Sep 15, 2021
By Celine Teo-Blockey
Photography by Natalie Osborne and Lili Peper
That moment in a relationship where two lives become completely entwined can seem like are a couple’s nirvana, until things start to fall apart. Then it’s a co-dependency with all the unhealthy connotations that entails. Nashville-based singer/songwriter Madi Diaz chronicles this in History of a Feeling after her breakup from long-term partner Teddy Geiger, who has since come out as transgender.
“Man In Me” attempts to get at the gendered complexities with tender hearted reflections of their turmoil while “Woman In My Heart” makes no secret of the extent of the betrayal. “Crying In Public” documents how grief can follow us despite our best efforts. And now that we’re all getting schooled in the fallacy of gender binaries, it is “Nervous” that lifts the curtain on the new pitfalls lurking in social couplings. “I have so many perspectives, I’m losing perspective,” she sings with a dash of self-loathing and a knowing wink.
Her longest break between studio albums, Diaz drove herself from Los Angeles to Nashville to put some space between her and the life she once had. She then took her time writing the songs that became History of a Feeling. At a low point in her professional career, her manager helped her fund the album, before ANTI- came to the table. “They value artistry,” she says of the label whose roster includes Tom Waits and Cass McCombs, “I’ve never felt so supported and encouraged by a team before.”
Today, in a refreshed state of mind with a lightness to her, Diaz speaks to us from her Nashville apartment. She reveals that though much has been made about her relationship not being strong enough to survive Geiger’s transition in 2017, in truth, things ended under less extraordinary circumstances.
Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): So how are you? How does it feel to have this album out—are you excited? Nervous? Second thoughts?
Madi Diaz: Second thoughts [laughs], I’ve gotten over the cold feet. And now I’m just kind of ready to get it done, get on the road. I wrote this record for three years and then mixed the record and I’m just like, “Okay, how do we get on to the next thing? I’m not sad anymore. Let’s go.”
I spent so much time with this album. I love “Nervous” in particular. It’s such a perfect kind of pop song to me. It’s got the right bit of everything. Then “Man In Me” had a totally different mood and it really moved me. Break ups are seldom straightforward but yours had this whole other layer of complications. Are you the kind of songwriter that writes to make sense of things you’re going through?
Yeah. I really needed to just kind of jump in the deep end and start swimming. And I think the space did help. I did end up writing, somewhere around 150 and 200 songs for this record. So, you know, I definitely had a lot to say but sometimes it takes me walking around the thing, taking 30 laps around the central idea to really feel like I’ve hit it on the head. And some of the themes of the songs didn’t really feel like they gave like a very clear idea of what I wanted to impart with the record—or at least what I wanted to let go of and get past. I definitely needed to just get in there before I lost the potency of each feeling.
You mentioned writing a lot for this album, was there a point when you finally went “Okay, I’m over this now!”
Oh yeah. I think when you go through whatever profound life altering experience, there is this moment where you are faced with this decision of, “Well, I could either leave with this thing, and let it define how I am in this room or with my friends or these people or whatever. Or I can let each thing that happens just be a thing that happens. And not a thing that defines who I am.”
It’s sort of sitting with the feeling and thinking, “It’s really bad, but it’s okay.” I feel with grief—when someone’s going through a breakup or someone dies—we want to move people along really quickly.
Totally. And I come from a buck up and get over it-kind of family. And so that was hard for me. This was one the few times and that I couldn’t just let it roll off my back and keep walking forward. I really had to sit with myself, and what I was dealing with in the aftermath of my own giant life transitions. And step into a totally new direction—where I didn’t know where I was going. I had lost sight of what I was about. And in the songwriting, what I was going for was like in those early days after a relationship when we were super co-dependent. You listen to a lot of songs, all these incredible love songs are literally “I can’t live without you.” And you’re just like, “Oh God, that’s not good.” So how do we say that in a healthier way? But then when you say it in a healthier way it doesn’t get you the way that co-dependency does—you know what I mean? Co-dependency is one of my favorite drugs, next to like nostalgia.
Sure. It’s addictive.
It’s hard to detach from that. And so I was super co-dependent with this person and I had to look at that, and at myself, and my career. I felt like I was nothing without them. And then I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have music career anymore? And so I was redefining myself too. And I got a bar job and was doing music for solace, as opposed to a day job. And it wasn’t for forever. I feel super weird and lucky to be sitting where I am now and have this opportunity to do this again. I call it like literally my worst gambling habit. I keep walking back into the casino, I’ve got a full fucking hand this time—I get addicted to the stuff. I think I’m going to win. I’m like “I’ve got this.” [Laughs]
So you were writing music to make yourself feel better as opposed to writing as like a métier, or as a craft?
Right. Writing wasn’t going to pay my bills. Writing doesn’t really pay my bills. Songwriters don’t make a whole lot of money. Even in Nashville, like daily or monthly draw writers, we don’t make a lot. We hardly make minimum wage. We don’t make money. So, you know, with that kind of knowledge and without having a publishing deal—by the time I left L.A. to come back to Nashville, I was out of my publishing deal—I didn’t have any record deals. I didn’t have any management deals. I had no deals.
No more cards. No more deals.
Yeah, man. No more cards, no slots, no more fun casino chips. I’m the girl working at the bar that some random person from Warner Music is asking for a margarita. And then they’re like, “Oh, are you Madi Diaz?” And I’m like, “Do you want salt with that?”—you know what I mean? And I’m like, “Fuck me, this is crazy!”
That must have been brutal?
Totally brutal. Hold on. There’s a spider on my piano and I hate spiders. Give me two seconds. I’m trying not to freak out right now. Hahhh it’s so big.
[Off camera as she tries to swipe the spider Madi tells me killing spiders is her boyfriend’s job. But there’s a thump and she’s off the creepy crawly.]
You mentioned in the press release that you felt torn because half of you wanted to hold this person through such a major life event and the other half felt like you were lost, like you’d lost yourself in someone else’s story. How did you begin to reclaim yourself again? Was driving alone from California to Nashville a start? Sometimes, geography makes all the difference. What it was like to be in that truck driving away?
I definitely lingered in L.A. for a minute while I was trying to find the gumption to go. I moved out of, like I was living in my ex’s house at the time and I put all my stuff in my truck and I basically parked it in my friend’s garage for a month and then went to Nashville. It gave me some space and a little bit of the courage to go back, get my shit and get out of there. I went back to L.A. for about a week and I wrote “Woman in My Heart.” But before I officially left, I drove around in a daze. It’s so weird, when you go out on the road by yourself, you’re the master of your own destiny. So, getting on the highway is this ridiculous moment—all of a sudden all this stuff comes up, like, oh, I should stop at the grocery store. And I should grab a coffee at that place with my buddy. And make sure that I’m going to stop at that gas station to pee really quick. I spent like four hours trying to get out of the neighborhood. And finally I got on the road and it was hard man, you know—because everything reminds you of that person initially. You turn on the radio and you’re like, “The radio, we used to listen to the radio together. And we used to drive in the car together. We used to, like, breathe air together.” It’s just that moment of …everything… it’s hard to walk away from. And then you remember that you’re breathing the air, you can breathe air by yourself. And you can listen to the radio yourself. You don’t need to have that other person. They aren’t enmeshed in your every waking moment. But it just takes you know… [pause] I can imagine it’s something like really intense sobriety, which I think we’re all slowly crawling towards.
This is such a weird time as well, to be in COVID and try to pull ourselves out of something difficult that we have to leave behind.
Totally. It just feels like you’re living through everything…it’s a weird thing to feel that, maybe that’s depression. I don’t know, that’s some unchecked shit, but you feel like you’re getting through it. You have a shit day and you’re like, “Man, I cannot get to bed soon enough just so I can try again tomorrow.” And the next day, and the next—and at some point, you wake up and you’re smiling because the sky is blue and for no other reason other than you are looking at the sky. And you’re like, “Man, the sky is just awesome.”
“New Person, Old Place” perfectly articulates what we’re talking—it’s so much easier to start fresh when the wallpaper and everything else is different.
It’s a relief. And it’s funny because in some way Nashville is an old place for me. I moved here right after college. I’d been working here and stuff like that, but I hadn’t lived here in six years and it felt perfectly new. And old. There was so much stuff that I was trying to get away from in my head that even just creating a new place in my mind, and new patterns in my head was good. I live in a one-bedroom apartment by myself, in East Nashville. I’ve never lived in this apartment before. It’s creating or carving new pathways for yourself, I mean it’s therapy, therapy, therapy. Or Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. You say it three times. It’ll appear. When I wrote “New Person, Old Place” I hadn’t gotten to that place yet, but I did believe that it was on the other side of this thing that I was going through. And I was kind of hoping that I was going to slingshot myself into a new future based off something that I was saying out loud. I was high on manifesting. [Laughs] I’ve heard that it works for some people.
It’s worth a try.
I’m rolling all the dices anyway. Why not?
Certain songwriters, they write their futures. Sometimes they completely realize that’s what they want and other times it’s unconscious. But it comes out in the song.
Yes. One 100 percent! There was a couple of moments in writing and finishing this record that I was like, “Man, I know I didn’t write my future because I definitely was trying to keep it so present tense.” But that feels like a place that I’ve been kind of playing with recently where I’m trying to talk about my present desires more and then be like, “Holy fuck, how did I just survive all that?”
How is your “present” coming along?
Honestly, So far, so good. I feel like I’ve been sending my manager some songs and he’s like, “Is this a love song?” Eww… [Laughs]
Oh, that’s nice.
It’s cute. I’ve been in a good relationship that I’m really happy about. And it’s nice to be hopeful. Even if the hope is always tinged with that stark knowing that nothing is certain, and nothing is ever for sure. We could all get hit by a bus tomorrow so why not just say all the things you want to say. I used to have a really hard time being in a relationship and writing music, because I was just so freaked out over whatever I could say, freaking them out…. But life is short and it’s good to get everything out on the table real fast because if it’s going to explode, it’s going to explode. And if it’s not, maybe it won’t.
As a creative person, I imagine you come up against that all the time—what stories we’re allowed to tell about ourselves.
Totally. We were talking about that the other day. If a story comes from two people experiencing the same thing, do you have any copyright or ownership over your narrative? And I’m like, “Isn’t that the case with everything?” That’s how a song is, like a book is written. That’s the human experience. And I would never deny somebody expressing or experiencing, and then retelling their human experience, no matter how. But I feel it’s hard, like in the current state of things, and cancel culture and in so many different areas people say that they don’t believe in censorship. But everybody seems real quick to be like, “You can’t say that. You’re done here…” I feel we got to keep throwing up our hands and just trying. I feel like that’s really the thing that I’m the most interested in, especially right now, is we’re clearly developing so many kinds of languages to talk about really difficult issues that need to be talked about. We’re definitely in Pioneertown right now, it’s the wild freaking west and everyone’s getting shot, all the time.
There is definitely a frontier quality about the themes you’re writing about. There is something so rule-breaking, direct, and authentic about “Think of Me” which is about wanting your old partner to think of you when they’re in bed with someone new.
Wherever you are I hope you’re obsessed with me and go fuck yourself. [Laughs] I feel like the more that I think about how to write a song, the less sure I become of how to write a song. And I think it has to be so instinctual and then you can take a raw instinct and shape that as you’re going. But you can’t stifle that first initial, inspired instinct that you have. The verse of “Think of Me” was very free flowing and it came out of nowhere. I was writing it with a friend—it actually ended up on my friend’s record—the two of us were in the studio together.
Was that Verité?
Yeah. She’s like super New York, total bad bitch. I consider myself direct and she scares me! I feel really special working with another artist—it’s such a compliment when artists come in with really intense, clear ideas, and I just remember her saying, “I hope you fuck her with your eyes closed.” And I was just like, “Fuck yeah, dude, let go.” And we were just riffing off of each other. And I’m so proud of how intense and hilarious and sweet Disney princess almost that song kind of comes off.
Photo by Lili Peper
So let’s talk about “Nervous” how did you write that?
I started it at my kitchen table. It was one of those days that I just was so sick of myself, sick of talking about the same thing over and over again. I was ready to turn some sort of page. I was really trying to jump start my battery and kind of wrote it pretty much—not start to finish—but it was very free flow. I got the idea down in two minutes and then it just sat there for six months and I didn’t touch it. Eventually, I finished it with my friend down the street—it was like when you’re sick of doing homework and you don’t want to finish the thing by yourself because it’s just boring. I feel really lucky to have a couple of people that I love finishing songs with that speak the same language as me. I went over to his house and I showed him this idea. And those hits were always there like [sings it] “Make me nervous, make me nervous”—those I always knew I needed to be so rambunctious and spastic. It was just kind of that from the get go.
And you wanted the songs to be conversational right? But why?
Well, there are songs that didn’t make it on the record, that are almost too conversational, a little bit too candid and rambling. And so there were just these very clear, concise thoughts that came to the surface. These very visceral moments or images that I would get into writing songs like “Crying In Public” and “Forever.” Like ‘Forever’ was so bizarre to me. It felt like we had breached some sort of veil between past, present, and future. Every song on the record conjured a gut reaction for me. I tried playing a lot of these songs live and the ones that didn’t make the record I noticed… Sometimes when you’re performing a song live, you can zone out and be like, “What’s on TV back there?” Or wondering if they’ll have burrito backstage for a dinner option. You find your mind wandering. And with the songs that ended up on the record, I just felt every word.
What did you learn about yourself in writing this record?
When I was in L.A., even though I had walked away from my solo project, I had started a band and was in another band. Honestly, I was taking shitty jobs writing like wallpaper, like online background music and weirdly, honing a lot of skills that at the time probably could have been considered pretty useless. I think the biggest thing I learned is that every very single thing that you do—whether it’s the month you spent pretending you’re going to write a book or the year bartending or having like a total, identity crisis. Then in your bar job, you look up equine massage therapy school and completely reconsider whatever it is that you are trying to do. I mean literally every single thing has been so weirdly helpful. And one of the bands that I was in, taught me how to be this guitar player that I never was for myself before. I always hired a guitar player. And now that I’m on the other side of so much stuff, I played all the guitars on the record. I played the piano. I am just so much more of a musician than I even was before, which is a cool, weird trick. Even recording over quarantine; I have this Apogee Duet sitting in the corner of my apartment for months and I just didn’t touch it. Finally, I put the big girl pants on. And I was like, damn, why didn’t I think of doing this sooner. Obviously, there are so many women that have led the way but in the grand scheme of things, not that many. It’s PJ Harvey, Kathleen Hanna, Courtney Love. And, you know, these women have had to fight tooth and nail to be these huge pillars that they are. And there’s so many talented women out there. And it’s just crazy to me that I didn’t let myself do it. There’s this weird permission factor.
There’s that internalized sexism that women can have.
Yeah. Then there’s also this “give-a-fuck” meter that starts to drop. I think once you hit 30, you’re just like “I don’t really know if I’m going to suck.” But it’s okay, you can suck!
This record also gives a more nuanced portrait of what it might be like to help a partner go through a transition.
For the record, my partner didn’t transition until after we broke up, so the transition happened after the fact. For some reason, it’s easier to get yourself through a grieving period when you create this fictional other person that represents this person in your relationship. And you’re kind of talking to them through, you know, your own heartbreak and your own grief and your realizations—because you just don’t play those roles for each other anymore. There’s a reason that you’re going through these things alone because you’re not together. And I think that “Man In Me” was a really big idea. And I didn’t even know what was happening for so long with us. I just knew that there was something bigger than me in the relationship that was surfacing. So what happened, happened!… “Man In Me” is a very slow, visceral unpacking. It’s like when you leave the suitcase in the corner of your room—we all have for like a month—before you put away two things. I have two suitcases literally right now that I’m doing that with. So no wonder it took me nine months to write this one.
It was worth the work you put into it. “Man In Me” has so many layers to it. And that line “about shiny things and finding them on their knees” it’s so cryptic yet poignant in revealing what your partner then might have been going through and it just makes me marvel, how did you make it through all of it?
Human beings. We’re so weirdly resilient. It’s wild. We survive and adapt. And also when you have a connection with somebody and you want to honor and respect that person, you figure out how to fit all of that into one package.
I saw this interview with Shirley Manson, from Garbage—
Ooh, I Love her.
She said, “What is gender even? Gender will not exist anymore.” And I feel your story goes some way to normalize a certain experience with trans people. But when I was listening to all these songs, in the end, in one of the lyrics somewhere, maybe it was “Forever”—you’re talking not about someone who’s transitioning. You’re talking about betrayal.
Yeah. 100 percent.
And so at the end of the day, this relationship didn’t work not because it was this strange thing. That’s not what made you break up. It’s like every other relationship, it’s trust and betrayal.
That’s exactly it. It’s the trust and the betrayal. And that’s just what’s—wow, I feel like you’re one of the two people who actually grasped that. It’s really just human, and yeah, I don’t think gender is going to exist. And when it gets bad in a relationship, some relationships they have to end. And ours just did. There’s a reason that I have an ex. I don’t really talk to my exes. I don’t have relationships with my exes. They’re my ex for a reason, you know, and that’s okay. Wherever she is, I hope she’s happy now.