Perhaps more than any attribute making Madison King's songs burst with cochlea-catching appeal is the unvarnished honesty that pops from them. It's in her lyrics, and it's in her retelling of significant events from the past few years of her life, especially since the release of her twangy 2011 debut, Darlin', Here's To You. And it's in her narrative: This, after all, is the woman who, as a 5-year-old girl, shocked her parents by singing Aerosmith's version of the ribald Bull Moose Jackson classic "Big Ten Inch Record." She asked for her first guitar a couple years later.
King's new album, Onward and Upward, released on the new and locally owned State Fair Records, is a slick beast that often charms while proffering tales not as sunny as they initially seem. The pure craft is but one of the areas where King has improved, with the help of recent heartbreaks and fruitful bonds of friendship.
Then there was that barely missed shot at being showcased on NBC's The Voice in the fall of 2012, which helped this new phase of her life -- both artistically and personally -- find its course.
"I was officially a contestant for the show, because I wasn't actually cut," King says of her six-week stint in Los Angeles. "But the girl who literally went right before me on my day of filming filled the last spot on a team so I didn't get to audition. It was a weird and devastating experience, and it took me a long time to normalize after I got home. However, now I am really glad I did it. That experience is definitely what motivated me to put out another record. I came home and was like, 'You know what, fuck that. If I'm not going to do this, it's going to be because I decided not to do it, not because some producers didn't think I was interesting or good enough to be on television.' It really lit a proverbial fire under my proverbial ass."
After deciding to cut a new record, King used her new perspective to create an album very different from her debut. It indeed eschews the rootsier vibe of her first album's most rawboned offerings, in favor of tight melodies that beg to be sung along with. It reveals in King, a lifelong Dallasite and bartender at Deep Ellum's Twilite Lounge, a truckload of confidence, especially in her bolder vocals. A different King was making a different record with a different mind-set and, perhaps most important, a different goal in mind.
"I did try to make this record quite a bit more poppy than my first record," she says. "Part of that came from me just growing as a songwriter. I don't think there's any question that overall the songs on this record are just better than most of the ones on Darlin', and I do love that first record. But my new record is much more straightforward. There's no weird stuff in there. This one is radio-ready. They're pop songs, but they are honest and vulnerable."
That honesty is evident in her copping to something most songwriters wouldn't admit: a certain softening in order to make the tunes more appropriate for mass consumption. She wants it to be a hit. She creates, she says, so she can keep creating, spinning her story and tweaking her sound depending on where she is in life, what she is experiencing at that time. These days she wants to make some gut-wrenching tunes that sound great and are heard by a bigger audience than she's ever attracted.
"I just didn't want to make it harder for me to get the new songs to as many people as possible," says King, a graduate of First Dallas Academy (2005) and SMU (2009). "I took out the fuck-words, which was really hard for me to do. I held the high notes at the dramatic moments and sometimes it killed me to give in to the cheese, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't love it. I'm very proud of it. Paul Williams is an incredible producer and engineer and he worked his rear off making a record that we could really try and do something with."
Indeed, anger and compelling stories weren't sacrificed for the sake of winning over the populace. The gun-purchasing ass-kicker that starred in the lyrics of her first album is present and accounted for. "Sadness and anger drive me artistically far more than happiness or joy," King says. She laughs as she adds, "Happy people don't have time to sit around and write songs. I joke about the fact that I could have subtitled almost every song a guy's name."
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"I think that it's almost a duty to write breakup songs, moving-on songs, not-moving-on songs and getting-cheated-on songs, because everyone goes through that but not everyone can write a song about it. I do have a few songs that are close to lovey-dovey, and they're some of my favorite to sing. But many more of my songs came from a painful place."
It's a perspective gained in these past, pivotal few years, a keen self-awareness as powerful as her resplendent voice.
"At 27, I'm more experienced, I'm less bitter, much more vulnerable and definitely more confident," she says. "I really think that shows in this record."
You can catch Madison playing her official album release show this Thursday, April 4th, at Trees. Tickets are $10.