On the heels of her breakout appearance on South by Southwest® (SXSW®), 16-year-old California singer-songwriter Maddie Miller hit the stage last weekend at a star-studded fundraiser for Women’s Campaign International (WCI). The only female performing at the event, John Legend and Rocky Dawuni shared the bill as an audience of celebrities, politicos, fashion plates, and the organizations many supporters sipped margaritas and pledged support for WCI’s vital work. From Angola to Syria and from Columbia to Philadelphia, WCI empowers women to participate in political leadership and economic development. Its programs impart skills and support participants’ as they transform their lives and their communities.
At a historic Beverly Hills estate, once home to old-time actress Marion Davies, Maddie took the stage with two sidemen (Billy Fedak and Jonathan Blake Salazar). Welcoming the sun-drenched crowd across the pool and thanking them for supporting WCI, Maddie tossed back her golden curls and launched into a five-song set with a penetrating rendition of Joan Osborne’s One of Us. Right from the start it was evident - something light, fresh, yet utterly sincere in Maddie’s delivery. Her ease and authenticity make it hard to believe she’s only 16, only a soft giggle gives it away.
Americana with tinges of country and a subtle air of jazziness, one can’t help but consider the wide range of directions her singing career might move in. The next song, a memorable pop ballad, Mona Lisa, was one of two originals in the set, but it was the show’s closer, the other original, Smile Like the Sun, that reverberated long after Maddie left the stage. It’s one of those summery songs you imagine blaring from speakers everywhere as you hum along for the 1000th time. My prediction… Maddie Madness is just around the corner; she’s one to watch out for, to be sure.
Maddie Miller Q & A
Splash: How was it to open for John Legend at the WCI event?
MM: WCI is an amazing organization. And, to open for John Legend is a dream come true. I'm a student and learning about this global organization for women is an incredible opportunity. I’m so impressed with the work they do in disadvantaged countries. It’s remarkable they are able to accomplish so much with just a small amount of money. I plan on working with them whenever possible.
Splash: How did you get involved with WCI? Were you sponsored by its supporters?
MM: My management team works hard to find suitable shows and Ray Ban brought this one – and, can I say, some cool shades -- to us with this gig. Jade Umbrella, WCI's event company here on the West Coast, made it all happen with my team to be sure.
Splash: It seems you’ve been on a fast track since you appeared last month during the SXSW Jivewired shows. How are you enjoying the ride?
MM: It seems like a dream with all my senses intact. It's incredible. There is nothing like having opportunities to sing these great songs live. Things are moving really fast and I am so excited to see what each day brings. I work with an incredible group of people and am so thankful for the opportunities they create.
Splash: How would you describe your music?
MM: I love to tell stories through my songs and like to use the term indie-Americana - a mix of jazz, blues, soft rock, and folk.
Splash: When did you first know you wanted to be a performer?
MM: Gosh, for as long as I can remember I have had this deep love of the arts. My mom and dad tell the story of how, at the age of three and four, I would put on old Shirley Temple movies. I would sing and dance and try to emulate her. I used to do talent shows in front of our fireplace with friends and my little sister. At the age of five I joined a local group that toured called “Creative Kids.” I’ve always had a great love of music and theatre and have always known this is what I wanted to pursue in life.
Splash: Is your family musical?
MM: Not at all! Neither of my parents ever played an instrument or sang. As far as I know I’m the first in either side of the family to sing and perform. I have a younger sister Mackenzie who also sings, has a beautiful voice, and is talented in many aspects of the arts.
Splash: But your family seems to be very supportive of your career…
MM: They are. They have always encouraged my sister and I to pursue our dreams and whatever interests us. Music and performance has always been my dream, not theirs. They haven’t pushed me, just the opposite. They support me though, look out for me, and just show me love. Nothing is better than that. I’m blessed to have such great parents. They help me choose every element of these shows... clothing, songs, coaches, etc. It's a team of "Madness” that they encourage -- dad, mom, sister... and MOMS, my management company.
Splash: What's the best thing about being a performer?
MM: Music makes me feel alive. Through my songs and performances I’m able to express who I am without limitations. It allows me to take risks. I feel free yet vulnerable. It’s a wonderful feeling and gives me avenues to share my life with others. Hopefully, they’ll find a connection through my music that resonates with their personal lives, through their personal relationships, things going on at home or school, and the pressures of growing up.
Splash: As a 16 year old high school student, how are you able to keep up with your studies?
MM: I am blessed to be enrolled in a special arts high school in Santa Ana...OCSA. They created a program that allows me to pursue my passion... music. I end my academic day at 2 PM, then go to conservatory for three hours and study all aspects of music.
Splash: Tell me more about your Arts Edu program.
MM: I’m enrolled in the Classical Voice Conservatory. Last summer I had the opportunity to tour England and perform at such great venues as Central Hall in Westminster Abbey. The school is phenomenal and offers programs for any aspect of art you can imagine. I’ve met so many talented artists and in fact one of my best friends designed my current logo. Pretty cool.
Splash: I understand you've also had musical theatre training, how does that affect your concert work?
MM: According to what I've studied, live music performance is what 'musical theatre' is based on. I’m confidant that in the long run, my all my training will enhance my delivery.
Splash: Who, would you say, have been your biggest influences?
MM: That’s a hard question to answer. There are so many talented artists with such unique styles. If I had to name one though it would be Norah Jones. I love her ability to mix jazz, blues and folksy ballads. She’s unique and I just love her style. I love that she knows who she is and stays true to her music. Other influences include Adele, Christina Perry, Lana Del Ray, and Sheryl Crow to name a few.
Splash: So give us a hint of what’s in the immediate future for Maddie Miller?
MM: We have mapped out a schedule that will hopefully get us my first 'official' studio album. I also plan to be performing at some summer festivals and music industry trade shows in Nashville, Oklahoma, New York, then maybe return to Texas again next year. I love SXSW and the fans I've come to know in Austin, for sure.
Splash: When do expect to have that first 'official' CD available?
MM: Hopefully by summer, it’s a work in progress and we're all excited to make it happen.
Splash: You had an incredible band playing with you at the WCI event, are they going to be on the CD?
MM: Absolutely. Billy Fedak writes the original tunes with his brother and Jonathan Blake Salazar is an award winning guitar/singer/songwriter who I've recently begun working with. I could not ask for better players.... I HOPE they will work on the record with me.