Madison Cunningham at Folk Fest Cathartic, Energetic


Kenji Anderson

Madison Cunningham exuded optimism in her recent Folk Fest performance in Finney Chapel.

The sounds of bass, drums, guitar, and vocals filled Finney Chapel last Saturday night as singer-songwriter Madison Cunningham closed out this year’s Folk Fest. The festival, organized by the Oberlin Folk Music Club, took place May 6 and 7. While last year’s Folk Fest featured only student acts, Folk Fest 2022 welcomed professional acts back to the festival, including performances by Mapache; duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, OC ’20; and Nora Brown; in addition to student acts. 

Cunnigham’s performance was not only catharsis but also celebration, and fourth-year Conservatory student and singer Julia Alexander noted the power of Cunningham’s performance.

“Her live vocals were immaculate,” Alexander said. “She also has such a great stage presence. It’s so fun as an audience member to be able to witness performers having fun, and you could tell Madison and her band were having a good time.” 

Cunningham, joined by bassist Anna Butterss and drummer Kyle Crane, performed songs from her Grammy-nominated album Who Are You Now, her EP For The Sake Of The Rhyme, and songs off of her upcoming record. Many of Cunningham’s songs explore questions of authenticity. In her 2019 album Who Are You Now, she shines the light of authenticity directly toward the self. 

“I think it’s very easy to go your whole life being dishonest or just generally distanced from yourself and your own thoughts,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s really interesting that you can inhabit your body and your mind and not totally understand how it’s functioning and what’s going on with it. I think the most honest I have been in songwriting is when I am a little bit more self-reflective and reveal things about myself or make myself the target.”

Cunningham notes the pandemic as a landmark of change in her work. During the pandemic, she turned to creating covers of songs, challenging herself to post once a week on her YouTube channel. 

“It was just like this ledge that I could grab onto creatively and be like, these songs exist,” she said. “Someone worked really hard to get to these songs. It was a really good reminder that music and songs are always fought for and earned. … No matter what your level of talent is, you’re always … trying to go deeper within yourself.” 

Her weekly challenge eventually resulted in her Wednesday EP and Wednesday (Extended Edition) LP, which was nominated for a Grammy.

While releasing covers weekly, Cunningham was simultaneously writing a new record. It was not an easy process, but Cunningham ultimately feels thankful that she pushed through.

 “[I realized,] yeah, this is gonna be earned,” she said. “This is gonna be hard. And that’s okay. What’s the worst thing about something being hard? … We’re made to do hard things.”

Another highlight of the evening was her song “Something to Believe In” from her album Who Are You Now. In her rendition, she strayed from a performance that mimicked the recorded version; instead, she leaned into the track’s rock qualities, expanding guitar solos and extending vocal lines, as well as transforming the song’s quiet questioning into outright cries. Cunningham acknowledged our pain and helped us through it; her desperate cries were a moment of catharsis for the audience. Armed with rock-solid technical skill, Cunningham let go and performed with abandon, showing great musical instinct.

The final evening of Folk Fest crafted the pain of the pandemic into beautiful art-making, bringing the audience together over a shared experience. In “Life According to Raechel,” Cunningham turned to the acoustic guitar, giving a solo performance of an intimate reflection of her grandmother, whom she lost during the pandemic. This song provided a moment of stillness for the evening, inviting audience members to reflect on an experience that all have felt. 

Cunningham’s performance reminds us of the value of live music, highlighting the transient nature of art. She displays a commitment to the changing moment in live performance, treating her songs as ever-evolving, living things. First-year College student Bougie Sewell, who worked concert sound for the event, noted the element of storytelling in Cunningham’s set.

“I thought she created a very beautiful set with very nice flow,” Sewell said. “She has a lot of range in her music. … I thought she did a really good job of creating a story throughout [the set].” 

Cunningham delivered a performance that transformed her songs into instruments of storytelling. She will return to Northeastern Ohio again to perform at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland June 25.