interview. Maddie Morris illuminates with ‘Skin’

"My identity as a queer person, an activist, a survivor of gender based violence, are all parts of who I am as a person but also as a musician"
23 February 2024

A musical tale of identity, activism, and harmony

Today, we’re thrilled to showcase Maddie Morris, an acclaimed BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musician, as they release their debut album, Skin. Known for their dedication to social awareness and storytelling, Maddie introduces an album that extends beyond traditional folk music boundaries. Skin is a crafted narrative exploring identity, activism, and hope, aimed to both challenge and console listeners.

Skin, produced by Pete Ord and recorded at The Studio at Sunbeams in Cumbria, highlights Maddie’s distinctive vocals and thoughtful lyrics, enriched by collaborations with renowned artists such as Archie Churchill-Moss and Belinda O’hooley. The album exemplifies Maddie’s belief in music as a transformative and collective endeavor.

In our exclusive interview, Maddie delves into the powerful themes of Skin, the creative process behind the album, and the personal experiences that shape their music. They discuss the role of music in fostering societal change, the significance of collaboration, and the evolution of their artistry from the acclaimed EP Upstream to their current work.

Join us as Maddie Morris offers a glimpse into the heart and soul behind Skin, sharing their hopes, challenges, and the unwavering belief in the power of music to unite and inspire.

There’s a phrase thrown around a lot in activist spaces that change happens when stories are told in safe spaces

Your latest album, Skin, delves into themes of identity, activism, and hope. Your status as a socially conscious songwriter is well-known. How do you perceive the role of music in addressing current societal matters and fostering inclusiveness, and in what ways does Skin actively participate in this ongoing discourse?

This is a huge question, and I think that there are loads of layers to it. I think music has a power to make change because I’ve seen it first-hand. Growing up in a rural community I didn’t have positive queer representation, and finding artists like Ani Difranco or Missy Higgins helped me feel like I belonged and that there was a future for me. Going to my first gig with a queer artist, and seeing other queer folk in the audience and being part of a space where I felt the same, I think these experiences can be really important for us as humans. I think music has a way of helping people feel like they are part of something, and that change is possible. I think our culture tries to make us feel like there’s no way of making change, and that actively benefits those in power, because if we think we can’t do anything then we won’t try. I think music helps unify us in the belief that that change is possible.

In terms of Skin and how it participates in that discourse, my goal when writing the album was to write the songs that I felt like I’d have needed when I was existing through darker parts of my life. I think from songs directly amplifying the voices of activists from the past (like Marsha P Johnson), and songs rooted in traditional music that tell stories of queer joy and love, I hope that there are bits that connect with people and help listeners know that they’re not alone, that change is possible and that safe futures exist.

Collaborations with notable artists are a prominent feature of the album. Could you provide insights into the creative process and the influence these collaborations had on shaping both the sound and the message of Skin?

I felt really lucky to get to work with the artists that I worked with on Skin. I sat down with Pete Ord, who produced the album, and he basically said “If you could have literally any musicians, who would they be”, and all of them ended up on record. It felt a bit mental to me, and particularly, to have artists that I was listening to at uni, or as a teenager on a CD with my face on it.

There’s a phrase thrown around a lot in activist spaces that change happens when stories are told in safe spaces, and I think that making an album isn’t really putting these stories into safe spaces because it definitely opens things up to criticism and interpretation. But I think the process of recording Skin, with such wonderful people and activists really embodied that idea. I think part of hearing songs that delve into conversations surrounding homophobia and gender based violence, backed by an army of talented musicians helps share so much of the message. I feel like the artists playing on the tracks help illustrate the landscape for the songs I wrote, and I just feel very lucky to have them playing. It’s the sort of thing where I wish I could take a snapshot and send it to 15 year old me.

My identity as a queer person, an activist, a survivor of gender based violence, are all parts of who I am as a person but also as a musician

Building on the critical acclaim of your EP Upstream, how has your artistic journey evolved in the transition to your debut studio album, and what can your fans anticipate in terms of artistic growth and experimentation within Skin?

What’s great about making an album is there’s so much space and time to have a go at things, and you get to share so much more than you do when making an EP.

Upstream was my first time recording in a proper studio environment, and I kind of came into it with all the songs fully formed, and it was a case of getting those recorded and then asking folk who I thought were great to play on some of the tracks.

For Skin, we approached the songs with way more fluidity, in fact the first 2 days in the studio we didn’t record anything and just played through songs, imagining what they could sound like and thinking about the real journey we wanted people to go through when listening to them. We then set the foundation of the tracks, with space for the artists that were going to be joining us later on in the process.

I also got support from Youth Music so that I had access support for all the days of recording, which made a huge difference because I felt really safe and supported in the space which meant I was able to take more risks and try things out vocally that I’d maybe have been more apprehensive too earlier in my recording journey.

Upstream was much more about getting something out there, but I feel like Skin is a full piece of art in itself, which is really exciting to be sharing, and I think its really exciting to look at them next to each other and see how the music has developed.

There’s definitely elements of what we did in upstream, re-working of traditional material, completely independent writing, and lots of reflection. I feel like Skin includes loads more personal storytelling, active rallying cries and the exploration of pain and hope.

Skin appears to explore a wide spectrum of emotions and experiences, from queer joy to vulnerability. Could you guide us through the thematic journey of the album and how it reflects your unique perspective as an artist?

I think humans are really complicated and complex, and Skin explores the very multifaceted reality of that. I think when you have a protected characteristic, sometimes people don’t recognise that there are loads of bits to you that aren’t just that thing.

I’ve never been an artist that shy’s away from difficult content, because I came to writing from a place of trying to manage and explore tricky emotions and experiences. Some of the first songs that I chose for the album, like the single Marsha P Johnson, and track 4 titled “The IT Teacher” explore some of the really tough realities of living as an LGBTQ+ person including homophobia and hate crime. I think it’s really important to share these kinds of songs and I’ve had lots of conversations with people at gigs about how they’ve had similar experiences and it felt validating to hear them shared. That being said, I didn’t want to create an album that paints an image that queer lives are exclusively shaped by sadness or hardship. There are moments in the album that reflect on queer joy, for example Cedar Swamp, a traditional song from the point of view of someone who just really loves her ‘pretty little miss’, and Easily Bruised, a song that reflects on being deeply in love with someone you met as a teenager, and navigating relationships as a neurodivergent person.

Tracks like Icarus and Political T Shirt explore expectations and notions put on us during childhood and adolescence. The album also explores survival of gender based violence, which is a topic that I’ve always felt really passionate about exploring through music. One track Tonight’s Show explores the mind of someone trying to make sense of what happened to them in childhood, and Must I be Bound tells the story of someone trying to escape abuse.

I think it’s a tricky line to walk, working out how we use music to challenge but also protect our audiences. That’s why in the CD booklet I’ve included content warnings and resource lists, and for the album tour we’ve included postcards with the same to be left on chairs for audience members.

To me, exploring these huge topics feels really right because, like I said, people are multifaceted. My identity as a queer person, an activist, a survivor of gender based violence, are all parts of who I am as a person but also as a musician. I feel really proud of Skin and the way we’ve explored that through the album.

If you had to name your three most-listened-to artists on Spotify, who would they be?

Ani Difranco, Laura Marling and Anais Mitchell. I love listening to artists who’s writing is unique, reflective and poetic, and I love listening to new music but I always come back to these folk.

What changes would you like to see in the music industry, and how do you envision these changes benefiting both artists and listeners?

I’d like to see a lot more diversity represented in festival and gig line-ups. I don’t think that the music industry is lacking in diverse experience and voices, but undoubtedly there is a huge disparity when it comes to who is playing at festivals and on big stages.

More diversity on main stages and played on big radio stations will only ever benefit listeners, because there are so many phenomenal artists that folk miss at festivals because headliners are so often the same folk again and again.

If you could choose any artist to collaborate with, who would be your top pick and why?

This is a tricky one, because so many of the folk I’d historically say are on the record. I’d love a chance to collaborate with Ani Difranco, just because her writing was so revolutionary for me, and her influence has had a huge effect on me and my process as an artist.

If you had the chance to open a show for any artist, who would you choose? What makes that choice important to you?

I got to open for Angeline Morrison in 2022, and that was one of the coolest things ever. To get to open for her, when her music is so important and has challenged and changed so many perspectives, was just really cool, and she’d probably be the person that I’d say for this question, had I not been able to do it already.

Lastly, If you could send a message to your loyal fans, what would it be?

I think just that I’m super grateful for the support. I think that I say it a lot (perhaps even too much), that I am so indebted to folk for turning up to gigs, streaming songs, sharing posts. But I do feel really grateful, as getting to do this as a job is a real gift.