When she was an 18-year-old freshman at Berklee College of Music, Madi Diaz went to see a Ray LaMontagne show. But it was the opener that night that gave Diaz an epiphany about her path in music.
“[LaMontagne] was playing a show and Brandi Carlile was opening up for him solo,” recalls Diaz from her Nashville home. “That show changed my life. Brandi has fucking powerhouse vocals, and she had just put out her first record. I didn’t know you could do it like that. I had grown up in a band-orientated world and spent my whole high school and college life in a band. I had this weird alt-prog rock band. I didn’t know you were allowed to sit by yourself and have quiet feelings with a guitar.”
Flash forward 17 years, and Diaz is doing just what she saw Carlile do in Boston. In her latest album, History of a Feeling, released in 2021, Diaz had quiet moments with her guitar, but with loud and powerful lyrics. And she’s bringing those songs on tour as an opener (for Waxahatchee); the tour comes to Asbury Park on Feb. 12.
Diaz’s journey in music began two hours away from Asbury Park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Even though Lancaster is only 144 miles away from Asbury Park, it feels like a different world.
“I spent so much time in middle school and high school trying to escape what I thought was the middle of nowhere, and I have spent so much time recently trying to get back to the middle of nowhere,” says Diaz about Lancaster. “I remember seeing my mom write a check for $475 every month for rent. It was cheap as shit in the middle of nowhere, and we were on a nature preserve too. We were completely immersed in nature 24/7. By the time you’re in high school and trying to get high in your friend’s dad’s van you’re looking for the city escape, and the escape route, but in retrospect I’m grateful to have grown up in weird Amish country.”
Recently, Diaz found the old journal in which she wrote as a teenager, and it made her appreciate the country life of Lancaster.
“I would ride horses, and our family would go to auctions and try to save horses that would go to dog food horse killers. I found this journal and I wrote in it before I went to Boston, and I wrote, ‘I have to remember horses and find my way back to the country,’ and now I’m 35 reading this fucking journal and I’m like, ‘Oh right.’”
In high school, Diaz and her family moved to Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. It’s where she grew up near Dr. Dog drummer Eric Slick, and got immersed in the music scene of the City of Brotherly Love.
“Philly’s a pretty tough city, and it’s weirdly nurturing at the same time,” explains Diaz. She would go to shows at venues like First Unitarian Church and couldn’t get enough of the atmosphere and energy.
“When I was 13, my dad took me to see Tool, and I had braces. He was like dad arms around me and we were close to the mosh pit. I was totally enamored by the atmosphere, and I was looking to scratch whatever that itch is. I remember seeing Le Tigre in Philly with my friends when I was 15 and being psyched by the completely foreign energy at the show. I was like, ‘How can I be in this atmosphere all the time?’ It was so unhinged and infectious.”
Diaz would eventually play shows at venues she went to as a teenager, but her journey in the music industry has been one full of ups and downs.
One of those ups? Being signed to a record deal as a 20-year-old bartender. The downs? The record deal she signed as a 20-year-old bartender.
“I signed the worst deal of my life that took me 10 years to get out of,” explains Diaz. “It was a publishing deal that required me to release my music under a major label to qualify to be able to get out of it. At the time I was being courted by Atlantic Records and it seemed like if I wrote these songs and then I would get signed by Atlantic and release the music, it would put me into my next deal cycle.”
But things hardly seem to go to plan, and Diaz got a crash course in how the music industry operates.
“Little did I know that everyone gets fired all the time,” says Diaz. “It was such a weird experience being young and I remember someone calling me from Cherry Lane Publishing and saying, ‘Hey, we just got bought by BMG and we just lost our jobs.’ I didn’t understand what that meant, and I lost my entire team that I signed with. Then everyone who was courting me at Atlantic got fired and there were no deals to be had. I was stuck in this weird holding pattern.”
Even though Diaz made money from doing film and television music, overall the deal was a perplexing experience for her.
“I got stuck in this weird vortex of not being big enough for anyone to care about me, and I’m not not cool enough where they want to hold on to me and see what happens. It was tough and I got told by a couple A&R’s that they didn’t know what to do with me. I would write wallpaper music for $1000 a track when I was really having a hard time making rent. Am I making music, what’s happening right now? It’s almost like music held me hostage and made me its bitch, and now I still make music for some reason.”
Diaz would eventually get out of her nightmare deal, and we’re all better off for it. Her latest album History of a Feeling was one of the best releases in 2021. It was Diaz’s first album in seven years.
“It was such a weird out-of-body experience,” says Diaz about working on History of a Feeling. “I haven’t made a record in seven years and so much of me was having a panic attack. And then all of the sudden it was over and I was like, ‘Did we make a record? Did we do something?’”
The album was produced by Andrew Sarlo (Bon Iver, Big Thief), and it was a pleasant experience for Diaz.
“Andrew Sarlo and I met up for breakfast, and he was like, ‘I don’t know what this is gonna sound like,’ and I was like, ‘Me neither, and I really like how you don’t pretend to have any idea,’ and he responded with, ‘Yeah, I know I just don’t want to fuck this up,’ and I was like, ‘Cool.’”
Diaz didn’t fuck up the album, but she did get to fuck up some cars in the music video for “Resentment.”
“If I could actually activate the feeling inside my body for ‘Resentment’ and act it out, it would be breaking shit. I just want to scream in an empty lot where no one can hear me. This music video was a cathartic way to act it out.”
Another song on the album that fans will hear at Asbury Park is “Nervous.” Originally the song was an afterthought on History of a Feeling, but it turned out to be a necessary song.
“’Nervous’ was a throwaway idea, and I was just trying to get my extra nervous energy out. It ended up being a very necessary break in a marathon approach to self-reflection.”
One of the lyrics that stands out in “Nervous” is, “I have so many perspectives, I’m losing perspective.” And as Diaz explains, it’s about overanalyzing yourself.
“I think it’s like when I am analyzing myself and I think to myself, ‘I could be this, or I could this,’ I lose the initial impulse on why I thought about it in the first place and I become a manic spaz trying to unravel myself.”
“Man in Me” also stands out on History of a Feeling for it’s introspection; it’s a song that mines the mind and how it organizes memories.
“‘Man in Me” was the second or third song I wrote for the record,” says Diaz. “It’s a song I wrote about my relationship and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to remember it wrong. However many times you tell the story about things that happen to you, you start to lose the plot and it becomes this very disorganized memory. ‘Man in Me’ was about living in this memory one last time before I can let this memory go.”
Performing live is something that sometimes “scares the shit” out of Diaz, but she’s excited about getting to open up for Waxahatchee.
“Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee was one of three albums that I beat to death day in and day out during quarantine in 2020. I couldn’t believe that Kate wanted to take me out on tour and I’m excited. She’s a truly lovely human and a vision of an artist.”
Along with playing with Waxahatchee, Diaz is excited to be playing in New Jersey and she holds fond memories of the Garden State. She would make the drive from the Philly suburbs across the Ben Franklin Bridge and travel as far as Route 70 would take her.
“Before I had a cell phone I would pick up from friend Julia from high school and she would ditch in the middle of the day. I was 17, and we would drive to Jersey somewhere along the shore and park the car and chill at the beach. We wouldn’t even tan, we would walk around the beach and eat boardwalk food. I would call my parents to let them know I was alive and my dad would say, ‘What fucking area code is this?’ and I would be like, ‘I love you and I’ll be home in two hours.’”
Madi Diaz will open for Waxahatchee at Asbury Lanes on Feb. 12. Ticket information can be found here.