On 'Broken Harvest,' Madison Cunningham Is Hopeful For A Fresh Start

Feb 3, 2021
Originally published on February 11, 2021 9:54 am

There's a feeling that young adults living through this pandemic might find especially familiar — being ready to come into your own, and then suddenly having to put your life on pause.

To singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham, the year 2020 seemed to be all lined up for her, until it wasn't. And suddenly, instead of touring, all that was left was to stay at home and try to write. She explores this sense of loss and finding what's truly important to her in her contribution to Morning Edition's Song Project, titled "Broken Harvest."

"It was interesting to figure out how to find myself in that again and to detach what it was that I was doing from success," Cunningham says. "In retrospect, it was a really sweet thing, too — where I was getting to come back to square one, getting reacquainted with the reason that I first came into music and the reason that I fell in love with it."

Madison Cunningham spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about the silver linings of dashed plans and how the imagery of "Broken Harvest" grew from revisiting a beloved old TV series. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin: 2020 was supposed to be a big year for you. You had a lot of plans. Can you tell me about those? And what ended up happening when the pandemic hit and everything changed?

Madison Cunningham: I was going to open for Mandy Moore. I was going to do, like, my first headlining tour, which would have been super fun. And that would have dropped me into playing a show at Madison Square Garden, opening up for the great Harry Styles. So, I think by the time the last thing had gotten scrapped, I wasn't surprised. I was just sorely disappointed, and having a really hard time figuring out how to keep my hopes in a realistic place, but also in an optimistic place.

So, tell me about this song. The idea was to write about having your dreams kind of put on hold indefinitely. How did you set out to tell this story in this music?

As I started digging into it, I kept feeling like my approach was too specific, almost? It kinda started to get into the territory of maybe being a little whiny, and sort of complaining. So I wanted to touch on the idea that we've always had to face loss. We've always had to deal with death. We've always had to deal with failure, with all of those things. And it forced us all to look at not only the deeper illness, not just the symptoms, but just what's most important in our lives and what we value most — and who are the people that we need to tell right here, now, that we love. So, that was where I got the line, "All things fade away."

As fatalist as it sounds, it was a very hopeful idea to me, that we were literally born into this reality — we're made to face this, so, we can get through it. That was my attempt at being somewhat hopeful on the heels of 2020.

Do you have friends in your life who have suffered serious career setbacks as a result of the last year?

I mean, everyone I know has been pretty much in the same boat — you know, you had the initial momentum and there's no way to continue it because there's no road. People only tune into your Zoom concerts so much. I've loved to see how innovative people have become, dealing with the brokenness of it and trying to put it back together. But there's also severe limitations, to where even the most creative, I think, come to their wits' end.

You write in the song, "When you're living on a dreamer's salary / A broken harvest feels like robbery." And I understand this came from a little pandemic binge watching of yours?

I was trying to avoid this somehow — which, I've been told by sources that I shouldn't be ashamed. But I was binge watching Little House on the Prairie, this summer and into the fall and winter.

Absolutely, you should not be ashamed! Are you kidding me? It's a classic.

Well, I grew up on it, and I needed a little ... I wanted escapism.

You needed Pa Ingalls.

Yes! Yes. There's one episode in particular, where it shows them literally preparing all year for a harvest. And one night, there's just a crazy, unexpected hailstorm and it ruins everything. And then they're set back a whole other year.

I remember this episode. And then it's all over, right? Because it's just one bad storm.

Yeah. I was impacted by that because there was literally nothing that he could have done better. So, I kind of was viewing artists as farmers for a second: us passionately, carefully planting our seeds so that they can grow in time for, you know, the harvest! And then, 2020 — the big fat hailstorm comes. Now what? Again, I think even in the concept of it being a "broken harvest," there's also this fresh feeling of starting over. Even though it speaks about the fractured nature of where we're at right now, I think it also implies that it can definitely be mended.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project. It's the series where we ask artists to write an original song about the COVID era.

MADISON CUNNINGHAM: I am Madison Cunningham. I am a singer-songwriter-musician who currently resides in Los Angeles, Calif., and I'm 24 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN HARVEST")

CUNNINGHAM: (Singing) Round and round this broken rat race, I'm moving and stopping, I'm window shopping for love, for fame, for anything that will take me.

MARTIN: Madison Cunningham wrote this song for us called "Broken Harvest" about something a lot of young adults might find familiar - finally feeling ready to come into your own and then suddenly having to put your life on pause. At one point, 2020 seemed to be all lined up for her.

CUNNINGHAM: I was going to open for Mandy Moore. I was going to do, like, my first headlining tour - which would have been super fun - and that would have dropped me into playing a show at Madison Square Garden, opening up for the great Harry Styles.

MARTIN: Wow.

CUNNINGHAM: So I think by the time the last thing had gotten scrapped, I wasn't surprised. I was just sorely disappointed and having a really hard time figuring out how to, like - how to keep my hopes in a realistic place but also in an optimistic place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN HARVEST")

CUNNINGHAM: (Singing) Just say the word, just say the word and I'll give it up, word and I'll hang it up...

MARTIN: Instead of touring, all that was left was to stay at home and try to write, but there wasn't much to be creative about.

CUNNINGHAM: It was interesting to figure out how to find myself in that again and to detach, like, what it was that I was doing from success. Because success is definitely important, but it's not everything and it's certainly not the thing that really keeps your creativity intact.

MARTIN: Right.

CUNNINGHAM: So that was - almost in a way, in retrospect, it was a really sweet thing, too, where I was, like, getting to come back to square one, getting reacquainted with the reasons that I first came into music and the reason that I fell in love with it.

MARTIN: So tell me about this song. I mean, when we talked the first time, we agreed that you would write about having your dreams kind of put on hold indefinitely. How did you set out to tell this story in this music?

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. When I got that songwriting prompt - which I think, to be specific, it was dreams deferred - which resonated with me right away. But as I kind of started digging into, I kept feeling like my approach was too specific, almost. It kind of started to get into the territory of maybe being a little whiny and sort of complaining. So I kind of wanted to touch on the idea that we've always had to face loss. We've always had to deal with death. We've always had to deal with failure - with all of those things. And it forced us all to look at not only the deeper illness, not just the symptoms but just what's most important in our lives and what we value most and who are the people that we need to tell right here now that we love. So that was where I got the line, all things fade away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN HARVEST")

CUNNINGHAM: (Singing) What do I know? What do I hold that will not fade away? All things fade away...

As fatalist as it sounds, it was a very hopeful idea to me - that we were literally born into this reality. That, to me, told me we're made to face this so we can get through it. So that was my attempt at being somewhat hopeful on the heels of 2020.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, have you - do you have friends in your life who have suffered serious career setbacks as a result of the last year?

CUNNINGHAM: I mean, everyone that I know has been pretty much in the same boat just because it was hard to, like - you know, you have the initial momentum and there's no way to continue it because there's no road. There's no - you know - people only tune into your Zoom concert so much. I've loved to see how innovative people have become dealing with the brokenness of it and trying to put it back together. But there's also severe limitations to where even the most creative, I think, come to their wits' end.

MARTIN: You write in the song - when you're living on a dreamer's salary, a broken harvest feels like robbery. And I understand this came from a little pandemic binge-watching of yours? Tell me.

CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter) I was trying to avoid this somehow - which I've been told by sources that I shouldn't be ashamed - but I was binge-watching "Little House On The Prairie" this summer and into the fall and winter.

CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely you should not be ashamed. Are you kidding me? Classic.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I grew up on it and I needed a little bit - I wanted escapism.

MARTIN: You needed Pa Ingalls. You needed some Pa.

CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN HARVEST")

CUNNINGHAM: (Singing) When you're living on a dreamer's salary, a broken harvest feels like robbery. What do I do this for if it's just going to pour out easily.

There's one episode in particular, where it shows them literally preparing all year for a harvest. And one night there's just, like, a crazy, unexpected hailstorm and then it ruins everything and then they're set back a whole other year and so to me...

MARTIN: I remember this episode.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then it's all over, right? Because it's just one bad storm.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. I was impacted by that because there was literally nothing that he could have done better. So I kind of was viewing, like, artists as farmers for a second - us passionately, carefully planting our seeds so that they can grow in time for, you know, the harvest. And then 2020 - the big, fat hailstorm comes and now what? - you know? Again, like, I think even in the concept of it being a broken harvest, there's also this, like, this fresh feeling of starting over...

MARTIN: Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: ...Even though it speaks about the fractured nature of where we're at right now, I think it also implies that it can definitely be mended.

MARTIN: Madison Cunningham - her song "Broken Harvest" is the latest installment of our MORNING EDITION Song Project. Madison, thank you so much for writing this for us and letting us share it with the world. And best of luck to you.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you so much for having me and giving me a reason to write this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROKEN HARVEST")

(SOUNDBITE OF , "")

MARTIN: You can hear "Broken Harvest" in full at our website. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.