Madi Diaz Tells About The Women Who’ve Inspired Her Music

When I meet Madi Diaz before her show at the Kessler Theater in Dallas, she is spent. We’re scheduled to have a conversation about the women in music who have inspired her but she’s coming off a week at SXSW in Austin that was taxing to the point of nearly breaking her. “I’m not usually like this,” she tells me and proceeds to have the entire conversation with her eyes closed. In fact, she breaks into tears after I ask her to recount the scene of an artist who played a showcase with her during SXSW.

Leaving the conversation, I feel concerned about how her show is going to go. But I know something Diaz doesn’t. The Kessler is a special room that is often mentioned as one of the best-sounding venues in Texas. And she knows something I don’t because it is my first time seeing her — that all the women she mentions when we speak will be present at the show. Not literally, but as I watch her set, I see aspects of all of them show up in her performance.

There is a saying that frequently comes up when we talk about women in music: “You can’t be it if you can’t see it.” At Diaz’s show, the crowd is made up of more young, fashionably dressed women than the venue usually attracts, many of whom likely discovered her when she opened for Harry Styles on Love On Tour in 2022 when she also joined his backing band. A big part of what makes her music resonate for women is how vulnerable it is — and how it gets to the heart of a feeling. That’s the thing that made Diaz love Joni Mitchell so much.

“I don’t even know if I need to get into why. If you know who Joni is, it’s pretty obvious,” Diaz says of Mitchell’s influence on her work. “She’s just a force with a knife of a tongue and a wild mind for melodies. She knows how to cut to the quick of things.” Diaz has a poetic lyricism that is reminiscent of Mitchell, tapping into that distinct style of describing things. ” Diaz references the lyrics to Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” when Mitchell describes herself with the phrase, “Only a dark cocoon before / I get my gorgeous wings and fly away” as one of her favorites. It immediately makes me think of linguistic picture painting in Diaz’s own lyric in “Get to Know Me” from Weird Fatih, when she sings, “Sometimes I find a pillow and I empty out my lungs / I keep my room dark enough to obscure skeletons.”

It was Diaz’s father, who is the inspiration for her song “God Person,” who introduced her to Blue, one of Michell’s best-known and critically beloved albums. “He always had it playing in the background, just the kind of thing that was always played on long drives,” she remembers. It was also the album she played while driving around LA, after moving there from Nashville, with a now ex — and when the relationship didn’t work out, listening to the album became an act of self-harm. It took a lot of work to get that album back into her life but, she assures me, she has reclaimed Mitchell and Blue for her own.

She mentions that artist she saw at a quiet backyard party at SXSW: Kathleen Edwards. She’s in good company being blown away by the singer/songwriter; both Rolling Stone and the Austin Chronicle mention exceptional showcases by Edwards in recaps from the even this year. Edwards stepped back from music for several years and Diaz mentions the final song on her 2012 album Voyager, “For The Record,” as particularly meaningful after the festival. “I’ve been listening to her since I was 18 or 19,” Diaz says. “The line, ‘For the record I only wanted to sing songs,’ is so heavy. I was thinking about that a lot at SXSW this week. It’s a wonderful festival, but it does feel unusually cruel to musicians. That line is the crux of it. We’re all in this to play music and sing songs.”

Edwards wouldn’t release another album until 2020. She left music to open a coffee shop she called Quitters. Edwards is just starting a tour — SXSW was its first date — while Diaz wraps up her U.S. headlining tour and in April will head across the pond to open for Kacey Musgraves in Europe. Despite having mutual friends, Diaz and Edwards hadn’t met before this showcase, although Diaz had been listening to her work for a long time. “At some point, Kathleen got up to play,” Diaz says and sheds a few tears. “I heard her guitar and the second she opened her mouth to sing, it was so emotional. It was cathartic to hear a voice that I’ve heard for so much of my life, just singing 15 feet away.”

We take a breath for a moment, and when we get back to her list Diaz goes straight to Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, saying she is “so important and has such a loud war cry of a voice even now.” Diaz recounts seeing Bikini Kill in early 2023 and says, “Kathleen is so good at reminding you of your own force and that you are your own living, breathing, moving work of art.” If you’re wondering how the influence of Hannah shows up in a folk and Americana singer, just watch Diaz perform “Think Of Me” from her 2021 album History Of A Feeling. That night at the Kessler, she strums her guitar until she gets to the line “I hope you f*ck her with your eyes closed” and lifts both hands to display double middle fingers. The guitars might be light and sparkly, but the sentiment is no different than a full-throttle riot grrl moment.

“Another one is Kate Bush,” Diaz says, noting that her unsung work as a producer is as influential as her artistry. “She is also another [influence] who is a fucking phoenix,” she says, talking about Bush’s return to pop culture in recent times. “She’s such a singular woman, driving her own train, writing her own songs, making her own art, and calling her own shots.”

I think of Bush, and her on-stage theatrics, the second I get a look at Diaz’s treatment of the stage — to be clear, the Kessler is a small room where musicians mostly play acoustic shows. They rarely change the stage. But Diaz completely took it over with a backdrop, a Persian rug topped at her mic with a fluffy turquoise rug and blue Christmas lights. It’s all her aesthetic. And it’s a highly unusual thing to see in this venue.

Finally, Diaz talks about Bonnie Raitt. “She’s a badass guitar player, what a slide player she is. I feel like everyone looks at her for her songs and voice, while her guitar playing is something about her that I wish was more spotlighted.” I think of Raitt as I watch Diaz strum her ‘59 hollow body Harmony that night. Occasionally she struggles with it, telling the audience it’s old and cranky like she hopes to be when she’s that old, but mostly she works it like an instrument she knows well, pushing on her distortion pedals and losing herself in playing it here and there. Raitt would be proud of those moments when Diaz closes her eyes and loses herself in the playing.