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Why Haven’t You Heard of Maddie Ross Yet?

The lesbian pop star talks to Knock LA at a birthday live show at Junior High

Photo of Maddie Ross
Photo by Lou Roy

Maddie Ross is moving forward. If you don’t already know about her, I’ll give you the tweet-sized version: Maddie Ross makes good old-fashioned fun, guitar-driven pop music. Her songs are often about women loving women. It’s such a compelling subject-style fit that it boggles the mind that it isn’t already everywhere. And Maddie could change that.

There’s some special cocktail in Maddie’s music that makes it especially listenable. The cheerful, bright melodies, catchy hooks, pitch-perfect voice, and especially the lyrics meld together to make something that would otherwise perhaps feel like a guilty pleasure, lose all the guilt. For someone Millenial-aged, it has a throwback quality to it, yet the lyrics are decidedly futuristic. Certainly no one I’m aware of was making music like this in the late 90s and early 2000s way. And yet as the decades come back around, as they always do, Maddie’s style seems right on time.

Maddie recently played a show on her birthday at local queer palace Junior High with other LA scene icons Cowboy Boy and Suzie True, a step forward into a new phase of her career. She had released several EPs, as well as her debut LP with her romantic partner and longtime collaborator Wolfy, only to be dumped over the phone shortly after. Now she is working with new collaborators and charting her path to new music that is uniquely hers. In 2021 she has released two new singles dealing with kicking a past relationship to the curb and developing a crush on someone new, respectively. From the sound of them and the exuberant live performance, Maddie is thriving and her sound is as sharp as ever.

I got a chance to talk to Maddie before the show for Knock LA. Parts of the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

Knock LA: You’re already familiar with our work, and from the looks of your social media, you have a very progressive view of the world. Have you been involved at all in local activism?

Maddie: I almost ran for the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council when I lived there. In my naïve, Leslie Knope way, I wanted to clean up an area that I walked past with my dog a lot. But then I did some research on it and decided it wasn’t the right time, and I’ve since moved from there. Now I live in eastern LA. My partner and I have had so many conversations about it because eastern LA is really, actively, saying “please don’t gentrify us” and we’re two white people who need somewhere cheap to live. It’s very interesting to be a cog in a wheel and to feel powerless over it, but to also want to live somewhere you can afford to live.

K: There’s a school of thought on gentrification that placing blame on individuals for it is like  placing blame on individuals for climate change. It’s a systemic issue. You not being able to afford outside of eastern LA is not your fault, it’s a result of a policy decision people have made by people in power.

M: Then my next train of thought is, who are these far-away people in power and how do you become one and become a change-maker? I feel a lot of times like I could do more to shape things up and I haven’t yet, but I would like to someday run for something local or get involved in that way. Right now I work full time and also try to do music as much as I can.

K: You’ve mentioned previously that you come from a very musical family. Can you explain more about that?

M: My dad is an ultra-creative person. He plays a million instruments; he picked up guitar, played in his twenties, backpacked around North and South America, didn’t get a degree. He’s also a great painter and a really smart, philosophical guy. My parents are both Canadian, and I feel like that gives me perspective. It seems like a similar culture, but there are a lot of major differences. Obviously Canadians are pretty left relative to the US and believe in robust public health. My cousins say, “You pay how much to go to university?” They pay $5,000 a year. It’s a very different culture. 

K: And you’d play music for your large Canadian family?

M: Most of my mom’s Canadian side of the family followed her out to California. For me, writing and performing music are the same thing, I would be like, I have to finish this song by this weekend because everyone is coming over and I want to play this new song after dinner. My sister and I used to write songs together, actually. She’s very shy and she didn’t like when our parents would try to make her sing for the family, and I loved it. So she retired early and I stuck with it.

K: How does what you’re working on now tie into your previous work, if at all? Obviously you’ve lost a key collaborator.

M: That’s been the biggest challenge for me, for sure. I had a partner who was my best friend before we started dating, so we worked together for about 8 years. It was obviously a devastating personal loss and a professional one too, so it wasn’t until this year that I started collaborating with new people. I’m a very social person and it makes total sense that I would do a bunch of sessions and meet a bunch of people, but I was really nervous about it. I think when it goes badly, it’s enough to make you never want to do it again, and when it goes great, it’s the greatest feeling in the world to connect with someone and create something with them. There’s been ups and downs finding different collaborators, but luckily I still have my unique voice without this person. That was a chapter, and that was also very me and I’m super proud of everything we made, but my artistic voice and my literal voice carry on through the new work. 

It’s a common thread because all the other stuff was also a part of me.

I really try to make positive, upbeat pop music, because of my taste — but also to have lesbian representation that doesn’t feel dark or dramatic. To see someone freely and happily expressing themselves is something I really wish I had seen at a younger age. I think it would have made me feel more comfortable being myself much sooner, though obviously that’s a process everyone has to go through regardless. I wanted to portray women loving women or queer love songs as not just, “You tolerate this, that was so hard to get through but it’s okay,” but as something that’s cute and fun. So writing love songs was very empowering to me and allowed me to find my own pride because I was thinking about it as something that was awesome and cool. People liked and accepted it, and that signaled to me that people do support this, and you can continue to be yourself and have fans, actually, to be excited about it.

K: I’m very surprised I haven’t heard more music like this, it works so well. Your music is positive but some of your lyrics are also kind of provocative. I know that you were closeted for a while, do you feel more empowered now to bring in more provocative lyrics now that you’ve been out?

M: That’s such a good question. I feel like sometimes I have a very polite, “good girl” demeanor just by default because of, you know, the conditioning of being raised as a nice young white girl and living in a suburban town. I work really hard to undo that, to not apologize when someone bumps into me, that kind of thing. What’s interesting about what you just said is being sexually explicit, or provocative, in my writing and performing is really therapeutic because I don’t feel like I’m necessarily given the space to be that way in day-to-day life. Coming of age and coming into my own sexuality, I didn’t have an outlet for that. I was so closeted, thinking “oh my god that girl’s cute — that’s a bad thought, push that down.” It’s so cathartic now to celebrate being a sexual being or being attracted to someone. I realized performing empowered me to accept that as a little piece of who I am.

K: I also wanted to ask you about the #FreeBritney movement because I know you’ve been an ardent supporter. You had a song on a #FreeBritney playlist recently, how do you feel about the victory?

M: It’s so… it’s obviously exciting, but also devastating that this is what was the reality for such a long time. Britney is such a symbol of our culture in so many ways and so it’s a reflection of our culture. It’s so sad to me, someone who could be one the most powerful women on Earth… she’s one of the most recognizable faces and household names on the planet… she was basically enslaved by her family, legally abused, and was not allowed any autonomy. It’s fucking 2021, almost 2022, and it took enormous public pressure just for her to be able to go to the store without permission. It’s wild. I think it’s awesome that Britney is free, and it’s awesome that it can shed light on conservatorship abuse. But I think Britney said today in a post that there are so many people that aren’t international celebrities who are being taken advantage of or abused by their family for their money. 

I have this story I wrote for the compilation of being in third grade, and there was a girl in my class who was really anti–Britney Spears. I loved Britney Spears, and me and my friend were doing a concert in the sandbox performing Britney Spears songs.

K: Aww…

M: That is the right reaction! But, this girl was like, “Britney is a slut, and you two are sluts because you like Britney Spears.” Which, it is so tragic that our culture deems her a slut, she has to grow up in front of us, and then we’re all growing up watching her grow up in front of us, and seeing the sexist reactions to her growing up in front of us, and that’s trickling down onto a playground where two little girls are both internalizing this. It was very powerful. As a lover of pop culture and pop music, she’s someone I idolized at a young age, because why wouldn’t I? She was iconic. What I absorbed from all of that says a lot about our culture.

K: The last thing I wanted to ask you was in regards to mental health. You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you started on an antidepressant and it has made a big difference for you. Do you think talking publicly about mental health helps to reduce some of the stigma?

M: I love to talk about it, to me it’s weirdly not private at all. I think it’s so healthy to talk about and I think it’s really bizarre that we don’t talk about it. My only hesitation in sharing is I don’t want to recommend a medication that’s not right for someone. I didn’t even really realize how much I struggled with anxiety until all of a sudden it was debilitating and I was going through a really hard time. I was having some stomach pains, I thought maybe I had an ulcer, so I went to this stomach doctor and he thought it was stress-related more than anything else. He talked about treatment options being invasive testing or a six-week trial of medication. And within about three days I stopped having acid reflux — I noticed changes immediately. 

I think one of the biggest stigmas is you’ll stop being creative if you’re not depressed or moody or whatever, but I was so unproductive when I had debilitating anxiety. I still have plenty of anxiety — it’s not like the world is no longer scary and hard — but I think it’s life changing and so worth looking into. I was lucky to find the right medication on the first try, but even if the first one or the second ones don’t work, I think it’s worth pursuing. Because, we live in a world that’s not built for the way we evolved — life can be really hard and scary, and it’s worth it to pursue your own wellbeing and happiness. 

K: I’m so glad you mentioned the creativity thing.

M: It’s such a bad rumor!

Here’s a better rumor to start spreading around: Maddie Ross is kind of a big deal, and her music is a blast. If you don’t know, now you know.