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Expressions of Truth

Inside Madi Carr's confident, honest approach to art, music and life

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Musical instruments can be learned. Voices can be trained. Scales can be mastered. Creativity can be conjured. But fearlessness, humility, confidence and sincerity: These are traits that, in true artists, often seem to spring forth fully formed. Maybe such gifts take time to emerge; maybe they struggle to find an appropriate outlet. But they’re baked in, intrinsic. “You get good at this stuff early, or probably not at all.”

I read that line, written in March by author Adam Gopnik about theater impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber, the morning before meeting Madi Carr. Wherever this 17-year-old Jacksonville Beach resident performs—the intimate environs of Blue Jay Listening Room, a humid outdoor stage at Florida Folk Festival, a live broadcast for WJCT—her presence stands out. She sings with force, strums her acoustic guitar with intensity, and communicates with a troubadour’s brio. Her words, her notes and her stories have an impact that’s impossible to resist.

She’s just as direct in person. Over coffee at Bold Bean, she focuses her piercing eyes straight ahead, as if scanning the world for song material. Though she considers herself introverted, she openly discusses everything: the intricacies of her influences, the lessons she’s learned as a working musician, the dreams she plans to achieve tomorrow, next week and next year. Unlike most teenagers, Carr is dismissive of social media, zealous about honoring tradition, and forthright about her own vulnerabilities as an artist.

She loves going to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, even if she yearns to break free from the vocal program’s required operatic training. She reveres her childhood in Crystal River, where she swam with manatees, sang Johnny Cash tunes at karaoke bars with her dad, and picked up the local talent for storytelling. But she acknowledges the small town’s lack of educational opportunities, remembering how she “stuck out as the really artsy kid,” and praises her parents for moving the family to Duval County so she could attend LaVilla Middle School of the Arts.

In short, Madi Carr’s steadfast confidence can be downright unnerving. When asked to describe the timeless appeal of folk music, she doesn’t miss a beat: “People throughout history have had the same goals and feelings. I think music is a medium to express that.” Everyone interviewed for this story responded with a variation of what veteran songwriter Mike Shackelford said of Carr: “an old soul with a young spirit.” Other non-hyperbolic claims from established Jacksonville performers, promoters, producers and educators include “straight from the heart,” “committed” and “professional,” her success held up as “karmic.” A few even dared to compare the young woman to Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin.

Carr learned to play the piano at age 7, started voice lessons at age 8, and then added the ukulele, guitar, harmonica, bass and mandolin to her repertoire before she turned 16. As a solo artist, she covers Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Judee Sill and Dave Van Ronk. She cherishes her time traveling around Florida on the folk festival circuit, where in-the-round songwriters’ circles and late-night campfire jams are the norm.

Most impressive, Madi has self-released an EP, Florida Dreams, and recorded another to be released soon, pulling from her catalog of nearly 30 original songs—all before she’s even decided where she’ll go to college. “Songwriting is a universal art form,” she says. “I love literature and poetry, but music has such a transcendental quality that words don’t have. Writing songs allows me to combine these two arts, preserving my thoughts and experiences in something beautiful.”

Carr isn’t all lofty-artist-speak all the time, however. In fact, she’s more likely to talk about the nuts and bolts of her process than anything else. She wrote her first song when she was 11, right around the time she and her family left Crystal River. “It’s such a magical place,” she says. Digging into the details of the song “The Lolly Shack,” about a legendary river denizen who lived before man was “dominated by standardized manufactured dreams,” when “seclusion from society was such a beautiful thing,” Carr says. “Storytelling has become such a lost art. With technology, we’re surrounded by new content and new info, and society [demands more] new and exciting things. But there’s an entire world wrapped up in tall tales about people like Lolly that’s being left behind. He existed less than 100 years ago, and people haven’t even delved into his history.”

Learning that lost art is one of Carr’s biggest points of pride, even as she looks to the future. “You can’t completely revive old war and pioneer songs—time moves forward,” she says. “But there are a lot of lessons from the old stuff that can be incorporated into today’s music.” So far, so good with Carr’s original music. Her incisive eye is particularly impressive when trained on the day-to-day stresses of high school. “The Czech Poet,” about a former classmate at Douglas Anderson, reflects her belief that “it’s a lot easier to write songs about people than it is to talk to them.” Full of sharp observational details, it’s heartbreaking that said poet doesn’t know the song is about him—even though that’s exactly the way the girl likes it. “I love concept albums,” she says, highlighting David Bowie and The Who as two of her favorites. “But I can’t do that. I write about things that have happened to me—and living like a real person helps you write more truthfully. I like to get to the core of that.”

Carr’s songs land with immediate emotional impact, even though she swears she doesn’t have a specific goal in mind when she sits down to write. Instead, she’s scanning the horizons of life, landing on a subject and drilling into it with concision and, sometimes, cynicism. In “Math,” Madi sings passionately about how life should be more open to interpretation—not “black or white but gray,” operating in defiance of the “mechanical pieces and parts” she professes to hate. “If you don’t know what to say/Turn it into math,” she sings in the chorus, surely stealing the heart of every literature-loving high-schooler who’s ever lived.

“Art shouldn’t have any predetermined meaning behind it,” she says. “If a form of art is good enough, the meaning will come after its creation. That’s why I love music: Anybody can interpret it any way they want. That’s the purpose music serves. It’s a way to guide your thoughts and form them into opinions.”

You can tell by now that Madi Carr’s songs come straight from the heart. Shawn Pendry, who teaches Vocal Music at LaVilla Middle, agrees. “Her style is formed from respect for the many great artists who came before her and the pursuit of her own original sound,” Pendry says. “She is quick to acknowledge her songwriting heroes and role models, but she doesn’t copy them at all. She uses what she learned from them to create her original performances and great lyrics.” Looking back to when he first encountered the teenager seven years ago, when she was a mere 10-year-old, he adds, “Even back then, she was able to look forward artistically to what she wanted to do. Now that she’s older, she’s walking straight toward those opportunities and taking every one of them.”

That confidence is obvious as soon as you watch Madi Carr commandeer a microphone, relating her love of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the contemporaneous details of Dave Van Ronk’s 1962 classic “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” one of her favorite covers. “I used to get nervous before I performed, but now it’s more like I’m excited to get on stage,” she says. “I really love the music that I write and the songs that I choose to cover, and I’m confident in how I perform them. That’s my zone. Time really does stand still when I’m playing and singing.”

Entering her senior year at Douglas Anderson, Carr has had plenty of opportunities to slip into that zone. If there’s a folk festival in the state of Florida, she’s played it. She recently performed at the annual China Cat Sunflower Festival in Springfield and aboard the St. Johns River Taxi for the first time. She’s opened countless shows at Blue Jay Listening Room—this summer, she supported Los Angeles’ Cristina Vane, along with St. Augustine bands Remedy Tree and The Bridge Street Vibe. She’s started playing more gigs with her Talking Heads-inspired band, Subdivision, at Planet Sarbez in St. Augustine. More recently, she mixed it up with the star-studded Sing Out Loud Festival lineup, and soundtracked the Riverside Arts Market on Sept. 22. This weekend, she appears at the Lake County Folk Fest on Oct. 6 and 7, plays a benefit concert for the Sierra Club at Mudville Music Room on Oct. 16, and celebrates Florida’s pioneer traditions at Barberville Fall Jamboree on Nov. 3 and 4.

“I never pass up an opportunity for a gig,” Carr says. “I feel like each time I play, I learn something new or find something new to improve upon. It’s also forced me to learn how to be professional—and, since I’m an introverted person, it’s gotten me out of my comfort zone as far as introducing myself to people.” She acknowledges how lucky she is that music has managed to become her job (and a far better one than most of her high school friends have) while remaining her passion. “It’s financially possible to be a musician, even though a lot of people don’t understand that,” she says. “You don’t have to be a starving artist.”

In other words, she can see a viable path ahead, which is precisely the biggest lesson that local influence Mere Woodard has imparted to her protégé. When Carr was 12, Mere helped her transform technical skills into songwriting chops, giving Madi specific prompts that included rewriting lyrics to songs she already knew. “She was dying to write folk music,” Woodard laughs. “By choice, she wasn’t exposing herself to anything made after the 1970s. But I completely understood that: I, too, was wearing bellbottoms and quoting Joni Mitchell at 13. I just wanted her to know all the possibilities that were out there while she was developing her style.”

Five years later, Woodard stands in awe of Carr’s growth. “When we first started lessons, Madi couldn’t wait to get her braces off and hated going to opera class. Now, she’s tracked an album and is out there being a badass—and she hasn’t even graduated from high school!” Raving about the vitality and sincerity of Carr’s songs, Woodward adds, “Madi is so focused, nothing is going to stop her. I used to say, ‘Don’t give yourself a hard life just to have something to write songs about.’ Now, she feeds her inner rebel with her music—that’s my favorite kind of artist.”

That may be the most valuable skill she’s picked up from the folk festival community, Carr says. She treasures its spontaneity and camaraderie, unlike the highly structured curriculum at her nationally acclaimed school of the arts. “With classical music, you rehearse the crap of it, reading notes on the page,” Madi says. “You don’t make the decisions. When you’re jamming around the fire and everyone starts playing a song you’ve never heard before, you look at people’s hands to learn the chords. You understand the flow of the music better. Instead of it being a technical thing, it takes you back to what music used to be—an organic form of expression. An expression of truth.”

Don’t take that to mean that Carr doesn’t value her education at Douglas Anderson. “I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” she says. “The kids want to be there, and the teachers want to teach.” No regrets, she laughs, “even if I’m training to be that classical vocalist who sings opera and Latin when all I want to do is the music I do outside of school.” Carr admits that such training has strengthened her voice significantly, and that the requisite attention to detail has made her a better musician. With a sly smile, she adds, “You have to learn the rules to break them, and Douglas Anderson has made me want to break all the music rules even more.”

That’s evident when comparing Carr’s first EP, which was recorded in the studio of LA-by-way-of-Jacksonville band Complicated Animals, and the material she recorded this summer at Straight Path Sound Studios in Lakeland. “Making Florida Dreams was a really good first experience, but it sounded so clean,” the adolescent prodigy says. “This time, I played all the instruments and went for a rougher, older sound. The less time I put in on my vocals, the happier I am. Bob Dylan’s voice was so nasal and rough, but it was honest. Janis Joplin, all she did was scream, but that was very honest. My whole life, I’ve always been attracted to the people who are most truthful with their lyrics and their sound. I don’t like things to be too pre-rehearsed.”

Therein lies the brightest potential for Madi Carr. She’s done everything right up to this point: focusing on her education, taking all the necessary lessons, paying tribute to major influences while following the instruction of local mentors. She praises her parents for their unwavering support. She looks back fondly on her co-starring role with a 10-piece rock orchestra in Richard Borders’ presentation of the musical Imagine John Lennon. She relishes the chance to subsume her own frontwoman tendencies with her band Subdivision, in which she switches between bass and keys (and, for the most part, does not sing lead vocals). In a testament to her humility, she doesn’t even mention the master classes she’s returned to LaVilla to teach on how middle-schoolers can comfortably find their own artistic voices.

But with her final year at Douglas Anderson upon her and the future as much of an oyster as it will ever be, now Madi Carr gets to call her own shots. She’s considering college at University of Florida in Gainesville, since that’s where the late, great Tom Petty was born and grew to love music, and the city has a thriving independent music scene. Her short-term goal is to fill the slots at bigger folk festivals in Newport, Rhode Island and Kerrville, Texas. She might do a stint in Asheville or Austin, where she can break free from her folk focus and start a rock band, working her way up while crafting her own specific path forward. “No matter where I go, I know I’ll stick out from everyone else,” Madi says. “That’s the way the world works, and that’s OK. I struggle with it, but I also take a lot of pride in it—it’s a weird dynamic within myself. But I know I’m lucky I got such an early start as a musician. That makes attaining my dream seem more realistic.”

Right now, her dream is clear: pursuing a major in social work, psychology or criminology, with a focus on educational and literary activism for underserved Native American communities. Fronting a band and touring “while I’m young and have the freedom to do that.” Communing with nature as much as possible since “environmental and transcendentalist values really form the core of who I am.” And constantly learning more about her particular conception of art with what former teacher Shawn Pendry calls “humility, enormous talent and a complete lack of both observable hubris and any fear of failure.”

“Art is not only just about people, but it comes from people—it’s for people,” Carr says. “That’s why I don’t worry about how my amp sounds or how fancy my guitar is. If your songs are good enough, people aren’t going to notice your equipment. And even if you have the best equipment, if there’s no feeling behind your music, the audience won’t feel anything.”

That line I read before meeting Madi Carr rattles around in my head: “You get good at this stuff early, or probably not at all.” I don’t want to sound too much on-the-nose by bringing it up, and it turns out I don’t need to. Madi looks me right in the eye as she describes her life; the Joni Mitchell comparisons and “old soul” descriptions feel eerily right. Even as I reminisce about a show put on by North Florida folk legends Bob and Jolene Patterson way back in 2001, mere months after Madi was born, this 35-year-old writer is now being schooled by a 17-year-old songwriter. Madi knows Bob and Jolene—she’s familiar with their happiness on stage and the easy grace they exhibit while reinterpreting classic Florida folk traditions.

Nodding vigorously, she finishes: “You either have that passion—that joy for performing—or you don’t.” Spoken like a true master.

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