In just a few short years, the duo of Ruth and Madisen went from playing in their Independence, Mo. kitchen and small coffee houses to opening for various artists including Sufjan Stevens and B. B. King and joining festivals like Bonnaroo – and making an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. The rootsy vitality of their debut LP, Skelton Crew, opened doors, but what truly makes the twosome stand out in an oversaturated world is how – whether performing in a tiny café or an auditorium stage – their stark, emotional intimacy never changes an inch. Every venue is still a coffee house, every last person in the audience a soul to connect with. Because that’s what the music of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear is all about: connection. Linking person to person, history to history, one to another. Emotion to emotion.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s Skeleton Crew proved to be one of 2015’s critical surprises: stark and intimate, the songs moved beyond traditional Americana to something that blurred the boundaries of folk, soul, gospel and vintage rock. From an under-the-radar act that thrived on word of mouth around Kansas City, they soon became the purveyors of one of modern folk’s most unique points of view. Reliant on the powerful dynamic of mother and son Madisen and Ruth’s moving vocals, haunting melodies and poignant lyrics, songs like “Silent Movies” managed to be at one simple and acoustic yet sonically lush. But Madisen and Ruth are also not ones to stay stagnant, and “Childhood Goodbye,” their new single from their forthcoming EP, shows how much they’ve grown: produced by Nathan Chapman, it embraces a more expansive orchestration, anchored by a rich drumbeat – it might sound different, but one listen will prove that the progression only heightens their emotional power.
“It’s about saying goodbye to childhood,” says Madisen, “You are saying goodbye to it, but you still take a small piece with you.” He describes the song as “melancholy in undertone but hopeful at the same time,” a mood the duo capture in a video that was produced with HITRECORD which is a community sourced production company founded by actor and director Joseph Gordon-Levitt who also appears in the video. The company, of which Madisen is a member, is made up of over 650,000 artists from allover the world.
“Burn all the weeds, plant the seeds of your poetry,” Madisen sings, “watch them grow.”
Chapman, who is known widely for his work with Taylor Swift, brought a “childlike and joyful” approach to the new songs, recorded in Seattle and Nashville. Though Madisen has historically written most of their tracks alone and then approached Ruth when he had a finite idea, he decided to try his hand at co-writing this time around. The experience was enlightening, and challenged him to open up in new and exciting ways: still keeping his love for melodic urgency deeply intact.
“Lyrics are great, but melody is what gets the emotions across,” says Madisen. “Great lyrics are great lyrics, but great lyrics without music is just poetry.”
Madisen and Ruth got their start composing songs together back home in Missouri – Ruth, a musician since before she gave birth to her son and Madisen, a promising songwriter and vocalist. As a boy, Madisen would watch Ruth play at coffee shops, and soon they began creating together, switching from the cover songs that Ruth would tackle to Madisen’s own work, inspired by his many years writing fiction and crafting tales of Midwestern lore.
And his songs, like the best stories, meld a bit of fantasy with a universal reality: beneath the characters are human truths, left open for the audience to expand and infuse with their own life experience. On the new songs, Madisen challenged himself to open up more than ever, with moments like “Childhood Goodbye” finding him in a more vulnerable and personal place. Other tracks explore their own family history, and the lives leading up to exactly where they are now – along with their fears and hopes for the future. Chapman would challenge Madisen by asking about his memories, and many of those memories and stories made their way into the music.
Of course, seeing a mother and son sing together about the passage of time is only more poignant – but their familial relationship is not the defining factor of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. When they are making music, they are bandmates first and family second, reliant on their artistic chemistry to lead the way.
“We’re not classified as a mother-son band,” says Madisen. “But make no mistake, that is my mother.”
Planting the seeds of their poetry together, and watching it grow.