doing a lot of Americana stuff—I fell in love with Ray LaMontagne, Patty Griffin, and Neil Young. Then, when I moved to Nashville, I didn't really let myself sonically explore, but things naturally got a little more poppy. And in L.A., even more so.
Let's talk about the new album. You deal with some heavy themes of love and loss, but at the same time, we can't help but dance to it. It paints the scope of a year in time with someone, or some place. The word "phantom" by definition means the moment's gone, or the person's gone, or the place is gone, but you're being chased and followed by all the stuff that you're left with. I didn't want to write a sad record, because you have to live with it for a while, so I did my best to put the songs in a place where it felt strong, and not defeated.
The music video for "Stay Together" is full of technicolor light. Was James Turrell an influence? He was a heavy influence. I wanted something lush and vibrant. I love how his work is purely emotional—it's not telling you what you're seeing; you're stepping into the pieces and his world. When you see art on a wall, you're digesting it in a different way. When you step into a Turrell piece, it takes you. You have no control.
Watch the video for “Stay Together” below, and download Phantom for $10 from the iTunes Store.