By Steve LaBate from PASTE Magazine Photos by Don VanCleave
Like Gillian Welch and her inseparable, unbilled cohort David Rawlings, Madi Diaz is actually a duo. One half is Diaz herself, and the other is her performing and songwriting partner Kyle Ryan, whom she met while studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The two had begun playing music in their teens, and Diaz even had an odd, early brush with the spotlight: At 16, while attending Philadelphia’s now-infamous Paul Green School of Rock Music, she appeared in the documentary Rock School, which inspired the 2003 Jack Black flick.
Since then, with Ryan at her side, Diaz has matured into a fine, up-and-coming artist. She caught Paste's attention at this year's SXSW Music Conference with her laidback yet arresting performance at the historic Driskill Hotel’s Victorian Room. We caught up with Diaz and Ryan over sushi in their newly adopted hometown of Nashville, Tenn., last Sunday night. Just back from a productive songwriting retreat in Scotland, and only a week away from their Bonnaroo debut, the two filled us in on how they met, why they left Boston for Nashville, the recording of their debut album Skin and Bone and their new Ten Gun Salute EP, and more.
Madi Diaz: [Producer/writer/musician] Jamie Kenney contacted us and said that they were personally inviting 30 songwriters—friends and otherwise—from Nashville and L.A. and different backgrounds, to all fly over to Scotland and stay in a giant house for eight days and write music.
Paste: So where was the place you stayed and what was it like?
Kyle Ryan: It was near a small town called Pitlochry, and it was crazy. I mean, it’s somewhere between a big house and a small castle. There are lots of dead animals, lots of plaid, lots of rolling green moss.
Paste: Just stuffed mounted animals?
Ryan: Yeah, it’s kind of creepy
Paste: They big on taxidermy there?
Ryan: Yeah. Like a tiger and a bear…
Diaz: …and an entire glass case full of 30 exotic birds. It was like, “Ugh, God.” They’re so beautiful… and they’re dead.
Ryan: And they’re looking at me, while I’m trying to eat my chicken. [Laughter]
Diaz: I mean, we’d be sitting, tracking, in a chair, and be like “Owww! What is that?!” And you’d turn around and there’s like a cheetah claw sticking out of the chair!
Ryan: There’d be a little leopard leaning over the back of the chair. But, no, it was great.
Paste: What was the best thing that you got out of the experience? What was either the best moment, or the most useful thing you guys picked up, or any people you met?
Ryan: We wrote a couple songs that we’re pretty into. But other than that, just getting to know the other folks. And the people that went there all ended up being Nashville types, so people that we’re going to see a lot of and get to write with again.
Diaz: We made friends! Yeah, definitely. I think all of the songs—it was a super-huge surprise. Well, I don’t want to say it was a surprise, it wasn’t like, “I can’t believe it was good,” but all of the songs—I can’t think of any of them that we would want to throw away. They’re all great songs. And it’s so cool hanging out with Jamie Kenney and getting to know him better, and [songwriter] Ben Glover. And these are all just good people to know.
Paste: Do you feel like there’s a really great, supportive music community in Nashville, or do you feel like people are really competitive? What’s it like in Nashville for you?
Diaz: It’s incredible. We got here July 1 of last year, and I just feel like we’ve hit the ground running—we haven’t stopped. Every time you go out, every time we play a show, you meet another band or another person that wants to spread the word, and it’s like we’re all kind of locking arms and running forward together. It’s really cool. It’s been a really great place to live.
Ryan: It definitely feels really supportive. I feel like it’s what the ’70s were like. Or at least how I think the ’70s were like.
Paste: Like that old Nashville doc Heartworn Highways? With Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell.
Ryan: Yeah. It’s cool to move to this place, where I knew there was a lot of music happening, but then actually meet so many [people] that I enjoy [their music], and just everyday be blown away—I’ll meet someone and hang out with them, and they’re like “My buddy, whoever…” and then I find out they’re some ridiculous songwriter or some badass guitar player.
Diaz: Not just that, but, we’ll go over to our friend Doggie’s [Neil Dahlgren] house and go out back into the studio and Mindy Smith is tracking a record, and she’s like, “Come sing background on it.” So then you’re like singing background on Mindy Smith’s record. Or you’re sitting around and you’ve got a guitar and you’re [noodling] and then all of a sudden you’re writing a song for the next five hours and you’re tracking and it’s done. That’s just an awesome thing—that everyone’s around and always creating and feeding off of each other and getting so much out of life. Going over to Jamie’s, I didn’t think we’d play anything, and I definitely didn’t think we’d start writing randomly in the middle of everything. There are a lot of writers in Nashville that go and do their two-a-day co-writes or their one-a-day co-writes, but it’s just so cool to be around people [for whom] it’s such a joy to be doing this.
Paste: Where you based before Nashville—in Boston?
Ryan: We were both in Boston, we both met each other there [at Berklee].
Paste: How did you both meet and start playing together?
Diaz: A mutual friend of ours, Charlie Grisham, came up to me—we had class together and he was also in the Musical Production Engineering program, and he was like, “One of my finals is coming up. I want to use one of your songs as a final project.” So he got a bunch of his friends together to do this session for school, and that’s actually when I met Kyle and my current bass player and really good friend Adam Popick.
Paste: Who’s in the band?
Diaz: Kyle Ryan, Adam Popcik and Mitch Jones. And Kyle and I write all the songs together.
Paste: So even though it’s billed as “Madi Diaz,” you guys are like kind of like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, where you’re the name, but you guys really work together as a team?
Diaz: Totally. So [Kyle and I] worked on this project together [back at Berklee], and played through the song and it was really great.
Paste: What was the song?
Diaz: It was called “All Over This Town.” It’s on the first album [2007’s Skin and Bone]. And Kyle came up to me afterwards, and was like, “Hey, if you ever want to play or write or anything…” I totally thought he was kidding because I was like, “Nobody wants to write with me, nobody wants to play with me.” So I never called him. I think you gave me your number or something like that.
Ryan: I had initially gone to Berklee as a drummer and switched to guitar because I had been writing a lot, and it didn’t make sense to me to be Phil Collins-ing it. No one wants to see the singer back there, like “Where the hell is that coming from?” Anyways, I had started playing guitar, but I was still scared shitless of it. And so I was approaching these sessions like, [nervously] “Is that cool? I don’t know, I mean, if you think it was cool, or maybe that was bad, I don’t know, what do you think?”
Paste: So you were both [skittish] like that.
Ryan: When she didn’t call me I was like, “I fucked it up. I just blew it. She’s incredible and she’s not going to call me.”
Diaz: So it was totally mutual. We didn’t really talk to each other much after that. We saw each other around. We were in school and stuff.
Ryan: Mutual terror.
Diaz: Mutual terror of each other.
Paste: When was this?
Diaz: This was, what 2005 or something? Yeah, 2005. And then another mutual friend of ours had picked up a bunch of my songs, and had been coming to my shows and was like, “I have this friend that has this studio out here and would you want to do a record with me producing it and my friend engineering it.” And I was like, “Sure. I don’t know what the hell that means, or anything like that.” So we started to pick players and get the band together. And I was like, “Well, I played this session a while ago with Kyle Ryan, and I know that he’s really good.” And I got really excited when [Kyle] said [he] knew [the producer].
Ryan: You’re leaving out that we found out that this magical studio was in Hawaii. So it was this really weird, nonsensical connection where it was like, “Yeah, bring someone out, and I’ll help pay for it.” And so we went to Hawaii and hung out for 10 days and made a record.
Paste: Talk about good luck.
Diaz: Yeah, it was really, really great. So Adam Popick and Kyle and a couple other friends from school [came along].
Ryan: It’s pretty surreal because, in reality, it was the first—I mean, we’d done projects and shit, and obviously everyone had been playing in bands since they were 13, but it was the first thing we had ever done.
Diaz: We were babies.
Ryan: I felt a little bit like we had been dropped in this foreign land—not that there was a label, but it was like expecting something. And I was like, “What are we doing? I don’t know what we’re doing.”
Paste: You were putting pressure on yourselves?
Diaz: Right. And we hadn’t even really played that much with each other. We had basically gotten together a month prior to this thing, rehearsed probably a handful of times, had like one or two shows and then we were in Hawaii doing this record. It was pretty funny. It was pretty awesome, but it was crazy.
Paste: Did you see much of Hawaii, or did you stay in the studio the whole time?
Diaz: Kind of a combination of the two things, I’d say.
Ryan: We didn’t see a lot of Hawaii. We were living on an island… um, that was an unintentional bad joke. So we were on Kauai and we didn’t go to the other islands. But we got into this really unforced, really natural—like all of us would wake up at 6:30 in the morning for no reason. We’d just be up, and we’d be like “Let’s go down to the beach.” So we’d go down to the beach, and then we’d be recording at 9 o’clock. It felt pretty incredible.
Paste: Do you feel like being in that environment affected how the record ended up?
Ryan: For sure.
Ryan: Maybe. Maybe.
Diaz: I think in many ways—in most ways—we had no idea what we were getting into. And I definitely, vocally, had no endurance whatsoever. If I think about the amount of times that I sing through a song, these days, if we’re tracking, I can go over and over and over again. But that was like—I blew myself out after seven takes, which is not so cool when you’re doing a record. So there were just little things. We were all super green and had no idea what we were doing. We were like, “Cool, lets make a record like Heartbreaker.’ You know what I mean? “Come on, let’s just hang out and drink tequila… awesome!”
Paste: Like how you always imagined it’d be to make a record—this mythical thing…
Diaz: Yeah, right. And then you realize it’s a beast to conquer.
Ryan: So it was a learning process, and it didn’t quite hit what we had dreamed of. But for us, it was more of the process of getting to know each other and see what happens when we’re in the same room.
Paste: Looking back at that record now, how do you feel about it?
Diaz: [Acts like she’s snoring, starts laughing] No, it’s great. I was just in a pretty different place I think, writing-wise. I mean, I wrote that entire record by myself, so it was definitely a little bit more rootsy Americana. And I just think that it was definitely a learning experience, and we came back and Kyle and I just started to write with each other, and so many amazing things grew out of it. So it definitely wasn’t like [imitates sound of a plane crash]. It wasn’t a complete disaster. [Laughs]
Paste: So after Hawaii, you went back to Berklee. What came next, did you finish up school soon after that, then hang around Boston and start playing gigs?
Ryan: I’m a couple years older than Madi, so I’d been there for a little while, and right around the time I was graduating, Madi was deciding she was finished with school.
Diaz: I was like, “I think I’m done now.” [Laughs]
Ryan: It worked out that I had freed up around then. I had been playing with a bunch of people, but was less interested in playing with a lot of people and more interested in finding something I was interested in.
Paste: Something to really put yourself into?
Ryan: Yeah, something to really focus on. And that was about the time Madi quit school. So we hung in Boston for a little bit.
Diaz: It was hard, though. I was working so much. I was working all the time, and was generally bumming on Boston—going through this period of, “Wow, I just spent three years at school, and I definitely don’t want to finish, but I can’t believe I just spent three years at school!” Definitely not wasted, on so many different levels, but I was just kind of reevaluating things. I remember this entire period when Kyle would come to my house, and we’d write for two hours, and I’d be done. I wouldn’t want to finish the song. We’d work on like a verse and a chorus, and I’d be like, “Cool. That sounds great. Let’s go do something else.” I just wasn’t in the right space.
Paste: Did you ever feel at that point, like, “I just don’t want to do this?”
Diaz: No, it wasn’t that. I just—I don’t know what.
Paste: Just tired of the approach and your surroundings?
Diaz: I was just kind of generally bumming and not in a good headspace. And kudos to Kyle for sticking with me and prodding me, and bringing me—we would go play gigs in New York, and whenever we had shows or whenever we would go away, it was a totally different experience, and I would come back with this clarity, and, “I’m gonna change this about what I’m doing, and I’m not gonna hang out with these people” or whatever, and then I’d go right back to where I started again as soon as I got back. Pretty crazy. But then we met our current manager, Ty Stiklorius, playing a gig at [New York rock club] The Bitter End. She was there to see somebody else, a friend of hers, and we started playing our set, and she just sat in the back until we were done, and came up to me and handed me her card and was just super bubbly and outgoing, and I had no idea what was going on or what to expect, and we just started emailing each other, and hit it off from the get-go.
Paste: And you still work with her?
Diaz: Oh yeah. She’s our knight in shining armor.
Ryan: She’s the sweetest, most genuine human I’ve ever encountered, and the fact that she happens to be managing is just incredible.
Paste: What was her background?
Ryan: She works with John Legend, in an interesting capacity. Basically, the short version is that she went to college with John. And as John was getting further and moving along, he wanted to have a team of people that he was really close with that could help him accomplish the things he really wanted to do. She helped him organize a trip to Africa and organize different shows and a DVD, and projects that he wanted to do. Her relationship with him just evolved. He switched managers and now works with Gary Gersh, and she works directly with Gary now. So her background is interesting and great. She has all of this secondhand, side, really intense experience with this massive artist that has done all kinds of really cool things, and so she’s got firsthand knowledge and insight into the industry and what it’s like to deal with this and that. But, at the same time, she’s never really managed anyone before. So we have this awesome combination of her being really eager and really excited and really ambitious and focused, but also being naive at times. Just being like “We should try to do this,” “Let’s just do that!” and all of these crazy awesome things, in the best way, you know?
Diaz: And she’s a hard-ass about it—she’s the kind of person that if you’re waiting in line for ice cream, she’s like, “How do I get to the front of this line?” and she’ll get to the front of the line somehow. I swear. That’s just how Ty is. She doesn’t like to wait around for things. She makes things happen—she’s amazing at it.
Paste: After you hooked up with Ty, and you had made that first record, and you had that period of malaise…
Diaz: [Laughs] The black hole.
Paste: …just to keep the timeline going, that was around when, 2007?
Diaz: Yup, that sounds right.
Ryan: So we were in Boston, and basically there was a moment of like, “We gotta move, where should we move?”
Paste: Because you felt stagnant.
Ryan: Yeah. We were looking at New York, ’cause that’s kind of the cliché—it’s like “New York, L.A. and Nashville,” and we both didn’t really like L.A. And I had a lot of close friends that had moved to Nashville, and I was kind of pushing for that, but we’d spent a lot of time in New York, so, anyway, basically we came down and lived with Gary Paczosa who is a producer/engineer down here, and just got to know Nashville for a month and loved it, and we ended up getting a place at the end of that month and being like, “Here we go—now we’re in Nashville!”
Diaz: Yeah, that was insane.
Paste: And everybody came along—like all of the people you had been playing with?
Ryan: Adam Popick had actually beat us down here.
Diaz: Ty was a really quick mover—she got us both our publishing deals very quickly after meeting us.
Paste: Who do you guys work with?
Diaz: Cherry Lane Music. So that happened really quick, and then we came down here [to Nashville]. It was so funny, being down here—I was super like, “Oh God, I don’t know, Nashville is so tiny, I don’t know if I like it down here, I’m a Northeasterner and I like cities, and I like riding my bike…”
Paste: Yankee superiority complex?
Diaz: Totally! Total Yankee superiority complex—it’s awful.
Paste: I understand. I was born in Massachusetts, and have been living in the South for years.
Diaz: But we’re hanging out down here, and its really nice—the weather’s gorgeous and the people are incredible and music is everywhere, and I’m like “You know, maybe I could do this.” Kyle was online like five minutes after I said that and was like, “Waah Craigslist!” and then a month-and-a-half later we were here. It was nuts. And then as soon as we moved here, a friend—he wasn’t a friend yet—I guess he saw us at [Nashville club] 12th and Porter… Doggie [Neil Dahlgren]?
Ryan: He sent a message to Madi on MySpace, and then he wouldn’t accept messages from non-friends, and he wouldn’t accept friend requests from bands, so Madi couldn’t get back to him. So she just picked a random top friend [of his], which was Ian Fitchuk, who ended up playing drums with us, and him and Justin Loucks recorded the EP [Ten Gun Salute] with us—it was the four of us hanging out at Neil’s place. It was like lightning speed; we did a song a day, and it was almost accidental—three songs into it we were like, “Hey maybe this should be an EP.” It was more a hang and then—
Paste: So you were just making songs with no particular plan?
Ryan: Technically, we didn’t even mix them—we built the tracks and it was like, “Done. OK, here’s another one, here’s another one,” and we released it.
Diaz: Oh, and the other thing was that, when we came down here we still had been in an Americana/folk vein, and then I don’t know, a couple songs came out, and we weren’t really structuring them as we had been previously. We were both taken aback a little bit by the new sound, like, “What is this?” and kind of struggling with that because the players that we were playing with weren’t super into it, and we weren’t sure whether we were into it, so we were kind of leaning one way and another way, but then I think we took that head on and Ian and Justin were really into it, and it was really nice to get that, “Yeah definitely! Come on, keep going, that’s great!”
Ryan: And the EP, in a lot of ways didn’t quite hit exactly whatever that thing is that we wanted. But it was just such an experience in this infinitely open, positive sort of way.
Diaz: It’s leaps and bounds from the first record. It’s a completely different story. I think it’s just that much closer. I’d say we’re two stepping stones away from what we really want to sound like with this full-length that we’re gonna be working on.
Ryan: And hopefully, if we’re lucky, we’ll stay two steps away from it our whole life.
Paste: When the music started drifting in this different direction from where you had been, was it unintentional? Did you just have different gear lying around that led you to start trying out different things? Or you had been listening to different stuff? What do you think brought you in a slightly different direction? Do you know?
Diaz: I think, personally, being down here just relaxed me somehow. I was letting myself, melodically, be more open and free, and instead of thinking so hard about everything I was about to sing and say, I was trying to be more honest to myself, I guess.
Paste: Not be so self-conscious?
Paste: How about you, Kyle? Where were you coming from in that period when you started making these subtle shifts?
Ryan: I think we’re both multi-angled. I listen to a lot of music. And, to some extent, I just started to get into that kind of music when I was in Boston, that kind of more like strip-it-down acoustic whatever music. But, in reality, it was a phase. I’ve always been into all sorts of classic acoustic-songwriter types. But the reality is, I’m also really into Radiohead, and I was really into Wilco—the more I wrote, the more it was like, “I’ll write 10 songs that sound like this, but I’m not gonna write 30.” So once we had written so many songs, it was just kind of like, “OK, ehhh, I’m done.” Like, what do we sound like now? And pulling on different influences and different—all the things that go into a song.
Diaz: There was definitely a realization that, in that genre, you’re just kind of putting yourself in a box and limiting yourself with what you can—at least I can’t do anything new with that sound. There are other people, like Patty Griffin, who did a fucking great job. She’s Patty Griffin, you know?
Paste: You don’t feel the need to rehash it.
Diaz: Yeah. I don’t think I can really say anything new in that genre.
Paste: People who tend toward a more traditional sound—it’s great that there are people out there who want to preserve these kinds of traditions. But, as an artist, it must be really difficult. Even me—someone who’s an amateur musician, someone who just makes music purely for fun, I want to do a million different things: I want to make a metal record! I want to make a surf-guitar record! Because you’re into so many different things and you’ll hear something and be like, “I want to do that.”
Ryan: We have an imaginary side project, The Street Babies, which is like Dirty South hip-hop.
Paste: I was just gonna say, “I want to make a rap record, too.”
Diaz: Yeah, see? We’re already there.
Paste: I sound stupid rapping, though.
Diaz: Me, too. We’ll fix that. We’re just going to drop you like three octaves.
Paste: [Lowers voice] Dirty South.
Diaz: [Laughs] Yeah, Dirty Dirty South South!
Ryan: That’s the thing, I have a friend who also sounds stupid, but we just pitch his voice down and his voice sounds great. It’s like Chali 2na.
Paste: So—imaginary side projects aside—are you working on anything now? What’s next for you?
Diaz: Bonnaroo. We’ve got a tour. We’ll be back on the 25th and then we’re just kind of hanging around and hopefully hashing things out in the studio…
Paste: Start working on some new stuff?
Paste: Do you have a lot written already?
Diaz: Oh, yeah.
Ryan: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of new songs, and even a couple off the EP that we’ve been revisiting. I was saying earlier, I have a place [to record] with a couple friends, and so that’s been really nice to have more freedom and have things be a little more open-ended, just to really delve into ourselves. At the same time, again like we were talking about earlier, we’re also just checking out different opportunities for what a full-length might be. I guess the short answer is: a full-length.
Paste: So are you going to be looking for a label for this new album, or put it out yourselves?
Diaz: I think it’s funny because there isn’t a single artist out there, I’m sure, who wouldn’t take the most perfect record deal. If the right record deal came along, like the perfect deal, we’d definitely take it. But it’s so hard these days to just figure out where you’re sitting, and where the economy’s sitting, and where the labels are sitting, and whether you’re gonna get dropped on your ass in two seconds…
Ryan: More importantly, on the other end of that, we’re not gonna take a shitty deal. Because you don’t need to.
Paste: You really don’t. There are so many things you can do now to just go direct to the people.
Ryan: So we’re just gonna do it on our own, and if something comes along, that’s great, but we’ll just keep going.
Diaz: Keep trucking.
Paste: Madi, when you were younger, you were a student in the documentary Rock School, which was the inspiration for the Jack Black movie School of Rock. I’m sure it’s really interesting having had that experience. What was it was like for you? Do you regret doing it or do you not? What do you think of it now, looking back?
Diaz: You know, it’s funny, because I’d say for my freshman year in college I was doing everything in my power to hide the fact that I had ever had any association with the Paul Green School of Rock Music, because it was like this bruise. It was such a sore subject.
Paste: I couldn’t imagine having been that age—no matter what I was doing—and having to go back and look at that point in my life on film.
Diaz: Oh God, its awful—so awful. And, you know, I don’t know if you’ve seen the damn thing. Kyle actually hasn’t. Kyle’s never seen it, and I think he’s making it one of his goals to never see it, which I’m totally OK with. [Laughs] I think that’s awesome. But it’s just—Paul and I butted heads. There were a lot of clips in the movie, and a lot of scenes where I was actually crying. And I’m this 16-year-old girl, you know, like crying because this 35-year-old dude is telling me that I suck and, “Who the fuck do I think I am?” and all this crazy stuff, and I’m just like, “This is awful!” And I was definitely a brat on some levels, but you should still never tell a 16-year-old girl—anyway, I don’t know. It was an incredible experience. And I think it made me a pretty strong, opinionated and pretty unafraid person.
Paste: How did you get involved with the school in the first place?
Diaz: Actually, a friend of mine. I was screwing around on guitar when I was 14, on acoustic—I was trying to teach myself and learn how to play and was writing songs and went and did this open mic, and this kid came up to me and was like, “You should come and do this thing.” And I went in and I played a Sheryl Crow song. Paul will always say, “I was surprised that she had the guts to play a Sheryl Crow song, and I was appalled that she played a Sheryl Crow song.” So that was kind of how I got there. It was awesome.
Paste: Do you keep in touch with people you knew from that period?
Diaz: Yeah, I definitely do. You know, just high-school friends. They’re just good people. Every time I go back to Philly, that’s the majority of the people I knew and hung out with from high school. [Laughs] And it’s a funny thing, ’cause Paul kicked me out of the school literally like four or five times. I was working for him at certain points, so he’d fire me and kick me out and be like, [manly voice] “You’re not going to this show, and you’re not going to go do this show,” and then he’d take me back in. We left on really terrible terms, but now we’re super-cordial to each other. Every once in a while, he’ll drop an email and say, “I heard this about you—that’s a nice thing. Good work there, buddy.” And that’s where we keep it.
Madi Diaz from Ben Coleman on Vimeo.