Wise beyond her years

Madison Cunningham silenced the crowd with just a few notes, matching her black electric guitar in an off-the-shoulder dress last Tuesday night at the Mondavi Center. The 20-year-old opened for the Punch Brothers, the famed country-classical quintet.

Cunningham was a combination of Melody Gardot and Norah Jones, wrapping her smooth voice around the crowd. She played with no band, just her lyrics and electric guitar, though at times they seemed like one in the same. Her first song was “When Love Loves Alone” from her second album Love, Lose, Remember, which released March of this year. Her next song was one of her latest releases, “Beauty Into Cliches,” with powerful lyrics such as, “They combed sense through her hair / straightening out her curls.”

Though all of Cunningham’s songs were captivating, the most powerful was “I Close My Eyes,” a song about a conversation with her past self. She told the crowd just before beginning it, “If I could go back in time and listen to my younger self, I’d like to know what she has to say.”

Cunningham’s guitar playing is full of solos and complexities you might imagine coming from an older musician, tackling more than the struggles of young, failing love that we hear from other singer-songwriters her age. While her music goes deeper in its discussion of beauty, truth, religion and reflection, her songs and experiences are still quite believable. We can hear it in her voice—Cunningham has a wise, old soul.

When I asked about her lyrics, she said, “Lyrics are the part I slave over the hardest. I really care about the content people think about when they hear good music.” When I asked about her lyrical creativity, she referred to Joni Mitchell. “She gave herself permission to write about almost anything. It was like reading a diary of hers.”

Cunningham ended her set with her latest single “All At Once,” a too-cool, angsty tune, and “Something to Believe In” singing “Dreams are born to grow or to die / and tear and spring again in the Summer air.” These lyrics may reflect Cunningham’s experience making her way into the music industry, and her never-ending dream to write, play and perform beautiful music. Cunningham is on tour through the fall with the Punch Brothers. Listen to her on iTunes and Spotify.