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

In "Broken Harvest," Madison Cunningham writes as an artist who has lost major opportunities to the pandemic, but found inspiration in her time off.
In "Broken Harvest," Madison Cunningham writes as an artist who has lost major opportunities to the pandemic, but found inspiration in her time off.

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.

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