INTERVIEW: Maddie Ross has Reinterpreted the '00s Romcom

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For me, there is no cultural artifact more delicious than an ‘00s rom-com. I live for butterfly clips, crunchy guitar licks, and declarations of love under bleachers. I’m still waiting for Hooligan to figure out how they can send me on a “Never Been Kissed” assignment. But I’ve always felt a pang of disappointment whenever I realize how heteronormative these movies are. Fortunately, Maddie Ross has arrived and she’s fully prepared to soundtrack all of our ‘00s queer romcom dreams, one track at a time. Ross’ debut album, Never Have I Ever is a concept album built to soundtrack a hypothetical queer romcom from start to finish.  Ross explained in a press release, “'Never Have I Ever' is inspired by a variety of movies, but the story it tells follows a plot of its own. In our wildest fantasies, someone would write an adorable girl-meets-girl rom-com, and use the entire album as a score.” 

I sat down with Maddie to talk about our favorite rom-coms, what it took to get that crunchy ‘00s guitar sound, and her song-writing process. You can check out our conversation below.

What steps did you take to make this concept album a reality?

It was really wild how it came about, actually. So, my girlfriend and I went to music school together and we were really close friends before we started dating. We had been making music together for a while, and then she produced my first E.P. and we started dating. We’ve been musical partners and dating for six years.

We released an E.P. in October of 2018, and then we went on tour with KT Tunstall which was super crazy, she found me on Twitter. It was one of those things where I could never have planned for it or tried to make it happen, it was just this weird interaction where I retweeted something of hers and then she clicked on my profile and saw that I was a musician, and listened to my songs and liked them. She DM’d me like, ‘hey, do you want to come on tour?’

So, we released an EP for the KT Tunstall tour and then she got sick midway through the tour so we had to cancel the last eight shows. Basically, we had this E.P. out and we toured in support of it and it was my first tour ever.

My girlfriend Wolfy is like the hardest worker ever, very prolific. When the last shows got rescheduled KT Tunstall said, ‘We’ll have you come back out in May [to finish the tour]’. We got back in November and Wolfy suggested that we release a full-length for when [I] go out in May. She was like, ‘We can do this we’ll just have to work harder than we ever have before, but if you’re willing to do it, I am.’ She had this concept of a teen movie for a long time because my music has been compared to that a lot. 

A lot of male writers have said that this music sounds like Avril Lavigne or Michelle Branch, trying to be condescending, but like yeah … that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. Hell yeah, Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch!

We’d had this idea for a long time, so we planned for a single in February, March, and April, so we needed to have the album done by January 31. We both work full-time jobs, so we made a big chart for when we needed to write and record everything. It was a very structured and methodical way of writing an album, which is very different than my normal process, but it ended up being super fun. We had a chart with fake titles like ‘Highschool morning’ and ‘makeover montage.’ We knew sonically what we wanted them to sound like, and we envisioned the scene in the movie that [each song] would score. We were so immersed in it, it was all we did or thought about for two months.

Did you encounter any unexpected creative challenges with that structure?

It had never occurred to me to write an album that way, it ended up being as creatively fulfilling, if not more, than when I’m just in my room slowly writing songs from the heart that are gut-wrenching, personal stories. That’s really fulfilling in its own right, so I’m just going to be writing this summer and going back to my other process. But I had a blast, and I think that it’s so important as a creative person to just put stuff out -- the more you self-edit I don’t think it makes that much difference in the end. I have songs that I’ve spent very little time on that people love, and I have songs that I poured my heart into and spent months recording that have the same exact response from people. 

How did you get the sound for the record down -- like that, crunchy guitar, record scratch? The first time I listened to it I was like, ‘This literally sounds like it could be on the soundtrack to Freaky Friday.’

Yes! Oh my God, it’s one of my favorite movies! So, guitar-wise, all of the credit goes to Wolfy, she’s the mastermind behind the entire sound of this album. She obsessively makes playlists all the time, she listens to music constantly. So, we watched a bunch of movies and rom-coms and made note of our favorite scenes and music syncs that we really love. She made a playlist for each song on the album and picked 3-5 inspiration tracks for each track. It was a lot of soaking up inspiration and fearlessly going for it, not trying to be the 2019 version of it. 

On the song ‘Miracle’ I do this spoken bridge that was so embarrassing to record. While we were recording, I jokingly spoke into the microphone and she was like ‘that’s so era-appropriate, that’s so Spice Girls’

I’m glad you used the actual effects for the tones and everything.

We used a lot of live instruments. Wolfy works for Keith Armstrong, who spent decades working as a rock mixer. He was in the room recording with like Paramore and Green Day. He knew firsthand how to plug which pedals into which amp and to put which pre-amp on it. He taught her everything he knows, he’s been such a great resource for us.

That’s so cool. I was wondering, so there’s not like, a layer called ‘2004 guitar tone’?

It always sounds worse when you do that instead of just [making] the sound authentically. And I think that happens a lot when producers are at home with their laptops and they have access to amazing plug-ins and amazing samples, but a lot of people haven’t really had the chance to learn how to record something live. Even if an average listener might not be able to hear the difference, it’s like this indescribable little extra touch that makes it feel more authentic.

Was the zine a sort of natural extension of that process? ‘Zines are such a cool intersection of ‘00s and current technologies/ print media practices. How did you come up with the idea to make a ‘zine to go along with the record? 

Yeah, so that was another great Wolfy idea. She was like ‘we should make a fake magazine’ we were just living in this ‘2000s teen world. And then I started thinking that [if] we release a press kit, we could do all the stuff that we would do in a press kit to introduce the album and explain the songs but in a more creative way.

Once [the album] was done recording it was just this really fun thing for me to build. I used to do that for fun when I was a kid, playing imaginary games, I’d be a pretend magazine editor and make collages and try to sell these magazines to my family members. I loved creating quizzes. 

When I was making the magazine I felt like I was a little kid, playing the games that I loved. I just had a blast. I kind of taught myself photoshop, and I have a couple of friends who know how to use it and gave me tips. I basically just opened up Photoshop and looked at some different magazines and started imitating it. When you’re imitating something it almost makes you more creative because you have this box that you’re being put into so you naturally try to break outside of it.

It did have such a J-14 feel.

Totally, J-14 and Tigerbeat. I think it was a Tigerbeat cover that was one of my main influences, it was all bright, neon colors that clashed like bright pink, bright orange, lime green, all on the same cover. So once I realized that I could just take all of these bright colors and not worry about the palette, that was really fun. I started putting stuff on top of each other, I used the generic Photoshop shape tools like the star.  I was like, ‘this is so cheesy but that’s the tools that they had back then.’ That’s how magazines did it.

What’s your favorite rom-com trope? Were there any tropes that you wish you could have utilized on this record, or that didn’t make the cut?

One concept that we ended up throwing out was ‘Indie boy gives someone a mixtape and says ‘here, listen to this.’ So, we tried to make a song that would have been on the Indie boy’s mixtape. 

I love the entire makeover genre, like She’s the Man, anything with changing costumes, switching bodies, switching places, those are just my absolute favorite. It probably does stem from growing up queer and being like, which version of yourself do you present. But it’s also just the most fun. Even 13 going on 30 where she wakes up in an adult version of her body, that’s my all-time favorite.

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When I talk to a lot of queer people in their twenties, something that comes up repeatedly is this craving for representation when we were younger, like tween to teenage is that something you experienced? 

Yeah, definitely. I look at like, the movies that I was drawn to and my favorite, favorite, movies were Love and Basketball and A League of Their Own which are movies about female athletes who are still feminine and vibrant, but also challenging gender norms and becoming athletes, but there’s still focus on their female friendships. I was just really drawn to movies that played with the boundaries of what a female protagonist should look like. I wasn’t really consciously aware of my sexuality until I started dating my girlfriend and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to confront this.’ Up until then in my brain, I was like, I know I probably don’t like boys, but that’s just ‘cause I’m broken and I’ll just have to pretend to fall in love at some point. And then, once I fell in love, it was so wonderful and exciting, but lesbian didn’t seem like the right label. So I had to kind of process it and be like, ‘Yes I am. I’m dating a woman. I’ve realized I don’t like men, and that I would only want to be with women, so lesbian is what I am.’ But that word had so many different connotations growing up that didn’t seem to define me, and I never thought like ‘oh that girl’s a lesbian and she’s like me.’ 

So as I started to create my own music, it feels so good to express yourself obviously. When you’re writing, or recording, or performing, it’s an exaggerated version of things, so I could really just lean into writing about girls and falling in love with them. You can express the more extreme parts of yourself that you don’t get to express in your day-to-day life, so it just felt really good to start making women-loving-women music.

And then it became important to me to just talk about it because I’d been in the closet for so long, you don’t want to go backwards once you’re out. The more I did it, the better it felt. It felt good and natural and then I realized that there was a need for it and that it was really appreciated by other queer people.

For me, one of the coolest things about this album is that so much of queer representation in 2008/ 2009, so much of it was centered around shame, but rom-coms are focused on this idea of joy, and that you deserve to make out in the rain and fall in love. So, to have an album that’s centered around queer joy, and fun is so important.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this album. We don’t need queer tragedy porn. I have talked about the struggles of coming out, and the anxiety and fear, and that’s something I’ll make work about in the future, but that’s not this was.

This was, how fucking cute is it when two girls fall in love or anyone? It’s really cute when anyone has that young, teenage, raw, amazing, exciting life with heartbreak and ups and downs … it’s just loveWho are some of your favorite queer artists making work today?

Tegan and Sara are my all-time favorites. I have a lot of good queer friends making music: Elison, Rosie Tucker -- my girlfriend produced the album. My friend Liz Slingerland. I have a lot of friends who make amazing music, we’re all trying to get our voices out there.

What would your ‘00s movie makeover look like?

Wow that’s a good question. I was the youngest child, I was just messy and sloppy, my sister was a year and a half older than me and was very girly. Compared to her, I was such a Tomboy, I wore my soccer socks and soccer shorts to school. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to embrace my femininity more now that I know I’m queer. I was almost embarrassed to show my sexuality, I didn’t want male attention, so I’d try to cover it up.

So, I’d be like a stereotypical goofy, tomboy, messy. Sort of like Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man and then maybe there’d be a prom makeover where I’d get to go to prom with a girl that I’ve had a crush on and I get to put on this elegant dress and we can ride to prom together.

You can stream Maddie Ross’s debut album Never Have I Ever. and visit her website or follow her on Twitter.